Arts: Menace, molestation and murder

Best-selling novelist Joyce Carol Oates writes about people behaving savagely, whether in the boxing ring or in the world of Dog Girl, anti- heroine of her latest novel Man Crazy. Why do it? Because, she says, these are her people
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A young girl brought up by a single parent drifts towards promiscuity and drugs and ends up in a cult where she is sexually abused, tortured and made to drink the blood of a murdered man. It may sound like a horror flick, but Joyce Carol Oates's novel Man Crazy is serious. It takes a long, hard look at what happens when we go beyond society's perimeters.

Gothic short stories, campus novels, detective stories, lyrical novellas, multigenerational family sagas - Joyce Carol Oates has tackled them all. Since first being published in 1963, the award-winning author has written 27 novels and countless short stories, many of which have never been published here. Now Virago is bringing out Man Crazy and adding Solstice and Expensive People to its classic paperback list.

If Oates has experimented with genre, there's been a consistent element to her work - violence. Menace, molestation and murder are staples in her stories. A man smashes in the head of a boy he is supposed to be rescuing (Upon the Sweeping Flood), a child pushes a bully to her death (In the Warehouse); twins are sexually assaulted and killed by a retarded adult (Heat). Even in less extreme work such as Solstice, a sexual encounter borders on rape.

"There's a savage element to life in the larger context," says Oates, who is over here for the Edinburgh Festival. "People often say I write about violence, but fundamentally I have written about the aftermath of violence, often in the lives of women and children who are the victims. How do they deal with it? How do they survive?"

Oates is painfully thin, with frizzy dark hair and sad, gentle eyes behind her glasses. You can't help wondering how such unquiet thoughts spill from such a quiet woman. She once said that her life had been shaped by violent acts. A recently published American biography, Invisible Writer, by Greg Johnson, makes her family history seem very like one of Oates's own novels. Her paternal great-grandfather attacked his wife with a hammer and then shot himself; her maternal grandfather was murdered in a brawl. And as a small girl, the author was herself bullied and molested by other children. She has said, "I seemed to accept the ill-will of others as a natural fact of life."

And yet Oates looks back on her childhood with nostalgia and affection. Now a professor at Princeton University, she was the first of her family to go to college. She was brought up on her grandparents' small farm in upstate New York. Her father worked in a factory, scrabbling to make ends meet.

"I often write about that world", says Oates. "Writers spend a lot of time memorialising the world. We love our backgrounds and the cities we've lived in, our childhood homes - those worlds which are vanishing and fading."

In Foxfire, for instance, her novel about a girl gang who "go joy-riding, smoke dope, punish the men who have preyed on them sexually", Oates wanted to write something set in the Fifties about "girls who form pre-feminist alliances. Young girls have intense friendships with a sense of loyalty, protectiveness, and identification. Foxfire is a kind of valentine to those early adolescent friendships."

But these aren't sentimental stories. "This is a world of quite lower- class girls," she says, "whose families have been broken up, so they don't have brothers or fathers to protect them." There's a particularly unpleasant episode featuring a female dwarf being systematically raped. One right- wing lobby group in Canada demanded that the novel be banned from school reading lists. Others have also found some of Oates' material difficult to stomach.

"People ask me how I could write about such appalling things in Man Crazy," Oates says thoughtfully. "There's a moral repugnance with which I can sympathise. But in Man Crazy I was dealing with a girl leaving her family unit, and what she encounters when she goes beyond what we call civilisation. She has a kind of attraction to the dark unknown which seems romantic when you're at a distance but, when you're in it, is very ugly, very porous and awful."

The girl, Ingrid, nicknamed "Doll-girl" and then "Dog-girl", falls in with a gang of Hell's Angels. "I wanted to show how mistaken she was in her romantic illusion," Oates explains. "I had to show what happened. Hell's Angels are very dangerous, very real. I couldn't have a soft narrative about these people. I had to be true to the subject matter."

Oates occasionally takes her subject matter from real life incidents. Her moving novella Black Water was inspired by Chappaquiddick, when in 1969 Senator Ted Kennedy escaped unscathed from a submerged car, leaving his young female companion to drown. "He was absent - nobody knows where - for about 12 hours, and then emerged with his lawyer. He obviously had called him rather than an ambulance."

The book was designed to be read in two hours, the time it takes for the car to fill with water, as the girl struggles against her fate.

Zombie, on the other hand, has a serial killer as its narrator, an apparently respectable young man who performs lobotomies on his living victims.

"In the Seventies I was living in Detroit and there was a serial killer taking children and teenagers. He was never caught." Wasn't it scary residing in the head of her character? "Yes, because it isn't the arcane nature of the serial killer that's scary but the fact that he doesn't consider what he does unusual." Frightening too was the reaction to Zombie. "It's one of the novels of mine that has a cult following. People talk about it on the Internet. It's their favourite novel. I dread to think who these people are", says Oates allowing herself a quiet laugh.

Perhaps it's Oates's fascination with how we survive life's battering which makes her such a keen defender of boxing. Her passionate essay On Boxing describes the sport as "a highly condensed drama without words".

Oates was first taken to amateur matches by her father when she was about 10 years old. "We were not a family that was very cultured," she says, "and so I was taken to a fight rather than, say, an opera. If I'd been taken to listen to Wagner that might have changed my life in a very different way."

For Oates, boxing represents the playing out of the struggle to survive in its most extreme form.

"Most boxers never get hurt. If you've trained you know how to defend yourself. If you are hit and go down it's your option not to get up, you can quit at any time. The fighter wants to fight. He's happy to fight. If he has a title fight, this is his ticket to fame." But the potential for tragedy is there too. Fighters may go after that goal, but come out in a coma. They may wreck their careers and return to the streets where they came from.

"Boxing", writes Oates, "has become America's tragic theatre".

Although no longer a practising Catholic, Oates believes in redemption; she believes it is possible to re-establish shattered lives. Bloodied and bruised characters, like Ingrid in Man Crazy, do make it against the odds. "People sometimes ask `How can you write about such harsh, extreme people? But these are the people of my world," says Oates. "I love these people."

`Man Crazy' is published by Virago, price pounds 15.99