Joyce Carol Oates read part of Zombie to the American Psychological Association
Author: Joyce Carol Oates, born in 1938 in a small town near Buffalo, New York. Her father worked as a tool-and-die maker; neither of Oates’s parents graduated from high school. Ms. Oates began writing in grade school. She graduated from Syracuse University in 1960; she received her M.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin. She began doctoral studies at Rice University, dropping out after a short story she’d written earned an honorable mention in Martha Foley’s Best American Short Stories. Her first story collection, By the North Gate, was published in 1963. During the past 32 years, she has written and published 25 novels, as well as hundreds of short stories, poems, and essays. Ms. Oates has also written four suspense novels as Rosamond Smith. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where she teaches writing. Ms. Oates and editor and writer Raymond Smith have been married for 35 years. The couple has four cats and no children.
Zombie; A William Abrahams Book / E.P. Dutton, 1995; 192 pages; $18.95 Type: Fiction Setting: Michigan Time: Present
In a March 24, 1994, essay in the New York Review of Books, which examined books by and about serial killers, Joyce Carol Oates noted that the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for 75 percent of its serial killers. Ms. Oates went on to state that Americans’ fascination with serial killers stemmed from “our uneasy sense that such persons are forms of ourselves, derailed and gone terribly wrong.” And: “Somehow it has happened that the ‘serial killer’ has become our debased, condemned, yet eerily glorified Noble Savage, the vestiges of the frontier spirit, the American isolato cruising interstate highways in van or pickup truck.”
Zombie, Ms. Oates’s newest novel, takes readers inside the mind of Quentin P., a sexual sadist and serial killer modeled on the late Jeffrey Dahmer. Ms. Oates shows us Quentin through his diary. Quentin writes about his past murders and plans for future killings. He abducts young men and attempts through crude surgery to create a zombie. “A true ZOMBIE,” Oates-as-Quentin writes, “would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. Saying, ‘Yes, Master’ & ‘No, Master.’ He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, ‘I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master.’ ” On the morning that Ms. Oates spoke with me, she was at home in Princeton. I said that Zombie frightened me, that I found it difficult to read.
“It was quite intense to write,” she said.
I asked how she “found” Quentin’s voice.
“That’s a very crucial question and hard for me to answer. I really don’t know how. It wasn’t difficult. I began writing and it seemed that the voice came immediately, which is not the case with much of my writing, I usually have to experiment for weeks.
“Quentin’s voice is supposed to be banal, his observations for the most part deadpan. There are only a few moments in the novel when he rises to some level we might call ‘expressive’ in describing things. In one chapter that I didn’t know that I would be writing, Quentin speaks of how he had wanted to be another person, he’d tried when he was a teenager to change, he’d affected a different handwriting, tried to wear a different kind of clothes, tried to become a different person. He thought, ‘If I were just a little taller, if I dressed a little differently, I could be a DEKE pledge.’ This seemed very accurate and very truthful, but when I began writing the novel, 1 would not have known I’d get to that level in his personality.”
Quentin, in his diary, occasionally draws pictures — his van with its American flag decal, a skull, baby chicks. Did Ms. Oates do these drawings?
“Qh, yes. I’d never done that before. Quentin is so much directed by the unconscious. Maybe I was working with the images the way he was. The image of baby chicks, for instance, came from out of nowhere. Quentin sees the baby chicks in his dreams, long before he knows what he’s going to do with them [Quentin uses the chicks to lure one of his victims]. In this way, he’s like a very inarticulate artist who’s groping on an unconscious level.! think serial killers are in the grip of their fantasies and imaginations, in a way like artists are, but of course, in other ways very different.”
What did Ms. Oates think accounts for the increase in numbers of serial killers?
“I think it has to do with the acceleration of impersonality in our society. Perhaps it’s also the increasing dehumanization of images brought about by television and sophisticated technologies.”
As Zombie ends, the reader realizes that Quentin’s family, his therapist, and parole officer fail to recognize that Quentin is regularly stalking and killing young men. “Fiction,” said Ms. Oates, “allows a different dimension than does nonfiction in writing about someone like a serial killer. When I read about crime, which I do fairly regularly, I always want to know whether the killer is apprehended, brought to justice. And in fact most books that are written about serial killers are not undertaken until after the crimes are solved. Zombie shows that Quentin is going to be a predator for as long as he can before he gets caught.
“I read part of Zombie to the American Psychological Association’s gathering a year ago. There’s so much in the novel that has to do with the misguided although well-intentioned attempts of Quentin’s counselors and psychiatrists. The association thought that my novel was a critique of what they were doing, because they approach the serial killer in such a relatively superficial way, they don’t see that he’s always plotting, he’s always manipulating them, although a lot of them do see this, of course.”
What, I asked, was Ms. Oates working on now?
“The next novel, which is so different from Zombie, has to do with a little girl and her mother. I think I am reacting against the isolation of the Zombie personality and moving back toward the familial relationship.”