Oates Details Writers' Last Days in 'Wild Nights'

In Wild Nights, Joyce Carol Oates offers stories about the last days of famous writers, including Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. Oates talks with Liane Hansen about the book.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There is an unusual disclaimer on author Joyce Carol Oates's homepage, Celestial Timepiece. It addresses the rumor that she has been nominated or been on the short list for the Nobel Prize for Literature. She has not - yet - so far as anyone knows. But, frankly, it's a bit of a surprise.

Her list of awards and honors runs some six pages, and it would be impossible to list the works of this prolific writer in this introduction. So, I'll stick with her most recently published book, "Wild Nights." It's a collection of short stories about the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James and Ernest Hemingway.

These are not true stories. Instead, she uses the power of her considerable imagination and her talents as a writer to invent what could be called fictional memoirs. Joyce Carol Oates is in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Ms. JOYCE CAROL OATES (Author, "Wild Nights"): Thank you.

HANSEN: I'd like to start with the Henry James story simply because you always list him as an influence, and if I'm not mistaken you keep a quotation from him on your bulletin board?

Ms. OATES: Oh, absolutely. I've been reading Henry James most of my adult life.

HANSEN: Yeah. The quotation I love: "We work in the dark, we do what we can, we have what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

Ms. OATES: Yes.

HANSEN: How - first of all, does he inspire you as a writer, and then explain why this particular story you write about him as a hospital worker during the First World War?

Ms. OATES: Well, Henry James is a model(ph) for many writers, just as his lifelong commitment to literature, his extraordinary intensity, his language and the versatility of his writing. He volunteered to work in the hospitals during World War I. His friend Edith Wharton encouraged him to do this volunteer work. And he was just remarkable. (Unintelligible) like Walt Whitman with the young Civil War soldiers.

HANSEN: He makes comparisons to Walt Whitman during the course of this story. And you bring up an aspect of his life - you're kind of speculating - why he would work in a hospital during his later days. And you're writing him saying I was a coward at 18, I ran away from the war. And the other thing was he was also fastidious, certainly, in his writing. And here he is among the blood and the gore and, you know, the souls of broken men.

Ms. OATES: Yes. It is amazing how we can suddenly, on times of emergency, be so different from our previous lives. He had been a very fussy bachelor, extremely difficult, I'm sure, to deal with. And then when he found himself among people who needed him - young men, some of them very badly maimed and dying and injured and in a context of terrible smells and terrible sights - he sort of threw off that fastidious manner and he rose to the occasion. He was just very, very human.

He read the newspaper and some poetry to the soldiers, but he didn't read his own writing because he knew it would not be appropriate.

HANSEN: You talk about being human. It's curious because the last days of Emily Dickinson, you imagine her as a robot.

Ms. OATES: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OATES: Yes. I was trying to think of a metaphor for how we bring art and music and poetry into our lives. People have libraries at home, they have bookshelves, they have CDs. And they sort of try, people try to bring great artists into their lives, into their physical houses and sort of live with portions of them. But they're not really deeply engaging with them.

So, I took it a step farther where people could have little mannequins of great people, like Sigmund Freud, or it could be Babe Ruth, or it could be Abraham Lincoln - in this case it's Emily Dickinson - and have this person come and live in your house. Of course, it's a computer program that's been put into a mannequin and can respond in ways that seem lifelike.

HANSEN: It's interesting. She seems more flesh and blood as a robot. I mean, we always read about her, you know, secluded in her room and so forth. But in this one, I get the sense that even as a mechanical, she kind of longs to break free.

Ms. OATES: Well, she was not secluded in her room. She was in the house. Basically she was like a housewife. What she didn't do was after the age of about 20, she didn't travel.

HANSEN: Maybe it's not her being so much flesh and blood but the way that the two people that buy her treat her. They keep forgetting that she's a replicate.

Ms. OATES: Yes, and you would because she's so - I think Emily Dickinson's poetry is just so brilliant and so enigmatic. There are poets, among them my friends, I mean, major American poets, who think Emily Dickinson might be among the very, very best poet who ever lived. You know, right up there with Shakespeare.

And I tend to agree - the language, the thinking, the subtlety, the astonishing intensity of her poetry. You can read it over and over again. You (unintelligible) so many meanings, so if you have a replica of Emily Dickinson in your house, it would be like having a riddle around you all the time. It would make you yearning to be a little more sharp yourself, which is what the characters in the story try to do.

HANSEN: The title, "Wild Nights," comes from one of Emily Dickinson's poems.

Ms. OATES: Yes, wild nights. If you were with me, wild nights would be our luxury.

HANSEN: The Hemingway story - this one seems closest to the truth. I mean, you get a sense of the man who seems to have given up on himself.

Ms. OATES: Most people who are writers go through periods when they can't write. With Hemingway, it was at a time in his life when he was very depressed. He was physically ill. He drank an extraordinary amount, he burned himself out. So he couldn't write anymore. And he finally committed suicide in the way that his own father did decades before.

HANSEN: You talk about how he wasn't the nicest man and at one point he mishears something. I guess he received an accolade for being the greatest writer of his generation. And he hears it as the greatest hater of his generation.

Ms. OATES: Yes, I'm afraid that's so. I don't know why he was like that.

HANSEN: Yeah. But in your story, I mean, I almost get a sense that he had a terrible self-loathing as well, which is probably where this anger and meanness came from.

Ms. OATES: Yes. It had a lot to do with his family background. His mother was a very dominant and very overbearing woman, extremely pushy. When Hemingway was a really little boy, like, 2 or 3 years old, the mother dressed him in girl's clothing and he had long hair. She wanted him to like a twin of her daughter.

So he left home and he went away and basically never came back. When he was about 18, he left home. I think he had to do that.

HANSEN: Other than the fact that you're chronicling with this sort of prose fiction the last days of these great writers, is there another thread that holds these stories together?

Ms. OATES: Well, that's a good question. I guess I'm always looking for models, as we all are, like, certain ways of life. And Edgar Allan Poe, the gothic romantic way, in which the physical is ignored doesn't seem to be a viable alternative. In Emily Dickinson, though, I felt that she was a very good model, even though she led a very cloistered life. She wrote her poetry - she wrote 776 poems, many of which are of extraordinary quality, so she left that body of work behind.

Mark Twain was very unhappy with himself for various reasons. He was very unhappy with America of this time. He thought it was terrible we had no anti-lynching laws, and he was also a feminist, and he was also very concerned with anti-Semitism. He was a good man but he was hard on himself.

And Henry James, I thought, became heroic. I just so admired him at the end of his life. And Hemingway, of course, was a tragedy. But for those of us who know about alcoholism, we can probably say that alcoholism is an illness. Once he became ill with alcoholism, he couldn't give up drinking and so he lost his soul.

HANSEN: I'm going to ask a personal question. Your husband of a long time - 40 years - passed away this year. How are you coping?

Ms. OATES: Well, since my husband passed away I'm not working nearly as much. I think I have about a 40 percent efficiency. I don't know if you've ever suffered any trauma or loss, but you just get very, very tired. I just don't have the energy anymore. Maybe it will come back somehow, but it's a different life. I feel like a different person.

HANSEN: Joyce Carol Oates, her recently published collection is called "Wild Nights: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway." She joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you for this conversation.

Ms. OATES: Thank you so much.

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