Mudwoman Q & A: Joyce Carol Oates answers Book Club questions


Joyce Carol Oates speaking at Gleeson Library, University of San Francisco, in April of last year. Photo: Shawn Calhoun, CC some rights reserved

January 12, 2013

Why did you use some real and some fictional names and locations for your geography in MUDWOMAN? Why didn’t you use real locations, names, directions, mileages, particularly since this book focuses on a sense of place? (Diane M.)

Most writers blend the “real” and the “imagined”—it is my hope to create places that have a mythic dimension, as well as the merely literal.   I’ve often written about western New York settings modeled upon but not identical with Buffalo, Rochester, Lockport, and Niagara Falls; except for the Falls, these places have fictitious names.


M.R. carries the weight of responding and anticipating need. Other people’s personalities and opinions are the tuning fork for her personna’s voice through most of the novel. She’s a jellyfish unprotected against porcupines. Can trauma-reactive behaviors lose their gravitational pull, or is she going back to her position a different woman, healed and strong? Is it possible for her to live fully in that environment? (Jill V.)

M.R. is that rarity in literary fiction—a genuinely good, intelligent, and well-intentioned individual.   She is both a feminist and a person who doesn’t want to make her way politically as a feminist; she is a “humanist”—but at the core of her being is an abiding faith in humankind that is characteristic of the Quaker faith.   She has learned to trust herself and also to limit herself, by staying with her father for a summer of restoration.   I believe that we can “restore” ourselves after we’ve been terribly wounded, as M.R. has done.   There is the hope, too, that at last she will enter into an equitable relationship with her lover of many years.   (I have faith that such things happen—I’ve been a witness at close hand.)


I wonder why there is nothing included in the book about M.R.’s time in the hospital. Also, I would be interested in your comments on the theme of bridges.

There are several pages devoted to M.R.’s hospitalization, when Andre comes to visit her.

Bridges are very important to me as settings since I grew up near the Tonawanda Creek and its bridges were a part of my childhood life.  Obviously, these bridges have a symbolic significance to M.R. since they signaled to her a certain degree of risk in crossing them, yet there was beauty associated with these bridges as well.   This “doubleness” is a part of my own recollection of my life in upstate NY.


How do you prepare to write about people from different backgrounds and different life experiences? You take on difficult and troubling themes, and I wonder why this appeals to you as a person to delve into characters and situations that are disturbing? I have been a great fan of yours for years. Your characters seem so true and real to me. (Laura M.)

My characters are rooted in some sort of reality—either recalled, or contemporary.  I feel a deep sympathy for people seemingly very different from myself, so it is not really difficult to write about them.   I always let my characters talk and think—they have a certain autonomy.   They can tell me about themselves.


The ending of MUDWOMAN seems deliberately troubling. The man that M.R. meets at the rest area is a “dirty-skinned boy” who says “Why the f—d’you think you should be alive, f—- bitch, when the rest of us ain’t?” He also says he is from Massena and a different ethnic group. North Country readers might assume he is of Mohawk ancestry.

I could feel all the threads of the story coming together here, almost as if M.R. is fighting off the other parts of herself. She thinks “No one will know. Not ever, no one.” It seems the book has returned to the beginning. Has M.R. moved forward at all, or is she back to the woman she was at the beginning of the book? (Book Club reader)

This dangerous person is the last “test” M.R. must pass before she returns to her relatively secluded life as a university president.   He represents risk—and for a woman, the necessity of confronting and triumphing over this risk.   He is “dirty-skinned”—as if a relative of “mudgirl” or “mudwoman.”   He may also have an element of the supernatural about him, and might suggest the opening chapters of the novel.   But M.R. is able to escape him—she is in control, and she vanquishes him!   For a woman of her personality, a somewhat inhibited and highly intellectual person, this is a remarkable feat.

M.R. finds some peace when she goes back to live with her father for a time. Yet he says she can’t stay in the North Country; it does not have enough for her. After all, it is a place where the NYT arrives days late in the mail. We have a brain drain in northern and central NYS and many young people, not just M.R., have to leave the area to find professional jobs. Do you see the internet as a way of connecting rural NYS to the larger world and perhaps making it less of a place to flee from? M.R. could now read the NYT online and converse with other scholars on Skype.

M.R. feels a strong yearning to stay in the North Country—she is very happy with her father—(a character whom I came to love very much)—and she has good memories of her girlhood, over all—but she has responsibilities at the University, and understands that she has to leave.   You speak of a “brain drain”—this is probably inevitable given the economic situation in upstate New York, which has been in a recession for decades.   (The closest city to our farmhouse was Lockport, which I visit from time to time—it’s eerie how this city has changed so little since the early 1960s!   Because these regions of the U.S.are not flourishing economically, they do retain a measure of the past, and are valuable and beautiful in part because of this.   You are right, the Internet is certainly  a way of connecting upstate New York with the rest of the world.


Reading MUDWOMAN was like being inside of someone else’s mental breakdown. We don’t know what is reality and what is illusion. The last chapter is particularly difficult to pull apart into reality and hallucination. If it is not real, then M.R. doesn’t stand much of a chance to resume her “normal” life back at the university. She is still confusing actual events with past/imaginary events. If the mud-skinned boy really does exist at the rest stop, then M.R. has injured a hitchhiker/mugger. Her fear causes the past to rise up within her and also doesn’t bode well for her future. Do you think novels with an inconclusive ending are the best way to get your readers to think? Or is it that you as a writer find it best to NOT wrap things up neatly, in other words, do complicated characters need a complicated ending? (Betsy K.)

M.R. needs to break out of her paralysis and act.   Her instinct is to placate the hitch-hiker—because she is a “nice” person—but this would be an error.   She has not really injured  him, but has only just knocked him aside and prevented him from injuring her.   I did think of this figure as partly “real” and partly “surreal.”   He is a figure out of her terrifying past—yet, he also seems to be an actual person.   M.R. has no choice but to defend herself against him.   Yes, she will make her way back to the University with a new sense of her own limitations.   It is often the case that new administrators take on too much work and fail to delegate authority—because they are naively hopeful of doing everything at once.   Only a breakdown can make them aware of their limitations.

M.R.’s experience is modeled after the (semi-public) breakdown of the president of an Ivy League university who retreated for three months of convalescence, then returned against all expectations and completed his term of office with great success.   So the phenomenon is not unknown, though it is probably not common.


These are excellent questions!   I’d thought that I would answer them tomorrow, but look through them today; while looking through them, I wanted immediately to answer, as if in an intimate conversation.


The clue to M.R. is her Quaker “soul”—the love of her (somewhat eccentric) adoptive parents, which helps prepare her for the world beyond their home.   Of course, this is not all that she requires—she has to learn as an adult what her limitations are, but also the possibilities of her growth.


Thank you for reading MUDWOMAN and for responding to it so thoughtfully.   I realized at the time of the composition that it was not a familiar sort of novel, and that it would require particularly sympathetic and, at times, patient readers.

Joyce Carol Oates

  1. I was saddened when the father says that she has broken her mother’s heart!

  2. Betsy Kepes says:

    Jill– I’m glad to hear you say that you felt M.R.’s “kindness” was more of an over the top reaction to her PSTD than straight up Quaker values. It was difficult being in M.R.’s head even when she was “sane” because of her constant need to help others, her hyper-active mind and emotions. It sounds as though you’ve worked with people like this and recognize this need.

    I wanted M.R. to have a friend. She was so alone in that big, presidential house. Is this, too, a symptom of PSTD? Or in M.R.’s case, was it her personality, or her job as a president?

    • jill vaughan says:

      It’s so exhausting to be hypervigilant, aware of every nuance of your image, unable to turn your care for others off, that solitude can be a relief. If you are always acting, with no intermission, the curtain falls only when you are alone. Exhaustion! At the same time isolation exacerbates the sense of emptiness that is the curse of personality disorders, and other mental health conditions.

  3. Claudia MacDonald says:

    Hi Betsy,
    I don’t often read JCO’s books so began this one a bit ruluctantly. I can’t say I ‘liked’ it but I did find it compelling.
    The fact that MR was deeply affected by her Quaker heritage kept my interest up. I find it curious that strong women are often not appreciated…seemingly perceived as unfeminine. Yet, unless a woman is strong, she may find herself damaged by an uncertain world.
    I do like reading books with geographic references to places I’ve lived. Yet, I, as another reader mentioned, wondered why she wasn’t consistent: either all fictional places or all real. I found JCO’s approach a bit strange and unsettling.
    Even though I wouldn’t call Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldie mysteries fine literature, I find pleasure in reading them as she uses real locations’ names (centering around Denver, Colorado) as I moved to the NC from Colorado and my heart gives a little jump every time I read a Colorado town’s name in one of her books.

  4. Betsy Kepes says:

    I am thrilled that Joyce Carol Oates took time to deeply answer our questions. What strikes me most about her answers is that she doesn’t seem to see MUDWOMAN as having a dark ending. She says that M.R. will succeed when she goes back to her university. That wasn’t clear to me at all as I re-read the ending of the book.

    And I didn’t pick up on the Quaker values theme. For me it was difficult at times to understand the characters because they all had some pretty heavy flaws or quirks.

    I did like it when Oates spoke of M.R. as the rare truly “good” protagonist in literary fiction. M.R. did seem to be trying so hard. Her extreme goodness actually made her a little bit unlikeable for me. If she hadn’t had the mental breakdown I wouldn’t have been as sympathetic to her.

    I’m curious what others think about Ms. Oates comments on her book. I would have never known that the germ of the book came from an actual incident; that was fascinating.

    • I was also uncertain about the ending. After what felt like a very settling, healing time in Carthage with her father, M.R. seemed to be heading down the same route – between real and not real. I found myself anxious all over again about whether her mental health was sound enough for her to return to her “real life” and to the challenges of her work and position. I didn’t see her encounter with the boy from Massena as a victory, but as another ambiguous step on her mental journey. As she drove off to New Jersey I had a terrible sense of foreboding.

    • jill vaughan says:

      The book affected me deeply- but I am ambivalent about the ending- I work with trauma victims, and it is unusual that, after a breakdown, and beginning the journey of healing, that they head for the same life they had before. I don’t regard that s a failure- I believe it’s an adjustment of values, and a new appreciation of authenticity. MR’s position would require the most robust mental health and drive- hard to picture her thinking it was worthwhile to push herself that way. Great book- just a concern for MR”S fictional future.

      • Laura McGrath says:

        I agree with Jill, but I am maybe a little more optimistic. While I do not think M.R. will have an easy time, she is going back to the university a changed person. She is no longer denying her past and the traumatic events that she was encouraged to ignore for so long. For me, her interaction with the “mud-boy” at the end is symbolic of the fact that her past has less control over her now that she has faced it. I like the fact that the ending is not nice and neat; that’s life!

        • jill vaughan says:

          I keep waiting for more comments- there’s so much to say about this book- but have to say there’s a big difference between Quaker kindness, and what MR describes as anticipating and meeting needs, as she does- that hyper-vigilance typcial of PTSE survivors.