Joyce Carol Oates: Biography, Books & Short Stories

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Novelist, teacher, and publisher, Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific U.S. writers. Read about how she got her start, and learn details about some of her more popular novels and short story collections.


Born June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York, Joyce Carol Oates is the oldest of three siblings. She was the first in her family to graduate high school. In 1960, Oates graduated valedictorian from Syracuse University with a degree in English. She then moved on to receive her master's degree, during which time she met and married her husband, Raymond Smith.

Though she started a Ph.D. program, Oates eventually dropped out to invest her time into writing. Her first book, a collection of short stories, was published in 1963, and a year later, her first novel was published. Since then, she has become an extremely prolific writer, publishing multiple books each year. In fact, 'prolific' has become the most commonly used attribute when describing Oates, and is applicable, considering her 40-plus published novels, as well as several volumes of short stories, poetry, and other works.

Photograph of Joyce Carol Oates, 2013
Joyce Carol Oates photo

In 1962, Oates began teaching at the University of Detroit. Due to the racial tensions and subsequent violence on the streets of Detroit in that period, in 1968, she moved to Ontario, Canada, to teach at the University of Windsor. There, she and her husband started The Ontario Review, a journal committed to uniting art in the U.S. and Canada. The couple also started a publishing press called Ontario Review Books. In 1978, Oates moved back to the U.S. because she was offered a job a Princeton University, where she is currently still staffed.

Photograph of the Princeton Alexander Assembly Hall, located in Princeton, New Jersey
Princeton assembly hall photo

Sadly, in 2008, Oates's husband unexpectedly died from a serious case of pneumonia. The following year, Oates met and married her second husband Charles Gross, a fellow Princeton professor. To this day, Oates continues to write, publish, and win critical acclaim.


Oates prefers to write by hand rather than on the computer, and she makes sure to write for hours every single day. (This might account for her extended list of publications!) She also claims to receive much of her inspiration while running.

Heavily influenced by real life, Oates's writing often pulls from family members and other true stories she has come across. Themes like lower class struggle, coming of age, racial tensions, and female power struggles are inherent in much of her work. In general, Oates's subjects are violent and morbid. Her influences include writers like Lewis Carroll, the Brontë sisters, William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, and Flannery O'Connor.

Many of her stories have been finalists for the National Book Awards, and her novel them (1969) won the National Book Award. Oates has since won several other awards, like O. Henry awards, and even the Pulitzer Prize. Most recently, her short story collection Black Dahlia & White Rose was the recipient of the 2013 Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection.


Zombie (1995) is a novel inspired by real life serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. In the novel, the main character Quentin wants to 'create' the perfect companion by kidnapping young men and modifying their brains in order to dominate and control them. During his many failed (and murderous) attempts, he notices that he begins to enjoy the killing more than the companionship. This novel won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.

Zombie cover art
Zombie cover

The Accursed (2013) is one of a series of novels in Oates's Gothic series. Set in Princeton, New Jersey, the novel plays on the town's history, and on those who lived in Princeton during the early 1900s, people such as President Woodrow Wilson and writer Mark Twain. The plot is twisted with supernatural elements like vampires, ghosts, and demonic other worlds.

The Accursed cover art
The Accursed cover

Other popular novels include With Shuddering Fall (1964), A Garden of Early Delights (1967), Wonderland (1971), You Must Remember This (1987), The Gravedigger's Daughter (2007), and Carthage (2014).

Short Story Collections

Wild Nights!: Stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway (2008) is a collection of short stories based on the last living days of famous writers Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway. Each story gets into the mindset of the writer in his or her few remaining moments and relives what it must have been like for them.

Wild Nights! cover art
Wild Nights cover

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