Joyce Carol Oates on 76 Pick Big Mouth & Ugly Girl

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The first young adult novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Big Mouth & Ugly Girl (HarperCollins), is number one on the Book Sense 76 Teen Summer Reads list. Oates weaves controlled, elegant writing with her storytelling magic in a sweet story that includes a bit of Kafka, a little David and Lisa, and even some Nicholas Sparks.

In her nomination of Big Mouth & Ugly Girl for the Teen 76, Jean Ernst of Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, Minnesota, described the book this way: "Matt makes an ‘innocent joke’ in the lunch room and the police come for him, his friends are kept away, and his dad is in danger of losing his job. Only one person, Ursula, stands by him. This is a fabulous story with interesting characters and a plot that will ring true right up until the satisfying end. This is Oates’ first book for teens, and I hope it’s not her last."

Joyce Carol Oates recently responded to questions from Bookselling This Week about Big Mouth & Ugly Girl.

BTW: You have written about many teenagers and tough girls over the years. Very few have survived their coming of age and outsider status with such success and optimism as Ursula Riggs and Matt Donaghy. Did you resist a more catastrophic or twisted end for any of the characters because this was a book for young adults?

JCO: Since I have worked with "young adults" for many years as a professor, and have often visited prep schools and high schools, I’m vividly aware of how individuals can change, sometimes virtually overnight, and certainly within a semester. It isn’t a characteristic of older people, but it is definitely a characteristic of adolescents. Therefore, to me, "young adult" fiction is written in a spirit of more optimism about the ability to change, to behave in ways strategic for survival and success; I saw such behavior in a number of my contemporaries and, I suppose, to some degree in myself. Fiction for adults is likely to be more charged with irony, skepticism, and a tragic sense of life and history.

BTW: Do you sense a loss of sanguinity and enthusiasm among the current adolescents?

JCO: No, I don’t really. I don’t believe that adolescence is susceptible to the sort of long-range enervation one might experience among adults. My Princeton students are very intelligent, very hard working, and often very ambitious, and their doubts about life simply don’t lodge as deeply as the doubts of their older contemporaries.

Why? I think the answer is simply nature; our species is bred to be optimistic, to live in the future, to plan ahead, to yearn for ideals. Even at a time when public ideals have conspicuously corroded, you will find highly idealistic young people. Irony, the predominant mode of postmodernist fiction, doesn’t come naturally to young adults.

BTW: Do they need more happy endings?

JCO: I don’t think adolescents need "happy endings" as such. I think that popular culture provides for them possible ways of living. Some works of art are cautionary tales: warnings that, if you behave in this way, if you make certain choices, you may invite disaster. Shakespeare’s great tragedies are cautionary tales: behave like Macbeth, you will invite Macbeth’s fate. On another level, young adult fiction provides its readers with models for behavior, both exemplary and unwise. My adolescent characters -- who number quite a few -- are always meant to be both individuals and representative. In my adult writing, I have numerous portraits of adolescents, an age group with which I feel enormous sympathy and identity.

BTW: You have captured the rhythm and content of teenage conversations completely. It cannot be as effortless as it appears. Were there special considerations when creating teen characters?

One of the strengths of the story, for me, was the restraint employed: the language was rarely profane and only hints of sexual activity were included. The initial crisis was precipitated by a cafeteria boast -- not the discovery of a disembodied head; the most heinous crime was a kidnapped dog -- not a prom room covered with blood. No one was raped, killed, or stricken with a fatal disease. You also portrayed the adults as fairly well meaning and clueless, but hardly sinister. Was it a challenge to create and maintain such tension and emotion without many of the usual teen staples?

JCO: I wasn’t aware of the teen staples/stereotypes, though now that you mention them, I suppose I am. My experience with young adults has been more or less direct, and my sense of their ways of speaking and behaving is taken more from life than from popular culture. (One thing that is very difficult to communicate in prose is the predilection for humor among young people. This is an enormously funny age group. Whimsical, goofy, imaginative, insightful -- a daunting task for a writer, though it’s ideal material for video.)

I think of adults as "fairly well meaning and clueless" when confronted by the complexity of their adolescent children’s dramas. I do think that, in the sometimes claustrophobic world of adolescents, there are those who bully and prey upon others, and that their power over their peers is remarkable, a phenomenon of immaturity and the confined society of high school. When we’re more adult, we can escape such people relatively easily. (Unless they are family members.) Therefore, I believe that there are legitimate "villainous" individuals in the lives of some adolescents, who probably don’t seem nearly so difficult or dangerous, or possessed of such outsized power by adults, who tend often to myopia, seeing only what they want to see and underestimating their children’s vulnerability vis-à-vis other children.

BTW: Ursula Riggs is a complicated and admirable character with a strict, albeit idiosyncratic, code of ethics. Was her threat of blackmail by "speaking to Dad" (the employer of Trevor’s dad) about Trevor’s malevolence, a violation of her principles? Did the ends justify the means?

JCO: Ursula meant to help her friends in ways available to her, and her loyalty to Matt would override her sense of fair play with Trevor. But I did mean to indicate a certain playfulness in their behavior. Trevor objects, "That’s like something little kids would do" and Ursula responds, "We are little kids." (Meaning that they are not fully mature adults, after all.) Ursula would not in any case have said anything other than the truth in speaking to her father about Trevor’s behavior.

BTW: Did introducing e-mailed text (including deleted passages) allow for greater options to examine Matt’s inner life? Are young people, reared on e-mail, showing more fluency as writers?

JCO: E-mail is an extraordinary invention of our time. Yes, I think it makes for greater fluency and ease of expression. I’m not sure that it will make much difference in terms of literary writing, though it may. Writing per se isn’t the issue, for young people are generally quite fluent, but selecting the stronger aspects of writing, and self-editing. Talking is very different from writing since it has no form.

BTW: Are there any books for young adults that you have particularly enjoyed?

JCO: When I was of junior high school age, I read avidly, continuously. I read everything I could get my hands on in the library, that was accessible to me. So answering this question is virtually impossible. The single book that shaped my childhood imaginings and perhaps my subsequent life as a writer was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, which is presumably for children, not young adults.

BTW: Are you planning on any future books for young adults? Please do.

JCO: I recently finished my second novel for young adults, Freaky Green Eyes. Though it has a strongly positive ending, it is a more painful, disturbing, and perhaps more adult, young-adult novel than Big Mouth & Ugly Girl since it confronts the issue of a much-admired father, his domestic violence, and its consequences on a 15-year-old girl who must decide whether to bear witness for, or against, this charismatic figure.

-- Interview by Nomi Schwartz