A Conversation With Joyce Carol Oates
Niagara Falls truly comes alive in the story; you describe its power and
beauty in exquisite detail and during different seasons. How did your connection
with Niagara Falls contribute to writing the book?
I grew up in the countryside not far from Niagara Falls and we often visited there. Even in western New York State, a region that is haunting to me, Niagara Falls was always special.
For those who have never been to Niagara Falls, would you recommend it? What would you say to encourage people to visit?
This is a difficult question. Of course, the Falls are spectacular. But more spectacular on the Canadian side of the border. The Canadian Niagara Falls is Disneyland-commercial; the American side is somewhat shabby and economically depressed. Only visit in reasonably warm weather.
The reader knows things about Gilbert that Ariah does not, including a first-hand account of what drove him to commit suicide. How does having this information enhance the reading of the story?
Many suicides, especially in the past, have surely been as a consequence of sexual anxiety. The reader understands Gilbert's "secret" to a degree Gilbert doesn't understand himself, while Ariah can only feel guilt, shame, and humiliation as the bride of a suicide.
The Love Canal lawsuit was an actual legal case and plays a pivotal role in the storyline of The Falls. How much do the facts and circumstances of the real-life case mirror what takes place in the book?
Except for Dirk Burnaby's personal intervention, and changed names, much of the Love Canal material is historical. Obviously, I have had to select details in order to enhance them. Virtually all of this section is wholly realistic.
The epitaph to the book is an excerpt from A Brief History of Niagara Falls (1969) and includes this passage: "By 1900 Niagara Falls had come to be known, to the dismay of local citizens and promoters of the prosperous tourist trade, as 'Suicide's Paradise.'" Why do you suppose suicide is synonymous with The Falls? Did you uncover any statistics on the suicide rate at The Falls?
There are a number of very beautiful scenic sites, most famously the Golden Gate Bridge, Japan's Mount Fuji, and a cliff in, I think, Cornwall, England, as well as Niagara Falls, that have drawn potential suicides. Only in recent decades have statistics on such suicides been kept.
Where did you derive the inspiration for The Falls? Did the story flow from the plot, the setting, or a particular character?
I always begin my novels with precisely identified characters in environments that have, in a sense, given birth to them. From characters, as from individuals in life, inevitable stories flow, that constitute the formal "plot" of the novel.
Ariah is a character likely to incur both empathy and exasperation. Do you think readers will identify with Ariah?
I identified with Ariah in many ways, imagining what it would have been like to be married in the early 1950s, to a "nice" man who is, unknowingly homosexual. ("Gay" did not exist.) Ariah's intense happiness in her second marriage, initially at least, I very much understood. She is a favorite of mine, eccentric and headstrong, self-hurting and yet truly loving of her children (if smothering).
Families have their own unique characteristics, like the Burnabys in this story, but are there certain universal truths that apply to every family?
Where there is intense love, whether erotic or parental, it is likely to become possessive and stifling, provoking rebellion. Upsets may occur, even painful misunderstandings and separations, yet the essential love remains, and might again flourish, more temperately.
What message do you hope readers will get from The Falls?
I don't write to convey "messages" since I am not a propagandist. Obviously The Falls is a very American novel of the second half of the 20th century with which I hope readers might identify in the crises of family life threatened by "outside" forces.
What books would you recommend for people who would like to learn more about the history of Niagara Falls?
There are many books about the Falls. My favorites were a combination of history and photographs. The saga of Love Canal, that environmental disaster area and class-action litigation, has also been written about copiously, but for a personal, memoirist account I would recommend Lois Marie Gibb's Love Canal: My Story (1982) and Love Canal: The Story Continues (1998).
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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