That might surprise those of us familiar with her oeuvre – fun is not exactly something Oates has become known for. Her novels, from Foxfire to Blonde to her most recent, Mudwoman, are serious works; she has a reputation for exposing the violence and corruption that lie at the heart of the American dream. People in her novels abuse and murder children; they rape women; they corrupt innocents.
The corruption of innocents is a theme of her latest book, but in placing a vampire at the heart of it, and giving us a rather camp, waspish narrator who imagines he is above the private, personal details of those he is writing about, Oates has also allowed herself, and to show herself, having some fun. Set in the affluent and privileged Princeton of the early 1900s, where the university president, Woodrow Wilson, is feeling threatened by a rival for his post, and the Socialist writer Upton Sinclair sits starving in a cabin, her story begins when a stranger from out of town, the mysterious Axson Mayte, arrives. He will eventually leave a trail of destruction in his wake, as young brides are kidnapped from the altar, and deranged husbands throttle their wives.
The fun lies partly in her portraits of the self-important narrator, historian MW van Dyck II, and in scenes like the meeting of Sinclair and the writer he adores, the notorious Jack London in New York, but there is also an energy, and a sense of recklessness almost, in the book, and this is perhaps the real departure for her. Early reviews in the US have called this foray into vampire territory a departure from her more realist fiction, but as Oates herself points out, she was also writing Gothic fantasy back in the 1980s.
“I did most of the research for this in 1984, so I had that material, I had lots of notes,” she says. She’s currently teaching in Berkeley in California for a term, away from her usual role as lecturer at Princeton, and she mentions getting used to the hills and the twisting roads of her temporary new home when she talks about the practice of writing – going round blind turns, slowing down, then speeding up. “I’m also living there, I’m walking around the locations. It has a slightly new plot but nothing too different – a different narrative voice – so I could move swiftly through it, a chapter at a time, which I found very enjoyable. I might not have found it so enjoyable if I’d had to do all the research as well.”
Some of us might think Oates is due some enjoyment. Her husband of almost 50 years, Raymond J Smith, died quite suddenly in February 2008. In 2011, she published an almost agonising account of his death and the aftermath, when she felt like killing herself, so huge was her grief. She also remarried, to Charles Gross, in early 2009. I’m conducting this interview by phone, but I’ve seen her talking about the book on YouTube, and I’m struck by how much younger than her 74 years she looks, and how at ease she sounds. It’s too simple to suggest that her second marriage has saved her and more, perhaps even lightened her enough to enjoy life in a new way, and I wouldn’t put that to her. All the same, I can’t help wondering if this return to the fantastical strain of her writing from the 1980s is part of the healing process.
At its heart, though, The Accursed is a serious book. Oates says she “wanted to write about the varied hypocrisies of an affluent area like Princeton. In the original version of Dracula, the vampire legend is so romantic, and you see that continued in the Twilight series and so on. But I’ve always thought of it as representative of class struggle – I see society in these dramatic terms a struggle for survival, for dominance.” She is talking about it in thematic terms for the purpose of the interview, she says, but “most writers don’t think in thematic terms, they just tell a story”. Upton Sinclair, whose work she taught at university and whose former cabin home she passes daily on her way to the office, might be an exception – he “really thought that with his writing he could transform the world”.
I ask if she worries about her portrayal of Woodrow Wilson, who she admits is a kind of untouchable hero in American politics, regarded as a progressive and reforming leader who kept the US out of the First World War until 1917. But his racism is portrayed in The Accursed where he, too, will come into contact with the vampire Axson Mayte. “I’m very fascinated by Woodrow Wilson. He’s held in very high esteem but nobody ever mentions his racism.” Was she worried she might be attacked for her unflattering portrayal?
She’s been attacked for a lot less, she says, recently by the gun lobby, simply for speaking out about gun control. She has received abusive messages on Twitter and by e-mail – “They would be good examples of some mythic creature, they say terrible things.” What kinds of things? “Joyce Carol Oates should be waterboarded.” She had to cancel one bookstore event because armed guards would be present. “I didn’t want to go under those circumstances. They are very hysterical about their guns. In comparison to that, criticising Wilson isn’t much!”
She talks about a “pretence of Christian rectitude” in the face of the racism of the past, but it might also be applicable to attitudes to guns today. “The most shocking thing in my novel is the indifference to violence perpetrated by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, it’s even more maddening than outright racist activities. Most ‘good’ Christian people pretended nothing was going on” (and in her novel, Wilson ignores the report of a recent lynching nearby). I ask if she believes in evil, and she replies: “Evil generated by the hypocrisy of a white ruling class. Wilson could have done something about the lynching, he had public attention.” He and his friend, the churchman Winslow Slade, never speak about it. “In The Accursed, there’s a social mood of a comedy of manners – some terrible things happen that vampires do, but they’re sort of surreal. Slade talking to his grandson about evolution, which he doesn’t understand, that conversation across the generations, is the essence of the book. The older generation has failed.”
As an indictment of the past, and its racist and sexist attitudes, Oates’s “vampire” novel succeeds superbly as a political statement, too. But its bold and authentic portrayals of real-life figures also anchor it in the realist tradition Oates has claimed for her own for so long. With a pinch of humour, and a sense of fun that some of us never quite expected.
• The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates is published by Fourth Estate, £18.99