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Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates spoke to a group of graduate students Wednesday at Oregon State University. (Andy Cripe | Corvallis Gazette-Times)

“I never said I wanted to be a writer — I said I wanted to be a teacher,” Joyce Carol Oates told an audience Wednesday evening at Oregon State University’s CH2M Hill Alumni Center after someone asked how she told her parents that she wanted to be a writer.

As it turned out, Oates became both. She’s published more than 130 books — novels, short story and poetry collections and essays — and since the early 1960s has taught at Princeton University, University of Windsor and University of Detroit.

For these literary and educational achievements, Oates, 73, was named the inaugural recipient of OSU’s Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement.

At Wednesday’s event, attended by about 600 people, Oates read two short stories and answered questions from the audience. In addition, Oates visited with undergraduate and graduate students Wednesday afternoon.

Oates is scheduled to formally accept the Stone Award tonight at a reception at the Portland Art Museum, where she’ll participate in an on-stage interview with OSU creative writing professor Tracy Daugherty.

Oates will also receive a $20,000 prize as part of the Stone Award.

The Stone Award was established after OSU alum Patrick Stone and his wife, Vicki, donated $600,000 to the College of Liberal Arts last year to showcase its creative writing program. OSU plans to award the prize every two years to American authors with both a large body of work and a track record for mentoring young writers.

While most of the questions were about her writing style and habits, Oates divulged details on her early years: she began her education in a one-room school house in Upstate New York and was the first in her family to graduate from high school.

Her roots, she explained, inspired her to write about the unglamorous side of society. Much of her work has focused on characters from lower-class backgrounds and often explore gender and violence.

“I try to write about those people who might be overlooked,” Oates said.

Prompted by a question, Oates described her joy in using new voices for the narrators and characters in her writing. She added that she’s not currently working on a piece and is thus in search of a new subject for a story.

“Maybe there’s a new subject in the room,” she said, with a smile.

Contact Gazette-Times reporter Gail Cole at 541-758-9510 or gail.cole@gazettetimes.com

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