Living Large In Limbo: Joyce Carol Oates on Writing about Grief and Loss
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
“Joyce!” I exclaimed in the empty lobby of the Mexican hotel. “My dad was in high school with you!”
The startled Joyce Carol Oates sized me up: “Oh, who was your dad?”
This could cut either way, I calculated. “Bob Kruger.”
Luckily, America’s most prolific author brightened a moment before descending into her previous discomfort. Clutching her credit card, a jet-lagged Joyce recounted a disastrous travel day flying from Berkeley, where she was guest teaching, to San Miguel de Allende, where she was the annual writers’ conference keynote speaker.
The Mexican waiter standing beside her asked me if I spoke Spanish. Turned out, he couldn’t accept Joyce’s credit card as payment for her room service meal.
“Well, let’s get you taken care of!” I led Joyce to the restaurant’s cash register, where her credit card could be processed.
Following her keynote address the next afternoon, I asked Joyce if she’d allow me 15 minutes to interview her for a column I write. She didn’t hesitate. “I’ll meet you in the lobby at 2:00 tomorrow.”
Promptly at 2:00, we spent 30 minutes discussing her work, my work, my dad, and Williamsville, NY, where they had both come of age.
I’m writing a book about my experiences in the Middle East with Iraqi and Syrian refugees, so I write about grief and loss. [In “A Widow’s Story,” Oates’ memoir about the sudden death of her husband of 47 years], you seem to look at that period of your life as a journalist would and distance yourself from your profound loss, yet you still have that piercing loss on the page. How did you do that?
[At that moment, a fan interrupts to ask Joyce to autograph one of her books. Oates has written so many books, it’s hard to get an accurate count.]
“I couldn’t write anything new. When my husband was in the hospital and afterward, all I was writing was a journal. Anybody can keep a journal anytime. Even if you can barely hold a pencil, you can write in your journal. I amassed months of this journal. A year later or so, I looked at that material and transformed it into a memoir. I would look at something like the day I drove Ray to the hospital, and how I felt, and then have little footnotes, like ‘the widow has no idea that she’s driving her husband to a place from where he’ll never come home.’ I think of how naïve we are sometimes. We stride off to do this thing that we think is going to work and then when we look back on it, we think how wrong, how naïve and how sad because it didn’t turn out that way.”
You not only wrote the book, you rewrote it several times. It’s beautifully structured.
“I could’ve put more in. I left some things out and I’m sorry now I left them out. I wasn’t really thinking that clearly. After you’ve had a grief like that, you don’t think clearly.”
What did you leave out?
I should have had a chapter “Just Say ‘Yes’.” After Ray died, I wanted to stay home in my bed and not go out. [Instead], I said “yes” to all these invitations. I didn’t want to fall into a stupor of depression. So someone would invite me to see a movie that I would never see in a million years. I said “yes,” [although] I didn’t really want to go. I think it’s important for the widow to say “yes” to these invitations. I remember once I was watching television with some dear friends, and I thought it was so stupid and I didn’t know why I was watching it. And I thought, “My life has come to this. I am so lonely and desperate that I’m watching this ridiculous thing.” But I couldn’t write that because all my friends would see it.
“Just say yes”… That has really [become] my philosophy. To stay home and be depressed is comfortable. Some people sort of enjoy depression. “I’m just going to stay in bed and watch television with my cat.” It’s much easier than getting dressed up and going out – or flying to the Middle East. I didn’t want to give in to that.
I’m sure with the kind of work that you’ve done, there were days when you wanted to be somewhere else, but people depended on you so you’re out there.
With the book I’m writing, I constantly get “We want more of you, Kelly.” (Joyce laughs in recognition). How do you deal with people who want more of you?
I don’t really think too much about it.
Do people come up and tell you their widowhood stories?
They write emails… They are very touching. Very, very, very touching [emails from] people who have had the same kind of experience. They’re from the heart. Many fan letters don’t call for an answer, but these are more poignant, so I definitely answer them.
That’s a lot to take on….
Well, there are variants on it. Sometimes the husband doesn’t die and the wife becomes the caretaker and there’s a whole new chapter that can be very unpleasant. Some point out that they wished their husbands had died, they lost everything they had or he [became] so awful. She’s pointing out my husband had died at the right time after all…and that’s an interesting idea.
(When not stalking famous authors, Kelly Hayes-Raitt completes her book about refugees, Living Large In Limbo: How I Found Myself Among the World’s Forgotten. She blogs at www.LivingLargeInLimbo.com.
Ed Note: This column originally appeared in The Argonaut newspaper in Los Angeles, CA.
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