Officials of the David A. Howe Public Library in Wellsville, which is best known for the Great Wellsville Balloon Rally, are flying high this week as they anticipate a talk Friday by Joyce Carol Oates.
The prolific and award-winning author, who grew up on a small farm on Transit Road in the Clarence hamlet of Millersport, will speak on Western and Central New York as the backdrop for her fiction starting at 7 p.m. Friday in the library’s Nancy Howe Auditorium, which seats 301.
Another 75 or so seats will be set up in the Exhibition Room, where the talk will be streamed live. The talk is free, with open seating.
But if library officials are, as they said in their press release, “thrilled” to announce Oates’ visit, the author is delighted as well.
“I am happy to visit upstate New York – anywhere,” Oates wrote in an email interview as she tours in support of her new memoir, “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age,” which focuses on her Western New York roots. “I have often visited the Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse areas; a few years ago I gave a well-attended presentation in the Palace Theater in Lockport. So Wellsville is new to me.”
Given that her family lived more than two hours north of the Allegany County town and village where she will speak, the obvious question is: Why Wellsville?
Credit a well-regarded library, which one online review calls “the best small-town library in the state,” and a library official with high goals. Nicolas Gunning, head of Circulation and Adult Services at the library, arranged the visit.
“We wanted to utilize our beautiful library by hosting an author of high regard,” Gunning said. “We have over 60 books by Joyce Carol Oates in our collection, so I knew she was popular in our area.”
Gunning contacted Oates’ representatives, and followed up with a personal letter to her, more than a year ago, at a time when it was not known that she was working on a memoir of her Western New York roots. “The timing just worked out,” said Gunning. “Long after we’d set the date, her agent contacted me to let me know about the memoir. I was thrilled. It ties in so perfectly.”
A ticketed reception and book signing from roughly 8 to 10 p.m. will follow Oates’ presentation. The $35 ticket will include a reserved seat at the talk, hors d’oeuvres and live music presented by Houghton College.
At the reception, Oates said, “I will be happy to meet people and to share memories particularly of a rural background.”
“The Lost Landscape,” published in early September, fascinates Western New Yorkers, who have long been proud of and curious about the local roots of the woman who is considered America’s greatest living author.
Oates said, “Over the years I’ve written numerous memoirist pieces, many of them published in magazines like Oprah, the New York Times magazine, the New Yorker, and elsewhere; some are included in ‘The Faith of a Writer.’ But this is an effort to bring the pieces together, revise and rewrite into a ‘story’ of a kind, particularly in the early section about my childhood and adolescence. I have written quite a bit about my background, and I have been quite open in interviews, but ‘The Lost Landscape’ is highly detailed and analytic.”
In her memoir, Oates recalls being surrounded and inspired by nature on her grandparents’ farm. Today, she said, “We have an unusual culture in which, in some quarters, there is considerable emphasis upon outdoor activities – mountain hiking, climbing, skiing, swimming, camping, canoeing, running; while, simultaneously, in other quarters there is very little. It might be a matter of affluence – people who can afford it travel and those who can’t, don’t.”
But unlike her generation and those that followed, she said, “Younger generations are hooked into one another in a fervid way, which is easy to understand; older generations did not have such temptations. (The telephone was the primary means of communication, and certainly some teens misused it.)”
But Oates stopped short of trying to predict the effect of different early influences on future literature, noting, “It is not ever feasible to foretell the future....”
Oates said she would not change any part of her early life, which had its challenges, including the echoes of a dark family history she discovered later. “I don’t think that I could change anything, otherwise my entire personality must be altered,” she said. “To have had an ‘easier’ life might not have been beneficial in the long run. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to my grandparents whom I (probably) took for granted.”
Besides her beloved parents and grandparents, Oates cited “several excellent teachers” as being significant influences, “among them Harold Stein of Williamsville High. I speak of Mr. Stein warmly in the memoir, and might have said more. He recommended excellent books for his students to read, and was truly inspiring!”
To her Western New York readers, Oates said, “Western and upstate New York is a very rich, various, geographically beautiful region to which I return constantly for inspiration. It is the natural ‘setting’ of most of my writing and I can’t imagine what my life and career would have been without it. (I am particularly haunted by the Erie Barge Canal, Niagara Falls and the hills and streets of Lockport that seem to have changed little over the decades.)”.
Who: Joyce Carol Oates
When: Free talk at 7 p.m. Friday; ticketed reception and book signing at 8. ($35)
Where: David A. Howe Public Library, 155 N. Main St., Wellsville
Info: (585) 593-3410, firstname.lastname@example.org