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Author Joyce Carol Oates on Widowhood’s ‘World of Absurdity’

February 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with author Joyce Carol Oates about her new memoir, "A Widow's Story," detailing her life after the death of her husband.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a novelist tells a very personal story.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In February 2008, 77-year-old Raymond Smith was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. A week later, he died of a secondary infection, leaving his wife, the writer Joyce Carol Oates, alone after 48 years of marriage.

She’s written of her husband’s death and the aftermath in a new memoir titled “A Widow’s Story.”

Joyce Carol Oates is a much-honored author of more than 50 novels, numerous short story collections, plays, essays and more, and a professor at Princeton University. And she joins me now.

Welcome to you.

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JOYCE CAROL OATES, author, “A Widow’s Story”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you compelled to write this as it happened, or did it come to you later to do this?

JOYCE CAROL OATES: I think I was compelled — that’s probably a good word — to write down my experiences, my emotions each day, beginning with the hospitalization.

I keep a journal anyway. And, so, late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I would just be jotting down what had happened that day. So, the memoir has this breathless quality of things unfolding. And that’s the way it actually was in my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I — what were you — what were you wanting it to convey or — I have seen you describe it as almost a practical guide, in a way. Is it for you or for others? What were you thinking?

JOYCE CAROL OATES: Oh, it wasn’t for me. I was thinking of writing something called a widow’s handbook.

JEFFREY BROWN: A widow’s handbook?

JOYCE CAROL OATES: Because there were so many things that were happening to me that I was completely astounded by, wasn’t prepared for, lots of surprises. Every day, sometimes every hour, I had some new surprising thing happen.

It was as if I entered a world of absurdity, like black comedy sometimes. I had opened a door and stepped into the Marx Brothers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Like what’s an example? You mean just the dailiness of life, things you hadn’t faced before?

JOYCE CAROL OATES: No, it was more than that. Everything in life seemed exacerbated. Like, if it was raining out, it was really raining. If I — I had never lost things before. I was suddenly losing things.

I would get out of the car and bump my head. Everything seemed to start to go downhill as soon as I took my husband to the hospital. One thing led to another, as in a mad — a mad — a world of madness. You know, it just seemed that something got unhinged and it just went downhill.

And most people think that a widow is inhabiting some elegiac world of — it’s like Mozart’s “Requiem Mass.” You know, it’s very beautiful and elevated thoughts and some measure of dignity.

I didn’t have that experience at all. I had one pratfall after another. I was — it was like I had been hit over the head with a mallet, but I still had to do all the things I would do anyway, including teaching at Princeton. And I — luckily, I had wonderful students and very supportive friends who sort of got me through.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I wonder if, for people who know your work, was it hard to write so personally, because I don’t know that you have written a memoir before, to put yourself out there like that? I noticed you even refer to “the widow” in — a whole lot in the book.

JOYCE CAROL OATES: That’s right. That’s right.

Well, that — I wrote that later. First of all, I had the notes because, every night, I would come home and write down: Today, Ray is better. More — the oxygen intake is better. Next Tuesday, he’s going to be discharged.

I’m kind of writing these things down. And then he suddenly died, and I wrote that down, and going to probate court and going to various — seeing a lawyer, and all the things that you do, as in a speeded-up, absurd comedy, where everything’s happening very fast.

And, in the midst of it all, there’s some terrible loss, like you have lost your left leg, or you have lost your left arm, or a whole part of your brain is gone. And that’s the fact that your spouse is gone. You know, it’s like you — it’s like part of your brain is gone, but you still have to go through all the motions of your life, even though you have lost your leg.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you also have to go through the public side of your life.

JOYCE CAROL OATES: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a passage where you write, “At the university is my task to impersonate Joyce Carol Oates.”

JOYCE CAROL OATES: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain. You have a public persona through your writing and being a professor.

JOYCE CAROL OATES: Right.

Well, I think the great temptation for the widow, and maybe for the widower, is just to go to bed, take all the pills that you can, and just lie in bed in some comatose state, and just — because you can’t face it.

But because I had this public responsibility, teaching and doing things for the press and the magazine — my husband was an editor — I couldn’t that. So, I always had to come back to being Joyce Carol Oates.

Joyce Smith was this devastated widow, but Joyce Carol Oates was this professional person. And I took it as a matter of pride that I wasn’t going to cancel. I went way out to the wilds of some place in Ohio, where it was a terrible snowstorm, just a couple weeks after Ray died. I didn’t want to start quitting and cutting back.

I think, looking back on it now, I probably should have canceled, because it was — it was maybe a silly thing to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I picked up your latest collection of short stories. And I — there was a — there are several stories there which — in which the main character is a woman…

JOYCE CAROL OATES: The widow, that’s right, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … recently widowed. And I was — so that made me wonder. You wrote it out in a memoir, but you also sort of get it out in fiction form, which is the way most of us know your work.

JOYCE CAROL OATES: That’s right. That’s subsequent.

At first, I wrote the notes for the memoir, but I didn’t think it would be a memoir. It was going to be a — maybe a widow’s handbook. And then I took maybe — let’s say I had 600 pages of all these notes in handwriting. And I took about 300 or 400 pages for the memoir.

And then I wrote short stories that parallel the memoir, but now they’re fiction. And more lurid, and even more ridiculous and awful things happen to these widows. I wanted to make it worse in fiction than it was in real life to show that other — other widows have had worse times than I’ve had.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is fiction better for some things, and — and nonfiction for others?

JOYCE CAROL OATES: Yes, fiction is much better for some things, definitely. The — the sort of thing that I want to do is to strike a resonant chord of universality in other people, which is best done by fiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you one last thing. These events took place in 2008. I have since read that you have — you’ve remarried.

JOYCE CAROL OATES: Yes, I have remarried a wonderful person. He himself has had some — some very severe family losses. And so he’s not — he’s not unfamiliar with grief, but he’s very resolute, has a wonderful sense of humor.

And I should say, one of the things about being a widow or a widower, you really, really need a sense of humor, because everything’s going to fall apart.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new memoir is called “A Widow’s Story.”

Joyce Carol Oates, thank you very much.