Most of Joyce Carol Oates’s fiction is grounded firmly in the real world, ripped from the headlines or sifted from history. Her best-known short story, the terrifying “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966), was inspired by an actual serial killer in Arizona, for example, while her Pulitzer Prize finalists “Black Water” (1992) and “Blonde” (2000) reimagined the Chappaquiddick incident and the life of Marilyn Monroe, respectively.
But the inspiration for Oates’s latest book, the psychological horror novel “Mudwoman” (Ecco, $26.99), came not from the outside world but, rather, from a mysterious and pitch-dark corner of her own unconscious. To be published on Tuesday, “Mudwoman” — about the crackup of an Ivy League university president haunted by her secret past as the child of a poor, mentally ill religious fanatic who tried to drown her in a riverside mudflat — began as a powerful and disturbing dream.
“It’s embarrassing almost to talk about, because it’s very different from the genesis and gestation of most of my novels,” Oates, 73, says in an interview from her home in Princeton, N.J. “I almost never write inspired by a dream vision. But in this dream, I saw a woman sitting at a large table wearing inappropriate, very heavy makeup that had dried, like mud, and was darker than her skin. I was so haunted by the image, and when I woke up I immediately started writing notes. It was presented to me as a great mystery that I had to decode and put in a context.”