WATCH: Joyce Carol Oates reveals a writer's secret: "Nobody wants perfection"

The celebrated author, whose latest is "DIS MEM BER," cites her fascination with the fertile adolescent imagination

Published June 25, 2017 8:00AM (EDT)

As someone who turns out a novel every few years (and already has two books out this year), the venerable Princeton University professor and author Joyce Carol-Oates declares that good writing isn't always flawless because perfection is a matter of perception. The 79-year-old writer, who has produced dozens of novels since 1963, just released her latest collection of short stories, "DIS MEM BER: and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense." In a recent episode of "Salon Talks," she gave a key tip for would-be writers and explained how she uses her own fears and experiences to inform her eerie tales.

What's the most important advice for students?

I never tell them to try to perfect something because the word "perfect" like the word "gift," is a very tricky word, and we don't really know what those words mean. Shakespeare's not perfect, and James Joyce is not perfect. So the idea is to have energy and momentum and originality, and a verve and a voice that's original that people are interested in. Doesn't have to be perfect. In fact, nobody wants perfection. I think it was Sylvia Plath [who said] perfection has no children.

Why use the tremulous tumultuous time in a psyche as a storytelling device?

Many of the stories are from the point of view of young women or girls. . . . We're all interested in the time of adolescence, when we're curious; it can be male or female. A lot of questions haven't been answered, and the adult world is still a little bit like a mirage, you know? You don't really know. It's mysterious. I think adolescence, particularly late adolescence, is just a very fertile time for the imagination, and I'm very sympathetic with characters of that age.

When I was about 14, I was taking a bus into a city called Lockport, and I was alone for a lot. I was alone on the bus, and then when [I was] off the bus, I would walk some distance, maybe two miles to the school. So at that time in my life I did a lot of walking, in a city. . . . That made me really observant. I was so interested in what I was looking at. And I still love to walk and not know where I'm going necessarily.

Catch more of our conversation about her newest work and watch her describe an unlikely source of inspiration: a crawl space.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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Adolescence Books Dis Mem Ber Joyce Carol-oates Mystery And Suspense Perfection Professor Salon Talks