“Sometimes my work is very savage, very harsh,” says novelist Joyce Carol Oates. “But so is life. My material is not sordid, it’s just a realistic reflection of a society that is in turmoil.”
A willowy brunette with enormous brown eyes, the 38-year-old Oates creates a world bursting with psychological and physical violence. “It would be unrealistic to write novels like Jane Austen today. It would be like writing fairy tales.” In Them, the novel for which she won the National Book Award in 1970, a petty hoodlum and his sister fight their way out of abject poverty. He escapes punishment for the murders he commits during the violence of the 1967 race riots. In Wonderland, optioned for the movies by director Michael Bennett, Oates dissects a brutal world of hospitals and surgeons. The Assassins, just out in paperback, centers on the murder of a former senator and the destructive relationships of his survivors—two brothers and a widow. (The author calls it her “best novel.”) Her latest is Childwold, a “problematic love story” in which a man of 40 falls in love with a teenager. “I guess it’s also the story of obsession,” she adds.
In 13 years Oates has published eight novels, seven collections of short stories, volumes of literary criticism, plays and poetry. There are more than five million copies of her books in print.
While she astonishes the literary world with her productivity, Oates does not consider it unusual. Furthermore, she bristles at the suggestion that she is a compulsive writer. “To be compulsive is to have no choice,” she says. “I dearly love and choose to write.” She is obviously conscious, however, of the criticism of her outpouring of work. She had lunch recently with a friend and seemed reluctant to leave. Didn’t she want to go home? “No,” Oates replied, “if I do, I’ll just write some more. People tell me I write too much.”
The demons and dark forces that pervade the lives of her characters have apparently never intruded into her own. The eldest of three children, Oates grew up on a small farm in Lockport, N.Y. “We were a close-knit family that got along very well,” she says. A self-described tomboy who read voraciously (her favorite book was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), she soon began writing her own stories. At 15, her first novel—about a young drug addict—was rejected by a publisher as too depressing for teenagers. She took her B.A. in English and philosophy at Syracuse University on a New York State Regents Scholarship. At the University of Wisconsin, where she earned her master’s, Oates met Raymond J. Smith, a gentle, scholarly man. They were married in 1961. “We’re very close friends, as well as husband and wife,” says Oates, who prefers to be known as Mrs. Smith. (A friend says, “There is a soft passion in their marriage. They are never cruel to each other.”)
They came to Detroit in 1962 to teach. She joined the faculty of the University of Detroit and he, Wayne State University. In 1964 he moved to the English department at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, and she followed in 1966. Each is known on campus as Professor Smith.
In the classroom the author comes alive with broad gestures and big smiles, her little-girl, inflectionless voice unusually spirited. She taps a deep response among students. “There’s a spirituality about her,” a former student says. “She is like a Buddhist, detached from the ordinary.”
The Smiths have a modest home in Windsor on the river across from Detroit. “Ray takes care of the outside of the house, and I take care of the inside—that’s our relationship.” She is usually at her desk in the master bedroom by 8 in the morning. “Writing every day is important to keep in good contact with the unconscious.” She writes in a tiny, neat, angular script on 8×10 sheets. Only when her material is completely organized does she transcribe it on an electric typewriter. “I don’t like the typewriter. It’s so inhuman. You can’t control mechanical things.”
Raymond, 46, who currently is checking galley proofs of his critical study of 18th-century satirist Charles Churchill, works in the guest room. Jointly, they publish the Ontario Review, a literary quarterly. Smith is editor and Oates is a contributing editor. “He is very talented,” Oates says proudly of her husband, “and particularly good with style and critique.” Ironically, he rarely finds the time to read the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, some of which is dedicated to him. She explains, “That’s not an important part of our relationship. I want that aspect of my life separate. He has his life too.”
They have decided not to have children, but Oates will not discuss the matter. “It’s too private,” she says. They have simplified their life in other ways. “We spent a year in England in 1972,” recalls Oates, “and realized that a lot of our activities back in the States had been wasteful. So we cut back our social activities, got an unlisted phone number, and now I don’t do anything that I dislike.”