This happened recently when I sat down with Joyce Carol Oates whose latest novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter, has just been published by Ecco (a division of HarperCollins). Pictured above: Joyce Carol Oates congratulates me on the best interview she's ever had!
The Gravedigger's Daughter, Oates's 36th novel, is billed as "an intensely realized, masterful epic of a young woman's struggle for identity and survival in a post-World War II America."
In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet—but very "American"—triumph. "You are born here, they will not hurt you"—so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true.
The 582 pages of the hardcover edition tell a story that is at times as morally dark as any Thomas Hardy novel. In protagonist Rebecca Schwart, Oates has created a character as attractive and yet as cursed as Tess Durbeyfield of Tess of the D'Ubervilles. While both characters are strong in a timid way, Rebecca is able to triumph against her surroundings in a way that Tess is not.
The pleasure in reading a book that is so well written is almost indescribable, and I relished the occasion to sit down and talk with its author, who is undoubtedly one of America's most distinguished living novelists.
Joyce Carol Oates's frail exterior belies a mind and a vision of steel. Although now 69, Oates admitted during our interview to running everyday. It is that discipline and perseverance that have enabled her to reach the literary heights she has.
Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is also the recipient of the 2005 Prix Femina for The Falls, which was also a New York Times bestseller. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and she has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
The hour I spent talking with Ms. Oates was fascinating, and while she may not agree, she was intrigued by my name; she said I was the first St.John she had ever met!. I consider her among the very best authors I've interviewed; the others who have made me gush like a teenage girl are Martin Amis, Alice Walker, Edmund White and, of course, Jimmy Carter!
Listen out for a shortened version of my interview with Joyce Carol Oates sometime soon on GPB, either on Georgia Gazette or during Morning Edition.