Princeton's Joyce Carol Oates draws on true crime inspiration for new novel, 'Babysitter'

We all had our pandemic projects. There were plenty of endeavors long on our minds that we finally found the time for: learning an instrument, perfecting a sourdough starter, home renovations.

For Joyce Carol Oates, the Princeton author of more than 50 novels, that meant finishing a book that was decades in the making.

“Babysitter” was released by Alfred A. Knopf in August. Largely told from the perspective of Hannah, an affluent-yet-frustrated wife and mother in the Detroit suburbs of the 1970s, Oates’ story is haunted by a still-unsolved true crime case: that of killer, also referred to as Babysitter, responsible for the murders of four children, ages 10 to 12, in the metro Detroit region between 1976 and 1977.

“I was thinking about the subject in the back of my mind,” said Oates, a National Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize nominee and the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities emerita at Princeton University. “Then during the pandemic, at the start of the pandemic, I worked on it. ... (I was) pretty much living in isolation at that time and working on that novel.”

Oates will discuss "Babysitter" with Princeton University professor Maria DiBattista at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon St. The talk will be streamed on YouTube.

Now 84, Oates was born in New York and moved to Detroit in 1962, then across the Detroit river to nearby Windsor in Ontario, Canada, in 1968 before settling in Princeton in 1978. She drew on plenty of her own memories of that time and place to create the vivid world of “Babysitter.”

“Everyone was very much aware of (the killings),” she said. “There were probably fewer media outlets. There were two newspapers and probably just a couple of television stations, so the focus was on this breaking news whenever something happened.”

Oates was friendly with several women not unlike some of those featured in her novel, inhabitants of the well-heeled suburbs. She would often meet them for lunch at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield, Michigan. The restaurant, the location of the last known sighting of former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, makes an appearance in “Babysitter.”

“I put that in the novel so that anyone who remembered those days and remembers Jimmy Hoffa would have a little glimmer of recognition of the kind of society where very well-to-do people went to these certain places, but also (so did) mob characters,” she said.

Oates started working on a novel with the Babysitter killings in the background around 1979, and completed a hundred pages or so before setting it aside. “Babysitter,” a short story by Oates, was then published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 2006.

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The book was worth the wait, though, as Oates deftly uses her story built around the Babysitter case to discuss issues that remain relevant, including class, sex, race, corruption and the victimization of children. Her work is particularly chilling in italicized beyond-the-grave interludes delivered from the points of view of the children killed by Babysitter.

“I wanted to give voice to the victims,” Oates said. “I also write about people who can’t speak for themselves, and so if you’re writing about a killer and his victims, you have to give the victims some articulation. Otherwise, the center of gravity will be on the living rather than those who have been victimized.”

Go: Joyce Carol Oates, “Babysitter” discussion with Princeton University professor Maria DiBattista, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, Community Room, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon St. The talk will be streamed on YouTube;

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Joyce Carol Oates talks true crime origins of new novel 'Babysitter'