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Joyce Carol Oates writes memoir of grief
Question of the Day
NEW YORK (AP) - Joyce Carol Oates had never written a book like this before.
Known for such novels as "Blonde" and "Them," and for dozens of other works, she had been married for 47 years when her husband, author and editor Raymond Smith, died in 2008. Oates, who seemed to turn out fiction with the ease of conversation, was at first stumped over how _ or whether _ to make a narrative out of her own grief.
"This wasn't anything like I would have tried with a conventional book," the author says of her memoir, "A Widow's Story."
"I was working with my journal, which I would write in every night because I couldn't sleep. It wasn't even a journal, but just pieces of paper, basically pieces of papers that happened to be lying around."
Oates, 72, is not only among the most prolific writers, but the most adventurous, willing to inhabit the minds of characters of all ages and social classes, to express the most intimate thoughts of sex and violence and despair. No matter how dark the stories of "Them" or "Blonde" or "Black Water," there is no question the author has the power and the desire to tell them.
"Novels," Oates explains in an interview from Washington, D.C., where she was traveling, "usually evolve out of `character.' Characters generate stories, and the shape of a novel is entirely imagined, but should have an aesthetic coherence." But the "characters" were now herself and her husband and she didn't want her memoir to read like a novel, a well-shaped tale. Life itself would determine how the book came out.
She began with notes from her journals, more than a year after the death of her husband, who had fallen ill and been hospitalized with pneumonia. At first, she wanted to write a "Widow's Handbook," tips for the bereaved, in a dark, but humorous tone. The book grew as she added more entries from her daily thoughts and worked in memories of her early years with Smith. She calls "A Widow's Story" an "assemblage."
"None of this was consciously planned," she says. "Usually, I have outlines for everything that I write, even short stories."
"What she wanted to do was find a way to write about what happened to her that would cause the people who read it to understand how this terrible thing is a human event we all must get through, and to use her experience on that behalf," says her friend and fellow author Richard Ford. "This is not to say this is the book's only purpose. It has literary purposes, too."
Oates' editor and close friend Daniel Halpern of Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, says the book not only reads differently from her fiction, but was different to work on. It was new territory and the material was much more sensitive and personal, with Halpern himself part of the narrative.
"It was very raw. She was obviously writing a book like she had never written before, or I guess, ever will again," he says.
Oates, born in Lockport, N.Y., in 1938, has cited Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" as a profound childhood influence, and by her teen years she was reading Faulkner, Hemingway and Dostoevsky. She was an undergraduate at Syracuse University and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, where Smith, eight years older, was finishing a dissertation on Jonathan Swift.
They met at the student union on Oct. 23, 1960, were engaged a month later and married by January. There was no courtship, just an instant understanding that they belonged together. He was "wonderfully poised, informed," patient and kind and animated by a "markedly sly, sardonic and satiric" sense of humor.
They lived around the country, from Detroit to Beaumont, Texas, as each held teaching jobs and she began her writing career. They settled in Princeton, N.J., in the late 1970s. She taught creative writing at Princeton University, where she is still on the faculty, and he edited the Ontario Review, a literary magazine that included contributions from Saul Bellow, Margaret Atwood and John Updike. They bought a house on Honey Brook Drive. He gardened and managed the finances. She wrote.
Oates has contrasted her work to Joan Didion's award-winning memoir of widowhood, "The Year of Magical Thinking," which Oates has called "beautiful and elegiac," unlike the assault of grief in "A Widow's Story." Oates' book is told real time, in the traumatized present. She includes e-mails to Ford and other friends. She is broken by guilt, for not being at the hospital when he died. She cannot sleep without medication. She develops rashes and welts. She digs at her skin, and draws blood. She cries in her car. Her head, she writes, is "tangled in wire."
"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.
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