One frigid night last January, a diminutive woman in a full-length down coat and decidedly feminine hat raced across the train tracks to the lot where her car was parked. She had just finished teaching her last creative writing class for the semester and her briefcase was packed with the final projects—among them, possibly a future bestseller. It had happened before. This woman knows literary success firsthand. Very little slows down Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s most prolific writers, who will turn 75 next June. Recently, she tweeted to her 26,000 followers: “I’ve just finished my best writing ever,” following the completion of a new novel to add to her canon.
But tonight is not about literature or teaching. She’s late for dinner with her professor husband of four years and a “dear friend” who has recently lost his spouse of more than six decades. She says of the man: “He’s both here and there. He’s with us but he’s also living posthumously.” Oates knows, too, about the “ontological shock” of widowhood; she wrote A Widow’s Story: A Memoir in 2011. She understands also that she may not see her desolate friend for a while; she and her husband are headed to the West Coast soon to teach at U.C. Berkeley. Out of sight now, one can imagine this tiny figure sliding into the driver’s seat, stepping on the gas, and heading out into the icy streets—and the darkness.
It has been 50 years since Oates published her first book, a story collection (By the North Gate, 1963), and in March a book she started eight years ago, The Accursed, a historical novel that is first of a trilogy, hits bookstores. In January this year, she also published Daddy Love, a crime story. And let’s not forget her e-book Patricide, a novella that has a Philip Roth–like character who is a writer and a womanizer. Over her voluminous career, Oates has published more than 100 books and articles in a mind-bending array of genres: fiction (adult and YA), nonfiction, poetry, criticism, essays, plays, and a memoir. And, for the past 35 years, she has also been a distinguished professor of humanities at Princeton University. The Accursed is set there when Woodrow Wilson was president—of the college, not the country.
Oates, who has been called a quintessentially American author, grew up in upstate New York, one of three children of a factory worker and a housewife; she was the first of her family to graduate from high school and she writes out of a kind of homesickness for the farms, fields, and creeks of that place. Some of Oates’s most memorable novels have strong female characters—The Grave Digger’s Daughter and Mudwoman, to name two. “I sometimes conflate myself and my [paternal] grandmother and/or my mother. I put generations together,” she says. Though violence is a frequent theme in Oates’s work, she says she grew up on the “periphery” of it, never experiencing it herself. Her great-grandfather, however, killed himself in front of her grandmother and intended to take the child’s life as well. Oates’s mother, Carolina, was abandoned when she was young. Oates learned about the experience when O, the Oprah Magazine approached her and other women writers to interview their mothers for an article. Oprah, whom Oates calls “an American original,” had chosen We Were the Mulvaneys as her book club selection, and so Oates agreed to do the piece. Her mother, well into her 80s at the time, had never before spoken about her past, and she wept as she told Oates by telephone how her biological mother had given her away, that “she didn’t want her”.
“One never gets over these traumas,” Oates says. For Oates herself, the last decade has been an emotionally difficult one. Her mother died in 2003. Then in February 2008, her husband Raymond J. Smith, the editor and publisher of The Ontario Review, a small press and literary magazine, went into the ER for a common complaint and died of complications from pneumonia a few days later. The initial months following his death nearly felled Oates. She says she didn’t sleep for six months; she wrote in her journals, watched TV, and fielded fruit baskets and floral bouquets from well-intentioned friends and colleagues—and kept hearing her husband’s voice in her head. Ray’s droll wit noted the disparity of these celebratory expressions (“fruit baskets, really?”) and her “bereft” state. Nevertheless, she continued to teach two days a week, gave lectures and talks, and “scribbled” criticism for the New York Review of Books. But she couldn’t write the fiction that had always been the narrative spine of her life. After scrapping a novel about the widowhood—“it fell like a shadow, I was yearning to write the real thing”—she turned to memoir. Oates had hoped A Widow’s Story, a kind of handbook to the startling, early stages of grief, would spare others the shock of such loss. “If it happens to me again, I won’t be as surprised,” she says. “The fallacy of the thinking is that no one reads these books ahead of time.”
Reviewers and readers criticized the memoir for not including the fact that she married Charles Gross, a professor in Princeton’s psychology department and at the Neuroscience Institute, before the book even went to press. She has since added an epigraph updating readers on, among other things, her new conjugal state. That glaring omission was not the one that concerned Oates: she regrets not having a chapter called: “Just Say ‘Yes.’ ” Remembering her own despair at the time, she recalls thinking, “If I don’t say yes [to every offer] I am going to go down a deep hole and never get up.” She accepted invitations to travel, to see movies, have dinner, and give lectures and readings—things she would never have agreed to were Ray alive. “Nineteen out of 20 things turned out well,” she says, and at one dinner party, she met Charlie Gross. They eloped soon after. Together they’ve bought a new house near campus, traveled and, though he has health problems, forged a new open-ended life. “With Charlie, I basically say ‘yes.’ Charlie wants to go to U.C. Berkeley, we go. Charlie wants to live in New York in 2014, we go to N.Y.U. Charlie wants to do this, Charlie does this, and I say ‘yes.’ ”
Oates continues to soldier on. She’s closed up the Princeton house and moved to Oakland, Calif. Next month, she begins a national book tour. In the days following the Newtown, Conn., shootings last year, she tweeted her pro-gun-control stance. In response, a barrage of angry NRA people e-mailed threats, and one anti-gun-control advocate called her editor at Ecco. Oates is, for the most part, unfazed. “I don’t have to do a reading in Arizona,” she says of her revised itinerary. “I can do a reading in California.” She continues to write fiction—another novel, Carthage, is in the pipeline for 2014—and nonfiction as well. In the February issue of Vanity Fair, Oates wrote about Lena Dunham, the creator of HBO’s Girls, who recently received $3.5 million for her first book, a collection of nonfiction essays. Oates takes the hefty advance in stride. “I guess that’s what they pay for a bestseller based on a TV show. There’s a template, you know.” The one-page tribute to Dunham contains no quotes from the young woman called “the voice of her generation.” Says Oates: “We had an e-mail exchange but it wasn’t very helpful.” Television writers aside, Oates is cheered by the new literary voices on the horizon. She has, after all, shepherded several into print during her tenure at Princeton, including Jonathan Safran Foer, whose senior thesis became the bestselling Everything Is Illuminated.
Oates doesn’t think much in terms of her own legacy and refuses to name which of her many titles she thinks will endure. “Writers are notoriously unable to know about themselves,” she says. “Faulkner thought The Fable was his best novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald liked Tender Is the Night, an experimental novel.” Right now, Oates is looking forward to a time when she can sit quietly in her Oakland office, with its view of the Golden Gate Bridge. She has brought quilts that belonged to her mother and some stained-glass lamps her father made in order to feel more at home. In the days to come, she’ll keep saying “yes,” no doubt—and she will keep writing, because she doesn’t seem able to stop, even though the readers that mattered most to her are gone. “My parents were very proud of me,” she says. “After they passed, my career doesn’t mean as much to me.”