Renowned for her prize-winning fiction, poetry and reviews, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest, A Widow’s Story, is an intimate, often wrenching memoir about the abrupt death of her husband, Raymond Smith. In the book, Kirkus said that Oates “writes with gut-wrenching honesty and spares no one in ripping the illusions off the face of death.” Here, the author shares some thoughts on writing her memoir.
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Memoir is not something readers are likely to associate with you. Can you comment on your decision to create this work?
The memoir is comprised of journal entries that were written often late at night, beginning at the time of the hospital vigil. I could not have foreseen any “memoir” or anything coherent at the time of the original writing. It was all recorded at the time, almost, of the experiences, and now in retrospect I think that I should have been more circumspect and tactful. But it is very difficult for me to revisit the memoir, which is tantamount to revisiting the time in which it was written.
Did your intentions for this memoir change over the course of the writing?
At one point, when it seemed that every day, every hour, was a surprise to me, a dark sort of revelation, I'd vaguely thought of writing or assembling A Widow's Handbook or The Widow's Handbook. This seemed to me a serious and worthwhile undertaking but, ultimately, all that remains of it is one of the final entries.
You see your memoir as very different from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, not beautiful and elegiac but filled with black humor. Could you comment further on what writing this memoir taught you about being a widow?
It wasn’t the writing that taught me but the experience. And the experience of a widow does not end, ever. As one’s memory of the departed does not end. I admired Joan Didion’s elegantly written memoir, but the experiences Joan records are so very different from my own, it’s as if we are writing in different languages.
To me, the “widow’s” experience is, in essence, a profound and humiliating rebuke—of all that one had somehow assumed, without really believing, of course, in the unexamined ways in which our lives must be lived, would be permanent, unshakeable. It is such a devastating and irrevocable loss there are really not words to express it.
You write that this memoir is one of loss and grief but “perhaps more significantly a memoir of friendship.”
Well, the role of friends in the widow’s life is something like 100 percent. Without her dearest friends, the widow could not survive. Even so, the widow is often confronted with the question: Why survive?
In the most immediate sense, I had to complete my husband’s publishing schedule, and my semester of teaching at Princeton. I wanted to present my dear, kind, sweet husband, with his droll sense of humor which only close friends could quite appreciate, in a lifelike and complex way, in which to honor him. I was terrified that he would be forgotten…
Much of my writing was in the form of e-mails, often late at night. This was a form my journal took and continues to take.
You’ve described yourself as an obsessive self-editor. Was that true here too?
Since this began as journal entries, each chapter was…a development of one of these entries. Of course, as many entries were omitted as were used ultimately. The voice is just my “inner, journal” voice—it has not been altered in the slightest. I did much of the writing in or atop my bed in my “nest”—at a time of day/night when I was not called upon to impersonate “JCO” [Oates’ alter ego she invented for her public persona at the university and other obligations] or go through the numbing rituals of the Widow, faced with myriad legal and formal duties that go on and on and on.
The world of this memoir feels so full of loss, of a complete world ending. But I learned that you are now remarried, living a new story.
The new marriage evolved out of the widow’s crisis situation—the new husband is familiar with familial losses as well—though I won’t go into details, no one lives to be over 70 without suffering profound losses—companionship is as vital to our lives as oxygen. I would not say that the life now is a “new story”—there is so much overlap…Nothing we have lost is ever really surrendered.
Like my dear friends, though more profoundly than any friend, my new husband is/was a “rescuer”—he would not see himself in that role, but it is so. Our lives so depend upon their intertwining with others’ lives.
A Widow’s Story: A Memoir
Joyce Carol Oates
HarperCollins/Ecco / Feb. 15, 2011 / 9780062015532 / $27.99