Tuesday, February 15, 2011: Maximum Shelf: A Widow's Story

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: A Widow's Story: A Memoir

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, which goes on sale on today, February 15. Ecco has helped support this issue.


Books & Authors

Daniel Halpern: On Editing Oates

"People have a notion of what a Joyce Carol Oates book is like," Ecco editorial director Daniel Halpern said during a telephone conversation from his office in the HarperCollins building. "Sometimes they're right, and sometimes they're not right." He should know: he's edited several of her books over the last decade, from 2000's Blonde to her new memoir, A Widow's Story, an intimate self-portrait which he expects will surprise even readers who have followed her work closely: "They've seen facets of her, little pieces of personal information that slip in by way of her characters, but this is, from beginning to end, Joyce at her most vulnerable."


You and your wife were friends with Joyce Carol Oates and Ray Smith, and you were among those who comforted Oates after her husband's death. What was your reaction when you found out she was doing the memoir?

Some of her friends felt it was a bad idea, that she should not write about this and just move on in her life. I completely disagreed. First of all, you don't just "move on" from a relationship like she had with Ray, and it's not, in my opinion, healthy to try to do that. If you're a writer of Joyce's caliber, the way you move on is to write through it. It was clear to me that she was going to write a memoir. It's the nature of things. She's a writer; she works all this stuff out by writing through it. She did, and I think it's one of the most remarkable memoirs I've ever read. It's certainly a one-off book for Joyce; she's never written anything as personal as this, and I doubt that she will again.

Besides the level of personal candor, what were some of the other qualities in the manuscript that jumped out at you?

Her honesty and clarity and understanding of her situation, and how she was experiencing the loss of Ray. She did that so carefully and so deeply and so movingly. That's the first thing you notice: here's a human being who has gone through a terrible tragedy, and she's clarifying it for herself, and at the same time she's clarifying it for her readers so they will be capable of generalizing for their own lives what they see her going through.

Secondly, technically, she's such a brilliant writer that she's able to pace the book--and it's a long memoir--using her narrative gifts, she's able to pace it so that it's almost like you're reading one of her novels.

Were there things in the memoir that shocked or surprised you when you read about them?

Not shocked. I was in touch with her during this period, so I knew how deeply sad and horrible she was feeling, so I wasn't surprised by the intensity of her feelings. But there were details that I didn't know about, like her early relationship with Ray, when they went down south for that first teaching job.... I've known Joyce and Ray for 40 years. They were over almost every weekend, and we were very close to both of them. So getting this new biographical information about two people that I'd known very well over a very long period of time... I found that fascinating.

In the memoir, Oates mentions The Year of Magical Thinking a few times, and obviously it will be an easy reference point because both of them are about coping with the loss of a husband.

I love Joan Didion's book, but it couldn't be more different than Joyce's. They're both about the loss of a husband, and that's where it ends. The way they approach the loss, the way in which they write about it, the way in which details come into play, couldn't be more different. There's no other similarity in my mind. That's not to say that Joan's book isn't a very fine memoir. It's just very different from Joyce's.

Is Joyce Carol Oates somebody who needs a lot of editing?

In general, no. She writes very carefully. People feel that because she writes so much, she doesn't revise, that this all shoots out of her and she can write book after book, and that's absolutely not true.

Having worked on her books for a long time, I can tell you she doesn't make very many mistakes. She knows what she's doing; she's written enough so that she knows how to deal with characters, how to deal with narrative. Most of the editing on her novels will deal with pacing, where maybe it slows down a little bit, or maybe there's a character who's not quite clear, but it's very minor. It's a joy to edit somebody who writes a finished book, and the kind of work that I would do as an editor is pretty superficial.

This book was more complicated because given the nature of the book, and because she had never written a book like this, she was nervous about it. She did something she had never done before, which was to show me parts of the book before it was finished, and she showed other people parts of the book. That's very unlike her; usually, you get the book when it's done, and mostly it is done. This was a whole different process for her. She was writing it as she was living it, and it was a very intense experience for her.

Oates writes openly about her doubts about whether she could ever write fiction again after Ray's death.

She said that, and I understand that when everything drops out of your life, you feel kind of in limbo, and you don't think that you're going to do anything that you used to do again because your life, as she says, is totally different.... I never had any doubt. I knew she would write. But she had to work through it. She did that by writing the memoir, but also continuing to write stories and then she wrote a remarkable novel after the memoir was done. [Note: That novel, Mudwoman, is scheduled for publication later this year.]--Ron Hogan

Photo: Lily Halpern


Book Brahmin: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the winner of the National Book Award. Among her major works are We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde and The Falls.


On your nightstand now:

John Stuart Mill's Autobiography; Margaret Drabble's new collection of stories, A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman; and Oliver Sacks's The Mind's Eye.

Favorite books when you were a child:

Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

Your top five authors:

Emily Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare.

Book you've faked reading:

Why would I want to fake anything? I would just tell the truth.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Dickinson's Collected Poems.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Again, why would I do this? Seems a bit naïve.

Book that changed your life:

No single book changed my life but I was quite enthralled by Nietzsche when I first began reading his work as an undergraduate at Syracuse University.

Favorite line from a book:

"Reader, I married him." --Jane Eyre

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Moby Dick.


Book Review

Book Review: A Widow's Story: A Memoir

A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press, $27.99 Hardcover, 9780062015532, March 2011)

"We were in a car wreck," Joyce Carol Oates begins. "My husband died but I survived." And then, in the very next line, she pulls that beginning away: "This is not (factually) true. But in all other ways, it is true." Oates and her husband, Raymond Smith, were struck by a speeding car while driving through a Princeton intersection early in 2007; the front end of their vehicle was totaled, but they were fortunate to escape with heavy bruising and acid burns from the exploding air bags. ("Vaguely you might expect something cushiony, even balloon-like--no.") They are rattled by the experience, but settle back into their routine. Oates reflects, "It would have been a time to say Look—we might have been killed last night! I love you, I'm so grateful that I am married to you... but the words didn't quite come." Thirteen months later, Ray died in the hospital of a staph infection that struck while he was recuperating from pneumonia.

Oates awakens that February morning with an instinctive feeling that "something is wrong." She finds Ray sitting in another room, feeling warm and having difficulty breathing. He has already called their doctor, which raises more mental alarms for her, and she convinces him to let her take him to the emergency room. "He isn't taking anything with him to suggest that he expects even to stay overnight," she writes, when it turns out that he will never leave. Oates writes with chilling precision of the frantic passivity she experiences as the spouse of the afflicted: fainting after a call from the hospital, frustrated by the rudeness of the nurse's aide assigned to Ray's room, frightened by the delusions he suffers when his infected lungs are unable to send enough oxygen to his brain. Days pass in this manner, until "the call came at 12:38 a.m."--Ray is alive but in critical condition--she rushes to the hospital but arrives just minutes too late: "he'd gone into unexpected cardiac arrest--his blood pressure had plummeted, his heartbeat had accelerated--it was a secondary infection and not the original E. coli infection that had driven up his fever--his left lung was invaded, his bloodstream was invaded--though they tried very hard there was nothing more to be done."

If your first reaction to A Widow's Story is to imagine that we've covered this subject in The Year of Magical Thinking, Oates is well ahead of you. "Thank you for the Joan Didion memoir, which I'd already read--but will happily re-read," she e-mails one of her many consolers. "I know that there is much melancholy wisdom here." She knows that what has happened to her is hardly unique--so common are her experiences that she can speak of them detachedly as emblematic of what "the Widow" faces in the months after a husband's death. "This memoir is a pilgrimage," she realizes late in the telling. "To be human is to live with meaning. To live without meaning is to live sub-humanly." The widow's "posthumous life" may be stripped of its meaning, but (especially with the help of her friends) Oates finds a way to push through the grief and restore enough meaning to stay alive.

The power of this memoir, then, is not in the originality of Oates's experience but in the extent to which she opens her life up to readers. (Or, properly, the life of Joyce Smith--"the widow's identity"--for this is how anybody outside of literary circles knows her, as Ray Smith's wife, then his surviving spouse.) She exposes the desperation with which she finds herself saving his last voicemail message, playing it repeatedly just to hear his voice, just as she'll call her home phone from the office to hear him on the outgoing message she can't bring herself to change. She shares the unrelenting survivor's guilt: "Widowhood is the punishment for having been a wife," she says, and again: "This is what you deserve, who had been protected from such misery for too long." In her pain, she believes their two cats blame her for Ray's disappearance from their home; when one of the cats dies later that spring, she is devastated all over again, convinced that this, too, is her fault.

At times, Oates's eyes are so flooded with tears that she fears she may go blind, but her vision problems evolve to take a specific form, a "dark-shimmering thing" at first, then "a lizard-like creature," a basilisk that taunts her grief with thoughts of suicide: "You know you can end this at any time." Lorazepam can chase the basilisk away, or at least neutralize its power, but she knows the risks of taking too many pills: "I am afraid of becoming addicted to sleeping pills.... Though the rest of my life is in ruins, yet--I am determined not to be an addict." Even with that Lorazepam prescription in hand, though, she accepts a prescription for Ambien from Ray's former cardiologist--and, she admits, there is already "a considerable cache of pills, a lethal quantity of pills, at home," to which she will add these new medications. She will lay these pills, accumulated over the years, out on a counter repeatedly, noting exactly how many of each drug she has and reflecting that "a single decade of this rosary" would be enough to end her misery for good.

"Suicide is in fact a consoling thought," she confesses. "Suicide is the secret door by which you can exit the world at any time--it's wholly up to you." She takes a cold comfort in Marcus Aurelius's observation that "the power to take your own life is yours at all times." Yet suicide is also a choice that cannot be revoked, and for Oates it is enough to think about what effect her death would have on others. By breaking her days into segments, and living one day at a time, she is able to beat back the feeling that "this world has become remote & inaccessible." A prescription for Cymbalta helps, although this, too, does not ward off the basilisk completely. But she must try. "Where there is blood in the water," she reflects, "yet there may be a thrashing desperate-to-survive creature. I will be that creature. I will not give up."

When Oates does not dwell on her own potential obliteration, grief causes her to question everything that has come before. Having been taken away so abruptly, could her love have been real? "What is frightening is, maybe I never knew him," she worries. "In some essential way, I never knew my husband." They did not share their problems with each other ("unless it was unavoidable," she notes), and thus, rather than turn to him for comfort from bad reviews or other publishing difficulties, she "I walled off from my husband the part of my life that is 'Joyce Carol Oates'--which is to say, my writing career." (He didn't even read her novels and short stories, although he did manage the money they generated.) Likewise, she believes, "Ray would never wish to upset me. Very likely Ray shielded from me all sorts of things I never knew, and will never know." This includes his life before they were married; certain aspects of his family history , she comes to realize, represent "a kind of taboo territory about which I could not make inquiries." She finds the manuscript of Ray's unfinished novel in a closet, then agonizes over whether she should read it: "What you don't know about your husband has been hidden from you for a purpose," an internal voice warns, strong enough to deter her for some time. (Eventually, she does read, and discovers that she was right: the manuscript--which she never realized he continued to work on long after they were married--does hint at deeply suppressed traumas in Ray's early life.)

"But then," she admits, "I have walled myself off from 'Joyce Carol Oates' as well." She speaks of this "quasi-public self" as an "author-identification" she must from time to time impersonate and which can now offer some respite from the pain of Joyce Smith's life, especially in her creative writing classes at Princeton. "It isn't an exaggeration to say that, this semester of Ray's death, my students will be my lifeline," she says. She hopes, in fact, that the students will have no idea that anything has happened to her outside the classroom (but of course they know).

So while she can play the role of "JCO" at readings and other public appearances (which she undertakes in a further effort to evade the basilisk), Oates discovers that "to be a writer, you have to be strong enough to write," and in the months immediately following Ray's death, despite the number of inspirations for stories and novels that pass through her mind, "I haven't even the energy to write down these ideas, let alone plot out ways to execute them." This plays into all the other anxieties she has about her writing life, bravely exposed to readers' view--the feeling that nobody could possibly take her seriously, the reluctance (apart from the sheer lack of time) to blurb other writers because if her name on her own dust jackets isn't enough to sell her books, how could it possibly help somebody else's? She is amazed that anybody thinks she could be, as a colleague puts it flippantly, "writing up a storm" in the months after Ray's death, when it's all she can do some mornings to pull herself out of bed. ("Completing a novel!" she snorts. "I haven't even been able to complete a thank-you note!")

It may shock us, though perhaps it shouldn't, that Joyce Smith struggles to live up to the reputation of Joyce Carol Oates, whose name has become synonymous with that rare combination of prolificness and critical acclaim--and, by this account, that she did so long before Ray's death upended the life he had carefully maintained for her. Obviously, Oates has found a way to continue writing (and, though she mentions it only briefly, there is a novel that she has set out to completely revise "to save myself, as a drowning person might seize a rope, a lifeline, to haul herself up"). Maybe it is awkward to say that we should be grateful for this--let's say, then, that we should appreciate not only how Oates has pulled herself back from the brink of despair but also how she has been able to articulate a despair that all of us are in time likely to feel, to reassure us that this raw pain is both normal and survivable.--Ron Hogan


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