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Prolific author speaks at Mills

Joyce Carol Oates, an influential and prolific American author, read her most recent work at Mills on Feb. 12 to a packed crowd in the Bender Room at Mills College.

Joyce Carol Oates addresses a classroom at Mills. (Matt Beardsley)
Joyce Carol Oates addresses a classroom at Mills. (Matt Beardsley)

The first work Oates read, “O Crayola!” was written about her old friend, John Updike. They used to write long letters to each other, and, according to Oates, Updike used to trace old comics with crayons.

“Everything that we’ve done has been crystallized when we were little,” Oates said, whose early experience with reading and books deeply influenced her later work.

A page of “O Crayola!” was designed by J. Marks-Gale, F. Hale, P. Melendez, and A. Rosen, all students in the new MFA program for Book Arts and Creative Writing who design pages for a couple of the visiting writers every semester and they sell the finished product at the readings.

“It was a fun project that took a few weeks,” Marks-Gale said. “We didn’t have a backstory to the poem when we worked on the page. It was fun to finally hear it tonight.”

Oates also read her shorter work “Waiting on Elvis 1956” based on the time she and her husband went to a cafe and saw a photo of Elvis Presley in his prime.

Her short story “Sex With Camel” about a young boy and his grandmother, which focused on the young boy’s experiences in a hospital, received a positive response from the crowd. The piece was laced with humor and dynamic characters.

Mills junior Hanna Hilkey was especially impressed by Oates’s short story and her ability to compact a well-rounded plot in a short amount of space.

“I love short fiction,” Hilkey said. “It’s amazing.”

Mills students were pleasantly surprised by Oates’s work.

“I had this intuitive feeling that I wasn’t going to be captivated,” junior Julia McCartney said. “There was a lot of humor and subtle moments of delicacy. It was brilliant.”

Before the reading, English Professor Patricia Powell hosted a question and answer session with Oates and members of the English Department.

Many of the questions from students and faculty had to do with how Oates perceived the changing landscape of literature since she began publishing her work in the 1960’s.

Oates noted many changes including a cultural acceptance of women writers and a more dynamic relationship between readers and writers.

“You couldn’t go viral then,” Oates said.

Oates has taught at Princeton for 35 years and is currently teaching a creative writing course at UC Berkeley as a visiting professor.