Originally published in Geist 61 and now in the 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition
Before I opened for Joyce Carol Oates at her reading at Harbourfront in Toronto, we had dinner: Oates and her husband, Raymond Smith; the organizer, Greg Gatenby; and me. We sat at a table by a west-facing wall of glass in a restaurant on Queen’s Quay. Evening sunlight suffused the room, which had a view (I am trying to remember—this was in May of 2000) of a pier, a swath of water, a very wide parking lot or series of lots and, across that expanse, the building where we would be reading.
She was taller, thinner and fresher looking than I expected. Yes, fresher. I expected signs of fatigue. Everyone is astounded by her productivity. Over a hundred books bearing her own name as writer or editor, an uncertain tally of other books published under a pseudonym (pseudonyms?) adopted when her swarming output proved too much for her publishers to absorb. And a full professorship at Princeton. Surely she would look somehow . . . depleted, or act that way. Pinched, testy. But behind the giant glasses, her big-lidded eyes were clear and bright and seldom blinked. And she in mid-book tour. She might have been on a tour of boutique spas, yoga centres, meditation retreats. When I think of manic productivity I think of a cartoon Dostoevsky—
skeletal, with thinning hanks of hair limp and damp on the brow, face atwitch with neurasthenic tics, eyes deranged and blinking. Oates has only the extreme thinness. The neck especially, which seems too long and slight to support her head.
Her husband is an older man, dapper in his blazer and ascot, handsome, with a sort of weary elegance. And calm, like his wife. A quiet man, seemingly used to letting her hold court. His occasional remarks are clipped, witty, incisive, like epigrams summing up the preceding paragraphs of his more animated fellow diners. His voice has a pleasantly low, smoked quality. I can see him with a pipe, yes, in a private library, wearing a smoking jacket and a fez.
I want to talk boxing with Joyce Carol Oates. As anyone who has read her On Boxing will know, she is an aficionado, hugely knowledgeable. I have just completed a two-year stint of boxing undertaken to research three scenes in the otherwise non-boxing novel I am about to launch. Oates is willing, even keen, to tell her own boxing stories (she has not practised pugilism herself but has met and talked to many professionals in the course of writing her book) to someone more or less familiar with the names and careers. She is, no surprise, a riveting raconteur, though with an unusual style. Her delivery is both deadpan and intense. Some of her stories are amusing, but she never laughs or even smiles as she unfolds them. She is not warm or familiar, but neither is she cold or condescending. Now and then her husband quietly interjects a small narrative addition or factual correction. While telling her stories she manages to eat a large meal—and with graphic appetite. Gnocchi, I think. A journalist friend had warned me that during the dinner she might be working on her next book: “She might be at it during the reading, too—yours, if not her own.” This journalist swears—he’s not the kind to exaggerate or invent—that when he interviewed her a year before, she continued touch typing on her laptop keyboard while he posed his questions. After each question she would pause for a moment, look up at him through the great globes of her spectacles, deliver a brief and wholly coherent response, then tip her gaze back down to the screen and work on while he scratched a few notes and asked his next question.
The enigma of her creative metabolism is not about to be solved, not at this table. She is about to deepen it. She is revealing that her daily routine, which sounded impossible before, is even denser and busier than it seemed. We’ve been talking about the rare level of fitness you see in champion boxers, and now she admits that she has been doing roadwork of her own for some years. But how much do you run? I ask. Aren’t you too busy to do much running?
About nine miles a day, she says.
No qualifying tone here; no facial inflection.
Jesus, I say.
It’s a little less when I’m on a book tour.
You haven’t run yet today, her husband says.
No. I miss it when I miss a day. I get jumpy.
Greg Gatenby says, Steve! Why don’t you take Joyce here for a little run before the reading! He chuckles and checks his watch. I’m kidding, of course.
Could you, though? Oates asks, checking her own tiny watch, on her frail-looking wrist. Could we run a little?
Well, I begin.
Is there a path along the lake? her husband asks. I would think there must be a path of some description.
We’ve just twenty minutes till the reading, Gatenby says, beginning to look nervous.
It’s a good way across those parking lots, I say. We could run a bit along the pier, then up across the parking lots.
That would be something, Joyce, her husband says.
I’d like that, Oates says, deadpan, pushing back her chair, standing and placing her napkin on the table beside her emptied plate. Let’s leave the men here to talk, and go for a run.
Have her there in fifteen minutes, Steve!
Oates picks up a sort of black leather satchel with a handle like a briefcase. She is wearing, if I remember right, brown flats, black or brown slacks, a dark dress jacket. This ensemble accentuates her thinness. I lead her out a side door in the glassed west wall. Immediately she starts to run, as if she has been coiling up energy throughout the meal, champing to spring free. She runs with quick, clipped steps, her body upright and angular, the arm holding her satchel stretched long and straight and unmoving at her side. I run a few strides to pull even, clumping along in combat boots, awkward with my novel tucked under my arm. This way, I say, and we run a few hundred yards along the glittering lake, then cut north through the parking lot toward the reading venue. Toronto reminds her of Chicago, she says. She doesn’t look to either side as she runs. She doesn’t say anything else. That same short, scissoring gait, the sound of her mildly accelerated breathing. I’ve become a silent guide, a sort of invisible chaperone. I am jogging with Joyce Carol Oates.
This story appears in the Geist 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition. Reserve your copy now. Subscribe today.