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Each person thinks he is the center of everything else. RB: By concerning yourself with ethical matters issues or at least including them in your thoughts about writing, does that suggest that this is one of the functions of literature? When we look at it today, it seems so clear, because we have deconstructed it and we understand the consequences of these things. Sexual harassment, sexual politics of all kinds, sex crimes didn’t exist as a category. A husband or father really had the right, an unacknowledged, granted right, to discipline his family. The mother had been a very beautiful woman and a debutante. But Ariah is between the old America and the new America. Her great flaw and failing is that she is so possessive. RB: I write for a dog magazine called , and I recently wrote about some writers using dogs as devices and others as characters. JCO: Well, with a novel like , which I wrote a few years ago…and then I put my long novels away in a drawer and I wait for a year, and I take them out and reread them and then work on them a little more, revise them. I probably added five pages or crossed out some paragraphs. And all that time, all of those months, I am reading and thinking about the novel in the drawer and having thoughts about it, and so there may be something I would like to add to it—the concept of environmental protection and litigation, protecting the environment, is relatively recent in history, people were not doing that, and the 1950s was sort of the beginning. If you have survey that doesn’t acknowledge that, it’s not very helpful. RB: They are vegetarians because of moral concerns? And it in fact may be the last refuge of ethical dialogue? Lawrence almost as much for the landscape and for the cityscape as for the characters, because the landscape is so vividly portrayed. RB: You grew up in the locale that is the setting of ? I lived in an area like some of the areas I write about—a man would come home. She is really a feminist but she is much too early in history. And she doesn’t really want to mingle with society people. The 1950s were too early for some of these [nascent environmentalist] people. She sewed—she was just a wonderful mother and wife. JCO: Well, it wasn’t even that she was a serious cook. Literally at the moment I am reading —I’m going write an introduction to the reprint. RB: I know the series and his imprint and bookstore. In the survey, literature was fiction, poetry, and drama. Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don’t think of them as work in the usual sense of the word.” Oates was born in Lockport, N.
I don’t think that the city is what one would call a healthy city, but there are many other reasons having to do with the financial collapse. Women wore corsets and all sorts of things that they don’t wear today. And I wasn’t looking at my society with any kind of objectivity in those days. The concept of gay liberation and homosexuality was not acknowledged and was considered a pathology, and we are very different today. So basically that’s the rhythm of the novel—to bring the father back. I always wanted to write about people who suffer anonymously who work in factories, to provide the best wages they can for their family. I like to write about people who are heroic in a quiet, almost anonymous way and no one knows or even cares about. You didn’t really have that consciousness that we have today. Just someone who is a very nice person—does volunteer work with senior citizens—things that my mother did. RB: They might have already experienced that since the federal building bombing. I should have said “the farther you get away from the 9/11 area.” But of course the Oklahoma City bombing seemed to be the work of a single or a couple of nuts who— RB: If I recall correctly, the news chatter brought up Arab terrorists.
Upstate New York and Western New York have been in an economic recession for decades. It’s been like that for many decades; an economist could explain why. Men were much more likely to wear neckties and coats, and the sexual politics were very different. And a good girl was not only a virgin, of course, but actually knew very little of what would happen on a honeymoon or a marriage. If one wanted not to know today one would not be able to—because we are just assailed. So it may be that 1950 is closer in some respects to 1900 than it is to 2004, and that’s what you are responding to, that. JCO: I wanted to write a novel in which a father would be redeemed, and the father was going to be expelled from the family, and the first version he was going to go to prison. RB: As the reader, I never felt he was a bad father. RB: The only person who felt he was a bad father was his wife. Many of them are younger men who are not educated and got married and had babies, and they go out and work in these factories and they die when they are 45 or 51. It’s the same way today; there are many people who elect to work in extremely dangerous circumstances, and they just take a chance. There are certain buzzwords in the 21st century that we take for granted. This is not Mother Teresa, or anything extraordinary, but the novel I have written about losing the mother is based on my own mother, and yet everything in the novel, almost everything, is fictitious. RB: You are an old hand in the literary book world. As a person—I look at my calendar to see what’s down.
And so that’s what I mean by the moral compromises. But the other nations think they are good people and that they have God on their side. But people joke about things they are uneasy about. It’s just the way the human species is constructed, to be very myopic. She loves her children so much and she tries to possess them. RB: Her love for children is a little twisted, at least in the way she talks to them. It had to be that God—if there is a God—that he was punishing her and she was somebody who was in the shadows. RB: Very late in this story, you have her once again express her love for her husband. RB: But through most of the remainder of the story, after his death, she had nothing good to say about him. And then he got drunk and then he committed suicide. But she loved the dog he [her husband] brought her and he brings this puppy and leaves the puppy there and it’s like he is giving [of] himself. And I sort of relate to animals whenever there is animal in a novel of mine; the animals in my novels have luminous intensity. But I am interested in different breeds and their different characteristics. I write another novel and then I go back to something—I have two novels in drawers right now that are sort of gestating. RB: So when you write, you don’t immediately start to revise, to get it ready for publication? JCO: It’s finished, but I don’t trust that judgment. RB: Houghton Mifflin has turned the into about nine titles. To be editing a big volume and to read and get a whole lot of material. RB: What do you make of the recent NEA study that claims a decline in reading and the reaction to it? The Harry Potter phenomenon not only brought in children, but older people were reading it, too. Some of the great books of our time—so it’s one of these things that gets in the news but if you look at it carefully— RB: These surveys are like exit polls JCO: Something’s wrong you know.
It’s just the way the human species is constructed, to be very myopic. When women’s liberation was just beginning back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were a lot of really harsh, cruel jokes at the expense of the feminists, because there was a feeling of uneasiness. Each person thinks he is the center of everything else. And she was just this society woman and when she got older that didn’t work any longer. They are not just animals, but they have a symbolic intensity. RB: What gives you a feeling of satisfaction or success after you have written something as large as a novel? Like, to me, if that novel had to be published it would be fine, but I always wait for a year and then I look at it again, and I will add something or subtract something. JCO: Best American Sports [Writing]— RB: Travel Writing, Essays, Science Writing, Non-Required Reading— JCO: The short stories  was the first. I am just guessing, maybe a billion people or more have read that book.
RB: Did the Love Canal litigation really begin back in the early ‘60s? RB: There is a whole ambient [to creating literature] culture, panels, awards juries, writer’s conferences, reviewing— JCO: That depends on the degree of involvement that people have. Essentially, France is Paris and Paris was a city where everyone knew everyone else. But I have some friends, I won’t say their names, who wouldn’t dream of even going to the local Barnes & Noble and giving a reading—they are so shy. We were looking at television and all these airplanes were unaccounted for, and we sort of sat there, “Where are these airplanes? But there were some hours there when everything was suspended.
In Europe, there has always been the tradition that writers have a civic role and that they are cultural spokesmen. That tends to be much less the case in this country. When you look at the United States—a vast and enormous country with all these different regions—and some writers in different parts of the country, maybe the West or the Southwest, they get involved in environmental protection and they stand up and campaign for different issues. They don’t understand that meeting people is enjoyable. They feel that they are going to lose something The students get to really, really like one another.
Often it’s a place or image or perhaps a person or an event. I tend to feel that adolescents, perhaps even more than adults, have a natural sense of justice and a disdain for hypocrisy. [grins] RB: [laughs] JCO: Because we have more experiences.
And when we become older we tend to be more compromised. When you are in your teens and 20s you may not have a family, you may not have a permanent job, so life can look very different to you. I feel that people manipulate others who are well intentioned.
Is there much concern with ethical issues in the public conversation? JCO: Yes, I grew up about 20 miles from Niagara Falls. Back in the 1950s and earlier, you were thrown out in to this great ocean of conflict and there were people in power, and they tended to be white men and they had power and they weren’t going to give it up to some black people or some women. He’d been drinking; he’d beat up his wife and scare his children and run out into their yard—but the father was kind of sacrosanct and the police would never come to investigate because that was his turf. Of course now we have a government that is not very friendly to the environment. I don’t probably use a word like “successful.” To me, it is fully realized. And it’s about a woman who loses her mother—that is, her mother dies—and this very close to my own emotional experience because I lost my mother in 2002. The emotions are very much my own emotions and the consequences of losing a mother, who was a very wonderful mother, who is very well loved. Many of us have mothers, fathers, grandfathers who were very wonderful people in the family but they don’t leave any cultural monuments— RB: They don’t leave a trail. It’s just that these people are unheralded in the culture. I was giving a reading at Yale and the first news reports came in about a day care center being bombed. And I am reading for the best American mystery stories, 2005. JCO: Yes, he’s the series editor and I am the guest editor.
JCO: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer because the terms moral value and ethical values are used but they are used for political expediency. I know the area very well and I go back often to visit. Niagara Falls as a phenomenon of nature is extraordinary. RB: Ariah is an odd woman who mirrors her husband’s mother. So we may be going backward and losing some of our gains. I realized fully the dramatic possibilities of the material and the characters, and it can’t be too much. To fully realize material and characters—that’s the aim of the writer. The dramatic story of their lives is finished—it’s ended. Our culture is very hypnotized and fascinated by extremes of success. And everybody was thinking why would you bomb children?