• The Writer Next Door: My Life As Joyce Carol Oates’ Neighbor

    “I wanted to believe that Oates knew we existed. While her cat clearly knew who we were, she never did.”

    Nearly every night, through our mudroom window, I could see that she was writing. In a room facing the road, with only a single light on, she worked religiously. There was something comforting about knowing she was there, that she was making yet another contribution to the world of literature while I was doing the laundry or bringing the recycling out to the garage. The routine was not all that remarkable for her, but from the outside looking in, it felt momentous. There, across the driveway, was Joyce Carol Oates, and she was writing.

    If, as Oates has argued, “writing is a consequence of being ‘haunted’ by material,” then I am haunted by her presence as my former next-door neighbor. For more than 20 years I have thought about her. Now that she is still living and writing in Princeton and I am across the country in Seattle, she is not nearly as present in my imagination as she once was. But still she commands my attention, and something as benign as a New Yorker profile brings her rapidly back into my consciousness.

    We didn’t know when we bought our house in 2003 that Oates was living next door; the local realtor shared the news after our closing. As a couple in our thirties with one child at the time, we found the outskirts of Princeton to be a good change from the intensity of Manhattan. A famous neighbor would in fact be nothing new for us.

    However, my mother and her friends, who came of age in the 1950s and 60s, slightly younger than Oates herself, were in awe of our proximity. Whenever she visited, my mother would stand by the French door in our living room, hoping to catch a glimpse. We were told, though, that Oates did not get to know her neighbors and wanted to be left alone. And so, for the next seven years, we respected her privacy.

    *

    In 1978, The Paris Review asked, “What kind of work schedule do you follow?” Oates responded:

    I haven’t any formal schedule, but I love to write in the morning, before breakfast. Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days. On school days, days that I teach, I usually write for an hour or forty-five minutes in the morning, before my first class.

    Also in 1978, Joyce and her husband, Raymond Smith, purchased the house where she was to live and write for the next 32 years. A low-slung, white mid-century modern structure in Hopewell Township, New Jersey, it had an inner courtyard from which you could see into nearly every room through its vast windows. In the back, a stone patio gave way to a pond, fed by the seasonal Honey Brook. Her writing room faced the road, its windows somewhat obscured by a fence and the overgrown holly.

    In 1980, The New York Times Magazine offered a glimpse of the space, along with another version of the schedule:

    Her study is spare: a large desk with just a few papers scattered about, a file cabinet, a bulletin board tacked with chapter headings, a small settee. “I usually work from about 8:30 A.M. to 1 P.M.; then in the afternoon I’ll make telephone calls, or teach, or go to New York. Then I’ll make dinner and then, from about 8 until 11:30, I’ll work again.”

    While the study was not fully visible to those on the road, its side windows aligned perfectly with those of our own house, and our driveways ran mostly parallel up to the street. As Oates writes in The Faith of a Writer, “Like the rest of the house my study has a good deal of glass: my immediate study area, where my desk is located, is brightly lighted during the day by seven windows and a skylight.” She pointedly adds, “It’s bizarre to me that people think that I am ‘prolific’ and that I must use every spare minute of my time when in fact, as my intimates have always known, I spend most of my time looking out the window. (I recommend it.)”

    Though I can attest to the distractions outside her window, I find it revealing that Oates bristles at being called prolific. Her literary output is legendary and shows no signs of stopping. Every publication from The Chicago Review of Books to Esquire has referred to her by this adjective; the latter even goes so far as to call her the “notoriously prolific chronicler of America’s cracked, calamitous heart.” Perhaps she has grown tired of the word itself, as it does little to characterize her impressive body of work. More likely she fears the label diminishes her, lumps her in with a more commercial writer like Stephen King, who, in raising the question of whether a novelist can be “too productive,” quotes Oates as having written that she had created “more, certainly, than the literary world allows for a ‘serious’ writer.”

    I wanted to believe that Oates knew we existed. While her cat clearly knew who we were, she never did. But I never stopped hoping for some chance encounter.

    When I lived next door to Oates, the times I knew she was writing were those evening hours when the light was on and her silhouette was visible. That such a private writer lived in what was essentially a glass house was a special sort of irony. I always wondered if she knew someone was watching, if there was a tiny performative aspect to the ritual, or if she was just so caught up in her work that she didn’t care that she had illuminated her sacred space.

    *

    Oates thinks that “when writers ask one another, ‘What is your writing schedule?’ they are really asking, ‘Are you as crazy as I am?’ We all seek some clues to the mystery of personality–our own, & others.”

    The “mystery of personality” is an apt phrase in this case. Who was this woman who lived next door? There was the Emily Dickinson aura, enhanced by Oates’s tendency to wear white. Published photographs don’t feature her in white all that often, but in my memory, she is riding her bike through the neighborhood in a long white skirt or flowy pants, with a white bucket hat upon her head. She studiously avoided interacting with anyone on the road and would even make a hasty U-turn so as not to pass a runner or walker. Someone told me she was painfully shy (echoes of Dickinson again) and in those moments I could believe it.

    By contrast, she also hosted large cocktail parties in her home. Cars would begin appearing along the road, park, and then people would make their way down the long driveway. More and more cars lined the road. And then, just as suddenly as they had arrived, her guests would all be gone. No party ever lasted more than a couple of hours.

    When I read A Widow’s Story, the memoir Oates wrote in the wake of her first husband’s death, I was surprised to find a passage that reminded me so much of her cocktail party evenings, only this time, Joyce was taken aback by the cars on our street: “Returning home after dark and approaching our house I see that the road has become sort of a tunnel, lined with vehicles parked on both sides—is there a party in the neighborhood?—why does this seem so ominous, threatening?” Did she, I wonder, forget that her parties once created such a tunnel? Was it only the circumstance of Ray’s death that prevented her from remembering?

    *

    An interesting chapter in Oates’s writing life are the four children’s books, each featuring a cat. Someone had given Come Meet Muffin to our children, thinking we would appreciate this connection to our neighbor. As far as I know, we never met Muffin, but one of her cats frequented our back patio. An intense ginger cat with searing green eyes, it would sit outside looking in. This cat seemed to be regarding our life intently, taking notes perhaps, making me (not a cat person) uncomfortable, definitely.

    I wanted to believe that Oates knew we existed. While her cat clearly knew who we were, she never did. But I never stopped hoping for some chance encounter.

    Every once in a while, a single piece of Oates’s mail was misdelivered to our box. With Joyce and Ray Smith running The Ontario Review from their home, they were constantly sending and receiving manuscripts. Their mailbox was at least double the size of every other one on the street. It was a thrill just thinking about returning the errant letter to its rightful owners.

    *

    And then there was her refrigerator. When our friends purchased Oates’s house in 2010, they started a kitchen remodel and asked if we had any use for an extra refrigerator. Growing into our suburban lives, we found we did indeed have use for a second refrigerator that could easily fit in our garage. The standard black model sat neatly between the two car bays and quickly became indispensable.

    Maybe because our friends had initiated the conversation about it and had helped to get it out of their new house and down our driveway, I didn’t think too much about its provenance. But at some point—a few months later? a year?—it hit me that Joyce Carol Oates’s refrigerator was in our garage.

    An old real estate listing shows pictures of an empty house, including one of the kitchen. There is our refrigerator, standing in relief against the red formica countertops. What did Oates eat? What did they cook? What food was stored in this refrigerator? Was she like the women in her poetry, “Women whose lives are food / breaking eggs with care / scraping garbage from the plates / unpacking groceries hand over hand” or did she remain the woman from her journals who wrote: “But I can’t eat more than I do… it simply doesn’t attract me, I have no appetite…. And I must admit I’m beginning to regret the time I waste eating. When I could be playing piano. Or writing. Or reading” (March 9, 1978)

    *

    Rarely, if ever, did Oates drive herself. When she wasn’t being picked up by a black town car and whisked away somewhere glamorous (or to the airport), she sat next to her husband in their white Honda Accord. That Accord, which seemed to be replaced by an identical, newer model more than once in the years we lived next door, was the car her husband used to pilot her everywhere.

    I never realized until reading A Widow’s Story that the couple had been in a serious car accident in their Honda, at an intersection I drove through nearly as often as they had. Like Oates, I would take Rosedale Road into Princeton, or turn at the corner of the Great Road and continue on to the schools where I taught and my children attended.

    Thinking back now, that turn seems symbolic of a choice away from academia and towards a high school teaching career that allowed more time with my family, if less time in scholarly circles and at my own writing desk. A deliberate and informed decision, it nonetheless meant that I would never be invited to one of the cocktail parties next door.

    The journals that Oates kept between 1978 and 1982 are full of parties, dinners, and lunches. “I’ve never been in so social an environment as Princeton, and wonder if I will survive,” she writes at one point. “I simply haven’t the energy, nor have I the skill as a hostess and cook. (Nor do I want that particular sort of skill. Life is too short to waste it on such things!)” (January 1, 1979). Oates also didn’t want children or “any sort of large, bustling family… After a period of time, in the presence of children or inordinately simple-minded people, I want to escape to my privacy, to my own thoughts” (June 10, 1982).

    Intuitively, I must have sensed this about her. When we bought an outdoor playset, we assessed possible locations and decided against the lawn nearest to Oates’s house and carport. I imagined trying to shush the squeals of our children at play while she worked or Ray gardened. It seemed easier and, yes, more respectful to have the playset reside on the opposite side of our house. My brief glimpses of Oates outside were then reduced even more narrowly to the driveway where Ray parked the white Honda.

    As she writes about her husband’s illness, death, and its aftermath, Oates points to a fundamental shift in their relationship as she becomes the driver: “And then how strange it seems, to be driving our car with my husband beside me. Rarely do I drive our car–we have just the single car, the Honda—with Ray beside me, not driving…” She drove him to the hospital but went home alone, then back and forth—still alone—for several more days before he died. That entire week, she rose and departed the house, and returned at night by herself, and we had no idea that he was in the hospital, that only she was at home, and that she was driving back and forth in the white Honda Accord all alone.

    Would anything have been different if we had known? While unlikely, given the nature of our non-existent relationship, it felt in retrospect that we had missed the opportunity to be her neighbor. It is hard to explain what it felt like to read A Widow’s Story and realize that we had been next door all along and had no idea what was happening. Several days later, of course, we heard that Ray had died. And eventually, Oates put the house on the market and departed.

    *

    When Oates moved out, the loss of her writing light was profound. There had been something immensely comforting in knowing she was out there writing while the rest of the world went on around her. Night after night, she was at her desk working—or looking out the window—while I was doing the most ordinary things. For years after she had moved away, I caught myself looking for her silhouette at the desk.

    A friend from graduate school reminded me that I had once kept a writing routine like Oates did. Up early in the morning to work on my dissertation, I maintained a strict schedule to ensure that a certain number of pages would be completed each day. Not lost on me is the fact that I was writing about another woman (Edith Wharton) who guarded her writing time religiously, and famously spent her mornings writing in bed. Like Oates and Wharton, I believed in routines, ordinary and productive to each of us in our own ways.

    Oates stayed in our neighborhood when she remarried, choosing to live in a more secluded and wooded area, but still just a short walk away from the glass house next door. Was it the familiarity of the roads, the reminder of the routines? Did she want to drive by the old house and remember Ray, their life, what she had created in that study? Was it the security and privacy we allowed her, gave her? Had we earned her respect as neighbors?

    Night after night, she was at her desk working—or looking out the window—while I was doing the most ordinary things. For years after she had moved away, I caught myself looking for her silhouette at the desk.

    And is writing about her now somehow a betrayal? Since there are no secrets to share, I know that in the truest sense anything I write is not betraying her. Everything I know about Joyce Carol Oates, I have learned from her writing or that of others writing about her. In the twenty years since moving next door, we never exchanged a single word. And yet.

    A friend asked why the “quiet watching and waiting and respectful stewardship of my connection” mattered. I realize that I like to think that we had an unspoken connection. And that it has something to do with honoring a commitment and coming to understand the value in living somewhere where your home was a sanctuary, where you did not have to be neighborly or interact if you didn’t choose. I admired how Oates created that space for herself and wanted something similar. I also enjoyed the nearness of greatness without ever having to confront its limitations or rejections.

    A particularly illuminating anecdote in Oates’s journals, where she writes of the “utterly trivial but vexing problem of… a local acquaintance who, while congenial enough, and certainly intelligent enough, nonetheless focuses upon me strictly in terms of what I can do for her—for her flourishing career as a novelist, primarily” (January 1, 1981), serves as a warning never to become the dreaded “local acquaintance” or, worse, neighbor.

    *

    Returning to my question of who was this woman who lived next door, one ultimately need look no further than her journal entry about time spent in her Honey Brook home: “Simply to be here, to be home, amidst our books, our things, our woods, our garden, our work; free of being and performing ‘JCO’; free of the ceremonial luncheons, receptions, dinners… I am infatuated with the private life and with anonymity; perhaps even invisibility. Long may it endure….” [ellipses and underlining, author’s own] (May 29, 1981).

    *

    There was one time when Oates was still living next door. We were outside on the driveway and our son was very little. From the passenger seat in her car, Oates spotted him and smiled. It felt like a small gift, as if we had passed muster by leaving her alone. At least that is how I chose to read it.

    Mia Manzulli
    Mia Manzulli
    Mia Manzulli is a writer and educator based in Seattle. She has a PhD in British and American Literature from NYU, for which she wrote her dissertation, Writing, Sexuality, and the Garden: The Project of Edith Wharton. Her work can be found in The Edith Wharton Review, The Connecticut Review, and A Forward Glance: New Essays on Edith Wharton.





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