Monday, March 25, 2013

Joyce Carol Oates: Love, Loss and Just Saying Yes

Joyce Carol Oates, the prolific American author and feminist, whose new book The Accursed, which Stephen King praised as the "perhaps the world's first post-modern gothic novel", sat down with Caryl early this year for her first pre-publication interview. The conversation veered from vampires, demons and zombies to love, loss and the importance of saying yes to life. In February, 2008, after the death of her husband, the woman whose first collection of short stories came out a half century ago and whose canon includes more than 100 books and articles, found her self blocked, unable to write a single word of fiction. Raymond J. Smith, her soulmate of 35 years and her publishing partner in The Ontario Review, had died suddenly of complications from pneumonia two days after a routine visit to the ER. Oates found herself paralyzed, depressed, unable to sleep, shut down by the “ontological shock” of widowhood. What saved her was not turning her experience into a memoir –which she did eventually in A Widow’s Story but rather a simple coping strategy that could help all of us who are stalled, stunted or scared, all of us who want to move forward towards a second life, one that is not shaped by loss but informed by it, one we live fully with our eyes—and hearts-- wide open.

Joyce Carol Oates (center red coat) dancing at her wedding celebration
How did Joyce Carol Oates get her groove back? How did she lift herself from despair? “If I don’t say yes (to every offer), I am going to go down a deep hole and never get up,” she told Caryl about the debilitating days she spent aimless in bed after her husband's death.  One day, after her first night's sleep in six months, she started making herself do things she never would have agreed to do were Ray alive. She accepted invitations--any and all-- to travel, see movies, have dinners out, give readings and lectures. “Nineteen out of 20 things turned out well,” she says. 

 One turned out really well. At a dinner party in August, a night when she thought she hardly had the energy to eat less converse, she met Charlie Gross, a professor and neuroscientist at Princeton University where Oates also teaches. During those dog days of summer, when the campus was nearly empty, the couple--both in their 70s-- began to spend time together, hiking and taking long walks together.  In late fall, they eloped to Maryland. At a celebration the next month with colleagues and friends, author Richard Ford acknowledged in his toast that he didn’t get to give Joyce away “since the bride and groom already ran off like sex-depraved teens and got married in secret across the state line where officials don't pay any attention to how old you are.” 
Author Richard Ford (far right) toasts the newlyweds Joyce Carol Oates and Charlie Gross.
Since marrying, she and Charlie sold their Princeton houses and bought a new one together, have traveled extensively abroad, and currently are spending a sabbatical semester teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. "With Charlie, I basically just say yes," she says of her hyperkinetic husband. She has added an epilogue to her memoir updating her marital status but said she regrets not including another chapter: "Just Saying Yes".  A Widow’s Story remains less a prescription for the next stage of life than Oates's journal of the early, startling days of grief that she had hoped would spare others the shock of loss.  “The fallacy of that thinking is no one reads these books ahead of time.”

Post script from Caryl:  There is one book published in 1987 that has shaped my thinking from my twenties to the present on how the most painful events of life are the most critical to moving forward and living purposely. Written by  Judith Viorist, also a celebrated children's author, Necessary Losses outlines “the loves, illusions, dependencies, and impossible expectations that all of us have to give up in order to grow”.  If you are looking for a guidebook to the second life,  definitely say yes to this one.

What is Joyce Carol Oates's personal favorite among her own books?  

Oprah picked We Are The Mulvaneys as her book club selection; I like The Gravedigger's Daughter. Joyce Carol Oates said she couldn't pick a favorite from her many books but found writing Blondea fictional retelling of Marilyn Monroe's life,  her most ambitious project.  Have you read a book by Joyce Carol Oates that you love? Please leave a comment. 


  1. I've read Joyce Carol Oates books, but targeted in on Necessary Losses. When I was teaching, one of the parents gave me the Judith Viorst's book, and I agree - it is one of those life altering books. Thanks for the reminder...I just pulled it out of the book shelf.

    1. I can't believe you've read Necessary Losses too. It is indeed life-altering.

  2. First, I am extremely jealous that Caryl had the opportunity to speak with Joyce Carol Oates. She is an important figure in American literature and looms large in my book. Second, what a wonderful story of how she turned her life around once she opened up to possibilities. I loved this post and I thank you for it. Last, when the heck will I get to see Caryl again? I loved meeting her at China Grill in NYC, but without FB - agh!!!!!! Best, Cathy Chester

  3. Hi Cathy,

    So nice to see you here at Second Lives Club. Nope, I am not on FB but there's a fan page for
    You can always reach me there --and here. I follow you--and our China Grill friends-- on the GenFab. I am looking
    forward to the next dinner. Do we have to wait until your birthday again? x,C

  4. Caryl, thank you for this inspiring post. I'm off to the library to check out Necessary Losses, and some of Oates's work as well. Agree with her that its all about saying "yes" in your second life. Even if the new thing you try doesn't work out (a recent experience for me), learning from failure is part of moving forward and living life to the fullest.

    1. Judith,

      Yes, failure is an important navigational tool. I find at this age, however, I am impatient with my own
      mistakes. I want to believe that my learning from the past shields me from future missteps. One of the things
      I have been most surprised by in my second life is that the world has changed so dramatically and rapidly
      in recent years that lots of my earlier learning feels obsolete and my success to failure ratio is trending
      the wrong way. The scripted life was certainly easier to leave, making it up as we go along is harder. There's no coasting--if you know what I mean.

    2. Exactly! And glad to know that I'm not the only one impatient with and frustrated by her own mistakes. I know exactly what you mean — there is no coasting.

  5. I LOVE "We Are the Mulvaneys"... though, I kind of thought the title should have been, "We Were the Mulvaneys".

  6. I met Joyce Carol Oates at a poetry conference about 20 years ago. She is warm, open, and sees herself in her audience. I love her books! This is a terrific post! I loved We were the Mulvaneys and I think of it often. I am so happy for her that she was able to recover from her loss of her husband. She remains an inspiration to us all.