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. Read More