by Joyce Carol Oates
has always been a
but it's never gotten him in trouble - until one day when two detectives escort him out of class for questioning. Matt has been accused of threatening to blow up Rocky River High School.
has always been an
A loner with fierce, staring eyes, Ursula has no time for petty high school stuff like friends and dating - or at least that's what she tells herself. Ursula is content with minding her own business. And she doesn't even really know Matt Donaghy.
But Ursula is the only person who knows what Matt really said that day . . . and she is the only one who can help him.
In her first novel for young adults, acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates has created a provocative and unflinching story of friendship and family, and of loyalty and betrayal.
An interview with author Joyce Carol Oates...
Q. What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up?
A. My favorite child's book was ALICE WONDERLAND and ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING-CLASS. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.)
Q. What about the characters? Are Ursula and Matt based on real people?
A. All a writer's characters are based on "real" people to some degree, since all of a writer’s 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.
Q. What advice do you give to budding writers?
A. 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.