Author Spotlight: Joyce Carol Oates

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Throughout her career, author Joyce Carol Oates has published an astounding 58 books. The many awards she has won include the National Book Award, two O. Henry Awards, and the National Humanities Medal. In the literary world, she has become known for her attention to detail. She grew up surrounded by stories - many of which greatly influenced her own writing. Over the years, Oates has remained consistent in crafting honest and raw novels about family life. This is a look at the years that shaped the writer.

Early Years That Created a Writer

Growing up in the average working-class family, Oates would describe her family as a “happy, close-knit and unextraordinary family for our time, place, and economic status.” She was born in Lockport, New York in June 1938 as the eldest of three children. Her paternal grandmother lived with her family, and from a young age, Oates developed an intense bond with her. After her grandmother’s death, Oates learned that her grandmother’s father had committed suicide, and that she had hidden her Jewish heritage, prompting Oates to craft the novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter.
Oates developed an interest in reading from an early age. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of her first introductions to the realm of creative fiction. Later in her teens, Oates read Charlotte Bronte, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, and Henry David Thoreau voraciously - all of whom influenced her desire to become a writer herself. When she was 14, her grandmother gifted her a typewriter. It was then that Oates first began writing stories. She was skilled from an early age, winning the Scholastic Art and Writing Award when she was a teen.
After graduating high school, Oates attended Syracuse University on scholarship. She referred to the university as “a very exciting place academically and intellectually.” While here, she honed in on her writing skills by drafting one novel after another, then throwing them out when they were complete. She also began reading writers like D.H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Flannery O’Connor, writers who Oates still believes to have made an impact on her work well into her older years.
Oates graduated with a degree in English from Syracuse in 1961, and subsequently earned her Masters of Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While she was working on her PhD at Rice University, she made the move to full-time writing.

The Beginning of Her Career

Oates published her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, when she was 26 years old. She continued to regularly publish short stories and novels until the 1980s. During this time, her work centered on rural poverty, class tensions, sexual abuse, power lust, and female young adulthood. Oates says that her work is largely based on real personal experiences. Throughout these years, she was publishing two books per year.

Joyce Carol Oates.
In 1996, Oates published one of her most famous books, We Were the Mulvaneys, which became a bestseller after being the pick for Oprah’s Book Club in 2001. In 1974, Oates and her husband Raymond J. Smith founded The Ontario Review - a literary magazine that stemmed for their shared love of literature. Six years later, the couple extended the magazine into a small independent publishing house, Ontario Review Books.
In the age of computers, Oates still writes the first draft of all her books in longhand. She works from 8 AM to 1 PM every day, and again for a couple hours in the evening. She became famous for her technique when the New York Times wrote that her “name was synonymous with productivity.”

Awards, Recognition, and Legacy

Oates has received countless awards throughout her career. In 1970, she received the National Book Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for a short story in 1996, the Chicago Tribune Literary Award in 2006, the National Humanities Medal in 2010, just to name a few. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970, 1993, 1995, 2001, and 2015. Likewise, she had been nominated for the National Book Award 11 times since 1963.
Suffice to say, Oates revolutionized the literary world with her keen storytelling and incredible ability to write an abundance of books. She is an astute reader who allowed the incredible words of others to impact her own. The books she has already published have left their mark on countless readers, while the books she has yet to publish will impact many more. Talented and insightful, Oates is a prolific writer who still has many more stories to tell.