Joyce Carol Oates

Born on June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York, Joyce Carol Oates spent her childhood on her parents’ farm. Lockport, a small rural town, had struggled economically since the Great Depression, but it provided Oates with a wholesome environment in which to grow up. She attended elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse, where she developed a fascination with writing. Although her parents were not highly educated, they were always supportive of her budding talents. Oates’s grandmother gave her a typewriter when she was a teenager, and in high school she used it to write novels and short stories. She won a scholarship to Syracuse University, where she majored in English and graduated as valedictorian. She subsequently pursued and received a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin. While studying there, she met her future husband, Raymond Smith. Though she kept her maiden name, she would later publish suspense novels under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith.

After marrying Smith in 1962, Oates and her new husband relocated to Detroit, where the bleak atmosphere and social turmoil that characterized Detroit in the 1960s influenced much of Oates’s writing. After securing a teaching position at the University of Windsor in 1968, she and Smith relocated to Canada for a ten-year period. In Canada, they started a small publishing house and literary magazine, the Ontario Review. In 1978, Oates and Smith moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where Oates taught at Princeton University until 2014. Oates is currently the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished '52 Professor Emerita in Humanities at Princeton University and has been a visting professor at the University of California, Berkeley since 2016.

Oates’s fiction has garnered much critical acclaim. She is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—for Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), and Blonde (2000). In 1970, she won the National Book Award for her novel them (1969). Before winning, she had been a finalist three times—for Wonderland (1971); Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990); and Blonde (2000). She won the PEN/Faulkner Award for What I Lived For and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Black Water, among many other achievements. Many of her short stories have won the O. Henry Award, the Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in annual anthology The Best American Short Stories.

Aside from the merits of her fiction, Oates is perhaps equally famous for her almost unbelievably large output. After publishing her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, in 1964, Oates has gone on to publish over fifty novels and novellas, close to thirty collections of short stories, eight books of poetry, eight books of plays, and many volumes of essays and criticism. In 1996, she received the PEN/Malamud Award for a lifetime of literary achievement.

Background on “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is considered one of Oates’s most famous works. First published in the literary journal Epoch in 1966, it was later included in the short-story collection The Wheel of Love (1970). Like many of Oates’s short stories, it features a female protagonist struggling with adolescence who finds herself in a dangerous situation. This story was adapted for the 1988 movie Smooth Talk, starring Laura Dern.

While it is a work of fiction, there is an historical basis to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in that Oates drew some of her inspiration from it from a Life magazine article she read about an actual serial killer in Arizona who victimized teenaged girls. Another real-life tie-in to the short story is that Oates dedicated it to Bob Dylan, saying that one of Dylan's songs influenced her writing of it.