In Joyce Carol Oates’ chilling new novel The Accursed, a curse has befallen the small town of Princeton, New Jersey, where a young bride-to-be has mysteriously disappeared before her wedding and a stranger who just might be the devil has come to town. In a Q&A with BookPage, Oates talks about the research process and her experience with writing historical figures.
The Accursed is billed as a “history” and includes many asides and jumps in time. What made you choose this unusual form and what do you think the story gains by the choice?
The novel is one of several "postModernist gothic" novels I have written—Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, Mysteries of Winterthurn, My Heart Laid Bare. It is an epic of a sort, requiring space, time, depth, meditation and analysis.?
You began this book in 1984 and then abandoned it for other projects. What made you pick the manuscript up again?
I'd begun revising a manuscript titled The Crosswicks Horror several times, but was not satisfied with the authorial voice. Every few years I would rewrite more pages, then turn to other projects. But last year, an idea came to me of how to proceed, and I rewrote the novel quickly, in a "white-hot" siege of inspiration. Revising/rewriting is the writer's happiest time—first drafts are the difficult.??
The book takes place in Princeton, where you’ve lived and worked for years. What were the challenges and benefits of writing about a setting you know so intimately? Did you uncover anything about Princeton's history that surprised you?
Much research into local history and into the history of Woodrow Wilson's presidency at the University were required, of course. Some of the books I've listed in the Acknowledgments, but there were many more into which I glimpsed.?
The narrator claims he has perused at least a full ton of research materials to create his history. What kind of research did you do to write the book?
Research in Firestone Library, originally; plus books on Woodrow Wilson which I'd discovered in a second-hand bookshop in Cranberry, New Jersey.?
What sparked the idea for the curse?
My realization that the failure to intercede in racism—the failure to repudiate publicly such racist organizations as the Ku Klux Klan—was the sin of the "good" white Christian community not only in 1905-06 but through the decades. To do nothing, to say nothing, to try nothing—this was nearly as great a crime as willful acts of violence like lynchings.?
Many well-known historical characters show up in the book, including Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland. What are the challenges of including real-life people in fiction? Which of them was the most fun to write about? The most difficult?
It is always challenging to create a character, whether historical or imagined. The most "fun" to write about was Theodore Roosevelt, whose portrait is more or less true to life. Some individuals, like Roosevelt and Jack London, are larger than life, inimitable. There is also a cameo appearance by the man who was the model for Sherlock Holmes, who was enjoyable to bring to life.?
Many of the characters in your book carry deep social prejudices that were common in the time period. How did you manage to write sympathetically about characters whose beliefs would be considered unconscionable today?
I tend not to judge people harshly—I present them, with their flaws and virtues, and allow the reader to make his or her own assessment.?
Is there a message you hope readers will get from this book?
I don't write "message" novels but would hope that the reader comes away from The Accursed with a deeper sense of our American past, and an awareness of the often astonishing interplay between figures we now consider historical and even iconic. Essentially, they are human beings just like us—perhaps, in some cases, more flawed and reprehensible. And the novel's underlying urgency has to do with the evolution of our democracy—the gradual interaction, and integration, of the races—as well as the strengthening of women's rights.?
What are you working on now?
My next novel, Carthage, portrays the situation of an Iraqi war vet returning to his upstate New York town; his difficulties returning to civilian life, and the difficulties his fiancee and family have as a consequence. It is a realistic novel in a way that The Accursed is a surrealist novel, but both are grounded in psychological realism and in American history.