Think about it. If you had only ten minutes to spend with an author you admire greatly, what three questions would you ask, and why?
One of my favorite authors is Joyce Carol Oates. I have had the privilege of meeting her once and have attended two of her readings. In part, my love is a juvenile one. I fell for her work when I was quite young and, like a first crush, her work still conjures adrenaline. My reader’s heart beats a little faster when I think about my first encounter with the short stories in Marriages and Infidelities and her collection of poems in Invisible Woman. It will be difficult to limit myself to asking her three questions.
The New York Times does such a good job with its “By the Book” feature, I’d like to borrow and expand on one of the questions that The Times editors often pose to the authors it interviews and ask Ms. Oates: “What books are currently on your nightstand – and why?” This question would give me some insight into what she feels is worthy of investing her time as a reader – what comforts her, inspires her, intrigues her, and troubles her.
Ms. Oates may be one of the most prolific writers of our time. I would like to know how she manages it. I would ask: “Writing, teaching, self-care, relationships, service to others…How do you determine your priorities? And, if writing is the top priority, how do you manage everything else?” My reasons for asking this question are likely quite obvious. All of us face demands on our time that distract us from writing. Ms. Oates has an incredible work ethic that I’d like to better understand. (I somehow doubt that she time blocks or uses a Franklin Covey planner.)
With only ten minutes for this imaginary conversation, I would hope I would have time to ask Ms. Oates: “If you could prepare and eat a meal with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?” Sitting down to share a meal could be done with almost anyone, but to think about working together in the kitchen suggests something more intimate to me. I’d like to know if making that kind of connection makes sense to her and why. An honest answer to this question would give me a glimpse into her head and heart. Does that sensual experience have a place? Or is it only alive in the written work and never manifest in daily living?
Notes on meeting JCO
When I was an undergraduate Ms. Oates was on a panel of women writers along with Toni Morrison and Susan Sontag. They talked about women’s voices. I didn’t know then what I have learned since: being in the audience of that panel was to witness the conversation of a lifetime. (I waited patiently afterward and got her autograph on a 4 x 6-inch lined index card that I have since framed.) Much later, and in a much smaller setting, I heard Oates read some of Missing, Mom, which, she said, she wrote to deal with her own mother’s death. I hung on every stunning, unassuming word.
She was quiet and extremely pale. She read quickly and almost carelessly, without much intonation. She had a strange otherness that set her apart from everyone else in the room. Her intellect felt massive, but its force revealed itself in her word choices and order, and her love of story, not in any flamboyance or affectation.