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Stepping out of the darkness

Joyce Carol Oates explains why she has found a renewed joy in writing fiction.

There is something “gnarly, with lots of prickles” growing in the three-acre garden surrounding Joyce Carol Oates’s sequestered home in the New Jersey countryside.

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“Is it a weed? Or some rare species perhaps,” she muses, asking if I’ll step out into the soupy summer heat and give her my opinion on this vexed question. At that moment, though, a torrential rainstorm saturates the lavish flowerbed and the rolling lawn beyond the vast picture windows. “Such a pity,” sighs Oates, “I so wanted your opinion on this strange, thorny thing which I’ve only just discovered out there.”

We could brave the rain, I suggest, but she sensibly points out that we’d be soaked in seconds. Still, the twisted Gothic nature of this mysterious plant is a perfect metaphor for how the Pulitzer Prize-nominated 72-year-old’s literary garden grows, so filled with things rank, corrupt and profoundly unsettling are the many works of genre-bending fiction which she’s produced during an acclaimed 45-year-long career, and which she’ll talk about at the Edinburgh International Book Festival next month.

Much of her actual garden -- it fronts a small lake -- is new territory to her because she moved here only recently. It is half a mile but a world away from the beautiful, glass-walled, post-modern home outside Princeton which she shared with her late husband, the self-effacing editor and publisher Raymond Smith. Now the dark lady of American letters has begun a “new phase” of her life in this large, modern-art and book-filled “contemporary French provincial” house, with her new husband, Charles Gross. Gross is a neuroscientist and lecturer at Princeton University, where Oates is Professor of the Humanities, her creative writing students having included Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Picoult, she murmurs, is “so prolific” that she’s in awe of her. This, of course, is rather like Balzac marvelling at Dickens’s productivity, although Picoult -- to whom Oates says she doesn’t think she was that helpful a mentor -- will have to put on some speed if she’s to keep up with her erstwhile tutor. For the award-winning Oates -- who is fine-boned, pale-skinned and thin as a famished sparrow, with huge, deceptively dreamy, amber-coloured eyes -- is acknowledged as perhaps the Great American Novelist (in the unlikely event that the macho literary establishment ever confers that title on a woman) and regularly tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

She is the versatile author of more than 50 novels -- some written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly -- a dozen novellas, around 1,000 short stories, and a wheen of intellectually rigorous collections of book reviews, essays and literary criticism. There are also half a dozen poetry collections, young adult and children’s books, and numerous plays, including the libretto for an opera, Black Water, based on her novel of the same name. Yet, she insists that she has “an alarming proclivity for time-wasting”. “I lose a lot of writing time because I’m at the university two days a week, so I have to try to make up for it,” she says, claiming that the literary character she most resembles is the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw -- “wildly inventive and imaginative, but where is the ‘reality’ to which she aspires?”

Reality has been all too evident in Oates’s own life in recent years. The tectonic plates of the emotional terrain of her very settled, happily married life shifted in February 2008, with the unexpected death of her husband of 48 years -- “of what was called a hospital infection, only a few hours after we’d been discussing his discharge [from hospital].” He’d been stricken by pneumonia and in hospital for barely a week. The death of a “loved one” is a universal experience, she notes, although she repeats something she told me in 2005, two years after her mother Carolina’s death, that she believes all deaths are acts of violence -- “the loved one is cruelly snatched away from you, so death is always brutal. Suddenly, you are robbed of someone you love”. And so it was when Smith died. To the bereaved, the death “is as singular as a mountain thundering downhill to an avalanche that swallows you utterly, batters your brain and fills your mouth with rubble”, she writes in her latest book, Rough Country: Essays & Reviews, which has just come out in the US but which, like much of her literary criticism, will not be published in the UK. The rough country of the title encompasses the unknown, uncharted territory in which she found herself abandoned as a widow as well as the treacherous geographical/psychological landscapes of the writers who are her subjects -- from Flannery O’Connor to Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx.

Reading and writing about literature, she says, running her long fingers through the frizz of curls that fizzes about her small head like so many ideas waiting to be written, can be a solace to the bereft. It was for her in the wake of Smith’s death when the effort of writing fiction seemed beyond her. She lost weight, suffered from chronic insomnia and was constantly exhausted. “Overnight everything seemed to change for me, and inside me. After my husband died, I could not write much -- I could not concentrate.” She says that it was as if fiction belonged to another lifetime when she’d been “younger, more resilient and reckless”.

She could compose short stories -- slowly and painstakingly, with one-tenth of the efficiency she’d formerly taken for granted, bizarre and surreal stories about loss, grief, “surviving” -- but was unable to manage anything so ambitious as a novel, even a short novel. Instead she spent months editing the manuscript of the novel she’d just completed when Smith died.

Little Bird of Heaven, set in the fictional town of Sparta, familiar from her great family saga, We Were the Mulvaneys, is a sprawling novel telling of the consequences of a murderous act of sexual violence on two children, one of whom is mourning the loss of her father -- “obviously that was based on my own father, losing him”. The book was her lifeline, she admits. She recalls revising every sentence because the thought of starting something new was so completely overwhelming.

It was published here in January alongside her much shorter, sparer novel, A Fair Maiden, “a brutal and horrific fairy tale” set in the “shimmering”, affluent Jersey shore town of Bayhead, about a rich, reclusive, elderly artist’s disturbing interest in a 15-year-old girl, Katya, whom he persuades to sit for him. She becomes not only Mr Kidder’s muse but his angel of death. Oates wrote the book is just two months. One critic has suggested that the novel might well stand as a heterosexual counterpart to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, albeit with its focus less on the artist than on his object of desire. It’s these two books, with their brilliant portraits of young, used and abused female protagonists finding an ultimate redemption, that she will discuss in Edinburgh.

Coming soon, though, is another plentiful harvest of Oates: two new collections of short stories, Sourland: Stories of Loss, Grief and Forgetting, and Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense, as well as a new novel, which she’s still writing -- “between teaching, cooking, cleaning and gardening” -- whose protagonist is the closest she’s ever come to writing about herself.

Her heroine, from a similarly impoverished farming background as her own, rises to great success in the groves of academe. “I thought it was about time I wrote about a woman such as myself,” she says, although she acknowledges that the many young women she’s written about so brilliantly are drawn from her own memories of her Irish Catholic girlhood in Millersport, in upstate New York, where her parents scrabbled hard to make a living as fruit farmers. Their lives were full of hardship, “with many emotional and psychological obstacles to be overcome in a land that was almost like the terrain of the heart”.

She writes with enormous empathy about America’s underclass and is truly the poet of the proletariat, endowing the blue-collar families of her own roots with dignity and complexity, particularly the young. “I very much identify with young girls, especially with adolescent characters like Katya in A Fair Maiden, who is very much conjoined in my imagination with the old ballad Barbara Allen, which is so haunting to me. I’m often singing it to myself half-consciously. Girlhood is such an intense time. Often the more I write about a young woman character, such as the one I’m writing about now, the more I become like her.”

Meanwhile, on the table behind the sofa where Oates is sitting, there are the galley proofs of the 400-page memoir she’ll publish early next year, The Widow’s Story, based on the diaries and journals she kept in the desperate, despairing three months following Smith’s death. “It’s had many titles,” she says, adding that it’s nothing like Joan Didion’s bestselling memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about life after her husband’s sudden death.

“We have very different lives. She had servants or helpers, buffers. I was alone, living alone and quite literally alone, which I talk about in the memoir, which is neither sombre nor sober.

“Rather, it will be a practical, darkly funny guide -- a widow’s handbook -- with advice, for instance, on how to pick a grave plot and coping with the death duties, such as having to produce copies of the death certificate ad nauseam until you want to scream. The book has been enormously difficult to write.

“I honestly did not think I would ever survive this interlude,” she says. But survive she did. And she’s no longer alone. A year after Smith’s death she met the distinguished scientist Charles Gross, who’s also a photographer and writer, at a Princeton dinner party and she fell in love -- soon they were engaged. On Friday, March 13, 2009, they “eloped”. “The bride and groom 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,” said the writer Richard Ford in his speech at their post-nuptials -- the images online show Oates, dressed in scarlet silk, dancing and laughing.

When I ask about her wedding, she calls her new husband out of his study so that we can meet. “I find myself in a new life,” she says softly as the bearded Gross appears, dressed in baggy shorts and boots as if for a serious hike -- as is Oates, since they go mountain hiking. He’ll accompany her to Edinburgh because they want to go walking in Scotland. Everything in her life has changed. A new husband means new family, new friends -- it’s Gross’s second marriage too -- and he’s now her first reader, she says gazing at him adoringly.

“Ray read all my non-fiction, but he didn’t read my fiction. As an editor he was constantly reading manuscripts and I always felt giving him more to read wasn’t fair. I also felt I needed more privacy; I’ve always felt uneasy when people close to me are reading my writing -- my fiction -- as if they were intruding on their sense of me which I would not wish to violate. Charlie has a very different mindset, he’s a scientist, very precise. He reads everything I write and he’ll say something that’s approximate or metaphorical isn’t right -- and I’ll fix it.”

An hour later, as I depart into the damp sunshine, Oates hands me a bag of cherries -- “freshly picked this morning” -- for my journey back to New York. Then she darts back to her upstairs study, with its views of her glorious garden -- thorns and all. Pinned to the board over her desk is a quotation from another prolific American writer, Henry James: “We work in the dark -- we do what we can -- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

A Fair Maiden is published by Quercus, £15.99; Little Bird of Heaven is published by Fourth Estate, £12.99. Joyce Carol Oates will be at Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 29

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