Joyce Carol Oates has written novels, essays, criticism, short stories, and, under two different pseudonyms, crime fiction. But when she decided to write about her experience immediately following the unexpected death of her husband of more than 40 years, she turned to a new genre: the how-to book.
Oates initially envisioned her new memoir, A Widow's Story, as a kind of bereavement manual, full of practical advice for the newly widowed (how many copies of your spouse's death certificate should you request? Many). Widows, she writes, should be prepared for all sorts of inconveniences and humiliations, such as repeatedly providing proof that their spouse is dead, or the unintentional pain caused by the lavish bouquets sent by well-wishers. (One blackly funny screed in the book is directed at Harry and David's gift baskets.) "Flowers are like a mockery," the 71-year-old writer explained on the phone from Washington, D.C., where she is touring in support of the book. "No one sees them because your husband is dead, and then they start to die, and you have to deal with throwing them out. It's so wounding, so hurtful."
In the writing, A Widow's Story grew from a short, practical how-to manual to a 400-page examination of what happened from the moment her husband, Raymond Smith, checked into the hospital with what seemed a non-life-threatening case of pneumonia. (He died of a secondary infection.) Much of it comes from diaries Oates kept at the time, as well as emails she exchanged with friends such as Edmund White and Gloria Vanderbilt.
"I felt when I lost Ray that all the books on the shelves and all of the awards were vanity," [Oates] said.
A Widow's Story will inevitably be compared to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles the period after the death of Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne. But unlike Didion's account, which jumps several weeks ahead from Dunne's death, then backtracks through the couple's marriage, Oates’ memoir unfolds in excruciating real time. More than one hundred pages in, only a week has passed since Smith's death. As weeks slowly, painfully turn into a month, then two, Oates cycles between despair, rage, and exhaustion. Suicide is a constant thought, sometimes providing comfort, sometimes terror. Unable to sleep without pills, uninterested in food, Oates dragged herself through the days.
One of the most unexpected aspects of the book is Oates' inability to take solace from her work. The author, who is as well-known for the remarkable number of books she's written as the books themselves, writes in the memoir that "a writing life is not a life," and, "your writing will not save you." For any reader who believes art can give life meaning, these are chilling sentences.
"I felt when I lost Ray that all the books on the shelves and all of the awards were vanity," she said. Though she has completed two novels in addition to the memoir since her husband's death, the experience permanently changed her outlook. "All that matters in life is forging deep ties of love and family and friends," she said. "Writing and reading come later."
While a starkly effective recreation of the experience of acute grief, the book can be, not surprisingly, something of a slog. It's not until near the end, when the writer forces herself to take over Smith's garden at their home in Princeton, New Jersey, that the weight of mourning shifts. "I would suggest the widow do things the husband used to do, so he seems to be there with you," she said. "You will feel like just going to bed." She sighed deeply at the memory. "It's so wonderful, going to bed." A few months after beginning gardening, she was able to sleep through the night without medication. A while after that, a neuroscientist from Princeton came to dinner. Though she doesn't write about it in the book, they married in 2009.
Although Oates and Smith worked together, editing their literary journal, the Ontario Review, she rarely showed him her fiction. Her relationship with her new husband, Charlie Gross, is completely different. He reads her writing (including her memoir.) "Charlie is not a literary person. He's not a critic. He finds things to be enthusiastic about in life. Sometimes I have to be shown that something is better than I think it is." Including, for a while, life after the death of her first husband.
Jennie Yabroff is a staff writer at Newsweek covering books, movies, food, and art.