by Dr. Carter Hillyer

It took several attempts for Scot Naugle of Pass Christian Books to quiet the talkative standing-room-only crowd Saturday book signing event for world-famous author, Joyce Carol Oates.

“Ms. Oates has kindly agreed to read an excerpt from her work and then answer some questions.” Thunderous applause, followed by complete silence.

Everyone was in awe of Oates, 81, who has written more than 40 books, been nominated for and won nearly every major literary award, and profoundly influenced modern fiction.

She asked the crowd, “Before I start, can everybody hear me?”

The crowd was silent. Finally one man in the back answered “Yes” — a lone comment that provoked some laughter.

Oates smiled. She responded to the man in the back. “Good. I’m going to read an excert from Blonde, which is my favorite book because I am fascinated by the subject. It’s a historical novel about Marilyn Monroe, whom I consider a tragic figure. But before I begin, can everybody else hear me? — apart from you.”

At that point, everybody laughed, and her humor set the tone for the rest of the event.

She read the description of Marilyn Monroe’s arrival by helicopter at an army base in South Korea during the Korean War. The scene, written from the viewpoint of a soldier-escort, dramatized the central conflict of Monroe’s life: her need for love against her sex-symbol persona.

Her arrival, like a love goddess descending from the sky to the war-weary men below, creates a riot with Marilyn — overwhelmed with feelings of love derived from her perceived adoration of her fans — and the male mob, overwhelmed by what she represents to them. The soldier says: “The mob would’ve torn her limb from limb loving her…crazy with love for Marilyn…but she’s saying, like its a profound Zen truth that hit her square between the eyes, This is the happiest day of my life, oh, thank you!’

Oates explained after the reading that Monroe, whose real name was Norma Jean Baker, was probably illigitimate and raised without a father figure in her life. Her mother was schizophrenic and wouldn’t touch Marilyn. She “could only put her arms around her without touching her.” Norma Jean was sexually molested as a young girl. As she grew up, she had many lovers, several failed marriages, and some notorious love affairs.

“I think the driving force in her life [was] her need to be loved and adored. It was so touching to write the novel. So many strange things happened to her in her life. She was married several times and had many affairs, but we can see her need for love became a mania. It was her fate.”

The audience had many questions. How long did it take to research and write Blonde? “A long time. I read several biographies. I saw all of her movies in chronological order. I wrote the book in a movie story style. I used the documented events in her life but created the dialog. When writing a historical novel, it’s your words that make plausible scenes that won’t strain credulity. What people don’t understand about writing is how much work goes into producing a book. When I finished the first draft of Blonde, it was 1400 pages. I finally cut it down to 800.

“You have to decide what to leave and what to cut. John F. Kennedy is a character in the book. I left out his brother, Robert, who was another person in Marilyn’s life, but I knew one Kennedy was enough.” The audience laughed at that response.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

“I suffer from writer’s block, but I just go forward [and keep writing]. Writers work hard, but people don’t see that. It takes a long time to execute an idea. It’s a lot like acting. I’ve worked with actors before, and they spend many hours honing their craft. Viewers only see the final result. With writers and actors, people only see the glamorous part, not the work.”

Do you have a muse that inspires your writing?

“My muse is my cat, Cheri. She sits on my desk next to me, and I find her purring very comforting.”

Who are your favorite writers?

“There are so many. Ricard Ford, Russel Banks, Joan Didion, Jesmyn Ward. If Richard were here, he’d just say, ‘Aw, shucks, Ms. Oates,’ and be humble, but he really is a fine writer.” She praised Ward’s novels and championed her non-fiction work while on an award selection committee. “She wrote a wonderful memoir, Men we Reaped.”

A woman pointed out that Oates had written so much about women and then asked about if she had felt that the current “Me, Too” movement had somehow “surged ahead of her or something like that.”

Oates smiled. “I feel it’s more like they caught up with me.” After the laughter subsided, she added. “I think the influence of patriarchy and machismo in our history has victimized men just as much as women.”

I asked her about writing with a pen versus writing with a computer. (She does both.) “Typing makes my writing more formal, more structured. When I write with a pen, I seem to write from a deeper place, more from the heart.”

When Oates closed the Q&A session, she said “I really have enjoyed this. You all ask such good questions”

And now, book lovers, I end this article with a quote from the H. P. Lovecraft character in Night-Gaunts, Oates’ newest collection of short stories: “Ah, writing! Here is an activity so much more rewarding than mere living.”

Pass Christian Books hosted another book signing Wednesday night with Matthew Pitt, the author of These Are Our Demands from 5:30 to 6:30pm. This satire explores ways in which consignment to the margins opens up a kind of wilderness beyond the borders of polite society.

National Book Award Winner Joan Sibler stated, “With whimsy and guts, Matthew Pitt delineates the botched hopes and stylized vanities of his wildly imagined characters. These are boldly drawn, delicately surprising stories—remarkable reports from unexplored pockets of reality.”

Pass Christian Books is located on 300 E Scenic Drive, Pass Christian, MS.