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At thirty-seven, Oates was already one of the most celebrated writers in the United States, but for almost a decade she had taught at the University of Windsor, maintaining on the Canadian side of the Detroit River a discreet distance from the violent American reality she had dramatized so powerfully in her fiction.She gave few interviews and declined most invitations to read from her work on college campuses.

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In sharp contrast to the timorous-seeming woman who had approached the stage, Oates now appeared confident and genuinely pleased to be there.

She planned to read poetry, she said, so that she could talk informally between the poems; a long piece of fiction would be too wearing for the audience.

Granted privileged access to her private letters and journals, and drawing upon hundreds of extensive interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and Oates herself, Johnson develops his portrait of an “invisible writer” whose carefully guarded private world proves as fascinating as her well-publicized literary career.

Oates’s own life was marked by the same chaos, violence, and dark twists of fate that would later beset her fictional characters and create her obsession with what she calls “the phantasmagoria of personality.” Here is the child born into poverty in the desolate heart of upstate New York; a girl shadowed by emotional terrors; a young woman drawn at an early age into an intensely private world of the intellect and imagination.

Even more unexpected was her spontaneous and lively sense of humor.