“Writing is a solitary activity, and when I meet people who ask me questions about my writing, they open doors into a subterranean cavern and I am startled by things I say,” said the eminent novelist, playwright, essayist and poet Joyce Carol Oates, Dec. 6 at Little City Books in Hoboken, where she read from and discussed her new novel, “Hazards of Time Travel” (HarperCollins, 324 pp., $26.99).
In a captivating hour, the award-winning author of more than 40 novels shared musings about activism, Twitter, climate change, the futility of some passion projects, and more. It was a heavy discussion made effortless by her descriptive phrasing and curiosity-filled observations.
Oates described “Hazards of Time Travel” — which focuses on a young girl’s punishment in a repressive society and the hazards of being sent back in time to a conformist, all-white town in 1959 Wisconsin — as a “strange novel.” In addition to focusing on the rebel girl who challenges the times she lives in by asking questions about an erased past, the novel portrays a love story in which this independent thinker falls in love with a fellow exile.
After asking for questions, Oates was tossed a simple query by a long-time Hoboken resident: “Is there any hope in the human condition?”
“Well, it’s hard to answer that,” she responded, adding “the facts of life and doing research into intellectual history (suggest) that any thoughts experts have at any time … in history often turn out, though convincing, to be wrong.”
She acknowledged that climate change studies suggest we are closer to a catastrophe than we may think (but “one doesn’t really want to think about that”), adding that while she couldn’t directly respond to the big question presented by the attendee, she encouraged audience members to help sentient beings in their own orbit. Oates focuses on animal rights.
In one of the evening’s most interesting moments, she said that reading from her novel (she shared excerpts from several chapters) is “emotionally disturbing,” explaining that “as metaphor we are all time travelers, especially writers and poets and people looking into the past to be stimulated in some way to act in the present” and that “for some, looking at the past and drawing emotional strength from memories is part of our personalities.”
She elaborated that in “this novel, some of the memories are taken away from a young girl as part of a punishment” and “the girl doesn’t know if she is under hypnosis or traveled back in time.” So the girl tries to make her new reality “plausible in the way that things that seem not plausible seem plausible, and in politics that happens all the time.” The audience laughed at her reference to life under President Trump.
Discussing loss and conformity, she said “maybe I’m writing about myself in some way, as most writers do … projecting autobiographical and psychological reality into the story.” She continued: “We all feel like parts of our lives can slip away from us” and “many of us feel at some time in our life like we are mesmerized, or under a spell.”
Oates explored several other issues triggered by thoughts of time travel, including the notion that “we live our lives in the hypnosis of the world in which we live … we believe things told to us” and often resign ourselves to the dominant thought and culture. “By the end of the novel the young girl who has been a rebel … (and) a questing person we can identify with, starts giving up in a way. She’s just going to survive.”
Oates concluded that “sometimes I feel we try to make a difference on this Earth. We try to make a difference, we have some courage. But we don’t do as much as we like.”
She continued: “When you have catastrophes in your life, when you are really struck down, you pick yourself up and you say I’m going to keep myself alive.”
Oates said that by the end of the novel, the protagonist has made her peace with the conformist rural community that she’s been exiled to, but questioned if this is actually a happy ending. She explained that when she started to write the novel in 2011 in the pre-Trump era, “I didn’t know Wisconsin would be under the spell of the extreme right-wing politics. People there and the majority voters can’t break through the shackles of the very powerful, funded by Koch brothers. “
She compared her novel to a “Black Mirror” episode; the Netflix series often focuses on societies whose citizens are under surveillance. She didn’t realize that when she started writing it, the future would resemble her fiction, given the well-developed surveillance techniques in some major cities.
For Oates, the concept of time travel also brought up the idea that a person’s life work can be futile. “I got very interested in the phenomenon of people who are quite intelligent, working away at projects that are doomed. They are bright … but only if you came back from the future … would you know they are wasting their lives.” She noted that her marriage to a Princeton neuroscientist prompted her to focus on scientists who have devoted themselves to projects that may not produce results.
Responding to additional questions from the audience, she discussed a change in students in the 1960s from courageous activists protesting the Vietnam War and supporting Civil Rights and Women’s Rights to her more introverted students now, who have “retreated into an ahistorical world.”
She added that “that’s what writers have always done. Emily Dickinson wrote during the Civil War, and her work would endure beyond that time.”
When asked about her legendary presence on Twitter, she said “part of my brain lights up and goes dark on Twitter … my Tweets are usually in response to something I read … but after midnight Twitter is mostly cats … kitties are nocturnally taking over Twitter, and get owners into trouble.” Her audience exhaled and laughed with this brilliant writer.
Oates signed hardcover copies of her book, which you will find at the bookstore while the supply lasts.