Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
It’s 1905, and something evil is brewing in Princeton, N.J. A bride is dragged from the altar to the underworld, a girls’ school is overrun with snakes and mysterious deaths strike the prominent and well-to-do in this university town. Historic characters like Woodrow Wilson and Jack London populate this Gothic tale of vampires, demons and, ultimately, a very dark secret.
- Joyce Carol Oates Author, "The Accursed;" Professor of the Humanities; Professor of Creative Writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University
Videos: Inside The Studio
Acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates talks about why it took her nearly 30 years to finish her latest novel, “The Accursed.” “Like most novelists, I like to rewrite completely. I’ll rewrite a novel completely after I finish it because you don’t really have the narrative voice and you don’t really have the confidence to create the structure…But the second or third draft is very wonderful, because you’re more in control,” Oates said.
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates explains how she mimics a character’s cadence and musicality in her writing. She says that all fiction writers bring a “mediated voice” to their work that differs from their own personal voice.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Accursed” by Joyce Carol Oates. Copyright 2013 by Joyce Carol Oates. Reprinted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. It's 1905 and something strange is going on in the university town of Princeton, N.J. A young bride is dragged from the altar by a demon lover and taken to the underworld. Mass hysteria sweeps a girls' school when it's overrun with snakes, real or imagined, we're not sure. That's just the beginning of the mayhem unleashed on a number of prominent Princeton families in Joyce Carol Oates' latest novel "The Accursed."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAmong the unlucky characters populating this novel are a number of historic figures, including future president Woodrow Wilson, along with authors Mark Twain and Jack London. And no one is spared the author's scalper's-sharp pen in this gothic tale. Joining us to discuss it is Joyce Carol Oates. She is the best-selling author of more than 30 novels. She's a National Book Award winner. And her most recent novel, as I mentioned, is "The Accursed." She's a professor of humanities and creative writing at Princeton University. She joins us in studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MS. JOYCE CAROL OATESThank you.
NNAMDILet's start with the story. We hear first from a man named M.W. van Dyke, II. This is his account. Tell us about him and what he's put together here.
OATESThis person is a historian. He's an amateur historian. And in 1984, which parenthetically was when I wrote the novel -- in 1984 he has just finished this novel or this account I guess you would -- he would say it was nonfiction -- historical document about something that had happened in 1905, '06 in Princeton to which the general name the curse has accrued.
NNAMDIYou say you wrote this novel in 1984. I also read that you wrote it in 1984. Why is it only being published now?
OATESI wrote -- I finished the first draft of it in 1984. And then in subsequent years I would go back and look at it and start working on it. Because like most novelists, I like to rewrite completely all -- I'll rewrite a novel completely after I finish it because you don't really have the narrative voice and you don't really have the confidence to create the structure. And also the first time through you don't have the sense of proportion in terms of pacing. But the second or third draft is very wonderful because you're more in control.
OATESSo every few years I would start to work on it. And I felt I didn't quite have the key to it. I didn't quite have the narrative voice. And then in 2011 I felt that I was ready to write. And I had a new idea for focusing the plot.
NNAMDIAnd you're just going to have to find out what that new idea is by reading "The Accursed." But if you would, set the scene for us. We're in Princeton, N.J. in 1905. What's going on?
OATESWell, the novel begins when a president of the university, Woodrow Wilson, receives a caller from a young man who's in a seminary. And this caller Yaeger Ruggles is actually a relative of his. And he's very agitated and he wants Woodrow Wilson, who is a distinguished person in this community, to come out publicly to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and racist violence against negroes, as the African-Americans were called at the time.
OATESBut Woodrow Wilson hems and haws and makes up excuses. And he just actually doesn't do what he's been requested to do, which is exactly what everybody did.
NNAMDIWhat he does do is take a closer look at his cousin, but go ahead, please.
OATESAt the end -- yes, at the end this cousin is very kind of insolent to him and said, you know why I was so concerned about black people if you had ever really looked at me. And so Woodrow Wilson actually looks at him and they've been related kind of indirectly and through North Carolina -- some relatives. And so you get the feeling at the very end of the chapter that this racist person -- I should've said Woodrow Wilson -- extremely racist, along with being anti-Semitic and sexist. But not unusual for that time. I have to point out that Woodrow Wilson was not unusual. He's exemplary.
OATESOne would expect a leader and a Christian person to be exemplary, but actually he was just sort of representative of the average person. So the novel's really about the white Christian good people. They're not the Ku Klux Klan and they're not wicked and evil. These are the good people who did nothing to stop racial violence. They did nothing at all.
NNAMDIAnd that was, in a way, the tenor of the times. A series of terrible events begins to unfold, an apparent curse. How does it first manifest itself?
OATESThe curse starts to manifest itself in ways that are maybe subtle. Basically people become -- some people become paranoid and monomaniacal. And it's as if they're losing their balance and losing their focus. And I think in a psychological sense that when we have some -- when a society has something that's repressing, it's not acknowledging a terrible evil, then this is going to emerge in different ways, the way an individual who's trying to repress a memory will have neurotic or even psychotic consequences.
OATESSo it seems that there are demonic episodes. It seems that there may be a demon or another demon or a vampire. And it seems that husbands and wives are becoming estranged from each other. And husbands are very paranoid thinking their wives are having love affairs with demons. My idea of a vampire is not really a contemporary idea. It's more like a traditional idea that the vampire represents the ruling class that's sucking the blood of the peasants or the working class. And my novel is very much about class warfare, the tensions between the class.
OATESAnd at the turn of the century the warfare between the classes was extremely violent. This was an era when labor unions were starting to be organized. And the big corporations, the big trusts were fighting as much as they could. And the governments were not friendly to labor. We're almost in an era like that again.
NNAMDIThis is true in very many respects.
OATESThat a strange thing. But when I wrote the novel in 1984 I would've had no glimmering of an idea that one day we would have a black man in the White House. So that would be so astonishing to the racists in this novel. They would literally spin, you know. They would never believe that. Woodrow Wilson made a sort of stupid joke once when he was out giving a speech. He said, well that will never happen. This is not going to happen until hell freezes over or there's a negress in the White House.
OATESAnd so his audience laughed or they gasped because nothing would be more unlikely. But when I read that, which is a true comment of Woodrow Wilson, I thought that's got to go in my novel. That's just too precious not to put in my novel.
NNAMDISo much of what is written in the novel "The Accursed" is based on truth because Joyce Carol Oates did a great deal of research for the writing of this novel. She's the bestselling author of more than 30 novels. She's a National Book Award winner. Her most recent is called "The Accursed." She's a professor of humanities and creative writing at Princeton University. And you can join the conversation with Joyce Carol Oates by calling us at 800-433-8850 or by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDII'm going to ask you to read a section of the book, but allow me to set it up because one of the ways the curse manifests itself early on is that a bride about to get married is literally dragged from the altar. The bride taken from the altar is one Annabelle Slade, dragged to a place called the bog kingdom by a demon by the name of Ax Mate. Can we hear a little bit about what she actually finds at the bog kingdom, if you can read from page 267.
OATESOkay. Thank you. Well, she is the most beautiful blond heiress in all of Princeton. And her father is this very, very important person and the grandfather is the most famous minister. And so when she's married, all of Princeton is there. And then she sort of turns away from her bridegroom and this person comes to take her away in front of everyone. And this person is an astonishingly ugly toad-like creature, but she thinks he's very handsome.
OATESAnyway, "of how my bridegroom used me, it's very difficult to speak. Even of the bridal bed is very difficult to speak. The master bed chamber at the top of a flight of barely worn and mossy-stoned steps overlay with grime and the hard dry excrement and remains of vermin overlooking from its single guard window a marshy graveyard. The aged mark is tilting and filthy from neglect. Spiky grass is growing all around and pools of brackish water.
OATESHere creatures of a kind I have never glimpsed before have freely disported themselves like overgrown rowdy children. Such strange species, I shrank in terror from even gazing upon them for many days. Great ungainly birds that were yet reptilian with sharp talons. Giant lizards with darting tongues. Soft bulbous creatures like mollusks without shells of the size of pigs that drew sustenance from sucking from numerous mouth tentacles at once. And how horrible.
OATESThe soil of the graveyard was torn and churned from the feeding of these creatures. Who is buried in the graveyard, Axom? So I dared to ask my husband, who remarked casually and indifferently, why your predecessors, dear Annabelle, for I am a widower many times over."
NNAMDIJust making it all that much more intriguing for the reader. This bog kingdom is something akin to Dante's Inferno, a living hell. What is it? What goes on there?
OATESWell the bog kingdom's also a little bit like the Pine Barrens of south New Jersey. I just moved them around a little instead of moving them north. There was a legend of the Jersey devil, the certain -- like maybe all states and regions of the country have their own special devils and demons. So I naturally was interested in the Pine Barrens and it becomes the bog kingdom.
OATESIt kind of the reverse of our world. It's like you went through a looking glass like Alice in Wonderland goes through the looking glass into the other world. And the hierarchy of the class structure is there. You'll have like a nobleman, a count and a countenance. And they have absolute power over their servants. And then there are people who can no longer work and they're just cast aside and they're thrown into this graveyard. And all these horrible creatures eat them.
OATESSo it's meant to be a distorting mirror of our hierarchical society where we have very rich -- very wealthy people. And then we have maybe a middle class and then we have a lot of working poor people in our country. And then we have people who can't even get jobs. So we have the hierarchical structure in our country that tends to be somewhat hidden. But in my novel it's very visible. It's sort of like a skeleton of our world, as I thought of a post modernist gothic novel that would be a mirror to our world.
NNAMDIThis is the fifth in your series or your gothic series of novels. What is it that interests you about the gothic?
OATESI've written many, many novels that realistic. And I've -- basically that's where, I guess, my reputation is for writing psychological realism. But when I read a gothic novel it's a longer novel, it's a family novel, it's a novel of two or three generations. But always at least two generations because the novel deals with the time of one generation passing away and a new generation coming into power. So people like up in Sinclair, the socialist, he's only 26 years old and other young people in the novel, they're kind of inheriting the earth. And the older people have sort of worn themselves out.
OATESBut with a gothic novel you're -- a lot of space to look into the history, to deal with different inventions in the novels -- scientific inventions, technological inventions. War -- different political things in wartime and to end the war. It's basically a little different from a novel -- domestic realism which might just focus upon one family. And in a gothic novel you can take in many, many people.
NNAMDIAnd in this one you do and it's very political. We'll get to that in a second. You've already started outlining some of that. But you wrote the first draft of this book, as we mentioned, back in 1984. That was long before the current trend for vampires and the supernatural. And, in fact, your demons and vampires go back much farther even than that.
OATESWell, that's true. And as I said a minute ago, I think of the demonic and the vampiristic as being allegories of the class struggle. That you have a ruling class -- of course in Europe and elsewhere it's inherited, inherited land and wealth. You have something like the Count Dracula. I think that wasn't really his name, but there was a model for Dracula. He was a sexual psychopath, the real Count Dracula centuries ago. He preyed upon the peasants and their children and did hideous things to them.
OATESThat is the legend. Now, it maybe literally true, but it's true politically because we know that the peasants and the working class has been terribly exploited by the wealthy landowners, and even the revolutions of the late 19th century and 20th century. Even these great political revolutions have not eradicated poverty.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. This book is so political in so many respects, characters complain about unions, the headache of women's suffrage, another character believes his class are cannibals who live off the workers, and as you mentioned earlier, Upton Sinclair is featured here with his socialist views. For those who pay attention, your work is in fact very political. What you're talking about here is the division of classes and class struggle. Can you talk about that and why it gets so little attention when your books are discussed?
OATESIt is surprising, because I'm always -- I've almost been a political writer, going back to my novel "Them" which is set is Detroit after the so-called Detroit riot of 1967. I lived in Detroit and I didn't know. I had no idea until years and years later of what a racist city that was. Well, I suppose the whole United States was terribly racist, but how the black population of Detroit was so oppressed, and how black youths -- black men, maybe black women too, were so preyed upon by the police, and I didn't know that at the time, but years later, I found that out by reading about it.
OATESAnd because I come from an economic class that's sort of working class, or working poor. My father always worked in a factory, but we never had a lot of money. Because of that I sort of stand outside the class structure, and I don't feel, even though I live in Princeton, New Jersey now, I don't really feel that I'm assimilated into that culture. So I have more of an outsider's view, and I'm just very naturally sympathetic. It's so true today, if you do some reading or see how very wealthy people, corporations, and businesses don't care for the safety -- the physical safety of their workers. It's always a struggle, and in the New York times, this very day, or maybe it was yesterday...
NNAMDIYep. Saw that piece.
OATESYou saw the piece about the furniture workers.
NNAMDIThe Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the long-term effects of occupational hazards.
OATESAnd the companies are forbidden to do one thing, so they find another worse thing. When my own grandfather died of -- I guess it was lung cancer, because he worked in a foundry in north Tonawanda, and this was a long time ago, and the idea of occupational illnesses and deaths was not in the public consciousness. And so when he died, everybody said well, it was his time, and I'm horrified to think he was probably about 53 years old when he died.
OATESI was just a little girl. So I thought, well, he's old. You know, he's 53. Looks pretty young now.
NNAMDIExactly right, from this angle. Here is Alexis in Woodbridge, Va. Alexis, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXISHi, Ms. Oates and Kojo. I'm thrilled to be talking to you. I have a question regarding your writing process. I find that sometimes you use unusual adjectives and similes in close succession that you'll repeat, and because I'm aware of your careful writing process that you handwrite and then type your next draft on a typewriter, it seems deliberate and rare for a seasoned writer. And I'm wondering if the deliberate emphasis has a deeper meaning with the usage, and if you could elaborate on that.
OATESWell, in my fiction writing I always have a mediated voice. That is, it's not my own voice. It's not Joyce's voice, though I use my voice in writing book reviews and essays. But in my fiction, I have what I call a mediated voice that usually has a certain cadence, it has a certain musicality. If I were, for instance, writing about a person like Woodrow Wilson who becomes very paranoid and suspicious, he's a very narcissistic person, then I would have a language that was somewhat repetitive and compulsive and obsessive, a certain amount of commas, because I want to communicate the idea that he's trapped inside his own thoughts.
OATESMany people, who are not necessarily insane, are trapped inside their own thoughts, and there's a certain musicality and repetition, so I try to replicate that in the style.
NNAMDIAnd I'm really glad you raised that question, Alexis, because you ought to know that Joyce Carol Oates also enjoys tweeting, and one of the things she tweeted the other day was about book tours. She's on one of them right now. That's why she's sitting in this studio. People often feel that they're getting to meeting the writer himself or herself, but she tweeted that the overlap between the writers and book authors is near zero. The public self is an imposter. Private self is far away and inaccessible.
OATESThat's true of all of us. That's true of people who are on the radio.
NNAMDIWell, she discuss her writing process, Alexis, so you did get to hear a little of the writer.
ALEXISThat's -- I'm so thrilled to. Are you in the Virginia area on your book tour?
OATESOh, my book tour has quotation marks around it. It's very modest. I'm going back -- I arrived today about an hour ago, and I'm leaving tomorrow morning.
OATESSo I'd say it's pretty modest.
NNAMDIShe will be at Politics and Prose bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest this evening at 7:00 p.m., Alexis. So if you can get over there from Woodbridge, you'll have the opportunity to see and maybe meet Joyce Carol Oates. Thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation which you can join, by called 800-433-8850. Do you have any questions for Joyce Carol Oates? Are you intrigued by gothic stories of demons and vampires? Give us a holler, 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Joyce Carol Oates, best-selling author of more than 30 novels. She's a National Book Award winner. Her most recent novel is called "The Accursed." She's a professor of humanities and creative writing at Princeton University. A number of historical figures appear in this book. We talked earlier about Woodrow Wilson, who at the time of the book was not yet president of the United States, but then president of Princeton University. In an epic battle for power with a fellow administrator there, he does not come off very well.
NNAMDIHe's addicted to various drugs, he's cowardly, he's racist, but there's context to that portrayal which you talked about a little bit earlier. That was in a way normal for a man in his position at that time.
NNAMDIOh, it was absolutely normal. I don't think I was judging his harshly. I felt in his own peculiar way that he was like quote "a character," you know. He was a character almost sympathetic maybe. His sexism was a bit annoying. The kind of man who would make -- he would say in public -- he gave lots of talks at alumni groups, he'd say, I am not in favor of women's suffrage. I have no reason, but I'm not in favor of it, and he would get applause and people would laugh at that.
OATESThe sort of mild sexism that some men display today, and they get a little bit of applause and laughter. But I think if only somebody had called him on it, you know. If only there had been a few stronger leaders, like Christian leaders who had been more courageous, especially about the issue of racism. The only person I really knew about who was doing a lot at this time -- the only white person that is, was Mark Twain. Samuel Clements was extremely concerned with lynching. He was working on an article called "The United States of Lyncherdom," and he was incensed by the fact that there was wasn't an anti-lynching law in the United States.
OATESHe would have been astounded to know, I don't think it got passed by Congress until maybe the 1950s. The southern politicians would also veto it.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that aside from the supernatural, everything you write about Woodrow Wilson in this book is true and that he was a man of his time, but you also show him behaving -- I guess it can only be described as heroically in this book.
OATESHe behaved heroically at the end, because when it came right down to it, when a demon tempted him, a very seductive demon, who has the same name as a woman that Woodrow Wilson actually had a love affair with I found out about. He had a real affair. We don't to what extent, but even as he was writing these very pious, sweet letters to his -- cloyingly sweet letters to his wife, dear Ellen, even at that time he was having this love affair with a -- we all know a married woman who was sort of a wealthy woman, and I found that out.
OATESIt's not exactly a secret, but it's not talked about. So he -- at the -- I thought that if we were really put to the test, he would probably not sell his soul to the devil. He doesn't go that far.
NNAMDIThis was a question that I had planned to ask you before, but -- well, I'm going to ask it anyway, because now I'm becoming more familiar with your points of view, so I think I know the answer to it. Did you have any hesitation at all in painting fictional portraits, often none to flattering, of historical characters like Woodrow Wilson, Jack London, Grover Cleveland?
OATESOh, no. Not at all.
NNAMDIYeah. I knew that would be the answer.
OATESThe Jack London portrait is exactly from the biographies. Jack London was a very, very handsome, charismatic, and swaggering and increasingly outrageous personality. He had a fantastic personality. He was very much like the character in my novel. Once he started drinking though, he lost his youth, he lost his intelligence, he lost his idealism, and he lost his talent. But at one point, he was one of the great writers and one of the big best sellers of all time in America. No. That's more or less the way he was. Yes.
OATESBut I'm thinking may not challenge you when you write about Marilyn Monroe, but figures whom they revere, like former presidents of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, no hesitation at all?
OATESWho reveres Grover Cleveland? Are you a fan of Grover Cleveland?
NNAMDINo. No, I am not.
OATESWell, he was another wonderful character. He was very obese. I mean, he was really, really large, and he married a girl basically. She was like the daughter of one of his friends, and the father had died, and he was sort of supporting her. He sent her -- I mean, basically he was like Humbert Humbert in "Lolita." He married this very attractive girl, much, much younger than he. He also had had a child out of wedlock. I mean, he's an amazing character just made for fiction.
NNAMDIWomen in this novel are not enormously empowered. They're ignorant of world affairs, relying on the men in their lives to teach them. Do you consider that also just a part of historical reality, or was there another point to your portrayal of the women in this novel?
OATESOh, well, that was true. Women did not have the vote, and women basically couldn't own property. Men owned property. For instance, if a woman married a man and she had property, the property became the husband's property, and then if something happened to her, or something -- like he wanted to divorce her, she was very disadvantaged. Well, the portrayal of the women is not very critical. It's just sort of sympathetic.
OATESAnd women who had some money, young women might have wanted to go to college, and maybe their parents would let them and maybe they wouldn't. But even if they went to college they were expected just to get married.
NNAMDIThe narrator of this book advises us not to judge the characters too harshly. He says, quoting here, "consider might mere pawns in a game of chess conceive of the fact that they are playing pieces and not in control of their fate?" What would give them the power to lift themselves above the playing board to a height at which the design of the game becomes clear." Is that one of the lessons of this book?
OATESWell, I thinking we always have to think of that when we look at history. For instance there was a scandal, a ridiculous scandal a few years ago that "Huckleberry Finn" was published in a new edition where an offensive -- the offensive N word was censored and something else was substituted. I'm not sure what it was because I didn't read that edition. But this is so ridiculous because Mark Twain of all people was completely sympathetic with the negro cause and with the end of slavery.
OATESHe was very much a friend of Jim, for instance. And so to judge Mark Twain in this politically correct way of the 21st century is just so ridiculous. But we have to remember that when we're reading Shakespeare, there's a lot of misogyny in Shakespeare and his racism. In Shakespeare there's racism, and basically any writer before the 21st century will find the sexism, there's anti-Semitism in Hemingway, and many, many other writers.
OATESBut if you're interested and art and literature, you can't be judging these people harshly by the standards of the present day. You can be aware of the sexism and racism. As a teacher I would talk about the misogyny of Shakespeare, but I wouldn't therefore judgment him in any negative way. He's a great -- these are great writers.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Pat who says, "I wonder whether the legend cited by Ms. Oates accounts for the name of the professional hockey team from New Jersey. I guess the mascot, or logo, does resemble the head of a devil though I've always thought it looked more like a wrench." The New Jersey Devils is the name of the hockey team. Do you know whether there's any relationship between the curse...
NNAMDIOh, that would have to be, sure. The Jersey Devil was, you know, people talked about that. There were books about the Jersey Devil sort of situated around the pine barrens.
NNAMDIWhat kind of research goes into a work like this that includes so much historical detail?
OATESBasically looking at library collections and looking at letters. I looked at a lot of letters of Woodrow Wilson, and there's some very sort of doggerel poetry that I attribute to Woodrow Wilson in the novel, and that's actually what he wrote. A lot of these things are real.
NNAMDISomething else readers and reviewers often miss is that you employ quite a lot of humor, often very dark humor in your work including in this book. There are many more moments of dark humor throughout the book. Do you think readers may not expect humor in a literary work, even one with demons and vampires?
OATESThat's a good point. I've created these vampires -- there's one vampire, he's so handsome, like he's got this aristocratic face and this profile and he moves in this way and he rides a horse and he does all these things. He's every cliché of the romantic hero from Heathcliff onward, and it's meant to be funny, and all the women are swooning, even though they should know better that this is a demon, they're all like stumbling over one another to invite them to their houses, and I thought, this is really funny, but I'm wondering if women might read and think that he was really handsome and really think he was romantic.
NNAMDIWe'll find out when they read the book. Joyce Carol Oates is a best-selling author of more than 30 novels. She's a National Book Award winner. Her most recent novel is called "The Accursed." She's a professor of humanities and creative writing at Princeton University. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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