Joyce Carol Oates on A Widow's Story

02/16/2011 05:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week marks the release of Joyce Carol Oates' memoir A Widow's Story. However, the prolific author herself shies away from categorizing it as such. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the book and her husbands, Ray Smith and Charlie Gross.

Louise McCready: You've called this memoir a "pilgrimage." Can you elaborate on that?

Joyce Carol Oates: The memoir was assembled rather than "written," as it is comprised of journal entries from Feb. 11, 2008 onward. Its form is, except for several chapters that are clearly set in the past, (as in Detroit of the 1960s), that of a quilt or a mosaic. In the summer of 2009, not able to write fiction very easily, I turned to the journal notes and assembled a sort of memoir out of them; but it wasn't until late in this process that I came to realize that the effort of creating the memoir was a kind of "pilgrimage"—its destination unknown when I'd set off. I had no idea of the person I would become, and perhaps I am still becoming, when I began, with the first, early journal entries.

LM: You call the memoir the "most seductive" and "dangerous of literary genres," yet you decided to write one. Why?

JCO: Again, I didn't really "write" a memoir. I think that, to look back coolly and calmly and begin with a date, a time, perhaps years ago, is to "write" a memoir in the conventional sense; and this is both seductive and dangerous because it allows for so much mis-remembering, selection of memories, distortions both intentional and unintentional. The journal/diary is much different—it unfolds in present time, breathless, and filled with the humiliating, small details that comprise our lives, and not given a more elevated or elegiac shape.

A motive for a memoir of someone who has died is very obvious as the survivor is compelled to talk about the lost loved one, to keep his or her name in the air, "alive"—so to speak. The survivor is drawn to write about the person and the experience of loss. Much of literature is memorialization—a way we have of assuaging our homesickness. When you lose someone close to you, the loss is perhaps a kind of homesickness. I thought of "A Widow's Story" as a way of keeping Ray alive, and preventing him from being forgotten....

LM: Was the process of writing about your husband's death cathartic? Or painful? Both?

JCO: The theory of "catharsis" is controversial. It isn't really clear whether writing about something exorcises it, or exacerbates it, but the writer enthralled by a personal event, or traumatized by it, isn't really free to write about other subjects, so the cathartic element is somehow beside the point. I had wanted to write a novel about a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly, but real-life memories intruded so powerfully, I came to feel that the novel was a substitute because I was afraid to write directly.

After uncovering and reading Ray's unfinished novel, Black Mass, you briefly entertain the idea of completing it but decide against it. Do you still look at it? To what degree do you feel it helped you know your husband better?

Of course the manuscript is still on my shelf, with other writings of Ray's, and his book titled Charles Churchill. I do look into it now and then. But it's very sad. I think we would all feel sad to glance into something written by a loved one, who has passed on—and who did not complete what he'd once felt to be so crucial to his life. It's like looking through old snapshots, which I have done endlessly....

LM: You say you wish Ray had shown Black Mass to you and that the two of you had discussed it. Do you still feel that way?

JCO: Yes, when we were first married and he'd been working on it at the time. Then, it would have been fresh in his mind. More recently, no—Ray would have been embarrassed and would not have glanced into it, I'm sure. He might even have thrown it out. He was the very opposite of a vain person—for this reason perhaps he was a brilliant editor, who immersed himself in the task at hand, editing manuscripts to improve them if they could be so improved.

LM: You resumed writing, sold your home, and remarried a little more than a year after Ray's death. How often do you think of Ray now? And in what context? What would you say to him if you could speak to him today?

JCO: A widow probably thinks of her lost husband constantly, as I think so often of both my parents. People whom we have lost accumulate in our memories—but "memory" is too weak a word, suggesting passivity. I do think of Ray virtually all of the time.

LM: When did you feel like "yourself" again?

JCO: I don't even remember what "myself" once was. What I'd left out of the memoir, and regret now, is that I made a resolution perhaps unconsciously to commit myself to people and experiences that would pull me out of a claustrophobic and deteriorating situation; the title of the little chapter would have been "Just Say 'Yes'". I said "yes" to virtually all invitations from friends and others—to dinners, to movies, on excursions of one kind or another—even when I would have liked nothing better than to stay home, preferably in bed. But I said "Yes, I'd love to."

One of these occasions involved a hastily arranged dinner in August 2008, where I was introduced to the man whom I would eventually marry, Charles Gross. I remember, beforehand, really wishing that I could just be alone that evening, that I did not have the energy to meet anyone, let alone "converse" with friends. But, fortunately, I didn't give in to that impulse.

A widow craves companionship, friendship—the aloneness is so terrifying. Charlie came into my life at just this time and became a dear companion. We went hiking and walking together, to movies, dinner with friends. It was a perfect interlude in the very late summer—just before Labor Day—when most of our respective friends were gone from Princeton and only a fraction of the population seemed to remain.

LM: Before Ray died, you said you wrote seven to eight hours a day. How many hours do you write daily now?

JCO: Probably half this amount. But I really don't keep track—that would be too self-conscious.

Writing, like all "creative effort," requires meditation—planning, problem solving, "day-dreaming"—beforehand. The more of this one does, before sitting down to write, the more productive one will be—of course. I try to convince my students that this is so: it's better to resist beginning to write, prematurely.

LM: Your new husband, Charlie Gross, is a neuroscientist and you've said your relationship is very different from yours with Ray. Can you elaborate on that a bit? What do you think Ray and Charlie would think of one another if they could meet?

JCO: Ray would love Charlie. Charlie is very, very funny and has great enthusiasm for life. He is tireless, always planning new projects, and over-commits himself. I think that Charlie would like Ray—who was quiet, thoughtful, just slightly shy or reticent at times. Most people who knew Ray liked him very much, but I was always somewhat blinded to Ray's actual features, or qualities—since we were so close. Since his death, I've been deeply moved and stunned at times by the outpouring of very nice things people have said about Ray—his personality, his skill as an editor. Ray was essentially a very self-effacing individual who would be astonished and embarrassed by what people have said about him. I think he would have been moved to tears—as I have been.

As I'd said in the memoir, it has seemed as if we were in a terrible car crash together—somehow, I managed to survive and limp away, and Ray did not. That would be the most persistent way of speaking of the experience though it is not a literal description.