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Nom de plume

Oates chooses fresh identity but familiar setting for novel

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- A fellow at a research institute in Princeton receives a cream-colored envelope in her mailbox. Inside is a ticket for a concert of chamber music at the University's Richardson Auditorium. There is no note and no explanation for this gift.

Joyce Carol Oates

Author Joyce Carol Oates, shown here at the structure built in her honor at the Writers Block in downtown Princeton, uses the borough and campus as a setting for her novel.

The young woman, Lara Quade, speculates that her anonymous donor will be sitting in the seat next to hers at the concert. When she meets the man who arrives to occupy that seat, her quiet life takes a series of dramatic, unexpected turns.

Princeton is the setting for the novel ''Take Me, Take Me With You'' (Ecco) published under the name Lauren Kelly, who is described on the book jacket as ''the pseudonym of a bestselling and award-winning author.'' The novel takes the reader on a harrowing journey as Lara unravels the mysteries of her tragic childhood. It is a tale full of plot twists and devastating secrets that keep the reader in a state of suspense.

The author behind the pseudonym is Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, who has created a new persona to expand her fiction writing in another direction.

''Novels by Lauren Kelly are planned to be shorter and more cinematic than those by Rosamond Smith, my former pseudonym,'' Oates said in written answers to questions posed by the Princeton Weekly Bulletin. ''I love the novella form and hope to concentrate on it, often.''

Oates is a formidable figure in American fiction. Her evocative prose has garnered the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award honoring excellence in the art of the short story and the O. Henry Prize for continued achievement in the short story, among others. She has written 48 novels and 27 short story collections, as well as 10 collections of non-fiction, eight books of poetry and five children's books.

''She's tried everything, written in every genre,'' said Dan Halpern, who has been her editor for more than 30 years. ''The thing that's amazing about Joyce is that she writes so well in all the genres. She's able to change gears and do what's necessary to make each genre work.''

Oates wanted to introduce a new pseudonym because ''she felt this was a different voice that didn't fit in with either Joyce Carol Oates or Rosamond Smith,'' Halpern said. ''She was experimenting with a slightly different genre, so we thought it would be interesting to launch a new writer.'' The publisher didn't conceal the author's true identity, but didn't broadcast it either.

Oates has taught at Princeton for 26 years, but this is the first time she has set a novel here, though ''American Appetites'' and ''Middle Age: A Romance'' were set in communities that closely resemble Princeton. In ''Take Me, Take Me With You,'' Lara works at the fictional Institute for Semiotics, Aesthetics and Cultural Research which, Oates said, ''in its devotion to the pretensions of theory, would be more appropriate at another university.''

Nevertheless, Oates chose Princeton as the story's setting ''because it is so idyllically self-contained, a kind of oasis amid contemporary American cacophony. ... Actual places in fiction tend to be mythic rather than historic. The 'Princeton' of 'Take Me, Take Me With You' is unusually 'real,''' except for the invented institute, Oates said. (For a description of other recent suspense/mystery novels set at Princeton, see the sidebar below.)

Indeed, the book's main character sits in her seat at Richardson wearing a green velvet dress purchased at a secondhand store off Nassau Street. She strolls past Clio and Whig halls, borrows books from Firestone Library and goes to her office on Washington Road. Her home, on the fictional Charter Street, is in a ''shabbily elegant old Victorian house'' whose residents are all associated with the University.

Lara has a two-year fellowship at the institute, where she does research on early automata, particularly mechanized dolls. To write about Lara's interest in 18th-century French androids and other mechanical dolls, Oates consulted ''Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life,'' which was written by Gaby Wood, whose father is Michael Wood, the Charles Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English.

Mysterious Princeton...

Several other novels recently have been published that blend suspense and mystery with a Princeton setting. They are:

''The Rule of Four'' by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason (Dial Books)

Two Princeton students delve into the mysteries of a 15th-century text famous for its hypnotic powers over those who study it. As they unravel the meaning of the ancient book, they discover a secret code leading to buried treasure, and more. Caldwell is a member of Princeton's class of 1998.

''Orange Crushed: An Ivy League Mystery'' by Pamela Thomas-Graham (Simon & Schuster)

A professor is found dead in the burnt-out ruins of the Afro-American studies building at Princeton, and a Harvard economics professor, convinced that his death was no accident, resolves to find out who murdered him. The author's husband is Lawrence Otis Graham, a 1983 Princeton alumnus.

''Death of a Princeton President'' by Ann Waldron (Berkley)

Melissa Faircloth, Princeton's first female president, is discovered dead in her private office closet. Shady colleagues and her hard-drinking ex-husband are just two of the possible suspects. Waldron worked at the University’s Office of Communications from 1978 to 1989.

Oates was inspired by her surroundings when writing the book, but she finds it difficult to pinpoint the precise source for its plot.

''Ideas for fiction come to me in the way of numerous tributaries flowing into a single rushing river,'' she said. ''No individual tributary is explicable other than in terms of its place in the larger stream.''

When conceiving of a new novel, Oates pictures the story in theatrical terms.

''I must imagine my novels as dramas beforehand, films of a kind, which, eventually, I attempt to capture in prose, writing primarily in long hand,'' she said. ''I used a word processor for two years (in the composition of 'American Appetites') and found that I was too obsessively attached to the process, reluctant to move away from the screen and back into the 'real' world. I realized that such an addiction was a very bad idea; I didn't want to spend the remainder of my life, such as it is, staring mesmerized at an electronic screen a few inches in front of my eyes. In the other, older way of writing, one more typically looks up, out a window perhaps, is more inclined to thinking and day-dreaming, which is more suitable for my nature.''

When she looked out the window before writing ''Take Me, Take Me With You,'' Oates had two ideas germinating in her head: ''If one were anonymously sent a ticket to a concert in Richardson Auditorium, who might show up to sit next to her? Another idea had to do with the (long-mistaken) assumption of guilt in an individual, perhaps a parent, and how this mistaken assumption might play out among the children years later in their adulthood. We are always so certain we 'know' -- but what if we'd been mistaken, all along?''

Publishers Weekly called the novel ''chilling and compelling,'' while The Boston Globe said, ''The writing is masterful, if a bit schizophrenic, veering from gorgeous, densely written prose, like a finely made tapestry, to sections that are spare scaffolding, more movie script than novel.''

Oates also recently released a short story collection titled ''I Am No One You Know,'' a collection of tales about life in America; and a novel, ''The Falls,'' a haunting story about the powerful spell Niagara Falls casts on two generations of a family. Both were published under her real name.

Oates is scheduled to teach two workshops in prose fiction this fall, and she was happily anticipating her time in the classroom.

''Princeton students are unusually motivated, talented, energetic, idealistic, congenial and, as workshop critics, helpful to one another,'' she said. ''It's a pleasure to work with them.''

Nonetheless, she has never written about the University itself -- and has no plans to do so -- because ''novels about universities tend to be deeply ironic and/or satiric, as if there is something intrinsically amusing about the academic life and the strivings of the life of the mind. Since I don't believe this, and consider most prose satire shallow and trivial and for this reason depressing, I read very little of it, as well.''

Her next project will tackle a much more nimble subject: heavyweight boxing. Oates is working on an essay on that topic for The New York Review of Books, as well as writing short stories. Both pursuits, she said, are ''a vacation of sorts from writing novels, which is exhausting.''