Montclair Literary Festival: Joyce Carol Oates explores ‘dead-end zeals’
By GWEN OREL
On Saturday, March 23, 6:30 p.m., award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates will appear at the Montclair Literary Festival, at First Congregational Church, 40 South Fullerton Ave., in conversation with novelist Jonathan Santlofer about her latest book, “Hazards of Time Travel.” The book is a dystopian novel about a young woman in a dystopian future America who is punished by being sent back in time to a region of North America, “Wainscotia, Wisconsin,” that existed 80 years before. This is a ticketed event. For information, visit Succeed2gether.org.
Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the L.A. Times Book Prize, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. Her books include the national bestsellers “We Were the Mulvaneys,” “Blonde,” which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller “The Falls,” which won the 2005 Prix Femina. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
Dystopia centered around women protagonists has been a staple of young adult fiction for awhile (“The Hunger Games”), and has recently seen a resurgence with the popularity of the television adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” What inspired your foray into this genre?
The novel was begun in 2011, and is inspired by the phenomenon of the “surveillance” state. By 2019, this threat has grown exponentially — really, beyond the imagination of the novel initially. Though the protagonist is a girl of 17, the protagonist might almost as easily have been a precocious boy.
Were there particular books that inspired you?
I have long been fascinated by H.G. Wells’ exemplary science fiction novellas, among them “The Time Machine.”
Why do you think time travel is capturing the imagination — I’m thinking of Matt Haig’s “How to Stop Time,” and the television adaptation of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 — is it a longing for a simpler time? A longing for escape? What brought you to it?
Returning to an era in which answers to profound questions were being provided by intellectual “leaders” — in psychology, astrophysics, history, religion, even literature — who were all mistaken, and would be refuted in the next decade, like B.F. Skinner, notably and irrevocably eviscerated by Noam Chomsky. This was exciting to me, to explore the zeal of dead-ends, so to speak. At the novel’s end, we are not so certain if all that we’ve experienced through Adrianne has not been an ingeniously cruel “virtual reality” arranged by her captors — perhaps she has never left New Jersey! Her body is paralyzed, in a comatose state.
Did you always know you wanted to write? What was the first thing you wrote?
Writing crept up on me, as on many writers. in high school, I wrote my first experimental novels and story collections.
What would you be if you weren’t a writer?
I am very interested in art — painting, photography.
What do you enjoy about appearing in literary festivals?
It is always a pleasure to participate in local book festivals. I have been involved in the Brooklyn Book Festival for several years, as well as the Edinburgh Festival for several years in succession. Montclair sounds genuinely exciting — a diverse and first-rate roster of writers. I am hoping to attend panels and meet my fellow/sister writers.