Joyce Carol Oates claims to be a shy, quiet girl, the kind who’d rather sit at home and read than listen to someone rattle off her life’s accomplishments in front of hundreds of people at Benaroya Hall. National Book Award winner. Pulitzer Prize finalist. Distinguished professor at Princeton University. Author of 50 novels and countless essays. American chronicler.
"What a lovely introduction. I was breathless," she said, deadpan. Oates sat stick-straight in an armchair onstage, but spoke effortlessly and candidly on Monday night about her husband’s death (the topic of her new memoir A Widow’s Story), boxing, writing, teaching, ghosts, grief. In one of the evening’s high points, she told a story about how she woke one night to find that her cat had "defiled" her husband’s death certificate, which she then tried to spot-clean with Windex. "Grief isn’t noble, it’s not King Lear," she said as the crowd laughed along with her. That Oates: shy, quiet, ironic.
On the pain of losing a loved one: "It’s possible that you suffer in a Dostoevskian kind of way for two hours. And then you’re exhausted. It’s best described as illness."
On suicide: "How could I write a suicide note? It’d somehow never be good enough."
On writing in journal form: "It’s breathless. Whoever writes (or reads) it doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow."
On writing a memoir: "Memoir is the most seductive of literary genres, and also the most dangerous. It seems easy, or is in fact easy. [But] it’s only good if it’s honest. … You can’t remember witty, sharp dialogue over 40 years."
On writing book reviews: "I always try to write about a book I admire. … For critical reviews, I spend a lot of time quoting so the reader can make his or her own judgment."
On boxing: "Boxing is an art and fighting is something people do."
On failure: "I’m drawn to failure. I feel that I’m contending with it constantly in my own life. Failure is much more universal than extreme success."
Joyce Carol Oates spoke at Benaroya Hall on Monday, April 18, during a Seattle Arts and Lectures event. She’s working on a new book, tentatively titled Mud Woman, about a female university professor who suffers and recovers from a breakdown.