Continued from page 1

“Widow’s Story” shifts into a reconsideration of her husband, and of her marriage. She wonders how well they knew each other. She reads a novel he had worked on and never completed, that he had mentioned, but never showed to her. She knew that he had had a breakdown before meeting Oates, but in the notes to his book, she learns much more. He had spent time in a sanitarium, where he had fallen for a fellow resident. A psychiatrist there called him “love-starved.”

“It should not fill me with unease to learn this, after Ray’s death, and so many years after it happened,” she writes. “But he hadn’t told me! It was his secret. He’d been `love-starved’ _ someone else had provided that love.”

They rarely discussed their individual troubles, as if not to distract themselves from the ongoing business of their lives. Oates did not show her fiction to Smith or lament over a negative review. She cites an incident that “encapsulates” how she kept bad news to herself.

“There was a person who had been stalking me, writing letters, threatening my life. And I didn’t tell Ray anything about it,” she recalls. “It went on for quite a while. This person, who was a man, a writer _ he contacted my agent and threatened me through my agent. One day, my agent called and Ray picked up the phone and she said, `Isn’t this terrible? Joyce is in danger.’ And Ray had no idea what she was talking about.

“He said I should have told him. And I said, `What would you have done?’ It’s one of those situations where basically I didn’t want to bother him.”

Couples “condition” themselves to each other, she says, and over time set boundaries. Had she asked him, for example, about his relationship with his father, “it would have been very startling.” But the marriage was loving, enduring, and for a writer who imagined so much chaos in her fiction, nurturing.

“The domestic lives we live _ which may be accidental, or not entirely of our making _ help to make possible our writing lives; our imaginations are freed, or stimulated, by the very prospect of companionship, quiet, a predictable and consoling routine,” she wrote in an e-mail soon after the phone interview.

“I have immense respect for people, particularly women, who have had to make their way without the emotional support of `companions’ _ in some cases, without supportive families. … My writing is often a way of `bearing witness’ for others who lack the education and the opportunity to tell their own stories, so I hope that my writing won’t be affected too much by my personal life.”

Her memoir’s weary conclusion: “I managed to live.” These days, she “basically keeps on going,” finding pleasure in teaching, hiking, running, her friends and her new husband, neuroscientist Charles Gross. And she still writes, however much through the veil of her first husband’s death. She revised the novel “Little Bird of Heaven,” a characteristic story of obsession and violence, and gave it a “more elegiac and `poetic’ voice _ more retrospective.” She is currently working on a young adult novel about teen suicide.

“I had so many suicidal thoughts myself,” she says.