From Greg Johnson's "A Reader's Guide to the Recent Novels of Joyce Carol Oates"
Q: Your two previous novels, Black Water and Foxfire, were much acclaimed for their bold, innovative characterizations of female protagonists. In What I Lived For you make a switch and get deep inside the mind of a man, Jerome "Corky" Corcoran. Was this difficult for you?
A: What was difficult about the composition of What I Lived For—which took place over a period of approximately three years—was the establishing of a narrative voice that reflects my protagonist's voice, yet is not identical with his voice; and the meticulous interlocking of a plot that is both a "mystery" story and a highly tangled personal story of a man I consider representative of a certain kind of maleness. Corky Corcoran is not all men, by any means, but he is close to being an "average" man in many respects. I'd always felt, for years before I actually began the composition of the novel, that I knew Corky intimately—knew everything about him, outside and in; his complicated love life, and his even more complicated family life and business life; his ideals, his quirks, his secrets, his memories.
Q: How did you build this character?
A: My process as a writer is to "build" character simply by inhabiting him or her obsessively; during the course of writing a novel, I am immersed in my protagonists' souls virtually all my waking life. (And perhaps much of my dream life as well.) I see my own world, which I move through as myself, through "fictitious" eyes, and note what my characters would think, do, in similar situations.
Q: Was What I Lived For easy or difficult to write?
A: Immensely difficult. It was started many years ago in the form of notes to myself and drafts, early chapters. Then I put that aside and worked on shorter novels. I did Black Water and Foxfire, and many short things in between, because it was such a difficult novel. Much of the time when I was working onWhat I Lived For I was actually very, very unhappy with myself, very impatient, very angry with myself. And I passed many months in a state of perpetual anger with myself, for not being able to do what my vision instructed. I had a definite vision of the novel. I knew emotionally what it was, but I'd sit down to work and I just couldn't seem to get it. I work so much with dissatisfaction so much of the time, that to me, it characterizes my writing life.
Q: Is Corky Corcoran inspired by a particular person or type of person?
A: Corky Corcoran is very fleetingly—very slightly—inspired by an older relative of mine, who as family legend has it, was involved in something (business practices?) that resulted in his spending a night in jail. As it turns out, Corky does not spend a night in jail, though we witness him breaking laws now and then; and we can assume that his business practices are not entirely above-board. (Though hardly reprehensible by the standards of his, and our, contemporary business world.)
Q: As you wrote the novel, what were your own feelings about Corky?
A: Ultimately, I came to love Corky. He's kind of an unusual character. He's a very masculine man. Some would say a chauvanist, a male chauvanist pig, very macho, but I think that's the way many men are, and I don't judge them. Obviously, I'm not judging my characters; I'm so involved with them.
Q: What experiences of your own did you draw on to create Corky?
A: Corky's fascination with science, especially with cosmology, is representative of the fascination, verging upon religious yearning, which many men feel for such "rational" explanations of the universe. Clearly, it's a substitute religion, of a kind. I read literature on these subjects continuously, and a number of the titles Corky mentions are in fact part of my library. Like Corky, I read voraciously; but can't comprehend the mathematics, of course. So like Corky—like most of us, I suppose—I'm left with a glimmering sense of the remarkable discoveries astrophysicists have made in recent years, without the capacity to truly understand them, still less explicate them to others.
Corky's fascination, too, with the physical world, the world of his boyhood, in a neighborhood intersected by the Erie Barge Canal, is modeled in certain of its graphic details upon my own memories of growing up near Lockport, New York, where my grandmother lived, and where I attended junior high school. What I Lived For is very much a novel that celebrates its landscape and its historic moment.