Joyce Carol Oates Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Joyce Carol Oates
Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Joyce Carol Oates

An interview with Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates answers questions about her novel, The Falls, set in Niagara Falls during the second half of the 20th century, and the infamous Love Canal lawsuit that is at the heart of the book.

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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Incendiaries
    The Incendiaries
    by R O. Kwon
    Phoebe Lin, the glamorous but tortured heroine of The Incendiaries, is convinced she has no room for...
  • Book Jacket: Your Duck Is My Duck
    Your Duck Is My Duck
    by Deborah Eisenberg
    In this collection of six short stories, Deborah Eisenberg presents characters confronting limits ...
  • Book Jacket: Unsheltered
    Unsheltered
    by Barbara Kingsolver
    Willa Knox's house is falling down. She recently inherited a Victorian residence in Vineland, ...
  • Book Jacket: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree
    Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree
    by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
    Ya Ta, the main character in Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Code Girls
by Liza Mundy

The riveting story of the USA's courageous and accomplished WWII female American code breakers.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Gone So Long
    by Andre Dubus III

    Dubus' first novel in a decade is a masterpiece of thrilling tension and heartrending empathy.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Gone So Long

Andre Dubus III's First Novel in a Decade

A masterpiece of thrilling tension and heartrending empathy.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

G H E Rope A H Will H H

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.