Interview with Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates Award-winning author, Joyce Carol Oates was born in 1938 and grew up in upstate New York. While a scholarship student at Syracuse University, she won the coveted Mademoiselle fiction contest. She graduated as valedictorian, then earned an M.A. at the University of Wisconsin. In 1968, she began teaching at the University of Windsor. In 1978, she moved to New Jersey to teach creative writing at Princeton University, where she is now the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities.

A prolific writer, Joyce Carol Oates has produced some of the most controversial, and lasting, fiction of our time. Her novel, them, set in racially volatile 1960s Detroit, won the 1970 National Book Award. Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart focused on an interracial teenage romance. Black Water, a narrative based on the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and her national bestseller Blonde, an epic work on American icon Marilyn Monroe, became a National Book Award Finalist. Although Joyce Carol Oates has called herself, "a serious writer, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists," her novels have enthralled a wide audience, and We Were the Mulvaneys earned the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Critically acclaimed literary novelist Oates turns her hand to young adult fiction in Big Mouth & Ugly Girl, recently out in paperback. In this interview she talks about writing a humorous book as a change from serious adult books and gives some great advice for aspiring writers.

Big Mouth & Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates
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What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up?

My favorite child's book was Alice's Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. As a teenager I was reading so-called adult literature, and very much admired Henry David Thoreau, Emily Bronte, Ernest Hemingway (in our time, Hemingway's stories of adolescents), William Faulkner and Dostoyevsky. I also read a steady succession of young adult fiction, especially in junior high, and classic mysteries like the tales of Sherlock Holmes, horror and science fiction to a lesser degree.

Lots of your characters are frighteningly real but yet have something about them that set them apart from their peers. How did you go about creating characters such as Ursula, Matt, and the Brewer twins?

Life is both painful at times, and very funny, "Lighten it, Joyce," an older writer, a very famous American writer in fact, once advised me. I tend to be humorous, or to see the amusing side of things, more readily in social situations than in my prose, however.

I'm sure a lot of readers will be able to relate to many of the characters that you create, such as Matt and Trevor Cassity. How are you able to write teenagers, boys in particular, so well?

One of the messages of Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is that friends can help one another, very much. We should reach out to others to offer them help or emotional support even if, at times, we don't know them that well. We may discover that we are the only individuals who are coming forward at a precarious time in the life of the other. Many troubled adolescents may simply be lonely for meaningful companionship.

Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is humorous, yet at the same time deeply moving and often thought provoking. How did you manage to maintain such a fine balance?

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
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Another message of Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is to resist the influence of peers when it's likely to harm you. Matt gets in trouble by being funny in public, needing to make his friends laugh. He's insecure with his friends, and making them laugh has been a way of being accepted. He knows he has a "big mouth" -- yet can't seem to help it, at times. Ursula, the self-defined Ugly Girl, has created a mask for herself to hide behind that's arrogant and self-assured, yet, inside the mask, Ursula is insecure. When she begins to feel strong emotions for Matt, her first instinct is to panic and flee. She doesn't want to be vulnerable emotionally, to anyone, even her parents.

This is your first young adult novel. Ursula Riggs is the star of Big Mouth & Ugly Girl -- How was it different telling an entire story from a teen perspective?

Unlike older people, who often don't really learn from their mistakes, young people are constantly learning and remaking their personalities. The brighter they are, the more rapidly they catch on to ways of behavior that are not helpful to their development, or are helpful. It's a movement in our personal lives that mimics the Darwinian concept of "natural selection." Naturally, that is to say instinctively, we chose patterns of behavior that allow us to survive, and to move forward. (Unless we are self-destructive, which is another pattern of behavior to which, for a time, both Ursula and Matt are susceptible.)

What about the characters? Are Ursula and Matt based on real people?

All a writer's characters are based on "real" people to some degree, since all of a writer´┐Żs work draws upon his or her life until that point. But the boys and girls and men and women of Big Mouth & Ugly Girl are fictitious in the literal sense of the term.

What advice do you give to budding writers?

Beginning writers should follow the lines of their own natural interests, look and listen hard, note the astonishing variety of personalities and voices in our culture. And of course they should read widely, and they should write every day. Like learning to play a musical instrument, learning to write has much to do with practice.

Posted with permission of the publisher.