KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Joyce Carol Oates is also taken aback by the relevance of her fiction these days. She's written dozens of books, won piles of literary prizes, and she joined our co-host Ari Shapiro to talk about her latest novel, which begins with a killing.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A man who considers himself a soldier of Christ shoots a doctor who performs abortions. Over the next 700 pages, we see the consequences of that act rippling through both families - the doctor's and his killer's. The novel is called "A Book Of American Martyrs," and Joyce Carol Oates joins us now. Welcome to the program.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: You wrote this book before Donald Trump won the presidential election, and it now feels impossible to read the novel without seeing it through the lens of current events. Do you think the book reads differently now than you imagined it?
OATES: Well, what you're saying is so, so true. And when I was working on it, I remember being so immersed in that world, which of course is 1999 and 2000, early 2000. And no, I had no idea what we were moving toward.
My novel deals with the sort of grassroots resentment of elite, you know, Washington people and just a kind of somehow very deep, visceral hatred of the liberal imagination, which is usually secular. So the novel is suffused with the kind of emotions that all came out in the election and really brought us to this populist demagogue Trump.
SHAPIRO: For the first more than a hundred pages of this book, we really only see the world through the eyes of Luther Dunphy, the man who kills the doctor who performs abortions. We experience his childhood, his struggles, his inner thoughts. It almost feels as though you want to force the reader to see this man as more than an extremist, somebody who you cannot simply just dismiss. Why did you begin the book this way?
OATES: Well, Luther's very sympathetic. It's a point of view that's not mine. It's not my point of view, but it's a very real point of view. Luther feels he's called. He's called by God. He doesn't want to be a murderer. He doesn't want to give up his own life. He feels he's been called by God, and it's a mission.
Some people may feel they're called in another way, a secular way, to be an abortion provider. Some people feel this yearning to be of help and use in the world. Some people are explorers. Some people are mathematicians. But there are people who feel that they want to serve God and God has chosen them. So Luther feels that way, but I wouldn't say he was that unusual. What's unusual about him is that he had that determination and you could call it courage to follow through his convictions.
SHAPIRO: I can imagine many people bristling at that word - courage - to describe a killer. And to particularly hear that word used by someone such as yourself who is so open about your liberal politics is interesting and kind of surprising.
OATES: Well, I don't know what other word to use. He doesn't want to be the person who's called by God. Now, there are abortion-provider murderers who did feel called by God. They are what we would call deluded. So Luther - we would call Luther a deluded person. So I don't know. Maybe put quotation marks around the word courage. What is the word?
SHAPIRO: There is a section of the novel that is almost like an incantation. It is two full pages, more or less, of why women and girls who do not believe in abortion choose to get one anyway. Will you just read a part of this?
OATES: (Reading) Because I can't let anyone know that I am pregnant, Doctor Voorhees. Because they would hate me forever; they would never forgive me for shaming them. Because I am not able to have this baby. Because I am old, too old. I have had my babies. I can't have anymore. I think I will die. I am so tired. Because I will lose my job because I can't commute 90 minutes a day if I am pregnant. If I have another baby, I will lose my job. I can't afford to lose my job. I will be evicted. Because the father would kill me if he knew. Because the father is married. Because my parents would be disgusted. Because my father would never speak to me again - so ashamed in the eyes of the church and our neighbors. Because I am too young. Because I want to finish school. Because I don't know how this happened; I did not want it to happen.
SHAPIRO: And the list goes on and on and on. This is just the beginning of it. Where did this litany come from?
OATES: Well, from life I suppose. So these are just the voices of distraught women and girls. And men just don't have this experience of being frantic and desperate.
SHAPIRO: Well, Joyce Carol Oates, it's been great talking with you. Thank you so much.
OATES: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Joyce Carol Oates' new novel is called "A Book Of American Martyrs."
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