A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest novel, maps the complexities—both political and moral—of the debate on abortion. The book connects two families: one of an abortion provider, the other of a man who believes he is carrying out God’s will by assassinating that provider. The novel has been described as “utterly timely” and “a story as immediate as today’s headlines”.
Oates, seventy-nine, has authored over seventy books, making her one of the most prolific writers of our time. She’s also one of the most decorated, having won the O. Henry Award, the National Humanities Medal, and the PEN/Malamud Award, among many. A Book of American Martyrs was published in February.
The Rumpus: Your latest novel focuses on the abortion rights debate. I loved that you don’t vilify your characters, despite their opinions on abortion, and that you identified the moral and emotional conflict around the topic. How has the current political climate affected the writing of this novel, and do you consider yourself a feminist?
Joyce Carol Oates: Of course, the novel is influenced by what was, at the time of the writing, the current political climate—before Trump appeared on the scene, or was even spoken of. I’d envisioned an America deeply divisive—as it is, today—with repercussions for the future that particularly involve issues of women’s reproductive rights and self-determination. I had originally intended the novel to concern itself with the martyred abortion provider—(his life suggested by, but not based very literally upon, the life of George Tiller, assassinated in Kansas some years ago)—but after one hundred pages it seemed imperative to me that I tell the story of the assassin Luther Dunphy and his family. The structure of the novel accommodates the contrasting families through an arc of some years. I’d always had the end in mind—the very last line shimmered before me like a mirage. For it seems to me that the tragic issues of one generation may be dealt with and resolved in the younger generation; indeed, this is inevitable.
What I could not have anticipated during the composition of the novel was its eerie prescience—for now, following the election of 2016, America is more bitterly divided than ever, and the chasm between “secular” and “fundamental Christian” even greater. The next bitterly divisive battle will be over the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. We will not look forward to this struggle!
Rumpus: Do you see a younger generation currently resolving the issues of the past generation?
Oates: Yes. Definitely. Just as younger Americans have been tolerant of gay, lesbian, and transgender persons, while on the whole older Americans have remained intolerant, or hard to convince.
Rumpus: I agree. And speaking of changes in generations, Twitter has become a more explosive communication tool than ever before. You have a fairly active presence on Twitter. I’m curious if you feel it’s important to you as a writer, as a political person. Why do you use it?
Oates: Twitter replaces reading a newspaper—like the New York Times (which my husband reads thoroughly each morning in the print edition)—since it provides, through links, myriad points of view and articles from sources (like the Guardian, London Review of Books).
The meaning of Twitter and its value depend solely upon whom/what subjects you follow, and for me that includes animal rights, women’s rights, ACLU, grassroots reports on law enforcement misconduct and atrocities—(sobering, terrible—the average consumer of average mainstream media has no idea how extensive police brutality is in our country and how little accountability there is), poets, writers, art commentary, comics (Steve Martin, though he is no longer “comic” in his postings), and many more. Most of my tweets are in reference to others’ tweets—it is like a vast, general conversation. But my “tweeting” is in the interstices of my work, as in another era I might have taken a break to speak with a friend on the phone.
Rumpus: Do you follow any people or organizations on Twitter whose opinions you tend to disagree with?
Oates: Often I don’t really have enough information to justify “agreeing” or “disagreeing”—I am open to learning, which is why we read, generally. For instance, I follow Paul Krugman, who is an acknowledged expert on economics. His opinions are always revelatory and interesting. I follow Rachel Maddow, Michael Moore, Daniel Mendelsohn, Henri Cole, Nathan Englander, Thomas Pluck, Jeffrey Guterman, Daniel Therriault, and many more.
Rumpus: Since you mention reading, I’m curious what you’re reading currently or what you’ve been reading lately that’s stuck with you.
Oates: I am currently reading and rereading Carson McCullers’s body of work for an essay-review.
Rumpus: What’s your approach in attacking a full body of work like that?
Oates: Reading and rereading, in the order in which McCullers’s work was written, and reading a biography, and taking notes. That is my only approach. McCullers is a fascinating figure—precocious, yet reckless with her health and her talent.
Rumpus: Where do you see the future of literature moving toward? Is there anything about the literary world that you’d like to see change?
Oates: Where do I see the “future of literature moving toward”—probably things will not change overmuch, for the foreseeable future. E-books had been promised to replace print books but that has not happened. Paperbacks especially are not so very expensive so might represent a cultural activity that many will continue to prefer. Those of us who’d been around in 1999 were asked repeatedly to foresee the future beyond 1999—in print publications and online—and so we know that predictions are often a waste of time.
What I would like to see altered in the literary world: less emphasis by publishers in promoting just a very few titles while not attempting to promote other titles that might be equally meritorious. It has been a saying in the theatrical world—“You can make a killing in the theater but not a living”—meaning that there are mega-hits for just a few, and much less for most others. Possibly this has become true in the literary world also. But most writers/poets rely upon teaching positions to supplement their income, if “supplement” is not a misnomer, and this has become a tradition in our literary culture that works to the advantage of both instructors and students.
Author photograph © Dustin Cohen.