Joyce Carol Oates: ‘Grief is an obsessive state. The feelings never vanish’

The Times

January 1, 2011


Two months after her husband, Ray Smith, died of pneumonia in February 2008, the author Joyce Carol Oates said: “At the moment, numbed and demoralised . . . I don’t see much of a future for myself, or at least much of a future that holds any happiness for me. My marriage — my love for my husband — seems to have come first in my life . . . Set beside his death, the future of my writing scarcely interests me at the moment.”

But, after the ravages of immediate grief had done their worst, Oates did resume writing, and sold her and Smith’s home, taking most of his clothes and books with her. And, little more than a year after Smith’s death, she remarried. Her second husband, Charles Gross, is a Princeton neuroscientist and lecturer, and the couple live in a house five minutes from her former home, in the deathly quiet New Jersey countryside outside Princeton. When we meet, Oates is dressed in black slacks and a grey jumper. Sheis friendly, but not effusively so, and very thin. Together with her frizzy dark bob and wide eyes, she looks like a wraithlike Olive Oyl. She seems self-contained rather than shy and speaks economically, leaving occasional silences unfilled. The only other sound in the house is the bell collar of her long-haired grey cat, Cherie.

The notion that Oates could have ever given up writing seems surprising. The  72-year-old author is relentlessly prolific, with an astonishingly varied body of work. She has published 56 novels, including Blonde (her imagined life of Marilyn Monroe), more than 20 collections of short stories, nine volumes of poetry, countless essays and book reviews as well as nonfictional works such as On Boxing, which explored the spectacle, metaphor and history of the sport. Her novels and short stories, with their familiar territory of sexual violence, death and corrosive secrets,have wonmany awards, including a Pulitzer. She has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for Literature and teaches creative writing at Princeton under the title of Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor of the Humanities. Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Everything is Illuminated, was one of her students.

Oates’s latest story collection, Give Me Your Heart, is subtitled Tales of Mystery and Suspense. Its cover features a love heart studded with animals and a panoply of words promising “lies, guilt, folly, deceit and murder, blindness, anger and ill will, licentiousness and gluttony, fraud and covetousness”. The stories are blue-chip Oates: dark, dramatic and peppered with clever twists: a young man helps a feral runaway girl with fatal consequences; a group of men about to gang-rape a teenager are given pause for thought; a jealous man prepares to eradicate the swaggering presence of his wife’s first husband.

In March, with the publication of her memoir, A Widow’s Story, Oates’s focus switches from imaginary horrors to the real, devastating grief that she felt at losing Smith. Extracts in The New Yorker and The Atlantic magazines reveal a raw period of utter despair. Oates writes of their meeting at university in Wisconsin, the love that underpinned their 47-year marriage, the sudden decline that Smith suffered and of Oates not being by his side when he died. She writes of winding down Smith’s literary journal.

At Princeton, she aims to “impersonate Joyce Carol Oates” to show “it is not the case that I am dead and done for — yet”.

She hopes that life may be “navigable”, then recalls that hope, as the couple had during “the long week” of Ray’s stay in hospital,“is so often a cruel joke”. She writes that teaching has become her lifeline and wonders: “Am I strong enough to suffer? And for how long? Is this grief? — such exhaustion, melancholy? A feeling of dazed dizzy not-rightness, like the sensation that you feel before acute nausea? A sensation of being off balance — spiritually and physically — as if something has worked its way loose inside my head?” As a widow there is the sense that “having outlived your husband, you deserve ill health, you deserve to be punished”.

“Not a day goes by” when Oates doesn’t think about Smith or her parents (who died in 2000 and 2003). The memoir, she says, covers the six months after Smith’s death. “I didn’t want to go out but I made myself — to friends, to teach — and I’m glad I did.” However, she says: “You don’t think you’re going to live too long after someone close to you dies. I was surprised I was there. I never expected to live much longer. Charlie doesn’t have that attitude: he looks forward not back, although one of the things that drew us together was that we had some pretty profound losses and were sympathetic with each other.”

She recalls the “black humour” of the time: such as discovering one of their cats, Reynard, dead and stiff as a board, while in a rush to go to New York, crying yet feeling “like a Buster Keaton movie. The widow’s emotions are always changing. One minute you’re in tears and devastated, but a few hours later you feel much better”. She cleaned the house, refusing all domestic assistance. The memoir, she says, is “less lofty” than The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s book about grieving for her husband John Gregory Dunne. “I don’t think Joan ever took out the trash,” she whispers.

Indeed, A Widow’s Story differs from anything she has written because it is taken from journal entries, often written “late at night, in desperate circumstances … pieced together in rapidly sketched, dramatic units or sections of memory and meditation. Grief is an obsessive state, and I could not begin to suggest the obsessiveness of this mental condition; there is no way to write about it accurately, since the very writing would be repetitive. So, in writing of extreme mental states, it is better to say too little than too much.”

Of her debilitating grief, Oates says: “Sometimes I think that these feelings never vanish but only ebb a bit. At my most depressed and exhausted I felt that I had an insight into the truth of life as I’d never quite had before: a very bleak truth. But of course, all such truths are contextual and relative.” How seriously did she consider suicide? “As a consolation: the Nietzschean vision,” she says [referring to Nietzsche’s line, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a bad nightShe adds: “But I did not ‘consider’ suicide in any immediate, practical sense. Rather more as a theoretical escape.” Gradually, life stabilised. “I lost a lot of weight, I was physically run down. It wasn’t that the fear of disintegration had gone, but more that it seemed irrelevant when I had something to do.”

She married Gross in March 2009, which seems quick, I say. “Actually, we eased into it,” Oates replies. They were introduced in August 2008 at a dinner. They exchanged e-mails (Oates is passionate about e-mailing, which has supplanted journal writing). In September 2008 she and Gross started to go on walks and hikes. “It was very gradual. I didn’t know it would be a romance, it felt more like friendship,” Oates says. “It wasn’t like a Hollywood movie or Carmen. I read a memoir of his about his father dying, he read one of mine.” But didn’t her grief prove obstructive? “We shared our grief. Everybody says Ray would have been happy for me, proud of me. I don’t know. I think that’s a little bit of a fantasy. Many people who have had a happy marriage remarry soon, which makes sense: if you’ve had a happy marriage you want to replicate it.”

Her themes may be dark but Oates claims that you have to be “optimistic” as a writer (though she is “globally pessimistic” about issues such as famine and genocide). She only ever wanted to write, growing up in Millersport, a working-class town in New York State. Her father’s mother, Blanche, gave her Alice in Wonderland, which inspired her to write, illustrating the margins with chickens and cats. She was an early devotee of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dostoevsky and the Brontës. At 14, Blanche (later the inspiration for Oates’s novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter, about a woman who concealed her Jewish identity, just as Blanche had) bought Oates a typewriter and she was soon “tossing out” novels.

She was close to her father, Frederic, a tool designer, her mother Carolina and her younger brother Fred Jr. She has a younger sister with whom she has no relationship. Lynn Ann, born in 1956, 18 years Oates’s junior, is severely autistic and lives in an institution. “It’s very sad,” Oates says. “She doesn’t show any verbal apprehension. In the early days there was no understanding of her condition. My brother sees her once a month even though she doesn’t know him.” Does Oates miss her? “No, I miss my parents. I never knew her. She was never in my life. She doesn’t have the closeness to me that an animal would have.” (Oates does not say this cruelly in any way, but neutrally: a harsh statement of fact.) “She would see my mouth move, but not know what was coming out of it.”

Part of the darkness of her novels comes from the “poor, hard-working” canvas of her childhood. Her father worked in a factory and her closest friend next door — “like a sister” to Oates — “had a crazy, abusive, alcoholic father. I’ve written a lot about abused children with fathers like that: the underclass, we’d call it now. I was lucky. I had a nice father with a nice job.”

Oates was initially educated in a one-room schoolhouse, many of whose pupils had unhappy backgrounds. She has “always been interested in what if something uncontrolled happened to you. I think many women and girls feel threatened, or something has happened, or almost happened to them”. In an e-mail she adds: “It is not uncommon for all writers to write about sex, love, mortality. I think that I am simply expressing the universal concerns of our species. In fact, I don’t write about sexual matters nearly so much as most of my contemporaries.” So she wasn’t obsessing about sex as a teenager? “Hardly! I was a very bookish, good-girl student from a quite conventional home. And this was long before the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s.” She says with emphasis: “I’m a dramatist. I’m interested in human drama, clashes of personality and conflict.”

Her writing is not as simply executed as the multiple books suggest: she sketches out stories first, then writes the story proper. Her smile is the brightest when she talks about the two days of revisions (“a really great time of complete concentration”) she’s just completed for her next novel, Mud Woman. “It’s about someone who’s had a complete breakdown. I’m not sure if I had one when Ray died, but I wanted to show the collapse of a personality and it coming back. I always felt that when I came home I disintegrated and when I went out I didn’t. It wasn’t one breakdown, it was many collapses, many coming backs. Now those breakdown moments have receded. I feel I have to take care of somebody else, my husband. I feel he depends on me. You don’t break down and collapse if somebody needs you.”

What kind of life would she have had if she had been on her own? “I don’t know, that’s a very good question,” Oates says. A silence falls. “It’s like asking,” she suddenly says, ‘What if you’d never met your spouse?’ Or when people say, ‘I could never have lived without children’.” She’s never had children, I say: has she missed that? “There’s nothing to miss, I never had a child,” she says. Did she ever want one? “No, I have a number of friends who haven’t and other friends who have significant trouble with theirs.” So it was a conscious decision not to? “Semi-conscious,” she says. “Ray wasn’t too interested.”

Oates’s two husbands couldn’t have been more different. She talks about the nourishing relationship she had with Ray, who rarely read her work. “He was an editor who read other people’s. I didn’t expect him to read mine.” Gross does read her work and is more outgoing; at night they read or write reviews. She shows me pictures of them travelling, of their wedding party (they had a small civil ceremony) where her close friend, the author Richard Ford, gave the address. Gross’s photographs of foreign lands adorn the walls. In another room are Smith’s books; in another some Perspex “dream boxes” made by her friend Gloria Vanderbilt filled with dolls’ heads and glitter.

Just before my taxi arrives, I ask if Oates has suffered any act of violence. “Not so much no,” she replies. In a later e-mail she elaborates: “Perhaps, when I was a girl, though not to an extreme degree. (No more than most other girls of my time, place, and class!)”. The subjects she writes about “are subjects that most serious writers write about — Hemingway, Faulkner, Melville — let alone the Greek tragedians, Homer, Shakespeare. One would not wish to reduce the subjects of these writers to biographical origins! Traditionally, women were expected to write about more domestic subjects; but I came of age in an era in which women were at last free to write about anything and everything that men wrote about.”

She never had ambition. “I come from a family where people didn’t go to high school. Today I teach students whose parents were PhDs from Harvard or Oxford, so there is a lot of expectation, but everything I wrote my parents were proud of. Reasonably speaking, one should say yes, I am fulfilled.” She goes for long walks in the country, loves running. She will start writing her next novel, about a returning Iraqi veteran, in the spring.

Death doesn’t scare Oates, although she was once involved in a bad car crash. She fainted while grieving for Smith “and it was quick, if death was like that, then that’s OK. It would be frightening to be in terrible pain or a hopeless situation”. She starts to make a salad, says she might like a farm with cows and goats. “People say moving is traumatic, but nothing seemed hard after Ray died,” she says. She laughs and says that it’s “funny” living with a scientist, “a totally different sensibility. I’m quite happy and I never expected to be even reasonably happy”.

In a last, unelicited e-mail, she writes: “I was thinking, in retrospect, that the prevailing sense of the widow — as a survivor — is that she does not feel that she deserves to live beyond her husband’s life. Though it is surely an irrational idea, it becomes something of a fixed idea, sunk very deep in the psyche. From time to time I still feel this way — that there is something ‘unnatural’, even ‘wrong’, about my continuing to live. Then, in the next minute, the sensation lifts … Emotions are unpredictable and at times overwhelming, but the act of writing can help to elucidate and perhaps eventually to exorcise. At times while transcribing the journal into the memoir, I thought that I was writing about such a universal experience, it hardly belongs to me exclusively! Only the details and the individuals are unique. Joyce”