Living Large in Limbo: Death and the Writing Life

Posted April 6, 2016 by The Argonaut in Columns

Author Joyce Carol Oates on living productively after grief and loss

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Joyce Carol Oates has published more than 40 novels Photo by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Joyce Carol Oates 
Photo 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 for me, the 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’s keynote speaker.

The waiter standing beside her asked me if I spoke Spanish. Turned out, he couldn’t accept Oates’ credit card as payment for her room service meal.

“Well, let’s get you taken care of!” I led Oates, 77, to the restaurant’s cash register, where her credit card could be processed.

Following her keynote address the next afternoon, I asked Oates — who appears in conversation Saturday at the LA Times Festival of Books — if she’d allow me 15 minutes to interview her  for The Argonaut.

She didn’t hesitate. “I’ll meet you in the lobby at 2 p.m. tomorrow.”

Promptly at 2 p.m., we spent 30 minutes discussing her work, my work, my Dad and Williamsville, N.Y., where they had both come of age.

I’m writing a book about my experiences in the Middle East with Iraqi and Syrian refugees, which has me dealing with grief and loss. So I was sure to ask about “A Widow’s Story,” Oates’ memoir about the sudden death of her husband of 47 years.

In “A Widow’s Story,” you seem to distance yourself from your profound loss as a journalist might, yet you still have that piercing loss shine through on the page. How did you do that?

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’ve said you not only wrote the book, you rewrote it several times.

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.

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.

Joyce Carol Oates appears in conversation with Michael Silverblatt during the Los Angeles Times Festival of books at 10:30 a.m. April 9 in the Bovard Auditorium at USC. For a full festival schedule, visit

When not stalking famous authors, Santa Monica’s Kelly Hayes-Raitt blogs at and can be reached at

One Comment

    Kay Davis

    It would be appropriate had she mentioned the four stages of recovery from devastating loss and where she sees herself now. Grief also relates to other kinds of losses, but long term relationships do appear to be among the worst in the sense that they paralyze our will to step out front again. Nice that Kelly was able to connect with this woman who appears gaunt and deeply sad in that photo. I wish her well.

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