Joyce Carol Oates on Race, Surveillance and the 21st Century Zeitgeist

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Joyce Carol Oates signs a book following her Malibu Library Speaker Series appearance. Oates is the inaugural speaker series guest for the 2019 season.

In the not-too-distant future, a bright teenage girl is deemed too subversive to a totalitarian surveillance government. The girl, valedictorian of her class, is arrested for treason and sent back in time to the year 1959 for rehabilitation. This dystopian story is the latest from the prolific author Joyce Carol Oates, who visited Malibu Tuesday night, Feb. 26, as the season opener for the Malibu Library Speaker Series 2019.

The celebrated bestselling author was greeted by a full house at City Hall, where fans came to hear her read excerpts from her latest novel, “Hazards of Time Travel.” Oates, who has been an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, said her latest work was written before the 2016 election. 

Started in 2011, Oates explained, “I wanted to write about a society that seemed increasingly under surveillance. The novel’s totalitarian regime speaks of threats to human rights, freedom and privacy. 

“In November 2016, we had a contentious campaign for president. It was clear as the campaign progressed that there was a very divided America. People think that my novel is subsequent to that election, but I finished the novel before then,” the author continued. “A demagogue person like our president has a personality. In the totalitarian state, as I imagine we may be headed for, there may not even be an actual face. You don’t really know who Big Brother is. It could be just a brand. We’ve been told our own cell phones are recording us and reporting. Your best friend is your cell phone that’s also a spy curtailing your freedom. The novel is [more of] a theoretical dystopian novel than it is a novel that has relevance to actual government at this time. People ask if I’m going to write about Donald Trump. I say, no I’m not. I can’t really do that. It’s not possible,” eliciting laughter from the audience.

The 80-year-old spoke about her process, saying after finishing a draft she often puts it away to give it time to aerate. She said the novel that took her the longest to write was “The Accursed” in 1987, reworking until it was finally published a few years ago. She laughed—and the crowd did, too—when commenting, “I’m sure nobody’s read it.” She described the book about “white ruling class hypocrisy in the early 19th century to the travails and miseries of the black community.” It takes place in 1906 at Princeton University where she taught for many years. 

“The book sat for many years until Barack Obama was elected president, and then I realized we came full circle from the racism of the early 20th century,” she said. “That racism seemed so entrenched that by the time of Obama’s election, it seemed quite possible there was a kind of closure.” She said with more perspective she finished the novel—“Even though racism has not been eradicated, of course.”

When asked about a writer’s life, the author answered, “Part of my life is a writer life and part of my life is just sort of life. For me, the problem of being a writer is the interruptions.” Oates still teaches—now at UC Berkeley—and said she feels in touch with the zeitgeist of younger people. 

When asked about the evolution of her style, she replied, “Writers are always trying to find a voice and structure.” Reminiscing about an appearance on the Oprah show, she said, “Women came up and embraced me, thanking me, saying, ‘If my daughter could have read this she’d be alive today. She committed suicide.’ I was meeting people who were responding to literature as if it were about people like themselves. Most of the time, literary writers are writing for a much smaller audience.”

Oates ended the evening delighting the crowd with laughter when she described the experience of Hollywood turning her novel “RAPE: A Love Story” into a film. “It was made into the worst movie ever made in American history. I don’t know how that happened.”

 Then she explained a “reputable director” started filming and the name was changed to “Vengeance: A Love Story.” 

“Rape is something people don’t want to think about,” she described. “Vengeance is something men do.” She complained the lead actor was assigned to take over, commenting, “starring in and directing was so depressing.” Oates was invited to the preview, but recalled, “Whoa, hold on. I’m not going anywhere near there. Some friends went. The next day, they were curiously quiet. Somebody wrote saying, ‘Joyce, you made the right decision not to go.’ The most pathetic part was my agent said they never paid the option and what they were supposed to pay.”