Joyce Carol Oates makes them laugh, makes them squirm, in Boston

Joyce Carol Oates was sometimes abrupt as keynote speaker and interviewee at the 2010 Boston Book Festival.

Michael Spingler/AP
Joyce Carol Oates told her audience at the Boston Book Festival that their applause was "startling and unexpected” because she spends so much time with her “unimpressed” pet cat.

Joyce Carol Oates had an audience of hundreds roaring with laughter, and later, squirming in their seats, at the Boston Book Festival last Saturday.

Oates, the festival’s keynote speaker, read aloud from her most recent collection of short stories, “Sourland,” then answered questions from event host Faith Salie, a comedian and former NPR interviewer.

The famed author was a bit of a comedian herself. In her introduction, Oates reacted to a cheering audience with surprise, calling the applause “very thrilling and startling and unexpected” after spending so much time with her “unimpressed” pet cat.

She mentioned the feline again later, when discussing the great volume of her work: “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up. She’s so much more calming than my husband.”

Her responses to tough questions from Salie about religion, violence, and politics, were not nearly as light-hearted. When asked if she believed in God, Oates turned the question around and – seeming a bit piqued – asked her interviewer, “Do you believe in God?”

When asked if she had experienced violence – an obvious theme in many of her stories – in her own life, Oates deferred the question and said curtly, “Writers don’t write about violence, writers write about people.” When pressed, she responded, “I don’t write about myself.”

When Salie joked that Oates should run for office, the author replied, “I could never run for office, because I’m not going to make up things ... words that people think other people want to hear.”

At the end of the talk, Oates described her goals as a writer, and at the same time explained her somewhat brusque answers.

“I try to present people with the complexity that we all have. That’s why I was a little awkward about the questions before, because [Salie] asked very blunt questions and she doesn’t have context,” she said. “I like to present people as complex human beings, in all their ambiguity. A person can behave in a way that seems violent, but in context, maybe it was an expression of confusion.”

Nora Dunne is a Monitor contributor.

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