Most of Joyce Carol Oates’s fiction is grounded firmly in the real world, ripped from the headlines or sifted from history. Her best-known short story, the terrifying “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966), was inspired by an actual serial killer in Arizona, for example, while her Pulitzer Prize finalists “Black Water” (1992) and “Blonde” (2000) reimagined the Chappaquiddick incident and the life of Marilyn Monroe, respectively.
But the inspiration for Oates’s latest book, the psychological horror novel “Mudwoman” (Ecco, $26.99), came not from the outside world but, rather, from a mysterious and pitch-dark corner of her own unconscious. To be published on Tuesday, “Mudwoman” — about the crackup of an Ivy League university president haunted by her secret past as the child of a poor, mentally ill religious fanatic who tried to drown her in a riverside mudflat — began as a powerful and disturbing dream.
“It’s embarrassing almost to talk about, because it’s very different from the genesis and gestation of most of my novels,” Oates, 73, says in an interview from her home in Princeton, N.J. “I almost never write inspired by a dream vision. But in this dream, I saw a woman sitting at a large table wearing inappropriate, very heavy makeup that had dried, like mud, and was darker than her skin. I was so haunted by the image, and when I woke up I immediately started writing notes. It was presented to me as a great mystery that I had to decode and put in a context.”
The process of decoding — interrupted by the death in 2008 of Oates’s husband, the editor Raymond Smith, and the period of intense grief that followed (described in her best-selling memoir of last year, “A Widow’s Story”) — produced one of her most personal, autobiographical and deeply felt novels. The heroine of “Mudwoman,” Meredith Ruth (“M.R.”) Neukirchen, is from rural Upstate New York; so is Oates. M.R. transcends her working-class origins to become a star professor at a prestigious university that goes unnamed in “Mudwoman” but is unmistakable as Princeton, where Oates — the first person in her family to complete high school — has taught since 1978. And like her creator, M.R. is drawn to the locales of her early life with a queasy mixture of fondness and fear.
“We all know that everything in a dream is an aspect of ourselves, and so I recognized this Mudwoman as an aspect of myself,” she says. “My background is a little like M.R.’s — not so desperate, not so poor, but still the world of poverty that surrounded me as a child — and when I go back to my home town, I have a visceral feeling of excitement, but also dread, as if there’s a secret memory that I’ve forgotten, that maybe it was good for me to forget — as if I’ll remember something I shouldn’t remember.”
In M.R.’s case, her return to the scene of the crime — where, as a little girl, she was left for dead — spawns a series of fantasies in which the abyss of the past threatens to swallow her once again. As she becomes embroiled in a series of controversies at the university — where she presides over a board meeting beset by enemies and wearing that unfortunate makeup — her fantasies devolve into Grand Guignol dramas featuring kidnapping, assault, rape, murder and dismemberment.
The line between the real and the surreal can be surprisingly thin. “You’re not always sure how to take things — you don’t know for sure what’s real and what’s fantasy,” says her longtime editor at Ecco, Daniel Halpern. “Even at the very end, you don’t know, and you’ll never know. But that’s what makes it so intriguing.”
For Oates, “Mudwoman” is a hybrid novel in more ways than one. It represents a rare conjoining of the rough, somewhat brutal world of her childhood, to which she has regularly returned in her fiction, and the rarefied academic milieu she has inhabited for most of her adult life but has depicted less frequently in her writing. And for a writer whose novels and short stories have always oscillated between realism and the surreal, both modes are present here, playing off each other.
“I’m not much interested in outright fantasy, where it’s all surreal or fantastical,” she says. “People fighting dragons, space travel to Mars — that kind of writing means nothing to me. I’m much more interested in fantasy as an encroachment from the unconscious.”
In this sense, Oates is following the paradigm established by James Joyce in “Ulysses,” in which realistic chapters occasionally give way to bizarre, hallucinatory scenes. “It’s an exemplary novel in that it’s realistic but not straitjacketed by realism,” Oates says now. “Hemingway, by contrast, never wrote anything surreal or hallucinatory — it’s as if he had blinders on. Hemingway is a great writer, but not as interesting to me as Joyce, who didn’t wear a straitjacket.”
At the Key West Literary Seminar in January, the nonfiction writer James Gleick opened a panel discussion on “the literature of the future” by inviting Oates to clarify the distinction between realism and the surreal in her fiction. “Joyce Carol Oates can write in any mode she wants,” he observed. “She hasn’t written about the future, as far as I know, but something about her fiction often leaves us feeling that we aren’t entirely in a real place. Is that fair, Joyce?”
“It depends on which works we think of,” she responded with a smile. “I’m very drawn to the real, historical, actual world, because there’s something so fascinating and mesmerizing about just reality. Then I feel a gravitational pull, and I want to write about a counter-world that is contiguous with this world but is a different world, which is surreal, a world of the imagination.”
In an interview with The Post, she added that she thinks of dreams as portals into uncharted and, for writers, potentially fertile territory. “Dreams are such a mixture of all sorts of things that are really unbridled and uncontrolled, like a vehicle speeding along a mountain road, and nobody has hold of the steering wheel,” she says. “If you’re a writer, there’s something exciting and thrilling about being handed this thing. You can always work with what’s given to you by the unconscious.”
Oates’s firm belief in the value of dreams was confirmed the hard way in 2008, when she found herself so devastated by the death of her husband.
“If you had met me soon after my husband died, you would have met a person who seemed to be doing pretty well, because I kept on working,” she says. “We all have public selves, of course, and I think people didn’t know how badly I was doing privately. In fact, my husband was so important to my life that after his death, I almost didn’t think things were real. Something was gone that was so much part of reality, and reality itself was somehow undermined.”
Oates was doing so poorly, in fact, that she couldn’t sleep at night without the help of sleeping pills, which made her stop dreaming. “I think that contributed to the deep unhappiness of my grieving, because I wasn’t getting the dreams of the lost one,” she says. “After a while, I tried not to take the pills any more for that reason.”
Now Oates is remarried — to the Princeton professor Charlie Gross, an accomplished photographer whose photos of his wife show her beaming, rejuvenated and ready to get back in that out-of-control vehicle careening along a mountain road, take her where it will.
Nance is a freelance writer.
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco. 448 pp. $26.99