The stunningly prolific author celebrates a beloved grandmother in her most deeply personal book yet

By Jennifer Reese
Updated July 09, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT
Drew Farrell/Photoshot/Getty Images

You always hear that celebrities are surprisingly small in person. The opposite is true of Joyce Carol Oates. The woman in aqua shorts and a T-shirt who comes to the door is not the spectrally thin, wan, and mournful waif who graces the jackets of 117 volumes of poetry, fiction, and criticism. At 69, Oates is strikingly tall, animated, and far warmer than her photographs suggest.

It is one of the first balmy afternoons of spring in central New Jersey, and a small mountain of topsoil waits beside Joyce’s modern glass house on a shady street outside Princeton, along with some geraniums that her husband, Raymond Smith, is going to plant. The windows of Oates’ book-lined study overlook a pond and woods through which the couple’s two beloved cats, Reynard and Cherie, are wandering. Before sitting down to the interview, Oates brings out a photograph that she keeps next to her desk, a snapshot of her paternal grandmother, Blanche, at 23. ”I was very close to her,” says Oates. ”But in retrospect I didn’t really know her.” Her new novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, which debuted at No. 17 on the New York Times’ best-seller list, is an attempt to correct this. ”I have such a longing for people whom I knew in the past, especially people who are no longer living,” says Oates. ”If I could meet them today it would be such a different relationship.”

Like Rebecca, the protagonist of Gravedigger’s Daughter, Blanche grew up with an immigrant gravedigger father who brutally assaulted his wife, then shot himself. Like Rebecca, Blanche had an abusive, hard-drinking first husband and ended up raising their son — Oates’ father — on her own. And like Rebecca, Blanche was Jewish, but kept her heritage a secret. Oates learned of her grandmother’s roots only after her death in 1970, when biographer Greg Johnson began researching Oates’ past. ”Friends said, ‘Well, you look Jewish,”’ says Oates. ”They saw my grandmother’s picture, and they said, ‘She’s Jewish!’ Who knows? To be Jewish is to be specifically identified with a history. And if you’re not aware of that when you’re a child, the whole tradition is lost.”

The tradition Oates grew up with near the upstate New York town of Lockport was Catholic and working-class. Studious and shy, she caught the reading bug early, her childhood enthusiasms ranging from MAD magazine to Dickens. It was her grandmother Blanche who gave Oates her first ”real” book, a cherished copy of Alice in Wonderland. Blanche also gave 14-year-old Oates her first typewriter. ”I can’t begin to tell you what an extraordinary event that was in my life,” says Oates, who then began churning out novels. She continued writing as a scholarship student at Syracuse University, where she pledged the Phi Mu sorority. ”I can’t say I was a very successful sorority girl,” says Oates. ”I was the one who was downstairs trying desperately to study philosophy at 2 a.m. Sororities had to create these floats for parades. They would work on them for hours and hours, and people wouldn’t look at me or speak to me because I wouldn’t help! Now I see these women when I go to do readings. They’re still out there!”

In 1960, while working toward her master’s in English at the University of Wisconsin, Oates met Smith, a fellow graduate student, at a party. They married three months later, and by all accounts have enjoyed an unusually happy relationship, which has included coediting a literary magazine, Ontario Review, since 1974. ”I made a lot of mistakes as a girl,” says Oates. ”Fortunately, I didn’t make a mistake getting married.”

Nor was it a mistake to ditch her plans for a doctorate. In 1963, Oates published the story collection By the North Gate, which introduced the themes of sexuality and violence that have become her hallmark. Reviews were glowing, and Oates has published, on average, three books a year ever since. ”I have a laughably Balzacian ambition to get the whole world into a book,” Oates once said. In her case, the ambition has not been so laughable. Oates’ vast and diverse oeuvre includes a National Book Award-winning novel about a blue-collar Detroit family (them); a black comedy about a serial killer (Zombie); a sobering drama about college racial politics in the 1970s (Black Girl/White Girl); a best-seller based on the life of Marilyn Monroe (Blonde); an examination of the long-term aftereffects of a rape (We Were the Mulvaneys); a handful of stout family sagas; several gothic doorstops; a monograph on boxing; plays; poems; and 30 collections of short stories.

NEXT: Some find Oates too prolific: ”I think it’s inevitable. And understandable.”

[pagebreak]Some critics have held her output against her, the most notorious example being James Wolcott’s 1982 hatchet job, ”Stop Me Before I Write Again: Six Hundred More Pages by Joyce Carol Oates.”

”Like most people, I can be very easily hurt,” says Oates, who has been known to fire off angry letters to critics she felt had been unfair. ”You need so much energy and encouragement to write that if someone says something negative, some of that energy goes.” But today her response to barbs about her productivity is mild: ”I think it’s inevitable,” says Oates. ”And understandable.”

Her friends are less forgiving. ”In any other profession, if someone was productive, it would be a positive,” says Daniel Halpern, Oates’ editor. ”It’s a stupid response.” A Princeton colleague, novelist Edmund White, thinks she gets a bad rap because she’s a woman: ”John Updike writes a novel a year, but very few people go, ‘Oh, groan, another book by Updike.”’

What’s indisputable is that Oates has enviable discipline. In addition to teaching popular courses at Princeton, she writes every day, from morning until early afternoon, often resuming work in the evening. She claims to daydream about her narratives constantly, while jogging, while cooking, while gazing out her office window. And she has said she finds sleeping and eating unwelcome distractions from the ”enraptured conversation” in her head.

Comments like these fuel the myth of Oates as a chilly writing machine. In fact, she is friendly, sympathetic, and gently inquisitive. During the course of the interview, she asks almost as many questions as she answers — not the expected polite social questions, but whether I like the name Jennifer, what I named my cats, if I’m Irish — and seems to consider each answer carefully before moving on. You get the eerie feeling that your answers are going into a powerful imaginative database.

Which, of course, they are. ”She’s very sly,” says Halpern. ”Recently she said, ‘I’ve finished this novel, and there is a character you may think is like you.’ As soon as she says that, I get a little nervous.” Halpern will have to wait to see how he fares. When Oates completes a manuscript she puts it in a drawer for a year so she can distance herself emotionally. The extremely personal Gravedigger’s Daughter spent even longer in the drawer. ”I can’t read the end without starting to cry because I feel like my grandmother and I are communicating across the decades,” says Oates. ”Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and this feeling of panic comes over me. I think, This novel is going to be published and people are going to have all sorts of thoughts about it and some people won’t like it. Maybe they won’t like my grandmother! Or maybe they won’t like my father! Or my writing! It seems, suddenly, that I’ve bared my heart.”