SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – “How do you kill a person, he is asking? How does a person die, he is asking.”
These are the first lines in the short story that Joyce Carol Oates read at Seton Hall University’s Poetry-in-the-Round event Tuesday night. The title is “San Quentin” and it is based largely on her experience teaching writing workshops at the prison.
This Poetry-in-the-Round took place in the Jubilee Hall Auditorium in order to accommodate the large audience; the auditorium was filled to capacity. Oates’ visit drew faculty, students and members of the South Orange community.
Oates shared information about her writing process and inspirations, as well as responding to questions from the audience about her work.
“When I went to San Quentin, it was enormously impressive to me,” she said. “I’ve written a couple of short stories about the experience.” She taught a class of about 15 students, ranging from ages 30 to 60. “Most of the prisoners who wrote are quite hypnotized and captivated by the fact that they are in prison,” she said.
The inmate student who inspired “San Quentin,” she said, was in particular mesmerized by the fact that he had killed someone. “He said that he would wake up at night and sort of see this person standing by his bed. And the question was why? Why did I do that? Why did I throw away my life? What does it mean to kill a person?”
The story experiments with voices, and Oates called it, “a really unusual and eerie kind of a poetic sinister illustration.”
Oates admitted that she likes to write about themes that have to do with the criminal justice system, about people who are unfairly prosecuted and never indicted or arrested for a crime. “These people go into a limbo,” she said. “In the eyes of the community and in their own family, they are considered guilty. To me that is a very interesting subject.”
Oates then read from another recent piece, titled “Brutal Murder in a Public Place,” that also experiments with different voices. The story was inspired by Oates’ experience at Newark Airport where a furiously chirping and trapped bird had drawn her attention.
“You do see birds trapped,” she said. “People sort of smile at them as if they were cute, but their lives are very short and they probably will die very soon and I just felt how easy it would have been to be born a sparrow.”
The two stories next to each other reveal that Oates is constantly pushing herself to inhabit the voices of people who aren’t usually heard. “I’m also interested in people who can’t speak for themselves,” Oates admitted.
Oates never thought of herself as a writer: “I never really thought that I would be published or would become a writer. Or I thought after my first books were published maybe they wouldn’t be published again.”
What Oates truly loves is teaching. Her own influences are vast, but she did cite E.L. Doctorow and John Updike. In particular she names James Joyce as a beautiful and sensuous poetic writer.
“The profound difference between us is that Joyce did not believe in writing about violence, whereas I think that one cannot escape that, and I tend to focus on contemporary experiences,” she said, “and some of them are violent.”
Joyce shared her unique writing process with the audience. “I like to do a lot of walking and running, and when I run or walk kind of nervously quick, I feel a sort of a nervous excitement,” she said. “And when I’m walking or running really fast, I think about what I’m writing like a little movie, I see maybe 8 minutes of a little film.”
Her advice to aspiring writers: “Read what you want to read, read what is interesting to you and exciting. Through reading will grow the desire to write.”