the tragic gardener

A couple weeks ago, I went to see Joyce Carol Oates in conversation with Michael Silverblatt at the downtown library here in Los Angeles. Angelenos are so lucky to have the ALOUD series.  It’s free, and it attracts writers like Tim O’Brien, Jonathan Lethem, and Rita Dove. Silverblatt is the host of KCRW’s Bookworm show, which is another invaluable resource. He reads books with his head and his heart, and then engages in conversation with authors about their work.

Anyway, I went to hear him speak with Oates, and it was a packed house. I was so excited; I sat there with a silly grin on my face for the first fifteen minutes. Oates has been a idol of mine forever. She and Silverblatt discussed her new book, A Widow’s Story, and some of the experiences surrounding her husband’s death. The subject matter was sad, but she spoke with surprising humor and candor.

One anecdote I remember was about her cats. After her husband died, she obviously was overwrought with grief, and the empty house was especially hard to bear. However, instead of offering her affection and company after her loss, the cats seemed to blame her for her husband’s death. They wouldn’t come near her. She would call to them to come and cuddle with her when it was bedtime, but they would sleep elsewhere. She was so disoriented during the weeks following her husband’s passing that she placed some of the most important documents, like his will and the death certificate, on his desk, so she wouldn’t lose them, and one of the cats peed on the death certificate! Of course, this was an important document that she had to carry around with her and show people when getting all her husband’s affairs in order, and it smelled like cat pee. She tried to wash it off, but it still smelled. She made some comment about how she was going through a King Lear-like tragedy, but she was surrounded by a Marx Brothers-like comedy.

She has a very youthful openness. In fact, I was really taken by her voice. I guess she was born and raised in New York state, but her voice has a cadence that you hear in southern states. A kind of melifluous charm that pulls you in as she spins a yarn. She had the audience laughing, which is surprising considering how dark her novels can be. At one point she mentioned that “all gardeners are optimists.” They plant something in the ground and have faith that a little water and the sun will lead to life. Oates, on the other hand, claimed that she has too much of a tragic sensibility about life to pursue gardening.

However, she likened novel writing to building a nest, collecting materials from life and weaving them all together to create something. I was delightfully surprised to hear her say that “the real joy is in the revision.” She spoke at length about her revision process, which I was eager to hear since I will soon be toiling with some of my own. She likened it to reinforcing the strength of a building. Each revision makes it stronger and stronger. These are encouraging words.

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~ by Valerie Palmer on April 27, 2011.

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