Joyce Carol Oates on ‘A Widow’s Story’


At Work

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 Message.”

Has writing fiction gotten any easier in the three years since your husband’s death?

I’ve just finished a young-adult novel that was, in fact, much easier to imagine and to write than a previous novel I’d completed a few months ago. It isn’t always clear, in writing, whether one is having a difficult time because of an emotional situation, or whether the project is just difficult! But I do love to write young-adult fiction, with its very different agendas and voices—a sense that one is communicating with readers far more directly and significantly than in adult fiction. In adult, literary fiction, the voice of the novel is mediated and deliberate and meant to be original; in young-adult fiction, the voice is usually direct, without much metaphor or figures of speech, geared toward dialogue, and with a clear, unfolding plot and a minimum of background exposition and introspection.

You discuss at one point the possibility of building a novel from the drafts of your husband’s unfinished novel. Is this still a possibility that intrigues you?

No, a novel belongs to the novelist.

You write extensively about the ways in which you “impersonate” the author Joyce Carol Oates, who is not the same as Joyce Smith—who is, in fact, not even a noun, but rather, “a descriptive term.” What has the experience of writing as JCO about Joyce Smith been like?

My personal life is very different from my professional life; this is true for all writers, and artists, I’m sure. But my professional life was crucial to me, to keep me from deteriorating in a static domestic situation in which there was little joy but much, much unrewarding effort—the “death duties” which are so crushing in the wake of a death in the family, and the effort of continuing to maintain a household. Teaching and traveling as Joyce Carol Oates provided me with opportunity to maintain alliances with other people, though often I did not really feel strong enough to leave home.

You say that your writing life “is not a life” and that “my life is my life as a woman,” yet writing is an incredibly time-consuming task. Is there a sense of regret at having spent so much time on the writing life?

No—this is hard to explain, I think. In my life—domestic, familial—I was with a man who also worked, at times for longer hours than I did. We were both working, and when Ray died so suddenly, the work was all that remained, but it seemed, and it was, very unsatisfying when I was alone. Yet if Ray had miraculously returned, within a few days we would have taken up again our old, familiar schedule, which made us very happy.

Do you caution your students about the dangers of devoting yourself so fully to something that is “not a life”?

I would never suggest to anyone that writing or art should be primary in their lives. We really don’t have to choose between, as William Butler Yeats has said, “the life and the work.” We can have both, to a degree.

Late in the book, you write, “Now I am beginning to realize—this memoir is a pilgrimage.” Does finishing the book end the pilgrimage, or is there a sense in which the pilgrimage is never over, in the same way in which the widow never really “gets over” the husband’s death?

In the days and weeks following my husband’s death, virtually every hour seemed to bring with it a surprise of some sort—a jolt, an epiphany. It was very strange, like a meteor shower. Yet often the epiphanies were truths/platitudes of a kind that, in theory, everyone knows but, in reality, very few actually understand. That the weeks and months were a kind of pilgrimage seemed to me true, but of course there is no natural end to a pilgrimage, and you are right to suggest that one never “gets over” the loss.

However, I wanted to memorialize Raymond Smith: many writers knew him, whom he’d published in our literary magazine and press, but generally, Ray was not known, and I was eager—perhaps desperate—to correct this. Posthumously, Bill Henderson’s 2009 Puschcart Prize was dedicated to Ray’s memory, which would have been very touching to him.

Raymond Smith and Joyce Carol Oates. Photograph by Eva Häggdahl.

You write about the woman as “the elegist … the repository of memory.” In what sense was this true in your marriage?

My husband was just not one to look back with nostalgia; he did not “remember” in any concerted way. If we took photos, I was the one to carefully annotate them and put them in albums. It may be that, generally, women are just more nostalgic than men. I did want to memorialize Raymond Smith, out of a fear that he would be forgotten. He was a modest man who would be absolutely, totally astonished at all the attention he has drawn (posthumously).

This is, unlike most of your books, deeply personal. Do you find it more difficult to write about yourself than to write fiction? How does the process compare?

It is both personal and yet, oddly, impersonal: I was writing the story of the widow, which I had not experienced before, and can see now is a universal human experience. In its first incarnation the memoir was to be titled A Widow’s Handbook—which remains now, in a kind of abbreviated fossil form, as a single chapter at the very end of the memoir. A purely private, personal memoir would not interest me much; it was the overlapping between my experience and others that galvanized the writing.