Talking with her, you would never know Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most diverse, best-known and prolific of all writers.
"It's a representative sampling of my work, but I was urged to do it," Oates said, a little embarrassed by "High and Lonesome," her new thick volume of 36 selected short stories. "It seems sort of posthumous to me, as if I'm dead or that I'm through writing — and I'm not."
Oates has written novels, short stories, plays, poetry, young-adult novels and mysteries using a pseudonym. For a long time she wrote under the name Rosalind Smith, and now she has written three novels as Lauren Kelly.
"I use a pseudonym," she said by phone from her Princeton, N.J., home, "because I sometimes want to write a more structured novel.
"Mystery novels have a different structure, they're more cinematic. When you write a literary novel you want to be as imaginative as possible. But with a suspense novel, you have to be concerned with movement of plot and be able to clear up the mystery at the end. You don't need to do that with literary fiction. I enjoy experimenting with forms."
In Oates' opinion, these choices are similar to a poet writing sonnets.
Asked which genre she prefers, Oates said, "I love the short story. I love to read them and I love to write them. Each one is trying to do something different and with a different voice. In my life, I've probably read 10,000 short stories. I have especially enjoyed James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner."
She believes some of the best writers have had no writing courses. "Hemingway learned a lot by being a journalist — but Cormac McCarthy, Joan Didion and Tobias Wolff are also spare in their writing."
If she reads Dickens, Hemingway or Faulkner, she expects to see landscape. "Cormac McCarthy ('All the Pretty Horses,' 'Blood Meridian') describes more places than he does characters, and I like that. I want to see the landscape. Writing is both foreground and background. I find background even more interesting than foreground."
She finds that many best-sellers, especially thrillers, tend to be "thin" — with no background at all. "I'm a reader who gets something out of most writing. I don't find Updike's characters engaging — but his writing voice and description are wonderful."
Oates used to write mostly in the third person, but now she tends to write in the first person. She has found her voice.
When she reads from her work in public she likes to select the stories with narration, such as "The Fish Factory," which she considers "a dramatic monologue." It's a story about a mother's loss of her daughter. Oates also often reads "Small Avalanches," a story she wrote in the 1970s, a narration by a 13-year-old girl, told with a lot of drama. (Both are included in the new volume.)
Oates grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. "I still don't see anything wrong with saving money. I'm not one in favor of conspicuous consumption.
"I have friends who will pay $200 for a meal at a restaurant. That seems decadent to me. I just don't have those values. We have one car — a white Honda. Every few years my husband trades it in for another white Honda. An expensive car would just get dented."
Similarly, Oates doesn't feel pride in her work or the work of her students. "I just feel satisfaction if something goes well. Much of life is accidental. The good things that happen to us are often accidents. People who have troubles or accidents shouldn't feel ashamed of it."
And she was raised to be a hard worker. "Writing is work — you can't get it done in a flash. It takes hours. I do a lot of thinking. I meditate on the complexities of characters. I use composite characters from life in my work, and I use episodes and events from my own life — or things I've heard about. I use real settings all the time."
Oates is not usually drawn to comedy, however. "In comedy, the characters are often cartoon-like. Human beings are very complex. They show certain sides of their personalities to the world. The rest we have to infer. I don't find a TV sitcom to be real in any way.
"On the other hand, someone like Peter Sellers created a character. I just watched 'Dr. Strangelove' again after many years. The main thing is the comic acting. Sellers plays three roles, and you just stare at him. He's a flat character in it, but he portrays a high level of satire. It is an artistry that is fascinating to watch."
Because Oates teaches a heavy load at Princeton (two workshops and three tutorials) she has to be very organized to get her writing done. "I get up early and I work all day long. I don't write quickly. It takes me a long time to write a single page. I work longer than most writers. But I like work. I'm not one who longs for a vacation."