Since Joyce Carol Oates’ first novel With Shuddering Fall came out in 1964, she has averaged two books a year.
Many of them are novels, though she’s also written plays, poetry, children’s books, literary criticism, and a highly regarded sports book, On Boxing (1987).
Her legendary productivity has stumbled in the past year, however, since the unexpected death of her husband, Raymond J. Smith, in February, 2008.
“It’s been a very hard year,” Oates says by phone from her home in New Jersey, where she teaches creative writing at Princeton University. “I’m still writing, but it’s much harder. It takes longer. I don’t want to sound self-pitying. This is very common. Everyone has these experiences. Everyone goes through this when someone close dies.”
Oates and Smith met as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, and married in 1961. Oates once described the marriage as “a partnership of like minds,” saying they read the same books and discussed them over meals.
An English professor, scholar and editor of The Ontario Review, Smith shielded Oates, helping make her prodigious output possible.
“I’m living alone now, so I’m literally taking care of the household things he did,” Oates says. “He took care of them well, but really quietly. Suddenly all the finances fell to me, which is stressful.”
Now 70, Oates’ literary reputation has long been secured. Almost any of her 37 (and counting) novels might live on—and that’s not including the 11 psychological thrillers written under the pen names “Rosamond Smith” or “Lauren Kelly.” Or the eight novellas, some—The Triumph of the Spider Monkey, Black Water and Rape: A Love Story—among her strongest work.
Oates won the National Book Award in 1970 for the novel them. She’s been nominated for the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize or PEN/Faulkner Award 13 times. She’s perennially mentioned as a leading candidate for a Nobel. What’s more, she enjoyed the Oprah seal of approval for her 1996 novel, We Were the Mulvaneys which, of course, made it a best-seller.
Oates is also one of the top short-story writers of her generation, with 34 collections to date. She’s twice won the O. Henry Award, and she has one PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Art of the Short Story. Her early story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” inspired by a Bob Dylan song and a charming serial killer who terrorized Tucson in the ‘60s, has been widely anthologized and taught to generations of college students.
Suggest that she is among the top writers in a towering generation of American literature (John Cheever, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth are among her peers), and Oates demurs.
“Oh, thank you for saying so, but I guess I don’t feel that way,” Oates says. “Usually I’m struggling with something I’m trying to get right. Writing is a very stressful part of my life.”
Part of what makes Oates’ work so original is its treatment of violence, obsession, unconscious motivation, a pervasive existential dread, and a near Gothic sense of foreboding—combined with a keen eye for social observation and family dynamics. But you won’t find much humor.
“Most serious work has a tragic turn,” she says. “You can’t have serious literature without confronting evil, and also how people deal with it. I write about the consequences of violence, especially against women and children, and the focus is on dealing with the trauma.”
Anyone searching for the roots of her moody, intense, often morbid work in an unhappy childhood will be disappointed. Born in 1938, she grew up in the rural working-class town of Millersport, New York, a region where many of her books and stories are set.
“The family life was quite happy, though we never had much money,” Oates says. “In my own personal life, I was lucky. By the time I went to college, the consciousness in America was changing. In prior decades I could never have taught at Princeton.”
But Oates says the tenor of her work may have been influenced by the grim struggles of less happy neighbors. And she later learned of violence in earlier generations of her family, including a grandfather who killed himself. She fictionalized this family history in The Gravedigger’s Daughter.
“I don’t think I’m morbid by nature,” Oates says. “Serious writers have always written about serious subjects. Lighthearted material doesn’t appeal to me, and I don’t read it. I think I’m a realist, with a realistic sensibility of history and the tragedy of history.”
For at least 20 years, Oates has received increasingly irritable sniping from critics bewildered and annoyed by her almost superhuman productivity. This reached a crescendo with the 2007 publication of “The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982.”
In fact, Oates says, writing comes hard to her, especially in the beginning of a new book.
“In the first six weeks it’s very difficult, working from an outline, writing the first chapter or two,” Oates says. “Then you find a voice, and it’s easier.”