Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific and lauded novelists working today, has a new novel for young adults, Freaky Green Eyes. We talk with Oates about how she got into writing for a younger audience and the dilemmas unique to teenagers.
What prompted you to start writing specifically for young adults?
I was invited by Tara Weikum, who's an editor now at HarperCollins Children's Books, to assemble [a collection of] short stories about adolescents, because she had noticed I'd written quite a few. The collection is Small Avalanches.
I've always written about adolescent girls. I think I just have a gravitational pull in that direction, and yet I've never written specifically for that audience. So, it just was a matter of rethinking how a story might be presented in a somewhat less complex way.
Then I wrote a young adult novel, which was just the next step. I always wanted to write about this Ugly Girl type who is a little bit like myself, I guess—she played basketball in high school and so forth. Basically it grew out of that and became Big Mouth & Ugly Girl. My writing generally begins with characters.
Now with Freaky Green Eyes, I remember very clearly that my husband and I were walking somewhere and we saw these pens in somebody's yard with animals inside. They didn't have any space really to turn around in. It just came over me: I would like to run in there and liberate all those animals. That was actually the thematic origin of Freaky as a character. Who would go in and let those animals out? Well, it wouldn't be me, Joyce Carol Oates, I'm a professor at Princeton. But who would? Well, this girl [Franky] who's 15, who is impulsive and has a sense of ethics.
Adults can live with compromises in a way that children and adolescents find grating. I'm just very drawn to the adolescent personality.
Is it coincidental that both Big Mouth & Ugly Girl [which revolves around a boy who jokes about a bomb threat and the girl who defends him] and Freaky Green Eyes are so topical?
Well, I'm not sure that ultimately they're that topical. Big Mouth & Ugly Girl sort of turns on somebody having a big mouth and saying things he doesn't mean in order to be funny to his friends. I wanted to focus on that phenomenon. The subject of a bomb threat or a situation like Columbine in a way is not necessary. He could have said something else that would get him in trouble at school.
Freaky Green Eyes obviously turns upon something like the O.J. Simpson case without the whole racial angle. Here I'm focusing on how a person who is a celebrity is so admired that he casts a kind of aura, that people stare at the aura, and they don't really want to see that the person himself is somewhat stunted, in fact, morally, that he's immature. To me, it's more like an archetype or an idea.
What are you hoping that readers will take away from Franky's story?
I would think that a girl reading the novel might feel that she could aspire to an ethical standard that was higher than just her own family, like she doesn't have to protect a parent who may be a lawbreaker or a murderer just because this person is her father—that she can have a sense of the moral self within.
Are you working on another novel for young adults?
I [just finished a book] called Sexy. It's about a boy who's 16, and he is actually very shy, but he's very attractive. And unfortunately he's attractive to both girls and men. He is not himself gay, but he's attractive to older men, and so this is very upsetting to him and causes anxiety. It's a subject I've never really thought about until I was writing about it—the sexuality of a boy. There's so much crude humor about it that arises, I suppose, from anxiety.
Do you think you will continue to write for this age group?
I probably will, but I alternate different genres. If I do a young adult novel, the next thing would be a short story or an adult novel, or an essay or a play. It's probably like a cook, a chef who makes a certain meal and really puts all he has into it, then he won't make that meal again for a long time.
You put all that you have at one time into something and hope it's good enough, and then you have to release it. I definitely feel a little sad when I finish these young adult novels, because the kids are so much fun. I like the voice, and I feel a loss.