It was a few minutes before 7 pm, and at least fifty people were waiting politely in folded chairs for novelist Joyce Carol Oates at the new Tribeca Barnes and Noble in Manhattan tonight. They should have been sitting at the Starbucks on the other side of the store, because that's where Joyce Carol Oates was, demurely sipping a grande coffee in a black dress with poet Lawrence Joseph, noticed by just a respectful few.
The crowd swelled by the time John Freeman introduced Ms. Oates and Mr. Joseph, who began a free-form conversation about her Journals: 1973-1982, which has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle prize.
Joseph began by asking about Oates's motivations in keeping a journal all these years, and he offered a good quote from Franz Kafka as a possible explanation for the practice:
If someone else is observing me, naturally I have to observe myself too; if none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer.
But Oates charmingly said that Kafka could think that because he had an interesting mind, whereas she wrote mainly about the external world and considered herself transparent, "like a glass of water". She also claimed "I have no personality", drawing some mumbled protests from the affectionate crowd.
In fact, Oates is too smart to believe that she has no personality. She's got a ton of it, and it shows in the elegant way she carries herself: tall and very willowy, evoking a Pre-Raphaelite or Virginia Woolf-esque otherworldiness. She makes the kind of impression that hushes a room, and in fact I really think some film director should hire her the next time a role for an elegant elderly woman comes up, instead of speed-dialing Vanessa Redgrave or Helen Mirren like they always do. If George Plimpton and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote can take up late-career acting, why the hell can't Joyce Carol Oates? She'd probably win an Oscar.
I'm not sure that poet Lawrence Joseph had full control of the interview process, as he asked rather long and abstract questions about the motivations behind journal keeping, after which Joyce Carol Oates would steer him right and say something else charming or poignant. She told a story about Anais Nin's diary-keeping; Nin's father abandoned the family when she was a young girl, but she never knew if he would come back or not, and she kept the diary so that she could show him, when he returned, what he had missed. He never came back. That story, Joyce Carol Oates said, is the best illustration of why a person keeps a diary.
She also cited Henry David Thoreau as an exemplar in the art of journal-keeping, which sounds right to me. I've never managed to keep up with Joyce Carol Oates's prolific output, and in fact the last book of hers I read in full was Black Water in 1993 (I liked it). But maybe I'll pick up another of her novels; does anybody have a title to suggest?