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Joyce Carol Oates on ‘A Widow’s Story’

March 22, 2011 | by

Photograph by Murdo Macleod.

Joyce Carol Oates is hardly an author who needs introduction. Her famously vast and varied oeuvre—more than fifty novels and hundreds of short stories, as well as critical essays, books of poetry, and plays—ensures not only that no two readers will have the same opinion of her but that the same reader may well have more than one. And yet, as we learn in A Widow’s Story, her recently published account of the year following her husband's death, outside of the public eye she was not “Joyce Carol Oates” but “Joyce Smith,” a devoted wife whose husband, Raymond Smith, had read little of her fiction. I asked her about this divide between public and private personas, the difficulty of writing while grief stricken, and the role of the woman as elegist in a conversation conducted recently over e-mail.

Early in this memoir, you write that “the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling.” Is A Widow’s Story an attempt to reclaim that tale?

The memoir is assembled from journal entries, which were driven by the “surprises” of the day. When I began recording the hospital vigil, I did not know the ending. Only two or three chapters were written in a more conventional way, as flashbacks or background information, about Detroit in the 1960s for instance. I began the memoir—deliberately—in mid-summer 2009, when I found that I was not able to imagine a novel at that time. Since I was haunted by this material, and had hundreds of pages of notes, it seemed quite practical to write what I could, beginning with the first of the really startling, to me, epiphanies—“The Message1.”

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  1. “The Message” is the title of the first chapter of the book, and refers to a note Ms. Oates found on the windshield of her car, which she’d parked poorly outside the hospital where her husband was recuperating. The note read, “LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH.”

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