Joyce Carol Oates not slowing down

Joyce Carol Oates brings her familiar themes to new gothic thriller

Even as a small girl, there were signs that Joyce Carol Oates was going to become a writer.

She preferred reading over playing, and spent many hours with her Crayolas, drawing scenes from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

"I loved reading, and the next logical step was to make up your own book," said Oates, who grew up to become not only a writer, but one of the most decorated and prolific chroniclers of 20th century America. Since the early 1960s, Oates's name has appeared on the cover of more than 50 novels, 25 short story collections, and several dozen plays, poetry books, essays and a handful of books for children.

"The most common misperception about me is that I write fast," said Oates, 74, in an interview in her hilltop garden overlooking UC Berkeley, where she is teaching this year, on paid leave from her longtime position at Princeton.

"I just write often. Every hour that I can."

Her latest novel, "The Accursed," might surprise Oates fans for its foray into the underworld of demons and vampires, lynchings and rape.

The 667-page book captures Victorian-era Princeton, N.J., when a nefarious curse descends on the town's elite in 1905, including former president Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton University. It's a gothic thriller, complete with a bride swept away from the altar by a shape-shifting demon.

Written in 1984, and then put away in a drawer, Oates returned to the book every five or six years for a rewrite, but kept wrestling with the narrative voice.

"I couldn't ever get beyond page 30," she said.

The book became her nemesis, the only one in her career that vexed her. Finally, in December 2011, she got an idea to recast the book about racism, and the privileged community's blindness to it.

In the opening scene, a young Latin teacher comes to Woodrow Wilson's university office at Nassau Hall to demand that he take a public stand against the recent lynching of a 19-year-old man and his pregnant, 23-year-old sister in nearby Camden.

Wilson brushes his visitor off.

Then characters start seeing the ghosts of their dead children. Wives start disappearing into horse-drawn chariots steered by demons. Children turn to stone, and snakes slither down the walls at the girls' school.

"The curse coincides with repression," Oates said. "All these responsible Christians should have come to the defenses of the 'negroes,' as was the term then, but they did nothing. They were cowards, or they tacitly agreed with what was going on."

Deftly, Oates pulls her story to the themes that have propelled her career: class struggle, the power and vulnerability of girls, and racism.

Her characters include a drunken, arrogant Jack London; a wife who uses her hypochondria to get out of Victorian conventions such as corsets and society parties; and "The Jungle" author Upton Sinclair, whose proletariat struggles provide political context for the plot.

Oates relied on the extensive Woodrow Wilson archives at Princeton for her research, and her area knowledge, as she drove by the very mansions and roads she was describing on her way to work.

"I have friends who live in one of Woodrow Wilson's former houses, where he used to escape from his wife and daughters into an amusing turret," Oates said. "Until recent years, his racism and sexism has been unexamined, because it didn't stand out. Everyone at the time was that way."

Her current novel, still untitled, is about race, and inspired by the true story of 15-year-old Tawana Brawley, an African American girl from New York who was discovered in 1987 to have falsely accused six white men, some of whom were police officers, of raping her.

It's an edgy topic, one Oates is a little afraid she'll "get in trouble for."

"I wanted to write about the repercussions of a hoax," she said. "One of the accused committed suicide. But the main character is sympathetic, too ... because of what she did just to feel the power to strike out."

Her non-writing moments are filled by deconstructing the short stories of Annie Proulx with her undergraduate fiction workshop at Cal, or taking hikes behind her rented Julia Morgan home with her second husband, Princeton neuroscientist Charles Gross.

She met Gross a year after her first husband, Raymond Smith, came down with pneumonia and died unexpectedly in 2008, which became the basis for her widely acclaimed memoir, "A Widow's Story."

It would seem that Oates, who has won the National Book Award and been nominated for it six times, received the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle, and received the National Humanities Medal, the government's highest civilian honor for the arts, has earned the right to rest on her achievements.

But the word "retirement" causes her to recoil, as if she just saw one of the haunts in "The Accursed."

"Oh, no! I like to write. You wouldn't ever take a break from reading ... or dreaming."

Joyce Carol Oates: In conversation with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. City Arts & Lectures, Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F. (415) 392-4400. At Narrative Night San Francisco. 7 p.m. April 22, with Peter Orner, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, Leah Garchik, to mark Narrative Magazine's 10th anniversary. Tickets start at $500. Jardiniere restaurant, 300 Grove St., S.F.

Meredith May is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @meredithmaysf