When Joyce Carol Oates’s canonical story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” was made into a film in 1985, the author mostly approved. Of its lead actor, Oates says, “Laura Dern is so dazzlingly right as ‘my’ Connie that I may come to think I modeled the fictitious girl on her, in the way that writers frequently delude themselves about motions of causality.” Oates writes this in the New York Times in 1986, but I didn’t read it until this year, after I’d written my own story modeled on “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” “Rabbits,” which appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The Paris Review. As Oates observes, writers writing about why they wrote something are not especially reliable.
The original story was based on a Life magazine article about the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” a psychopath who seduced and sometimes killed his teenage female victims; his story later inspired two novels and four more films. Oates says she never read the complete article about the killer because she didn’t want to be distracted by the real-life details: “I forget his name, but his specialty was the seduction and occasional murder of teenage girls.” This casual statement gets at what is so dazzling about Oates herself as a writer: the ability to treat graphic and even lurid material in a way that is not at all graphic or lurid. She doesn’t attempt to conceal violent or perverse behavior—on the contrary, she often emphasizes it—but she is interested in those details only for their potential to reveal surprising human truths. In an Oates story, there is no contempt for people who are down and out, nor is there any false lionizing of struggle (that flip side of contempt). If Oates has scorn for any class of people, it’s for the judgmental mainstream—those “who fancy themselves free of all lunatic attractions.”
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” made a huge impression on me when I first read it as a teenager, and I suspect it still has that effect on high school students today. I’ve read the story several times since then, but like Oates (probably like most writers), I didn’t reread my source material before starting to write. I knew I wanted my story to begin with an older man, dressed as a younger one, approaching a teenage girl in a playground, and that the tension between his appeal and the pull of the girl’s family would be what propelled the story. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what I was doing.
When I read something, I’m left with a feeling for the story’s atmosphere and maybe a good sense of one or more characters, but even with novels I’ve read multiple times, I’m often hard-pressed to relate the plot. I’m embarrassed about this failing, and I’ve only recently started to cop to it. Because of this, it was interesting to reread “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and see that I had taken details I never could have recalled if I had been quizzed on them beforehand. Some of them are small things: the way Arnold Friend knows Connie’s name without being told, the descriptive combination of Connie’s shorts and shoes as she parades around the mall with her friends, Connie’s wet hair when Arnold shows up unexpectedly at her house. These things I might have expected to linger in my subconscious, but I was surprised by two deeper resonances. At the moment of greatest danger in Oates’s story, Connie’s house becomes a kind of character; it seems to change and become animated under the influence of the menacing stranger. This happens in my story, too, although with a different significance, when the heroine’s family is in danger. In Oates’s story, Connie sacrifices herself for her parents and her sister. I wrote about a girl two generations removed from Oates’s heroine, from a family with more money and more options, and so it seems fitting to me that the danger they’re in is more all-encompassing and inevitable.
Oates also writes tribute stories to writers she loves—as the most prolific great writer alive today, she writes some of almost everything—and what makes these so good are the varied strategies she uses to transform her inspirations. Her stories are never a simple or clever update, a series of in-jokes for fellow devotees, but instead a wholesale reimagining of the original work. In “The Dead,” which takes place in the snowy cities of Detroit and Buffalo in the late sixties, Oates writes about a young college instructor whose literary success prompts a psychologist to advise her to “fail at something” in order to save her marriage; without the echo of the title, its relationship to Joyce wouldn’t be obvious until the last scene. In “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” Oates’s story rearranges time, beginning in the middle of a love affair instead of with the couple’s first meeting, as in Chekhov. When I first read it, I expected Oates’s story to play with the different cultural contexts, given the lower stakes of adultery in twentieth-century Nantucket than in nineteenth-century Yalta. Instead, the scrambled chronology of Oates’s story emphasizes the cyclical nature of passion, and it seems less a story about the way things have changed than one about the ways they have not.
Oates describes “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” as “romantic allegory,” which she calls her dominant mode. A young woman is seduced by the devil, who manipulates her vanity in order to lure her away and ruin her. Whether this ruination will take the form of a rape or a murder is left unresolved. We talked a lot in college about the author’s intention—we were more than once assigned Oates’s famous essay “ ‘JCO’ and I”—and how much to credit it. This may be why I still read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” as metafiction. To me, it’s a story about the way that stories often fail us. It seems at first to be a coming-of-age story in which a girl meets a mysterious older stranger. That scenario extends the classic promise of fiction: that the world mirrors us, says something about us, that things happen in order to transform character. The reader isn’t naive enough to believe that the world works that way, only that fiction does; fiction is a way to make sense of the world. Instead, Oates’s story suggests that its heroine will be transformed by an act of random violence, one she’s unlikely to be able to escape or even resist. Not so much coming-of-age as coming-of-death, and for no reason at all.
What I most admire in Oates, I could never imitate. I think it’s some magical combination of her particular experience and her legendary discipline. (Once, at a book festival in Miami, a student charged with escorting her to an event whispered to me that the celebrated headline author had requested to be picked up at 2:35, five minutes later than the schedule dictated, because she would be working until two thirty.) I don’t think writers necessarily emulate the writers whose voices are closest to their own—the easiest targets—but rather the ones whose work activates some element of their own emotional history. In her essay about the story’s adaptation, Oates says the film left out the element of sexual jealousy between the mother and daughter that was in her story. “Gonna get you, baby,” Arnold Friend says to Connie, but the thing that really gets me about “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has nothing to do with its swaggering villain. It’s Connie sitting at the kitchen table while her mother nags her over their coffee: “This did not really mean she disliked Connie and actually Connie thought that her mother preferred her to June because she was prettier, but the two of them kept up a pretense of exasperation, a sense that they were tugging and struggling over something of little value to either of them.” That thing, of course, is Connie’s virtue, and it’s what she sacrifices at the end of the story, perhaps for her family. The dynamic between mothers and daughters, the advice that is handed down—perhaps with the knowledge that it won’t be heeded or that it’s useless—was intimately familiar to me. My mother’s background was closer to Connie’s than my own, both in time and circumstances, and in Connie’s relationship with her mother I recognized the way my grandmother reacted to my mother’s prettiness: with a kind of warning envy, as if it were an outstanding debt that her daughter would someday have to repay. Connie and her mother lodged in me for that reason—so much so that twenty years after I first read it, I couldn’t help writing about it.