• Talking to Joyce Carol Oates on the Way to the Airport About Fiction’s Blurry Borders

    Jesse Lee Kercheval Tries to Figure Out Where Life Ends and Fiction Begins

    “You fucking bitch,” Jo Beth said. Her breath hung in the air. She pressed a finger into my chest. I looked down and realized what I’d thought was her finger was a gun.

    I wrote those lines in a short story, “Alice in Dairyland,” which was published in a magazine. Then I put the short story in a book, The Alice Stories, which was also published. Published both times as fiction. But the story is true. I am Alice. Or I am partly Alice. Or I am not really Alice at all. And that, for me is always the question. What is true? What is the difference between nonfiction and fiction?

    Both in real life and the short story, an acquaintance called and asked for a ride. It’s her lover who confronted Alice/ me in the parking lot. In the short story, “Alice in Dairyland,” this takes place in Madison, Wisconsin where I lived when I wrote the story and where I live now. It is winter—thus the breath hanging in the air.

    In real life, it took place in Tallahassee, Florida, a place where, most people who have ever lived in Florida would agree, it seems more likely. Especially the next part. The woman who was about to shoot me had a cross around her neck and, though I did not believe in God, I went down on my knees and started saying the Lord’s Prayer. And she went down on her knees next to me with a thud, crying. Then she hugged me, hard. Got up and drove away in her pick-up truck.

    I remember thinking she would shoot me. On purpose or, because her hand was shaking, by accident. I would lie on the hot asphalt, bleeding, as the woman did or did not call an ambulance. As a neighbor did or did not call the police. I remember all that vividly.

    But for the short story, I changed the location, the names, even the reason I was there to offer a ride. I remember some of the changes, probably not others. Is that because the fictional version has blurred the real one? Or is it because the moment I stood up in the parking lot and tried to make sense of what had just happened, it became a story and a story is always part fiction?

    Memory, just a story we tell to ourselves.

    *

    Once I had to give Joyce Carol Oates, who’d read at the university where I taught, a ride to the airport. As I drove, we talked, but she also had a yellow legal pad open on her knee, writing. I remember thinking she was taking notes, that maybe the right way to be sure you knew what had really happened in your life was to write it down. But when we stopped for a red light, I peeked at the pad and what she was writing had nothing to do with the drive or our conversation. It seemed to be part of story. I thought, So that is how she writes so many books! I decided she had an unusual brain. 

    Now I think we all are Joyce Carol Oates, more or less. Living our lives and making up stories at the same time, our brains running smoothly down both tracks.

    Now I think we all are Joyce Carol Oates, more or less. Living our lives and making up stories at the same time, our brains running smoothly down both tracks. Without making up stories, our lives are mostly driving visiting writers to airports and kids to violin classes. Lives so boring that without imagination, in that moment that with Joyce Carol Oates in the car, I could have just pulled over, walked out into a field and laid down to nap or to die. Or pulled a gun. On myself. On her. See? That is the story taking over. Making life, truth, into fiction.

    Actually, I just pulled into short term parking at the airport and helped her carry her bag inside.

    *

    When I was almost shot in the parking lot in Tallahassee, I was trying to be a good feminist and also a lesbian. I’d married a Methodist minister at 18, divorced him two years later, and was trying hard to steer my life in the opposite direction. I volunteered at the university women’s center, went to a lecture by Mary Daly on radical feminist separatism where a brawl broke out because men were not allowed in, even considered applying for a residency at a women’s artist colony on the coast where no male children or dogs were allowed, but didn’t because I couldn’t stop wonder how they kept the male seagulls off their stretch of beach.

    I spent a week stuffing errata sheets into books at the early important lesbian publisher, Naiad Press, Barbara Grier, one of the two women who ran it, offered me a sandwich by way of pay. “It’s my specialty,” she told me. “No one can ever guess what’s in it!”

    I took a bite.

    “Do you like it?”

    I nodded. It wasn’t bad. It was also very obviously a peanut butter, mayonnaise and sweet pickle sandwich. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her that. Maybe nobody did. My life right then was pretty much that sandwich—a mix of not bad and not altogether a good idea.

    I went almost every night with a friend from grade school to dance at the local gay bar. I made out with a woman who was a Chaucer professor but, like junior high, we kept all our clothes on. I went to gay picnics and made out with a PhD student, but managed to roll in a fire ant nest. I was about the least successful lesbian I knew. The woman who asked me for the ride was usually at the picnics, sometimes at the bar. I don’t remember her name but that makes writing about her awkward, so let me in the name of clarity, but not truth, say her name was Julie.

    What I do remember was that Julie was both a lesbian and a born-again Christian so when I started praying in that parking, I was actually praying her partner was, too. Julie had called to ask for a ride to the hospital where she worked and I could not say no. I couldn’t say because I volunteered at the women’s center and was trying to be a good feminist. I couldn’t say no because at the hospital she was my mother’s phlebotomist and every time I went into see my mother, she would cheerfully say about Julie, “Your little friend was in to see me!” And for my mother, cheerful was rare as hens teeth. It was because of the peanut butter/ mayonaise/ sweet pickle mix of all those things I was in the parking lot.

    None of this is in “Alice in Dairyland.” I  realize I’ve never written about it before. Now I have waited so late I have to make the names up. And I’m not sure the woman that got me into that anthill was a PhD student though I am pretty sure she lived in graduate student housing. Is the story still nonfiction?  But my mother really did smile whenever she told me that the woman not really named Julie had been by to chat and draw her blood.

    *

    In my first years teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had an office just down the hall from Lorrie Moore, my senior colleague in creative writing. People were always asking her if her stories were not just her life written down, nonfiction disguised as fiction. No, she always said. Then again and again, no.

    In those days, when I saw the anecdotes about her life she’d told at lunch turn up in her latest story in the New Yorker, I thought she was lying. Or deceiving herself. Or hiding. Or all three. Now I think she was right, though maybe not for the reasons she believed at the time.

    I think her anecdotes were already stories. Her stories refined, perfected versions of the same.

    “Alice in Dairyland” started with a real woman in a real parking lot with a real gun but everything after that, probably, is just shades of untrue. I see an article online that quotes Lorrie as saying, “Fiction is something that people assume is nonfiction, and nonfiction is something that seems invented.” To be honest, I am not sure what that means. I do think I have stopped what I believe happened is the truth. Or what I am capable of remembering.

    Yet I, perversely perhaps, believe what I write—in fiction, nonfiction, even poetry—is true.

    *

    In “Alice in Dairyland,” when Alice is in that parking lot, her mother is dying in a hospital in across town. Later in the story, she dies. In real life, when I was in that parking lot in Tallahassee, my mother was in a hospital but taking her time dying. She wouldn’t die for two years. If that much time passes in a story, the reader disengages. Time passing is boring. It makes it feel less real. In real life, those two years were both boring and unbearable.

    In “Alice in Dairyland” on the same day Alice nearly dies, her mother dies instead. And if I am Alice, the day I almost die, my mother dies.

    Even to me that feels more true.

    *

    The night before I drove Joyce Carol Oates to the airport, she gave a reading in the auditorium of the university art museum. The room was full. The dean was in the front row. She was a tall, frighteningly skinny woman who had on huge glasses which kept slipping down her nose, but her voice was strong and she told jokes. Everyone laughed.

    She told us she was going to read from her novel Blonde which is about Marilyn Monroe, but first she wanted to tell us that writing a novel was like slowly pushing a bean across a warehouse floor with your nose and when, after a long time, you looked up, you realized how very far you still had to go.

    I was writing a novel at the time. After that I would sometimes whisper to myself, Keep pushing that bean. Now I think her story was about writing but maybe also about how she felt about having to fly all the way to Wisconsin, about giving that reading. She’d asked to be booked on a First Class flight but that wasn’t possible flying into Madison. She’d asked for a limousine to the airport. She got me.

    I, perversely perhaps, believe what I write—in fiction, nonfiction, even poetry—is true.

    Or is it me generalizing her advice? All through the pandemic I kept telling myself to keep my nose down, not look ahead or I would see how much empty warehouse floor we had left to cross.

    I also keep thinking about how Blonde is over 700 pages and I never got past the second chapter.

    *

    One day, a few years before the Joyce Carol Oates visit, the phone rang in my office at the university. I answered and a man asked me if I could give a message to Lorrie Moore.

    Though I knew she was on leave, I told him he should call her her office. “I tried that,” he said. I realized he was probably the reason I’d heard her phone ringing for days. I suggested he call the English department office. “I tried that too,” he said. “They suggested I call you.”

    I said I wasn’t sure when I would see her.

    “Could you put a note in her mailbox?” he asked.

    I am sure I sighed, probably heavily. People were always trying to get in touch with Lorrie. Another colleague told me he always said, “I am not her secretary,” and hung up. I was sure that was why the departmental secretary in the English office had suggested the man on the phone call me instead. “Okay,” I said, getting a pen.

    “I just want her to know that she’s dead. Eugene is dead.”

    “Who?” I said, confused.

    “My daughter.  I mean, in Lorrie’s story, she’s a boy and her name is Eugene. But she’s my daughter.”

    And then I  knew what he meant and what story he was talking about: “Dance in America” where the narrator is a dance teacher who drops in on an old friend, his wife, and their son, Eugene, who has cystic fibrosis. I also remembered Lorrie’s stories about a real visit she’d made to a college as a visiting writer, not dance teacher, and to a family like the one in the story. In “Dance in America,” Eugene is dying. In the real world, it seemed, she was dead.

    “I just thought she’d want to know,” the man on the phone said. Then he hung up.

    I  remember putting the note in Lorrie’s mail box outside the English office, which was overflowing with mail. Then I forgot about it. I’m not sure I ever asked Lorrie about it when I finally did see her. Every few years, when I remember the man’s voice, I feel guilty. I feel should have done more. I do remember telling another writer the story, years later, after Lorrie had left to teach at another university. “Everybody’s read that story,” he said. “How do you know the guy was for real?”

    The truth is, I don’t.

    But all the stories with Eugene in them, boy or girl, fiction or nonfiction, still make me want to cry.

    *

    When I took Joyce Carol Oates into the airport, we went to the gift shop. I don’t remember why, maybe she wanted to buy gum or another pen. But she saw Space for sale, realized it was my book, and insisted on buying it. I remember signing it for her—with her pen. Then I waved as she ascended the escalator to her gate, the book in her hand.

    I think she sent me a note saying how much she enjoyed reading it. Or at least that she read it. But I don’t really remember. I do remember thinking if she read Space while writing on her pad, my moon rocket might get mixed up with her thoughts about flying across America.

    If it did, I wonder what kind of truth came out of that story.

    Jesse Lee Kercheval
    Jesse Lee Kercheval
    esse Lee Kercheval is a writer, poet and translator. Her latest book is the poetry collection, I Want to Tell You (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2023). Her memoir, Space, was the winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her recent essays have appeared in Guernica, The New England Review, The Sewannee Review and the Los Angeles Review. She is the Zona Gale Professor Emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.





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