Last month I had the privilege of hearing Joyce Carol Oates speak at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia. She is an icon of American Literature, and a distinguished professor of humanities at Princeton University. Her many books include We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, Zombie, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, and A Widow’s Story. Oates spoke to us about the experiences and books that have shaped her life. Reared on an upstate New York farm in the 1930’s and ‘40’s by poor, uneducated parents, each year a prized birthday book from her grandmother arrived: Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass; The Collected Works of Poe, The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Dracula.
Mudwoman, Oates’ just-released novel, focuses on the life of M.R. Neukirchen, the first female president of an Ivy League university. Filled with dark images that repeatedly circle the prose (snakes, mud, decay, crows and human sacrifice), the story opens in a fashion worthy of Poe. The reader observes this accomplished woman navigate an unexpected world not unlike Alice’s Wonderland. But this is a world of fearsome realities, darkness, and self-discovery. Neukirchen discovers her own past, and as the wrenching events unfold, Oates deconstructs this proud life.