When you regard an author as the best of her generation, and among the best of any generation, and you read just about everything she's ever written - which includes, in the case of Joyce Carol Oates, dozens and dozens of novels and short-story collections and books of essays and literary criticism and published journals - you start to think, "Well, that's it. I know her, backwards and forward and sideways. Nothing new here."
Not so fast.
Just before Joyce and I ascended to the stage at the Harold Washington Public Library March 31 for the sold-out Tribune event, we had time for a brief, casual chat. I revealed that I was looking forward to the NCAA basketball tournament in all of its frenetic, muscular, one-and-done glory. I was sure that Joyce's eyes would glaze over in boredom. The only sport she cared about, I assumed, was boxing, about which she has written with passion and acuity.
Shows how much I know.
Joyce quickly told me that she'd played basketball in high school. And enjoyed it.
This astonished me. I couldn't reconcile the idea of a tough, sweaty Joyce racing up the court on a fast break, dribbling expertly before stopping to fire up a jump shot, with the elegant, sophisticated literary genius who stood beside me, ready to talk about symbols and metaphors.
Once I got home that night, I checked Greg Johnson's admirably thorough 1998 biography of Oates, "Invisible Writer." And there it was, on page 51 of the paperback edition: Joyce played basketball, volleyball and field hockey at Williamsburg Central High School in upstate New York. I'd entirely missed that detail on my first reading of the biography.
Writers' lives, like writers' works, continue to surprise us, even after we think we've got them pegged.
And based on Joyce's headlong determination and grit as a writer, I know this for sure: If I were selecting players for my side in a pickup game of hoops, she'd be my No. 1 choice.Copyright © 2015, CT Now