'The Lost Landscape,' by Joyce Carol Oates

“What exactly are facts, that we shall imagine they have the power to explain the world to us?” writes Joyce Carol Oates in her intriguing new memoir. “On the contrary, it is facts that must be explained.”

Greg Johnson’s workmanlike biography “Invisible Writer,” published in 1998, laid out many relevant facts about the esteemed writer’s life: her working-class background in rural New York north of Buffalo, the violent deaths of two great-grandparents (mirrored in the turbulence and intensity of her fiction), the one-room schoolhouse where she began her education, college at Syracuse University (where she was valedictorian of the class of 1960), followed by a lengthy and prolific career capped by a National Book Award and numerous other honors.

“The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age” is a collection of autobiographical essays, some previously published and revised, that trace Oates’ roots from childhood through early adulthood. In them, Oates, now 77, looks back with beguiling modesty and boundless curiosity. Behind “the facts” lie more profound mysteries: “The writer is one who understands how deeply mysterious the ‘familiar’ is.”

Some of the facts in Oates’ account are amusing. When very young, she had a pet Rhode Island Red that evidently thought he was a dog. This rooster would follow little Joyce around and hop into her arms like a cocker spaniel. And it’s hard to imagine this member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters caricatured in a high school friend’s cartoon as “Oatsie.” What these facts do, of course, is humanize and demythologize a writer often cited as a possible Nobel Prize winner, and just as often derided, because of her prolific output, as a writing machine.

“Working-class” is factual shorthand that fails to capture the reality of Oates’ early years. Yes, her father worked in a factory, and her mother had only eight years of schooling. The family had an orchard and chickens, and sold fruit and eggs at a roadside stand to supplement their income. And, yes, Joyce felt out of her element when she found herself among upper-middle-class students at a suburban Buffalo high school.

Still, Joyce learned to play the piano, as her father had. And her book-loving Grandma Blanche introduced her to treasures at the public library. Lewis Carroll’s Alice inspired this shy girl to be a writer and “to be just slightly bolder … question authority ... and to look upon life as a possibility for adventures.”

For a writer, Oates declares, “the most crucial quality is sympathy.” Judging by the evidence in this book, she possesses it in spades, no doubt another gift from her parents. At a young age, she looked kindly on a neighbor girl whose household was tortured by incest and wife abuse, as well as on a snobbish, privileged friend who later committed suicide. Upon her sister, born on Joyce’s 18th birthday, she bestowed a sympathy that could never be reciprocated. Severely autistic, Lynn Ann never was able to speak one word and grew so agitated and hostile that she had to be institutionalized.

One doesn’t think of Oates as religious, but her early encounters with Christianity were instructive. Her parents were not churchgoers, but when a friend persuaded 12-year-old Joyce to attend a tiny Methodist church, she agreed. She was always keen for new experience. There she was asked to play the organ and thrilled to the hymns and fervor, but did not succumb to the Christian message.

Later, following a bargain sanctioning a grandfather’s burial in a Catholic cemetery, the family began attending a Catholic church. Joyce loathed catechism lessons and the “clockwork routine” of the Mass, yet still lingered uncertainly in the shadow of the faith until early adulthood. The benefits of beautiful music and language and the search for meaning proved insufficient. Art would provide more satisfying nourishment.

Graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin, however, proved to be an exercise in disillusionment. A lover of literature, Oates found she could not abide “the drudgery of scholarly research.” She was a bored, restless insomniac wandering the shores of Lake Mendota.

Though she passed her master’s degree orals, she was informed that she could not proceed to a doctoral program. The all-male jury of her non-peers had decided she was not among the elect. Raymond Smith, the fellow graduate student she had married shortly after arriving on campus, told her not to worry. Now she could be the writer she’d always wanted to be.

“Whatever my ‘story’ is,” Oates writes, “it is not compelling ... compared with those whose lives were lived ‘closer to the bone,’” like her parents and grandparents. That sympathy-laden view has always informed her fiction. While other writers are drawn to the lives of urban sophisticates or bored suburbanites, Oates mines literary gold among the have-nots.

Dan Cryer is the author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.” E-mail: books@sfchronicle.com

The Lost Landscape

A Writer’s Coming of Age

By Joyce Carol Oates

(Ecco; 353 pages; $27.99)