Joyce Carol Oates’s Dark New Novel Was Inspired by Former NJ Asylum

Butcher is based on a notorious New Jersey physician who experimented on female patients.

Joyce Carol Oates
Literary powerhouse Joyce Carol Oates has written more than 58 novels. She also teaches at Princeton and Rutgers. Photo: Courtesy of Knopf/Dustin Cohen

When Joyce Carol Oates learned about the ways in which the women who were held in the former New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Trenton in the early 20th century were terribly exploited, she was inspired to write about them—and the men who experimented on them—in her new novel, Butcher (Knopf), which is set largely in New Jersey and based on authentic historical documents.

Oates, 86, the author of more than 58 novels and a professor at both Princeton and Rutgers universities, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and has won many other awards, including the National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal. She lives outside of Princeton.

The cover of "Butcher" by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, Butcher, is out now.

What made you want to write Butcher? Was it partly to bring attention to the horrible things that were done to women in the past?
Yes, I have written, in less lurid detail, about similar restrictions and sexist exploitations of women in the 19th century in my novel A Bloodsmoor Romance some years ago, and I have written of what is called medical misconduct/malpractice in a suite of poems collected in American Melancholy. My second husband, Charlie Gross, was a historian of scientific research and his many books on the subject were fascinating to me. My novel The Man Without a Shadow explores [a man] whose memory has deteriorated, and Butcher explores a similar exploitation of women who are trapped, captive as “mental patients” in the [New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Trenton]—an actual place, no longer open, but not far from where I live—under the longtime directorship of the notorious Henry Cotton.

Is the book based on real people in addition to Dr. J. Marion Sims, the notorious physician who experimented on enslaved women in the 19th century?
Yes, it is based upon three notable, renowned medical men, one of them Henry Cotton, who lived in the 20th century.

Did you visit the places in New Jersey where you set your novel, such as Morristown, the Hermitage and Trenton? If so, did those visits change the way you thought about those places?
Yes, I have visited Morristown, but not the Hermitage. I have visited Trenton a good deal, served on a jury at the courthouse there, and often visited the Trenton museum, but the old lunatic asylum is long shut up and not available to visitors.

You’ve been at Princeton for more than four decades and have advised many students there, including Jonathan Safran Foer when he wrote Everything is Illuminated. It’s unusual for a writer as productive as you to spend so much time helping young writers—why do you do it?
Teaching is fascinating to me and a major part of my life.

You are one of the most prolific writers in American literature and one of the most honored. Can you talk about your writing routine? When do you write and how often? How long does it usually take you to finish a novel?
There is no specific writing routine—I try to write as much as I can each day. Obviously, days vary. Also, each novel is different; some are lengthy and require research, others are based more directly upon personal experience and require little research. Butcher did require research, primarily into “experiments” of the 19th century, and an occasional reliance upon J. Marion Sims’s life story, which is available online from Harvard University. My novel Blonde—a “posthumous autobiography” of Norma Jeane Baker/Marilyn Monroe—required both conventional research and the watching of as many movies of Monroe as were available; my recent novel Breathe—based upon intimate experience—required a minimum of research. My very recent novel Babysitter—based upon an actual serial killer case, unsolved, in the Detroit area in 1977, when I lived there—similarly required a minimum of research.

What’s your favorite thing about Princeton? About New Jersey?
The people! Definitely, the wonderful friends and colleagues in and around Princeton; the same is true for New Jersey as a whole. I often visit the Delaware Valley; my favorite small town is Lambertville, and also Hopewell. I live not in Princeton but several miles away in the direction of Hopewell, in a suburban-rural area, on three acres of mostly wooded land. New Jersey is a beautiful state, truly a garden state. Though my own garden is a modest one, it brings me much happiness each year.

[RELATED: Read Our 2011 Interview with Joyce Carol Oates]

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