Letters to a Biographer



Greg Johnson and Joyce Carol Oates have been corresponding since 1975, when he wrote her a letter about a professor of his who had committed suicide and she responded. He wrote to her occasionally over the following years, mostly about her writing, and then eventually his. Their back-and-forth became a friendship, led to a biography Johnson published in 1998, and continued after. “Inadvertently, unwittingly, through the years Greg and I seem to have composed a kind of double portrait that, at the outset, in 1975, neither of us could possibly have imagined; nor could I have imagined that Greg would be my primary correspondent through most of my adult life,” Oates writes in her introduction to a selection of these letters, which will be published in March. The letters provide, as the best ones do, flashes of dailiness that build up over decades into something more substantive. The Review is publishing several,  from 1995, below.


January 25, 1995

Dear Greg,

I’m enclosing the London Review since they’ve sent me several extra copies, and I thought you might find the publication attractive. It’s a junior version of New York Review—each review much shorter, but approximately the same quality. Elaine [Showalter] often publishes here.

Yes, I did ask [my publicist] to send You Can’t Catch Me. (Do you recognize Tristram?) Thanks for your comments! It was a fascinating puzzle, to me, to write; the appropriation of a “self” by another “self” continues to haunt . . .

. . . The Bienens are in Evanston, IL, very busy, of course, but we continue to hear from them and will see them fairly soon, back in Princeton for opening night of Emily’s new play (an adaptation of the Delaney sisters’ memoir) [Emily was Emily Mann —GJ] . An opening night of my own is Feb. 1. (But I must attend two previews beforehand, one followed by a “panel” of Deborah Tannen and me. My play The Truth-Teller is about a sociolinguist—not Deborah!)

We had a lovely dinner and theater evening with Betsey Hansell and her husband Cliff Ridley (drama critic, Philadelphia Inquirer) on Sunday, before attending an excellent performance of The Cherry Orchard . . . Betsey said that she enjoyed her conversation with you very much, and asked about you. Of course, we were delighted to boast a bit about your OR book and other outstanding accomplishments. (I wonder if you know what Betsey looks like? Probably you wouldn’t remember, from our photo album. She and I were extremely good friends in my Detroit/Windsor years. I feel a real sisterly affection for her, and we are both very interested in art.)

Speaking of which: I’ve had a truly wonderful, absorbing and fascinating few weeks, writing a monograph, George Bellows: American Artist, for the Ecco “writers-on-artists” series. I’d never done anything quite like this, and now I really envy art historians. Bellows’s work is remarkably varied, and frequently brilliant. He’d become famous immediately for his boxing paintings, but they’re a small fraction of his output; I’m most taken by his seascapes and landscapes, and some of his odd, provocative portraits.

. . . I’ve been asked to review, of all unlikely subjects, Jack Kerouac—Reader, Selected Letters—for The New Yorker. I have to confess I’d never read Kerouac, must simply have skimmed through On the Road. I hadn’t known he was so self-consciously/doggedly “literary”—very much like Thomas Wolfe, upon whom he modeled himself as a young, word-infatuated writer. But what a sad end . . . dead of alcoholism, burnt out, at forty-seven. While his fellow Beats Allen Ginsberg and sinister William Burroughs are still going strong.

. . . Did I mention that Foxfire is (supposedly) going to be made into a film? Production begins in March, in Portland, Oregon. I have not had anything to do with the screenplay, though I’d met the producer, or one of the producers, a literary-minded woman, a year or so ago in Los Angeles. I have the idea that not just the setting has been changed, but the era . . . which means that the very atmosphere will be different. The director is a woman of whom I’ve never heard—Annette Heywood Parker.

Are plans moving forward for Pagan Babies, and Julia Roberts? If you’re invited to do the screenplay, it might be an “interesting and novel experience,” as they say.

I too received the Jay Parini Steinbeck, and have been asked to review it (for New Yorker)—but declined, since I simply don’t have the time. It would require rereading much of Steinbeck, which might not be a bad idea; but not right now. At the classy and expensive ($21,000 annual tuition!) Pomfret School, where I spent 2.5 hyperventilated days, every other question was about “Where Are You Going . . .” Help!

Much affection from all,



Valentine’s Day, 1995

Dear Greg,

. . . I hope, as my biographer, you won’t be disappointed: I declined an offer from our friend Lanny Jones, People editor, to write an O.J. essay for them, based upon a few days at the trial. And I’m afraid I have backed off from the Tyson piece, suggesting in my stead Thom Jones, who not only knows about boxing, but has been a boxer . . .

I’m afraid I also declined reviewing Bill Gass’s The Tunnel for the New Yorker, on the grounds that Bill is a friend of mine. (That might be news to Bill.)

Pagan Babies, the script, will be so radically unlike the novel, I’m sure, that, if it is filmed (as we hope it will be!), you’ll probably be in awe of such imagination. (I still haven’t seen Lies of the Twins beyond the first ten minutes.)

The Truth-Teller received a decidedly “mixed” (and rather baffled) review in the Times, but has been having sell-out performances and seems to be doing very well with audiences. A gay subscribers’ group had an evening, and, evidently, they loved the play. (“They are the most wonderful, sympathetic audiences you can have,” the theater manager said.) Since the play is about gender-switching, among other things, this makes sense. The reviewer managed not to notice any theme of gender, nor did he speak of linguistics, which is the play’s main subject. But this is more or less expected, I guess, in the theater, where one is never reviewed by a fellow playwright or writer, as in the literary world.

Ray is fine, my mother seems in good spirits, but my father is not very well, I’m afraid. Many ailments, not the least of which is his macular degeneration (gradual blindness). They weren’t able to come to Truth-Teller, and I doubt they’ll be visiting anytime soon. [Are there] “stars” in Foxfire? It’s such a low-budget film, “asteroids” might be more appropriate. I have not heard a word. [Actually, the very young Angelina Jolie played a major role in the film, though she was not yet a “star.” —GJ] . . .




March 8, 1995

Dear Greg,

What an astonishment—to open your packet and discover those letters! [The letters were to and from Carol North, a college friend. —GJ] I’ve been quite stunned. I read them in a virtual haze, and reread—having to see, yes, it is my voice, a juvenile version, embarrassingly so!—(but I suppose I was “young”—still in my teens at the time of the earliest letters). (I haven’t been able to force myself, actually, to read the putatively funny [Southern] “dialect” letters—and who “Bethlehem J. Hollis” was, I don’t know. A character in my fiction, I suppose.

You can’t imagine how disorienting it is to confront these buried, lost “selves”; at least there is nothing scandalous or deeply upsetting involved. In fact, I’m touched that Carol North should have saved these letters for—can it be almost forty years? Incredible. You’d think they would have been tossed away long ago, or allowed to molder quietly. (I haven’t seen a letter of Carol’s for decades. I doubt that I’d saved them even back in the fifties.) It’s true, I was wrong about my parents’ memory of Robin and me playing chess. [Joyce had insisted to me that she and her brother Robin (a childhood nickname for Fred, Jr.) would never have played such a sophisticated game as chess; “maybe Parcheesi,” she joked. Fred and Carolina had told me that Joyce, losing, would sweep all the chess pieces off the board in a fit of pique. As it happened, in a letter to Carol North, Joyce admitted that she and Robin did indeed play chess, and that Robin would usually win. —GJ] I do remember Robin’s and my camaraderie (mostly during the summers); obviously we were quite fond of each other, and got along in sister/brother sitcom/bantering ways I’ve never experienced with anyone else. Robin was lots of fun! (Now he has matured into a soft-spoken, intelligent, and somewhat bemused “Fred Oates, Jr.” in whom “Robin” still lurks, if dimly. I think we regard each other warily now as adults, each hoping the other won’t reveal our utterly silly child/teenager selves in the presence of adults!)

Isn’t it odd that these early letters, in their gawky unself-conscious “humor,” including even strained dialect, are so like Flannery O’Connor’s letters?—well, I mean some of her letters, if I remember correctly. Yet I would not have read these letters of O’Connor’s for decades. And, evidently, I hadn’t read O’Connor’s fiction at this time; it seems to have been Carol North who introduced me to it.

. . . One prevailing theme of the letters, as of my life generally, is my lamenting the passage of time; my own wasting of time (which is considerable—why people imagine me “prolific,” I can’t guess, a morning flies by and I’ve accomplished virtually nothing or have in fact undone something imagined accomplished the day before) . . .

I can’t imagine what Allen Tate meant by speaking of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, et al., as “steeped in the tradition of mediocrity.” (Non-slaveholding universities?)

. . . Early sightings of John Updike! Somehow, Bob [Phillips] inveigled John to give him a poem for the [Syracuse] Review. Amazing.

. . . The Times received much mail regarding my essay on so-called “victim art” (Feb. 19, Arts & Leisure); a good deal of it was said to be angry, even “vicious” . . . extremely negative. The subject has been politicized, like so much these days . . .

Much is going on here: primarily Here She Is!—the first preview is this evening, and a gang of us are going including Emily, Dan Halpern, Sallie Goodman. I hope it will be fun. (Sorry you can’t come. Some of the plays’ themes might be of interest to you. But they are available in The Perfectionist & Other Plays, due out soon from Ecco, with a lovely striking cover.)

. . . My favorite play of mine Bad Girls will be performed by a theater at, of all places, the U. of Georgia! So you’ll have little excuse not to attend. The run will be brief, May 3–13, and the artistic director is someone named August Staube . . .

Again, Camille Paglia! [I had written Paglia to see if she wished to comment on Oates’s work for my biography. —GJ] I read your quote from her to Elaine on the phone, and we laughed heartily at the notion that Princeton is a “hotbed” of “feminist p.c.” Apart from Elaine and a few others, the English Department is quite solidly mainstream. Why anyone would “seethe” and be “driven crazy” by others’ careers is a mystery to us. Camille P. obviously values the Ivy League more than its inhabitants . . .

Yes, do send my father a large-print book. His eighty-first birthday is March 30. I think it would cheer him, a bit. He has been—well, humbled by recent health problems. He’d had to give up—his exact words, “give up”—attending classes at Buffalo, though they’ve meant so much to him. (With his ailments, and his failing eyesight, he’d been waiting in freezing wind for the Greyhound bus, and just couldn’t take it any longer. I feel so sorry for him! But he doesn’t want sympathy, understandably.) Any note at all from you, or card, or photo of Lucy (seriously!) and you—would be appreciated. (But no suggestion of health concerns, please!)

(Ray is pioneering with a new Macintosh, and the mysteries of e-mail. Are you “on-line”? I seem to be, at least in theory . . .)

Much affection, and many thanks!



March 25, 1995

Dear Greg,

. . . I hope that by May 3, 4, or 5 (ideally this date) you’ll be free to come to Athens, for my play [Bad Girls]; I must be there for a few rehearsals, and for a few performances. It’s my favorite play of my own . . . I’m curious, and excited, over the prospect of seeing it, transplanted from upstate New York (“Yewville”) to Georgia accents (!). Ray will also be joining me for a day or two, we hope . . .

Your new house sounds very spacious. Are you going to plant flowers, etc.? Ray is itching to get outside though the nighttime temperatures are around freezing; he isn’t happy until he has planted his first crop of lettuce. We’ve been going out running/hiking in the very gusty winds, usually in the Hopewell area . . .

Ken Kesey!—he’s very much of the sixties, still. White-haired, a bit overweight; describes himself as a “warrior”; is campaigning to have marijuana legalized in his state; a benign paternal presence onstage, though I don’t think he was especially tuned into the discussion. He spoke often of the need for us all to love one another. (He dresses oddly, but only mildly oddly . . . not a disruptive “character.” He carries a rubber salmon (?) under his arm, a sort of tote bag, quite realistic-looking and a conversation piece. He was friendly enough to me, if a trifle vague; I doubt he’d ever heard of me, but wasn’t at all confrontational.) Tulane U. is quite attractive, and New Orleans reminded me of both Miami and Los Angeles (with the high crime rate, too) . . .

Actually, you would love e-mail. It’s probably better for you that you don’t explore it; you might become addicted (like Elaine, among others of my acquaintance). I certainly could be, but stay away from the computer, preferring to type out letters, as I type out prose fiction. E-mail is a sort of delicious post-literate means of communication somewhere between a letter and a telegram; or between voice mail and fax . . .

Thanks for your nice comments on my Antaeus story [“Mark of Satan”]. It’s one of my favorites of my own, and will conclude Will You Always Love Me? (which as you know is dedicated to you) . . .

My father said on the phone this morning that he’s feeling better, and he sounded upbeat. So I’ll take him at his word. My mother is in good spirits, too. Now they’re hesitant about flying—navigating airports, mainly—we won’t see them until late this spring, when I give a talk at Rochester in May. I hope you sent them a photo of you with Lucy; I know they’d love it . . .

My Mulvaneys [We Were the Mulvaneys] proceeds slowly, yet richly; too richly—I’m already at p. 112 and have only covered about 1/10 of the story. Yet I’m not going to let the novel writing weigh so heavily upon me as Corky [Corky’s Price was a working title for her novel What I Lived For. —GJ] did, I swear . . .

Much affection from the gang at 9 Honey Brook . . .



April 17, 1995

Dear Greg,

We too were shocked and saddened by Diane’s death. [Diane Cleaver, my agent, died suddenly in her Greenwich Village apartment at age fifty-three. —GJ] . . . It’s a terrible thing, the only good aspect of which, she didn’t suffer, and might not even have known what was happening.

. . . Thanks for the lovely snapshots! The house is most impressive.

. . . I’m not absolutely against a “selected journal”—only hesitant, or modest (?) about its possibilities. (Actually, Tina Brown asked me about it, and I murmured an ambiguous reply.)

My parents appreciate your recent kindnesses, and mention it each time we speak on the phone . . .

My e-mail is very, very minimal, and rare. As I’d said, I don’t really care for that sort of correspondence . . .

Much affection,



April 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

. . . We’ll see you on Friday (for dinner first? then the play?). I haven’t heard anything from August Staube for a while, and have no idea how rehearsals are progressing. In Bad Girls, casting is essential . . . I’ll know within minutes if it’s going to be a disaster, as soon as I see the actresses. (In theater, casting is 90 percent of the effort. If you make a mistake at casting, there’s virtually nothing you can do to rectify it, no matter how brilliantly people might work.)

. . . Yes, my father is just delighted with the books. Simply to be remembered is very nice for him. He’s making an effort to keep involved at U Buffalo though he doesn’t take courses; he’s going to a literary festival this weekend that includes, along with Allen Ginsberg, your friend Camille Paglia. (I hope she won’t “go crazy” and denounce me on my home turf . . .)

. . . So sad: not only did the PEN/Faulkner go to another novelist (a “first novelist”), but the Pulitzer, another time. (Did I mention I’d been nominated, with four other titles, for the PEN/Faulkner? Maybe if my novel had another author’s name on it, it might have fared better.) I’m looking forward to next week, though with some trepidation. (I do want to see your house, certainly—and Lucy [Lucy was my pet dachshund.  —GJ].)

Much affection,



May 20, 1995

Dear Greg,

I certainly didn’t expect The New Yorker to be interested in excerpts from my journal, and will be curious to see what they choose. Thanks so much for selecting and organizing. You must have a magic touch. Not only don’t I reread the journal, I draw back from even thinking about it; not modesty, but a sense of, To what purpose? I suppose it is a good idea to have a repository of memory, though. Since most things are doomed to a double oblivion—natural transience, and then being forgotten . . .

Yes, I thought the Georgia Rep did an excellent production of Bad Girls. I liked all the actors, and August Staube—so energetic, imaginative, and funny. Too bad the Rep does only “new” plays, which limits my connection with them, considerably. (The lengthy, large-cast Thoreau would not be appropriate there.) Where Bad Girls might go next, I’m unsure.

The Guthrie Theatre just called with the unexpected, good news that they will be performing Tone Clusters, on a bill with Albee’s Zoo Story, July 14–Sept. 9. But I doubt we can get to Minneapolis in our already-crowded summer. I may have mentioned—I have a new play, The Woman Who Laughed, opening at the Sharon Stage, Conn., in August.

This Monday I’ll be reading from You Can’t Catch Me in Rochester, and we’ll stay with the Heyens, and take them and my parents out to dinner. My father is in considerably better spirits than he was, fortunately. Next day, we’re having lunch with Toby Wolff and some of his writer friends in Syracuse, and will spend the night in Ithaca, lovely college town.

One of the characters in my new novel [We Were the Mulvaneys], coincidentally, is in Ithaca at the moment, which is convenient.

My next-performed play will be a revised version of Homesick, at the McCarter One-Act Play Festival next month. Would you like to come up and visit? There are many more journal pages accumulated in my closet . . . I’m trying to encourage my parents to come, too. I don’t have the precise schedule, but the festival runs from approximately June 9 to June 18 and there are excellent, “real” playwrights (Jane Anderson, Wendy Wasserstein) involved . . .

Good luck with choosing an agent! Ray says hello & warm regards.

As always,



From Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer by Joyce Carol Oates, edited by Greg Johnson and forthcoming from Akashic Books in March.

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of a number of works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, and a recipient of the National Book Award, the PEN America Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Humanities Medal, and a World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. A Darker Shade of Noir: New Stories of Body Horror by Women Writers is her latest work.

Greg Johnson has a Ph.D. in English from Emory University and has published three novels and five collections of short stories in addition to five books of nonfiction, including Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction and Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates