This week marks the release of Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir A Widow’s Story. However, the prolific author herself shies away from categorizing it as such. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the book and her husbands, Ray Smith and Charlie Gross.
Louise McCready: You’ve called this memoir a “pilgrimage.” Can you elaborate on that?
Joyce Carol Oates: The memoir was assembled rather than “written,” as it is comprised of journal entries from Feb. 11, 2008 onward. Its form is, except for several chapters that are clearly set in the past, (as in Detroit of the 1960s), that of a quilt or a mosaic. In the summer of 2009, not able to write fiction very easily, I turned to the journal notes and assembled a sort of memoir out of them; but it wasn’t until late in this process that I came to realize that the effort of creating the memoir was a kind of “pilgrimage”—its destination unknown when I’d set off. I had no idea of the person I would become, and perhaps I am still becoming, when I began, with the first, early journal entries.
LM: You call the memoir the “most seductive” and “dangerous of literary genres,” yet you decided to write one. Why?
JCO: Again, I didn’t really “write” a memoir. I think that, to look back coolly and calmly and begin with a date, a time, perhaps years ago, is to “write” a memoir in the conventional sense; and this is both seductive and dangerous because it allows for so much mis-remembering, selection of memories, distortions both intentional and unintentional. The journal/diary is much different—it unfolds in present time, breathless, and filled with the humiliating, small details that comprise our lives, and not given a more elevated or elegiac shape.
A motive for a memoir of someone who has died is very obvious as the survivor is compelled to talk about the lost loved one, to keep his or her name in the air, “alive”—so to speak. The survivor is drawn to write about the person and the experience of loss. Much of literature is memorialization—a way we have of assuaging our homesickness. When you lose someone close to you, the loss is perhaps a kind of homesickness. I thought of “A Widow’s Story” as a way of keeping Ray alive, and preventing him from being forgotten….
LM: Was the process of writing about your husband’s death cathartic? Or painful? Both?
JCO: The theory of “catharsis” is controversial. It isn’t really clear whether writing about something exorcises it, or exacerbates it, but the writer enthralled by a personal event, or traumatized by it, isn’t really free to write about other subjects, so the cathartic element is somehow beside the point. I had wanted to write a novel about a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly, but real-life memories intruded so powerfully, I came to feel that the novel was a substitute because I was afraid to write directly.
After uncovering and reading Ray’s unfinished novel, Black Mass, you briefly entertain the idea of completing it but decide against it. Do you still look at it? To what degree do you feel it helped you know your husband better?
Of course the manuscript is still on my shelf, with other writings of Ray’s, and his book titled Charles Churchill. I do look into it now and then. But it’s very sad. I think we would all feel sad to glance into something written by a loved one, who has passed on—and who did not complete what he’d once felt to be so crucial to his life. It’s like looking through old snapshots, which I have done endlessly….
LM: You say you wish Ray had shown Black Mass to you and that the two of you had discussed it.
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