Talking to Joyce Carol Oates feels like talking to a ghost. Oates, the writer of dozens of novels and thousands of stories, is very pale and slender, with huge, heavy-lidded eyes that give her an otherworldly presence. She speaks gently and serenely, as if from a great distance away, even when she’s discussing the feverish early days after the death of her first husband, the literary-magazine and book editor Ray Smith.
Oates wrote about that period of her life in her 2011 memoir, A Widow’s Story. Right after Smith died, in February 2008, she “did a lot of strange things”, she says. “I threw out a whole lot of my own clothes. I threw out these wonderful things my mother had made for me,” Oates recalls, matter-of-factly. “And when I think of it now I just feel a pang of … I guess I just didn’t think I wanted to live any longer.”
It’s not exactly surprising that underneath Oates’ unruffled, kind exterior there are roiling, dark thoughts. Her work contains what The New York Review of Books once described as “a kind of Grand Guignol of every imaginable form of physical, psychological and sexual violence: rape, incest, murder, molestation, cannibalism, torture and bestiality”.
She objects to the notion that it is unusual to cover such subjects in a literary matter. “In actual life, millions of people die cruel and heedless deaths, and there is no one to record their myriad, unique stories, but art singles out individuals for scrupulous attention,” she once said. However, she is probably the only person to have won a National Book Award and written a novella about a gang rape and its aftermath (Rape: A Love Story).
Although she is known for her violent subject matter and accessible yet rich style, it’s impossible to pigeonhole Oates: she has written historical fiction, children’s books, plays and literary criticism. She talks at length about the boxer Mike Tyson, because she has just written an essay about a new memoir of his (she has written a great deal about boxing, including a 1987 essay collection called On Boxing).
When she talks about Tyson, Oates’ even-keeled voice becomes more animated than at any other time during our conversation at her home in Princeton, New Jersey, which is decorated in high-academic style, in other words eclectic. It is filled with African masks and framed photographs taken by her second husband, the Princeton neuroscientist Charles Gross (they married in March 2009), of his travels.
It’s incongruous to watch this tiny, wan woman get so worked up about Tyson. But she is clearly still outraged about his impoverished youth and his treatment by his promoter Don King. (Tyson had sued King, claiming that he had stolen $100 million from him, but settled out of court.) “Somehow Tyson and people like that are oddly trusting, like they don’t get it, they don’t understand they’re surrounded by vultures,” she says.
Perhaps Oates is able to so thoughtfully explore characters such as Tyson – real and fictional – because she didn’t grow up privileged in a town such as Princeton. She grew up in upstate New York, one of three children of a tool designer and a housewife. She was the first of her family to graduate from high school. Her parents were “very nice people, lovely people” but “they didn’t have any great ambition for me”.
She believes the lack of parental pressure was liberating. She sees the children of Princeton academics wilting under their parents’ expectations. “The children of professors feel, I think, in most cases that they have to emulate [their parents]. You can’t go work on a farm or whatever. Whereas I come from a different era, a different world, where no one expected anybody even to get a high-school diploma.”
Many of her novels use her somewhat bleak birthplace as their backdrop, including her latest, Carthage (named after the tiny town in which it is set), that is about a difficult young woman, Cressida, who goes missing.
Oates describes the question driving its plot as “ontological”. “Is this girl actually missing or did she just run away? Has she been kidnapped or murdered? Where is she?” Cressida’s older sister, the beautiful, compassionate, God-fearing Juliet, was inspired, in part, by some of the earnest young women Oates knew when she was a teenager.
“In my high school, there were girls who were really nice girls, very consciously Christian girls, and some of them were my friends, and to write about someone like that in fiction is really difficult,” she says. “Because you think, ‘There’s got to be a dark side, or this person’s really nasty’. But in real life there are people – some of us have them in our families – who are just plain nice people.”
Oates left behind those nice Christian girls when she went to Syracuse University and then the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she did an MA and met Ray Smith. They married in 1961 after dating for three months. They spent a year in Texas, where Smith taught, before moving to Detroit, where they lived until 1978. Oates taught at the University of Windsor, just over the Canadian border in Ontario, and wrote several novels and books of short stories during their time there.
Much has been made of Oates’ productivity, but she doesn’t think there is anything extraordinary about her output – she has bristled at the word “workaholic” in the past. The late novelist John Updike, who was similarly prolific and corresponded with Oates for many years, defended her, saying that, “If you approach the writing business seriously and try to set it up like an orderly activity, as opposed to devoting your energy to the pursuit of the good life and happiness and drugs and drink and celebrity, you write an alarming amount over the course of a lifetime. We’re blue-collar writers.”
Unsurprisingly, Oates’ schedule is fairly regimented. She doesn’t really get writer’s block, but she does rewrite the opening of each novel over and over – as many as 40 or 50 times – to get the tone right. Once she feels she has a handle on the tone, the plot just flows. A typical day sees Oates writing in the morning “as soon as I can”, and then, if she’s teaching, heading to the university to take a class or go over students’ work.
In the afternoon she and her husband, whom she calls Charlie, like to walk in the woods. After dinner it’s more writing.
Oates peppers our conversation with mentions of Charlie in an endearing way. They’re clearly devoted. Some reviewers, notably Janet Maslin of The New York Times and Julian Barnes, criticised her for not mentioning in A Widow’s Story the fact that she remarried 13 months after Ray Smith’s death. Maslin described the memoir as dissembling “while masquerading as a work of raw courage and honesty”. In context, the criticism seems churlish. Oates says the book was meant to be a handbook for widows, to express how shocking and surprising bereavement was. She wrote it pretty much in real time and focused on the days and weeks following Smith’s death, when she felt completely at sea and experienced bizarre impulses. “You have some strong compulsion to do some weird thing, like set the house on fire. Or give away your cat,” she says.
Still, Oates says she understands why people might think her evasive for not mentioning that she’d met her second husband the summer after her first one’s death. She wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books in response to Barnes’ piece: “In retrospect I can see that I should have added something like an appendix, to bring my personal history up to date; yet – I hope this doesn’t sound disingenuous! – I would not have thought that my personal history in the aftermath of early widowhood was so very relevant to the subject.”
Listening to Oates talk about both her marriages, it strikes me that she is one of those people who is better as part of a couple. She is an intensely loyal person and not just romantically, but professionally too. Despite her massive success, she still teaches at Princeton, where she has worked for more than 30 years.
Although she is 75, Oates keeps discovering new media for expression. In 2012 she joined Twitter and, in addition to generally having two manuscripts on the go, she tweets several times a day. Oates considers it “an outlet for my sense of disturbance and outrage”, particularly “on feminist issues, issues having to do with animal rights … police misconduct, which is really epidemic”.
Although some feminist issues still enrage her – in May she tweeted angrily about the sexual assault of a high-school girl in Ohio – Oates marvels at how far things have come since she started out in the early 1960s. “When I first began being aware of literature, before I began writing, there wasn’t anything like women’s literature – it didn’t exist. And the idea of mainstream literature was white, male writing, and that was unquestioned,” she says. “But today we have great writers who are women without even thinking about it.” She mentions Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison as writers whom one would never consider “women writers”; they’re simply “great writers”.
Oates would not be out of place in that list, though she’s far too modest to say. She describes herself as “empathetic with people and cordial or gracious with people”. Maybe she needs that calm surface to explore the darkness underneath.
Sunday Telegraph, London
Carthage is published by Fourth Estate, $27.99.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.