ST. LOUIS — Joyce Carol Oates is saying out loud what you suspected her inner voice might be whispering to her: “I don’t really like tours and I’m not sure I should have agreed to do it. I guess I did, so I can’t change my mind.”
She continues quietly, noting other people can be “much more assertive. They say, ‘No, I can’t do it’ or ‘Not right now.’ I seem to vacillate in that middle group.”
The first time she read in public from her new book, “A Widow’s Story,” she was in a “state of numbness,” she says, talking by telephone from New York.
After offering her soul in the sorrow-filled memoir, the slight, 72-year-old author promised to travel to book events.
She offers a hopeful “I will probably meet some very nice people.”
Three years ago this February, Oates suddenly lost her husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith. Suffering from pneumonia, Smith went into a hospital near their Pennington, N.J., home and never came out.
Even while in the hospital, Smith was worrying about editing the next edition of the Ontario Review.
The death was unexpected, but the kind of thing families often face. An everyday tragedy.
As common as grief is, however, it rarely receives a 400-page examination by one of America’s most prominent living writers. Few mourners can take pedestrian, universal feelings (“This can’t be happening. This is not real ...”) and put them under a personal microscope along with memories, e-mailed sympathy notes, feelings of guilt, criticism of doctors, praise for teaching, annoyance toward the well-intentioned, and fantasies of withdrawal (“Agoraphobia! I am thinking This is something I could try, next”).
“A widow is basically tired, very exhausted,” Oates says. “I think I’m starting to get over it now. But for a couple of years, I was just very, very tired. It’s like you never really make up for the lost sleep.”
She also lost weight. At one point, her book records her at 103 pounds. She took an antidepressant and sleeping medicine while worrying she was headed toward addiction.
As private and quiet as she seems, she writes and answers questions straight.
Her memoir recounts an acquaintance commenting, “Ohhh Joyce — you’re wearing pink. How nice.”
“What should I be wearing? Black?
“How dare you speak to me like that! — and how stupid of you, to mistake dark-rose for ‘pink.’”
Did she feel unusually sensitive to awkward expressions of sympathy?
Oates says, “Everybody’s sensitive. People notice things, but they may not analyze them. Some people are so supportive and sympathetic. Others are so, so alarming and demonstrative. It’s very strange, actually.”
A longtime friend, writer Richard Burgin, says that although she’s soft-spoken, Oates was a pro, composed and articulate, at her book reading this month. She “leavened it with self-deprecating humor. The audience was very entertained.”
A professor at Princeton University, she doesn’t make events an academic presentation, he says. At the Associated Writing Programs meeting in Washington, about 3,000 people packed a ballroom to hear her. Burgin met Oates 25 years ago, shortly after he started the journal Boulevard, now based at St. Louis University.
The literary journal publishes her frequently, he says: “Her fiction is known for violence and sexuality. As a person, though, she’s thoughtful, down-to-earth and witty.”
In both her memoir and by phone, Oates says she thought of herself as “Joyce Smith.”
“There really isn’t any ‘Joyce Carol Oates,’’” she says. “That’s an author of books.”
More than 100 books, in fact: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, reviews, essays and more. She’s sensitive to her reputation as almost absurdly prolific. Displaying her wit, she says she wrote for 10-12 hours a day before her husband died: “We all know ‘writers’ who don’t write for six months at a time. They think I’m prolific, but it’s only because I’m working.”
In “A Widow’s Story,” Oates writes that a memoirist must tell the truth. But when asked how much truth a writer needs to tell, she says, “How can I answer that? I’m not sure. The nature of a memoir about grief is that it’s very repetitive, and it doesn’t really go away. It will last as long as you are alive. There isn’t really any way to put that into a book.”
Toward the end of the memoir, based on six months of her journal, Oates hints of the future: She throws out medicine, and insomnia lessens.
She alludes to a small dinner party that includes a neuroscientist, saying “I could not have guessed how ... my life would be altered.” It is a clear reference to Charles Gross, the colleague and second husband that some critics feel Oates should have discussed.
Oates says this book “has to be about Ray” and is a widow’s story (they did not have children). Her new husband has read the book and “is very sympathetic.” Although the marriage is like a new era, the “grieving doesn’t really end,” she says. “There aren’t any happy endings in real life, although there is overlap.”
When they married, the couple moved to a different home at Gross’ suggestion. “Most of Charlie’s ideas are good. He has a healthy, forward-looking attitude.”
The author says her next work is a novel, “Mud Woman,” about a university president who has a “nervous collapse,” then “brings her personality together again” and goes back to work. She acknowledges some similarities with her own life.
Oates did leave one piece of advice out of the memoir, she says. Friends would invite her places and often she did not want to go. It was hard to get out of bed.
But now she recommends that a widow say “yes.”
“I think that was very helpful. ... Say ‘yes’ even though your heart’s broken. You never know what’s going to happen.”
“A Widow’s Story” by Joyce Carol Oates; HarperCollins (415 pages, $27.99)