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Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer

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This rich compilation of Joyce Carol Oates’s letters across four decades displays her warmth and generosity, her droll and sometimes wicked sense of humor, her phenomenal energy, and most of all, her mastery of the lost art of letter writing.

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What people are saying…

“It’s hard to think of another writer with as fecund and protean an imagination as the eighty-five-year-old Joyce Carol Oates, who is surely on any short list of America’s greatest living writers.”
New York Times Magazine

“Here, in a stream of intimate correspondence with another writer, we witness the workings of Joyce Carol Oates’s vast mind and great heart. We are the recipients of her frank opinions of current events, cultural tides, and writers in moral decline. We are privy to her daily life, her forays into different literary forms, her indignation over class injustice, and her in-the-moment impulse to write stories that contain the conflicted subconscious of our country. I am touched by her fondness for friends, her kindness toward new writers, her doubts about her work, and her criticism of her early writings. And, oh, what an abundance of wit and humor! Oates’s letters are clearly among the best of the epistolatory canon, providing rare insight and surprising revelations that enable us to better understand what underlies her great body of work. For this writer, they are a touchstone of inspiration.”
—Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club

“A collection of letters invites readers into the prolific author’s life and thoughts . . . An interesting barometer of Oates’s development as a writer over thirty years.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Novelist Johnson—who published Invisible Writer, an authorized biography of Oates, in 1998—brings together an inviting compendium of his correspondence with the National Book Award winner from 1975 to 2006 . . . The letters offer insights into Oates’s views on her fiction and the process of writing . . . Oates’s fans will enjoy this intimate glimpse inside her life.”
Publishers Weekly

“The letters provide, as the best ones do, flashes of dailiness that build up over decades into something more substantive.”
—The Paris Review

“In these warm and empathetic letters to Greg Johnson over four decades, Joyce Carol Oates reveals the evolution of a major literary career. They show her profound dedication to writing and teaching; her humor and pleasure in the texture of daily life; her tender observations of her aging parents; and her prized friendships . . . A captivating and welcoming book.”
—Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers

“Everyone knows that Oates is a powerhouse—a prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, poetry, essays, and now great letters. These warm, scintillating letters to the young fiction writer who will eventually become her biographer reveal what a modest, compassionate, disciplined person she’s always been—the perfect friend, teacher, and critic who has a great capacity for appreciation. These letters take us backstage to her glittering social life and international travels, her twelve-hour writing sessions and her endless revisions, her protective love of her parents, her quiet domestic life, the death of two wonderful husbands, her omnivorous curiosity, and her wondering humility.”
—Edmund White, author of A Boy’s Own Story

“A peek behind the curtain reveals that the wizard is indeed a wizard. Joyce Carol Oates’s personal correspondence is profound, observant, witty, eloquent, prolific, and fun. All the qualities we’ve come to expect from this master are here in an intimate and informal exchange of minds. I loved it.”
—Michael Imperioli, actor, author of The Perfume Burned His Eyes


In this generous selection of Joyce Carol Oates’s letters to her biographer and friend Greg Johnson, readers will discover a never-before-seen dimension of her phenomenal talent.

In 1975, when Johnson was a graduate student, he first wrote to Oates, already a world-famous author, and drew an appreciative, empathetic response. Soon the two began a fairly intense, largely epistolary friendship that would last until the present day. As time passed, letters became faxes, and faxes became emails, but the energy and vividness of Oates’s writing never abated. Her letters were often sprinkled with the names of well-known public figures, from John Updike and Toni Morrison to Steve Martin and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. There are also descriptions of far-flung travels she undertook with her first husband, the scholar and editor Raymond Smith, and with her second, the distinguished Princeton neuroscientist Charlie Gross. But much of Oates’s prose centered on the pleasures of her home life, including her pet cats and the wildlife outside her study window.

Whereas her academic essays and book reviews are eloquent in a formal manner, in these letters she is wholly relaxed, even when she is serious in her concerns. Like Johnson, she was always engaged in work, whether a long novel or a brief essay, and the letters give a fascinating glimpse into Oates’s writing practice.

Book Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Published: 3/5/24
  • IBSN: 9781636141169
  • e-IBSN: 9781636141176


JOYCE CAROL OATES is the author of many works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. She is the editor of New Jersey Noir, Prison Noir, A Darker Shade of Noir: New Stories of Body Horror by Women Writers, and Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers. Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award, PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Humanities Medal, and a World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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GREG JOHNSON has a PhD in English from Emory University and has published three novels and five collections of short stories, including Pagan Babies, I Am Dangerous, and Night Journey, in addition to five nonfiction works, among them Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of Short Fiction and Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Yale Review, and many other publications. Johnson has twice been named Georgia Author of the Year. He is the editor of Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer and lives in Atlanta.

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