new york times magazine
July 27, 1980

For years she kept a careful distance from the world, weaving her tales of violence with exquisite detail. Now this prize-winning writer has entered upon a new stage; with a new outlook and a new Gothic novel of major proportions.

By Lucinda Franks

In a trance Raphael stretched out upon his raft...The pond had made itself manifest to him. It took him into its depth, it embraced him, whispered..."Come here, come here to me, I will take you in. I will give you new life. "

The undersized child with ... that furtive expression tinged with a melancholy irony ... was seen less and less frequently that summer until, finally, one morning, it was discovered that he had simply vanished...”Raphael," they called... ” Where are you hiding?"...They went in search of him to Mink Pond, of course... But where was Mink Pond? It seemed, oddly, that Mink Pond, too, had vanished.

-From "Bellefleur" by JOYCE CAROL OATES

She slides back the glass doors, steps out onto her stone terrace and invites you, for a short time, to enter her world. A hawk dips down through the trees, a cat and dog face off with hisses and growls. You recognize all of them; a gallery of misplaced characters. The bird belongs not here in Joyce Carol Oates's backyard on the outskirts of Princeton, N.J., but elsewhere and you half expect it to swoop down and ferry you to Bellefleur Castle; the rainbow-colored cat, the holly, the dragonflies, all are escapees from the author's 35th and latest book.

Beyond the terrace, a familiar body of water, choked with rushes and water iris, stretches languidly before you.

"Yes, it's Mink Pond," says the author. "That, like many things in the land of the Bellefleurs, is a symbol. No! Raphael did not die. The pond is an emblem of his imagination - a more hospitable place for him - and that, in the end, is where he returned."

And, in the end, all the raw pieces of reality - the people, places, bits of gossip, confession that touch the life of Joyce Carol Oates are, like Raphael, swallowed up by her imagination; transformed, compressed, cut and set like diamonds in her fiction.

The cat, Misty, oblivious of the fact that he has been re-created in his mistress's litterature as the dazzling Mahalaleel - an aristocratic stray who as the grand-chat of Bellefleur Castle is more iridescent, much silkier and infinitely more commanding than the original - lurks beneath the garden chairs waiting to pounce on one of his brothers, all of whom had been rescued by the author, who is childless, from a roadside abandonment.

She sits casually, but she is as tall and erect as a signal tower, fading in and out each time a blue jay or cat intercepts her attention. She looks somehow lost in time, as though she has emerged from the Gothic porticos of her own "Bellefleur." If her face is dramatically arresting, she seems to dress it down with the ordinary. At first impression - dainty hairstyle, rosebud lips, Middle Western drawl - she looks as if a frilly apron or wrist flower would suit her. But then, there are the eyes: intense, brown, shining; twice as big and taking in twice as much as you might expect.

She speaks almost below her breath, as though there were someone in the next room whom she didn't want to overhear her. It is hard to believe that this is the voice directing the stories that tell of sons who murder their mothers, of religious leaders who gouge out their own eyes, of medical students who cannibalize cadavers.

She reminds you of a magician's sleeve, from which a chain of connected handkerchiefs is pulled; it doesn't seem possible (the sleeve is not very wide), but the material keeps coming and coming until it fills the stage. There are many worlds, you realize, belonging to Joyce Carol Oates, beyond the one which you are being permitted to visit.

Winner of the National Book Award for fiction in 1970 for her novel "them," frequent recipient of an 0. Henry Award, a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Joyce Carol Oates is regarded as one of the nation's preeminent fiction writers. Nevertheless, at age 42, she has not received the popular recognition accorded her equals, largely because in the past she herself has chosen obscurity, refusing interviews and talk-show invitations. In the last 17 years, she has produced 12 novels, 11 collections of short stories, eight volumes of poetry, three books of literaly criticism, one play, and hundreds of book reviews. That is an average of about two books a year, a record of prolificacy that has earned not only the awe but also the suspicion of many critics, who accuse her of "automatic writing." She has always, however, enjoyed a rather rarefied audience, with a group of only about 20,000 faithful buying her books in hardcover.

Now, however, with the publication of "Bellefleur," hopes abound that this state of affairs will change. Unlike her other books, which are fixed in time and place and usually deal with a specific genre group, "Bellefleur" spans six generations of an American family, beginning with one Jean-Pierre Bellefleur who, having been banished from France, builds in 1802 a castle in the valleys of a place that sounds very much like the Adirondacks. It is a Gothic saga, a tableau of the real and the surreal, rich with magic, whimsy, tragedy and humor and just the right number of unforgettable characters (some of whom turn into animals from time to time) to fit the prescription for a commercial success. The heads of her publishers are alive with fantasies that she will become the book publishing world's next queen-for-a-day, with her hefty backlist turning into coffers of gold. Fawcett Books, the paperback house that has issued all of her novels, has apparently decided this might happen; it has put in a floor bid of $200,000 - $50,000 higher than it has ever paid for a Joyce Carol Oates book - for the as yet unscheduled paperback auction of "Bellefleur."

Their high hopes may be realized. In last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, John Gardner said that "whatever its faults, 'Bellefleur' is simply brilliant," and he called Miss Oates "one of the great writers of our time."

She walked past the front steps, her hair blowing helplessly across her face... Why was everything so raw, so open? It was like walking along the beach, narrowing her eyes slightly against the wind. She felt a certainty, an excitement, that something would happen very shortly, and that her life would begin.

-From "Do With Me What You Will”

Joyce Carol Oates (above, at her Princeton home) “has broken a kind of isolation,” her agent says, but when she works the author still locates herself “behind a wall of silence.”

Deep in the leafy, lazy Princeton street, carpenters are banging, sawing, lifting shovelfuls of earth, building a new wing on the home of Miss Oates and her husband, Raymond Smith, a professor of 18th-century literature. The butterflies fluttering about the terrace seem like metaphors for the feeling of expansion, of something taking flight, for the sides of the house are made of glass.

"I'm so glad you did not come when it was raining," Miss Oates says, bringing out tea, water and soda pop at interval. "It's so gloomy in a glass house on a dark day."

And more exposed, perhaps, than an earlier self ever would have wished. There was a time when she and her husband lived in an apartment so small that she had to write in her bedroom on a card table. The bookstore in the Canadian town where she taught until two years ago- at the University of Windsor - did not even carry her books. To the New York literary community, she seemed one step away from J.D. Salinger in her upcountry isolation. She liked it just fine that way. It gave her the liberty to be what she wanted to be, free of the pressure of spotlights and literary fashions. It protected her from the terror of being paraded about, examined - a bug on a pin beneath hot lights.

A frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, she has refused to read reviews of her own work. In the past, she has instructed her agent not to inform her of any public reaction to her work. And she has never let the person dearest to her in the world - her husband - read the body of her work. Although he reads the occasional book review she writes, virtually all or the rest of her work is offlimits because, she says, "it would be like living with a constant condemnation if he didn't like it." He will escort her to a speech or a reading but then will wait out in the hall. "If she makes a mistake," he reasons, "the mistake dies there. If I am present, it lives on."

"He would like to read my work," she says, " but it is not a burning issue between us. There is no pressure on him, or me, and it makes life easier."

Although frail, Miss Oates has an extraordinary physical presence (its impact is as startling as coming upon a deer in the middle of a wood), and the secret of that may rest in her solemnity, her reserve, a kind of power of concealment. So emotion-bound does she become in anything that she is writing that life itself is often too strenuous. She does not smoke or drink, and even tea is too strong for her. Highly sensitive and receptive, she is a kind and generous friend to young writers. Yet there is an aloofness as she appraises people from behind rose-tinted glasses, a guardedness that makes it difficult for anyone to get to know her.

Nevertheless, there is a second Joyce Carol Oates taking form and it is as though she were becoming, in a certain sense, not unlike one of her own characters. She creates people who isolate themselves from the complexity of their worlds, who cast about in states of narcissism and hubris, trying to impose their own single-visioned reality on the chaos of life, or who retreat altogether into cataleptic states of denial. Almost always, these characters find redemption and survival by accepting the natural order of the universe, by resigning themselves to the fact that there is no one answer, no deliverance, by rejoining and flowing with the society around them.

In an external sense, Miss Oates has embarked on a kind of reunion of her own. For the first time, she has expressed an interest in knowing the details of advance sales bids and promotional data on her new novel. Eager to debunk the assumption that she is a recluse writing in "a fever possessed,", she brings out the notes and drafts of "Bellefleur," staggering beneath a pile that contains plot tharts, maps and the Bellefleur family trees.

This spring, another precedent was broken. She and her husband went to Western and Eastern Europe, a six-week tour that included attending literary symposiums and giving speeches. It was her first time on an airplane since she left college.

The shift began, friends say, when she accepted a position as visiting professor of creative writing at Princeton University in 1978. Until then, she had clung to a tightly circumscribed life. Born in the fivehouse town of Millersport, on the shoulders of The Erie Canal, Joyce Carol Oates went to Syracuse University on a scholarship and got her M.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin, where she met and married Smith. She settled down to teach, first at the University of Detroit, then across the river in Ontario at the University of Windsor.

"She grew up in a small place, taught in a small place all her life and now she has undergone a life change" says Evelyn Shrifte, her editor at Vanguard Press, her first publisher. "She has gotten bolder."

This fall will be her third year at Princeton, and there is evidence that she plans to stay permanently. In addition to buying, and even expanding, a house, she and her husband have recently started in their home a small book-publishing press, an off-shoot of The Ontario Review, a literary journal which the couple founded in 1974 and which Smith edits.

Even more significant, in December 1978, Joyce Carol Oates changed publishers. Breaking with Vanguard, which had published all of her fiction since her first book in 1963, she signed on with the much larger house of E.P. Dutton, which will promote her books on a much grander scale.”

"She has broken a kind of isolation," says her long-time friend and literary agent Blanche Gregory. "She is among professors of great prestige - Princeton was the watering ground of Fitzgerald, you know - and she goes to parties and hops on a train to New York and sees (Donald] Barthelme or John Updike or a dozen others." Miss Oates herself says, "It's a wonderful new experience, being part of a literary community."

She teaches only two writing workshops a week, as opposed to a full course load at Windsor. Whereas the academic world at Windsor was "cold and stark," she says she finds her Princeton students more exciting and exacting.

I, too, drift into sleep and am rewarded with astonishing, unspeakable sights. In fact, I have grown to fear sleep, at the very edge of sleep my entire body jerks, waking me. But the visions are not always nightmares. They can be sweet, soothing, hypnotic. I think they are the dreams of others, former occupants of this rented bed. Surely they are not my own.

- From "Son of the Morning”

Joyce Carol Oates chops shrimp in her pin-neat kitchen, the counters so clear you could somersault the length of them. Humming, she sets the shellfish afloat in a tart and airy yogurt soup. Smith, large, handsome and bashful, emerges from his study. He looks like a man who has lost something. A glance at his wife doing the cooking, and he smiles longingly.

The living room seems oddly untouched: the glass dining table glints with sun; perfectly placed about the room are shiny ashtrays, hanging plants, a collection of old clocks, stacked records. One wonders whether the couple has rearranged both the room and themselves halted the motion, stopped everything in time - on account of the invasion by this stranger with a note pad. Whatever the reason, they move delicately, as though they were traveling down narrow aisles in a china shop, watched by a crowd of window shoppers with their noses pressed to the glass.

"Some cheese, honey?" she asks, straightening her husband's collar. Smith cuts himself tiny squares of cheese, arranges them on a plate and studies them. He talks - very softly, but as distinctly as if he were addressing a Dictaphone - about putting out The Ontario Review. She boasts about how hard he works at it. Their voices drift like a melody above the contrapuntal movements of their hands -hers, reedilke, do a series of arabesques as she lifts spoon to lip; his simply glide about the air- a pas de deux of two spirits that have danced well together for a very long time. One cannot imagine either of them tearing through the house to catch a train, or throwing an ashtray in exasperation, or even raising their voices.

Instead, they take long bicycle trips, drive about in their car, walk
and poke into lost corners of Manhattan. "I also spend an inordinate amount of time," Miss Oates confesses, "doing absolutely nothing."

It is clear, however, that whatever she does, including "nothing," she is a writer who spends sometimes 24 hours a day writing. She once went to bed and dreamed an entire new ending for an already published book, "Wonderland," which was incorporated in subsequent editions.

“If you are a writer," she says, "you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework, which I love, you can still be writing, because you have that space."

Often during the evening, she will curl up on the couch with her pad and pencil and scrawl, like a little girl making up a story. Then, before she goes to bed, she will read over the pages she has written and the notes she has made that day. Where most writers must battle the currents of selfdoubt to get to the reverse magnet that is their typewriter, Joyce Carol Oates can hardly resist the pull.

Her study is spare: a large desk with just a few papers scattered about, a file cabinet, a bulletin board tacked with chapter headings, a small settee. "I usually work from about 8:30 A.M. to 1 P.M.; then in the afternoon I'll make telephone calls, or teach, or go to New York. Then I'll make dinner and then, from about 8 until 11:30, I'll work again."

That adds up to anywhere from one to 10 pages a day, but usually about five, unless she is writing a short story, when she will do a draft in one day. "As I get older, I find I can't write as fast, and I have to rewrite again and again, sometimes as much as 17 times."

Her characters, she says, are composites of real people, but her husband never appears in her books. "He is a loving, tender, kind, wonderful man who does not belong in a novel. People like him are the backbone of the earth, no doubt, but he is not melodramatic or intrusive."

She is currently writing a book about betrayal - the betrayal of the American people by such politicians as Nixon and Kissinger - and about personal disappointment. "I've had friends who have been betrayed by their husbands. It haunts me. That kind of betrayal is the worst. It comes like a sword; to wake up one day and find everything you thought was true is false. You just can't absorb it into your reality.

"If it happened to me, I don't think I could survive it."

Gradually she began to see the blood on him...Across the side of his head, shyly turned from her, a stream of blood was moving and soaking into the pillow... She did not move. She could smell his blood. Words came to her again, like an incantation, My brother is to blame, that bastard.

-From "them".

Whether describing the bloodshed of the slums of Detroit, as she did in "them," or the clinical butchery inside a hospital, as she did in "Wonderland" (there, a student cuts out a uterus from a cadaver, broils it and eats it), Joyce Carol Oates has been criticized for an excess of exquisitely detailed gore.

She reacts archly to this: "I did not create the streets of Detroit. When I write about a man who murders or commits suicide, where do I get the idea from? From a hundred different sources, from the violence and cynicism that is part of our national character.

"People don't criticize journalists for writing too much about the slaughter in Cambodia. Why should a novelist be singled out for writing about what she sees?"

She often plots her stories from newspaper headlines and she views her writing as a reflection of American life. If Norman Mailer resorts to non-fiction to novelize America (his account of the life of Gary Gilmore in "The Executioner's Song" is called a "true-life novel"), then Joyce Carol Oates only attempts her own reproduction of the nation's larger-than-life characters and events.

"When people say there is too much violence in Oates," she says, "what they are saying is there is too much reality in life."

She does admit, however, that even she finds her material rough to write. "If I have to write a particularly gory part, I distance myself. I forget I am me and enter the scene through the narrator. I simply become a vessel for him."

The gallery floor shines, it is so highly polished... You step close to the photographs, you peer anxiously at them... Sunrise, trees, mountains, the remarkable delicacy of light, the blossoming of light in leaves...You want to cry out in amazement that you have not seen anything before, you have never seen the mountains before, though you stare out that bedroom window of yours every day of your life.

- From "Chi1dwold".

When Joyce Carol Oates was just 25, she went to New York for the first time. "Oh, her eyes were as wide as an ocean!" says Evelyn Shrifte, her former editor. The young author had come to the big city for the publication by Vanguard of her first book, a short-story collection. "I can see her now. The bells were ringing at St. Pat's and it was magic for her.

"Vanguard had taken a chance on her. She was fresh out of school, and I thought she was a genius." says Miss Shrifte, who still mentions the names of Miss Oates's characters as if they were old friends. "She and Ray stayed at my house. They didn't have much money then and we would sit around at night and I would read and they would read and then, at 11 P.M., we would have Tab and a cookie.

"I am very sad that we lost her and I can't help but think that some of the promotion she's getting is ghastly," Miss Shrifte adds. "We always tried to treat her with dignity. Our ads simply mentioned the name Joyce Carol Oates, as you might mention Beethoven, no explanation needed.

"I never even edited her. We didn't care about a best seller, we just cared about her being herself. Well, maybe she can be promoted. Maybe that's what she likes now. Maybe it's what she deserves."

Dutton has persuaded Miss Oates to take a royalty rate cut to enable the 558-page book to be retailed at a price accesible to a wider public. The publishing house plans to spend upward of $35,O00 on promotion, much more than Vanguard ever spent, and it took the unusual step of distributing 1,000 copies free to booksellers at the American Booksellers Association Convention last June. Most of Miss Oates's previous books have had only etchings or photographs on their covers, but Dutton commissioned an original oil painting for the cover of "Bellefleur." Trade-journal advertisements proclaim the book as "a breakthrough work ... the mythic culmination of Joyce Carol Oates's ongoing portrait of American life."

"She's going to get a second kind of reader: ordinary people who might not follow serious literature, but who like a good read," says Karen Braziller, her editor at Dutton. "And what author could be unhappy at selling a few more books?"

Month followed month and she failed, she failed to conceive, and it was this word she insisted upon - fail, failed - this word Gideon had to endure.

But now...Now the woman was so wonderfully, so arrogantly pregnant...nothing was so real to her now as certain flashes of sensation - tastes, colors, even odors, vague impulses and premonitions - which she interpreted as the baby's continuous dreaming, deep in her body.

- From "Bellefleur".

"For years, I had wanted to write 'Bellefleur,'" Miss Oates says. "I would collect images along the way - a clavichord I saw, a snatch of conversation I heard - but I never could find the right voice. I would just throw the pages away; I was blocked."

The novel began in her mind with a sudden image of a woman sitting beside a baby in a cradle in a shabby but lushly overgrown walled garden. “ 'Oh! I'd love to be there,' I thought. It was a warm, penetrating, nostalgic image," and from there, Oates yearned and dreamed right into the book. She worked intensely from the summer of 1978, when she arrived in Princeton, until the following May, to finish it.

The theme threading through the story of the Bellefleurs is the tragedy of greed, the megalomania in the American character that ultimately leads to self-destruction.

"Bellefleur," more than any other Oates novel, took possession of her. "It was very peculiar. It was a puzzle haranguing me. I'd hurry to my desk in the morning and sometimes it would take hours to get going, but I would try to do a chapter a day. I was in a very tense and excited state."

She calls "Bellefleur" her "vampire" novel. "Even talking about it still drains me," she says, looking all at once as though she had left the room. "I've had many such psychic vampire experiences in the past.

"I developed some theories about 19th-century Gothicism while writing the book. Using the werewolf, for instance, is a way of writing about an emotional obsession turning into a kind of animal.

"It seemed a race against time. I guess writers always have this feeling that they will die before they complete their work. "

When she finished the last page, a feeling of deep melancholia came over her. "There was nothing to make your heart beat fast, nothing to make you afraid... I felt very homesick, like loving a place you know you will never go back to."

How fierce the Hawker Tempest ... fierce and urgent and combative and never playful, like the other planes...Such an airplane must be freed from the spell of gravity, it must be taken into the air as often as possible...

There were so many Bellefleurs, people said, but perhaps most of them had never existed... Though Gideon; of course, certainly existed. At least until the day he committed suicide by diving his airplane into Bellefleur Manor.

-From "Bellefleur".

When Joyce Carol Oates was a child in Erie County -which has been re-created as the Eden County of many of her books, including "Bellefleur" - she remembers how her father, a tool-and-die designer, loved to fly small airplanes. "It scared my mother and me to death.

"It was a big sport in Millersport. My father loved to get into this little chair with wings; he loved the feel of the wind, like being in a hang glider. It became obsessive with him.

"The youngish men would do stunts, flying low over the house, seeing how close they could get. There were a lot of accidents and I was afraid my father would crash, which he didn't."

But the character Gideon Bellefleur, who also became addicted to the thrill of small planes, did. A lingering childhood fear realized finally in her novel? Thus, perhaps, is the creative mind fueled by a need to unconsciously resolve the wishes and fears of the past.

A harsh note to the children's play. Someone is drunk and angry and someone else is frightened and angry and the others are laughing ... the others stand about laughing, rude jocular hearty, good-natured, the girl is saying. "Stop, stop! Goddam you, stop!"

- From "Childwold".

Joyce Carol Oates was a slight, skinny girl. The boys all looked very tall to her. She went to a one-room schoolhouse and then the local junior and senior high schools, and going on the school bus every day was a journey of intimidation and violence.

"It was so rural and everybody intermarried," she says. "There were a lot of mentally retarded kids and the older ones would bully the smaller.

"They were rough and ignorant boys and they quit school usually at 16. They appear in my books now and then. It was exhausting. A continual daily scramble for existence."

As chaos swirled outside, inside the Oates farmhouse it was warm, safe, a watering ground. Her family, Roman Catholic, was multitiered and close-knit. She was attached to her younger brother and sister and the grandparents who lived with them. Her paternal grandfather, who appears often in her work, bought her her first typewriter when she was 14.

"He influenced me greatly," she says, wistful. "I listened to his stories and then I began to pretend to write them; I simulated handwriting before I knew letters. And sometimes I just drew symbols - butterflies, cats, trees."

If there was much that was terrible about where she grew up as a child, there was something attractive about the roughness of that world, the little hamlet, the old graveyard, her friends' ramshackle houses full of children. As she takes her place before the typewriter now, she is drawn again and again back to an earlier self.

"When I remember, I remember sometimes even the time before I was born, when my parents were young," she sighs, looking out through the glass toward her pond. "Childhood is the province of the imagination and when I immerse myself in it, I re-create it as it was, as it could have been, as I wanted - and didn't want - it to be."

Lucinda Franks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a former reporter for The Times.