Joyce Carol Oates is the author of more than 50 novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Among her books are the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde, and, most recently, the memoir A Widow’s Story and the short story collection Sourland. Her honors include the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
In this recording from the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar, Oates reads “San Quentin,” a short story based on her experience teaching English at San Quentin State Prison in the spring of 2011. The main character is a man serving a sentence of 60-years-to-life who has repeatedly enrolled in the prison’s Introduction to Biology course in order to understand the crime—murder—with which he is charged.
“How you kill a person?” he is asking. “How a person die?” he is asking. “What it mean, ‘kill,’ ‘die?'” he is asking. Enrolled in Introduction to Biology to seek why.
In introductory comments and a 15-minute question-and-answer session following the reading, Oates discusses her upbringing on “a small, failing, family farm” and the influence of working-class attitudes on her own prodigious work habits, as well as “the drama of human personality” that drives her work as a storyteller.
“My concept of other worlds is not the future, which of course doesn’t exist,” Oates remarks, “or other planets and stars and galaxies, but other people, other personalities. As a child I saw mysteries close at hand, and what we might call the phantasmagoria of personality was always very vivid to me. I looked at other people, and I felt that the world was very mysterious, and that the subjectivity of others is endlessly fascinating.”
From KWLS 2012: Yet Another World