SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Something suspicious is going on in 1905 Princeton, New Jersey. Children turn into stone. Spouses disappear into horse-drawn carriages. Snakes squirm up and down walls. Some kind of curse? But what could the good people of Princeton have possibly done to bring a curse on themselves? Joyce Carol Oates takes this question for her new novel - the latest of more than 50; we don't even have the time to read their names - in which character meets karma. Her new novel is called "The Accursed." And Joyce Carol Oates, who's received the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle and the National Humanities Medal and is, by the way, the long-time Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, joins us from the studios of the University of California at Berkeley. Thank so much for being with us.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Thank you.
SIMON: This novel opens with Woodrow Wilson when he's president of Princeton, not the United States, receiving a young Latin teacher who implores him to speak out against a recent lynching that occurred nearby. But Woodrow Wilson couldn't be bothered. Is this based on something?
OATES: Oh. It's perhaps a metaphorical dramatization of many, many things that were happening. The indifference and the unconscionable blindness of the white ruling class, the so-called good Christians of the era - and people like Woodrow Wilson particularly - toward the plight of African-Americans who were the objects of racist violence is basically the subject of the novel.
SIMON: Let me draw you out a bit on the figure. And Woodrow Wilson is one of a number of historic figures that make appearances - Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, Jack London. Woodrow Wilson is the first one, and in many ways the story kind of revolves around that. I think his image among most Americans seems to be of a, still to this day, a high-minded man, a scholar and an internationalist more than a politician, a man who was before his time. What's wrong with that view?
OATES: It's a very incomplete view. Woodrow Wilson, for his time, was considered a reformer in education. He had many ideas that, at the time, were considered revolutionary about education. When he came to Princeton as the president, he reformed the curriculum. But I'm looking at something different. I'm looking at the failure to respond to these pressing issues of social injustice.
SIMON: Yeah. Of course, he was born in Virginia and the attitudes towards race and segregation were something that he carried over from his, really from his childhood, I gather.
OATES: Well, that's true. Also, his attitudes toward women. He was always really jocular and negative about women's suffrage and thought it was very amusing that women wanted the vote, but of course they should not have the vote. And people ask him, well, why do you feel that way? And he said I have no reason.
SIMON: There's a whole train here in this novel of incidents and coincidence and people under threat and risk. And, well, how is it that people begin to see it as a curse?
OATES: I imagined a very placid and upscale, very, very religious somewhat conservative Christian community, which is Princeton in 1905-'06. And I imagine the phenomenon that having completely denied this social injustice, the reality of racism, that there would be incursions from the unconscious or incursions from, let's say, the other side. That which is denied is emerging. So, I thought of this in terms of vampires and demons and these forces from the unconscious, so to speak, erupting in this placid community, where people seem to be seeing vampires or maybe they actually are seeing them. They're having hallucinations or maybe these creatures are actually real. In gothic fiction, the border between reality and surrealism is quite porous, as in our own dreams.
SIMON: I made note of a line. The Reverend Winslow Slade is a major character, I guess, what, former governor and Presbyterian minister. I was struck by the line: It was not that God failed to give Winslow Slade the clear knowledge of what he should do, but rather, God withheld from him the strength with which to do it. Is this a novel that tells the story of conscientious people that can't find their conscience?
OATES: I think that's a good way of putting it. It's the sort of inextricable presence of evil in good people, which they don't acknowledge and which they try to hide. But there was at least one person, one leader - moral leader at the time, and that was Mark Twain. He's a minor character in the novel, and I've written about him elsewhere. But there were people who spoke out against lynchings and racism. There just were not very many. And there were people who spoke out in favor of women's rights, just not very many.
SIMON: May I ask if Princeton, present-day Princeton, the university and/or the town, have registered any reaction to what you have written?
OATES: Well, I don't know about that, but Princeton today is completely different. I mean, this is more than 100 years ago. Princeton is quite integrated. Women are professors at Princeton. Women are students at Princeton. That began in the 1970s. We are in a completely new era. We have a wonderful woman president named Shirley Tilghman, which in the time of Woodrow Wilson, that would have been so extraordinary. I think Woodrow Wilson would have fainted. He would literally have fainted. He would never have believed that, and nor would anyone have ever believed that was a possibility of a black president of the United States. They would have howled with laughter. To them, that would have been completely insane. They would never have believed that. So, Princeton today is very different. And people would probably feel more or less the way I feel. Today, Princeton is a liberal university, a liberal community.
SIMON: Joyce Carol Oates. Her new novel is "The Accursed." Thanks so much for being with us.
OATES: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.