Perhaps the biggest clue to the personal resonance that Joyce Carol Oates’ newest novel, "Missing Mom," has for her is the eerie warning on its opening page:
Last time you see someone and you don’t know it will be the last time. And all that you know now, if only you’d known then. But you didn’t know, and now it’s too late. And you tell yourself, How could I have known, I could not have known.
You tell yourself.
This is my story of missing my mother. One day, in a way unique to you, it will be your story, too.
The words are those of the book’s main character, Nikki Eaton, whose mother was murdered by an ex-con she had earlier befriended. But these words appear on the first page of the novel – before the reader has even met the main character –
and they feel as much like a note from the author as they do hard-learned wisdom from Nikki.
While Joyce Carol Oates acknowledges that "Missing Mom" is "in a sense, a very personal novel," she says in a phone interview that "writers and artists are usually taking personal and emotional experiences – autobiography – and transforming them into impersonal, objective stories that other people can identify with."
Oates will read from "Missing Mom" on Thursday, October 20, at Barnes & Noble Marketfair.
The author feels at once very close to Nikki and compelled with a need to distance herself from the content of the book and let it stand on its own. She even considered at one point publishing it under a pseudonym. But despite her desire that this book stand entirely separate from her personal life, Oates observes that "to be a writer, you think you’re making things up, but you’re remembering things, evoking things."
Elements of "Missing Mom," for example, come directly from her memories of her own mother, who died in 2002. Not only did her mother physically resemble Nikki’s mother, Gwen, but she also behaved in many ways like her, with the same close ties to the community and her women friends, and active involvement in sewing and arts and crafts.
Oates’ mother was also extremely trusting, like Gwen. She writes: "People took advantage of her, although not necessarily in a wicked or evil way. People innocently take you for granted if you are like Gwen." The supportive cadre of
unrecognized people to which her mother and Gwen belong, she says, "are the opposite of the egocentric, vain, public people, like politicians, who are so focused on themselves." Rather they are back in the wings, raising the children, providing love and stability, these Gwen-like people make possible all those other people’s accomplishments.
Oates’ new book deals on multiple levels with the aftermath of a parent’s death – emotions gone awry, growth and change in the next of kin, changing relationships among siblings, acceptance of one’s own personal history, appreciating the past in a new way, and sometimes finally getting to know a parent as a separate person.
With a parent’s death, the images of memory acquire a new clarity. Through her own grieving process Oates says she has learned to appreciate these "photographs" of her own life. "One thing we learn in an existential and blunt way is that all the little things you shared become so precious – an ordinary meal or a Christmas dinner years ago that tends to be taken for granted when we are in the midst of our lives." She admits that this is something that we all know intellectually on some level, "but when you realize it emotionally, it can be very profound."
Nikki had been the child whose very rebellion underlined her dependence on her family. After her mother’s death, she is driven to move into her mother’s house to explore Gwen’s true identity – by meeting with her mother’s friends, visiting her sick relatives, and teaching her senior swim class. Through this search, she is finally able to release herself into a healthier future.
A parent’s death can also change the relationships among siblings, whether for better or for worse. Nikki grew up in the shadow of a bossy, school-teacher sister who always toed the line of parental expectations. After Gwen’s death, the tensions between the two sisters grow in ways that both clarify and change the realities of their relationship.
Also after a parent’s death, says Oates, "the emotions released are explosive. You feel more childlike, vulnerable, moved to tears by all sorts of things." A parent’s death, Oates concludes, "shakes up the edifice or the facade of a
person’s personality – its outermost covering, the barrier or shield that protects us from other people." For both Nikki and her sister, these strong emotions cause each one, in a different way, to consider leaving behind significant aspects of her personal life.
Writing a novel like "Missing Mom," says Oates, is "like looking through old photographs, lovingly and slowly, and writing about them, and when you’re finished, it’s a real loss." So what is she doing today to overcome that loss? The first answer is that she’s not jumping into a new novel of the same genre. For the moment, she is focusing on short stories, essays, and lengthy reviews of fiction, which she says "can take a lot of time, even emotional time."
But looking into the future, she reveals a little about her fictional process. "I don’t like to repeat myself," she says, because "I aspire to an art that has some originality. If I have solved a problem in one novel by finding the right
voice and method of narration, [doing another one of the same kind] would be like doing the same crossword puzzle again."
But artistic development aside, she also admits that she "can’t write about something unless it is engaging me on an emotional level." She has not yet, for example, been able to find another topic for a nonfiction book after "On Boxing," a subject that resonates because of the fights she attended with her father. If she were to write another book at all similar to "Missing Mom," she says, "I would have to work out a way that it would be artistically original, but emotionally satisfying."
Joyce Carol Oates, Thursday, October 20, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. 609-716-1570.