Joyce Carol Oates is the author of numerous novels, short-story collections, essays, plays and books for children. I recently spoke with the 71-year-old writer about her experience writing about her hometown of Lockport, New York, in “Going Home Again,” which appears in the March issue of Smithsonian.
How much had you thought about “home” and what it meant to you prior to this assignment?
Probably more than most people. Because I’m a novelist, a writer of fiction, I probably do think of these things fairly often, fairly consistently. I have stories and novels that are set in my hometown area, and childhood memories are written about. We tend to write about what we know. There’s always a feeling of nostalgia.
I evoke the canal. Sometimes I call the city by different names. I’ve called it Strykersville and Port Oriskany. Sometimes I mix it together with Buffalo. I really write about this part of New York State all the time, so it’s not such an extraordinary leap for me to be writing about it.
I have a novel called Little Bird of Heaven, which came out a few months ago, and that’s set in an area like Lockport. It’s the same kind of upstate New York scene. I situate it in the Adirondacks.
Do you think your idea of “home” would be different if you had stayed in one place for a lifetime?
Oh, I’m sure. That would be true with anyone. If you stay in your home place, you don’t really notice things changing.
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process and how you approached this assignment?
I write in longhand. When I went to Lockport, which I did in October, I took a lot of notes describing it. I was driven around the city by a relative. I just sort of took notes on everything that I did. I looked at a map of the city. I described things. The canal. I looked at my old school. I just drove around the streets. What I wrote about is real. I didn’t invent anything.
What events, places or people did this assignment bring back to mind that you hadn’t thought about in awhile?
Many of my middle school classmates. Because so much time has gone by, of course, people have passed away. Some of my relatives have died. We’re talking about decades here, so people have lived and died, people whom I was close to. My grandmother died quite a while ago. I still have relatives who remember her and older relatives who remember me as a child.
I had a whole list of my middle school classmates, a whole long list of them. But that didn’t really seem relative to put that in. They’re just names of strangers. Nobody would know who they were.
In the essay, you said you found yourself naming names when you were giving your presentation in Lockport this past October.
Yeah. I think whenever we think of our hometowns we tend to think of very specific people, with whom you rode on the school bus, who was your next door neighbor you were playing with, who your girlfriend was. It’s always something very specific. John Updike has that in his fiction. He mentions names of people who meant a lot to him. They don’t mean anything to other people though, so it’s hard to evoke it.
What surprises you about the Lockport of today, compared to the Lockport of your childhood or of your memory?
I think what is surprising is that so much is the same. Elsewhere in the United States, there are many things that are changing. In the part of New Jersey where I live, which is quite affluent, near Princeton, [there are] many, many changes all the time.
At the end of the essay, you say that the question, “Do you think that you would be the writer you are today if you’d had a middle-class or wealthy background?” asked by an audience member during your presentation, didn’t seem very Lockportian to you. Why is that?
I've never considered Lockport a place where theoretical, philosophical, or intellectual ideas were much discussed—but maybe I've been mistaken. It was a very welcome surprise.
What do you like about the Princeton area, where you live now?
Princeton University is where I teach, so naturally, it’s sensible for me to be here. It’s a rural, suburban area where I live, about four miles outside Princeton. I can look out my window and see part of a lake, lots of trees. We live on three acres of land. It’s very peaceful here. I can get a lot of work done. And Princeton University is one of the great universities of the world, with a wonderful library and extremely wonderful colleagues and friends who live here. The intellectuals, fellow writers and poets in the area are very concentrated. It’s a wonderful community.
I’ve been here since 1978. I hope to stay here the rest of my life. My husband teaches at the university, as I do, so we’re very settled here. We have a new house. We just moved in. He’s my second husband. My first husband died in February 2008, and I remarried in March 2009. We just have a complete life here.