Monday, June 9, 1997, 0640 hours
When I approached Joyce Carol Oates she looked at me with what appeared
to be apprehension. She was very thin and wide-eyed behind large glasses,
and I could imagine her trembling with an Ophelia-like vulnerability. The
slightest breeze might blow her away.
I asked her if she would mind if I were to photograph her during her
lecture. Would she be bothered by flash?
Oates looked to the side and said very softly that maybe that would be
distracting to the audience. I said I would not use flash then, because
I didn’t want to be disruptive. She said maybe I could take pictures of
her before she spoke. Right now would be all right.
She walked to the lectern positioned at the rail at the front of a
magnificent restored 19th century courtroom, which restoration
was done in part by inmates from the nearby Lehigh County Prison.
I asked if she was going to lecture from notes, and she said yes.
I thought this will be dreadful because it will show only her
discomfort or self-consciousness. But I was astonished at the
expressive and poignant facial expressions she suddenly displayed.
Hers was a most effortless performance, precisely like a professional
model who is fully aware of how she appears in a viewfinder.
As I took a picture and moved for a different angle, she assumed
a different pose, a different expression. From the front her face was
lovely and sweet. From the side it was bird-like, harsh, ugly. I thought:
She ages twenty years with a 90 degree turn of her head!
She began the lecture with the remark that the courtroom was
precisely like a stage, and in the back it is like the wings in a
theater. The judges chamber is a dressing room, where he prepares
for an important performance. As she spoke she held a white ball
point pen in her right hand.
“The world is in your back yard...if only you have the eyes to see it,”
she said, referring to Thoreau. She went on to take issue with
Virginia Woolf’s comment that that writing is easy once you find a
voice, “Which is merely another way of saying that once you have
talent you can become a great painter or a musician.”
But, she said, if you write a letter, you can also write fiction that will
be interesting and publishable, because you are recreating your
experience in a particular way, and to each person you speak in a
different voice, and that’s what you do when you write a story or a novel.
She recited her poem about Edward Hopper’s Night Hawk. She
compared Hopper to Andrew Wyeth, who was hugly popular
with the public and disdained by the critics, whereas Hopper is
popular and critically accepted as well. Even people who don’t
know about or like art love Hopper’s work. It looks real on the
surface, like a photograph, but the more you look at it the less real
From time to time she lifted a book to show a painting she was
talking about, and I studied her hands. Elegant, slim, tapered
fingers. The hands of a concert pianist. Her gestures were
appealingly femine and expressive. She placed her hand flat on
her upper chest right below her neck, her forefinger and little
finger spread. Then she held her hand outward, palm up with
fingers slighly curled. These movements were slow and graceful,
as was the turn of her head and her gaze into the audience.
Edward Hopper. Andrew Wyeth. Virginia Woolf. Thoreau.
Each reference summoned an array of ideas, of images.
She asked, “Why do painters do self portraits? The first and
obvious answer is, why not?” She said she was not an artist,
but a novelist and short story writer, and that in the audience
there may be artists who might comment on the question.
A man spoke, but I could not hear what he said because the
acoustics were terrible. Another man spoke, but I could not hear
him either. I might have raised my hand. “Creating a self-portrait,”
I might have said, “is a way of revealing only what you wish to
reveal of yourself. Or it might be simply matching a photographic
image with your self concept—how you see yourself, or how you
wish to be seen.”
Oates was asking questions, offering answers. What is the truth of
photography? A picture can lie. An image may appear to be ‘real’
and yet may be a manipulation, and therefore false. But then by
means of compostion or fall of light a photo migh be truthful in an
artistic and interpretive sense even though it bears little resemblance
to a real object or person. Which is fiction’s truth of coherence, as
opposed to the truth of representation. Art as opposed to
I thought she might call upon me, put the question to the only
working photographer in the room. She might have done that and I
might have answered, as I have just written. The ideas were in my
head, I could have expressed them. I might have volunteered them
on my own. For after all, I’m a professional, aren’t I? But I didn’t,
because a journalist never, ever becomes part of the story he or she
At the end I asked her to autograph my copy of her collection
of short stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” She
wrote: “To John, Joyce Carol Oates” in small, delicate, spiderweb lines.
I said, “Thank you for your patience,” and she replied, “It was my