STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of America's most prolific storytellers is now telling her own story. Joyce Carol Oates has written more than 50 novels. Some have won the highest honors in American fiction, ranging from the National Book Award to an Oprah Book Club selection. She has written about everything from Marilyn Monroe to boxing, always probing the dark side of human nature. Her new memoir explores her own early years. It's called "The Lost Landscape." NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: The photo on the cover of the memoir "The Lost Landscape" shows a little girl around 8 or 9. Her hands are clasped in front of her, and her eyes are turned toward someone or something off to the side. She has a sweet, shy smile and a look on her face that is the very definition of the word bashful. This is Joyce Carol Oates as a child, on the farm in upstate N.Y. where she grew up.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: I'll show you my study. It's a little messy.
NEARY: These days, Oates lives in a big house in Princeton, N.J., which is filled with mementos from her childhood - quilts her mother made, her father's old violin, more family photos.
OATES: This is sixth grade in Lockport. That's me and my little girlfriends.
NEARY: She pulls out her most treasured childhood possession, a beautifully illustrated copy of "Alice In Wonderland" given to her by her grandmother.
OATES: And this is my first book, and I just loved it. I basically memorized it. I just this book over and over again.
NEARY: You said that this book made you a writer.
OATES: Yes, I think so, definitely. I did have other books, but this is the one that really, really stimulated my imagination.
NEARY: Oates's home is surrounded by several acres of land. It's not exactly a farm, but it gives her the kind of outdoor space she says needs to wander in and think. As a kid, Oates remembers roaming the countryside in upstate N.Y., peeking into abandoned houses and imagining what life was like for the families that had once lived there.
OATES: I spent a lot of time alone, and I think to be a reader and a serious writer, you have to spend time alone. I like to work alone, to walk around, to be out in the orchard. I had my special places where I walked along the Tonawanda Creek. I had my bicycle. I spent a lot of time thinking and daydreaming and making up little stories, just kind of imagining things.
NEARY: Her father, Oates says, was a factory worker who was a self-taught man. He loved to play the piano and even learned to fly. Her mother was warm and affectionate, busy with work on the farm. There was always something to do, says Oates, and the work habits she formed on the farm go a long way to explaining how prolific she is as a writer.
OATES: I think probably it was an unusual upbringing because we did work all the time, and if I have nothing to do, I'm very unhappy. I think on a farm basically one is always working. I'm not sure that work is always the right word because you feel so absorbed in what you're doing.
NEARY: But it wasn't all idyllic. There were dark family secrets that Oates gradually learned about. Her maternal grandfather was murdered in a local tavern. After his death, her mother was given away to be raised by the relatives who owned the farm where Oates grew up. Her father's father abandoned his family. And in the countryside and nearby towns, life was tough for many of her neighbors and friends.
OATES: I've sometimes been criticized for the violence in my writing, but it was really not that unusual in my background. I wasn't imagining or inventing any of these things.
NEARY: Her memoir is a study in contrasts, moving from scenes of a happy childhood to stories tinged with tragedy or violence. In one of those abandoned houses she used to see, an abusive father tormented a neighboring family. The one-room school she attended looked like something from a Norman Rockwell painting, and Oates was a natural student who loved to learn. But the older farm boys who went to the school only because they had to terrorized their young classmates.
OATES: And that was quite an experience - a little rough by our standards today.
NEARY: Bullies, they were bullies.
OATES: Well, also sort of sexual molestation and harassment of every kind, bullying of any kind, boys and girls. But it was so saturated in that way of life that there was no expectation of anything different. So I did grow up in a very rough environment. It didn't break me or wound me. And maybe it did form some of my sense of human nature.
NEARY: Domestic violence, rape, suicide - these are themes Oates returns to again and again in her work. In the working-class world of upstate N.Y., where she grew up, she says this was as much a part of the landscape as apple orchards. Oates says when she was a kid, she didn't think much about the violence that occurred on the edges of her world.
OATES: I think when I was older and beginning to write, I naturally looked back on my childhood for material because people tend to write about their own childhoods. So then I could see some of these outlines, some of these themes, which was very much a part of my experience.
NEARY: Oates says it was her parents' love which protected her from the world outside their home, but she is drawn to writing about people who had to get through life without that protection.
OATES: I once wrote a long novel about Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes Marilyn Monroe, and the great tragedy of Norma Jeane Baker's life was that her mother basically didn't love her and she didn't have a father. He never acknowledged her, even after she was quite famous. So it wouldn't really matter how famous she became and how successful, how beautiful she was because she didn't have that early love and protection. And I think because I had that, I sort of carried that with me even today.
NEARY: There's a part of Joyce Carol Oates that still yearns for that lost landscape of her youth and for the energetic, loving parents who raised her. But she knows she is lucky to have moved on from there and to have the luxury of looking back on it from a distance, with the eye and the imagination of a writer.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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