Festival of Books: Why Joyce Carol Oates thinks 14 is the perfect age

Festival of Books: Why Joyce Carol Oates thinks 14 is the perfect age
Joyce Carol Oates, author of "The Sacrifice," in conversation with Michael Silverblatt during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Joyce Carol Oates is a teenager at heart.

At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, Oates discussed her latest novel, "The Sacrifice," with Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW's "Bookworm."

A fictional retelling of the Tawana Brawley story, the novel, like many of Oates' stories, focuses on a mother-daughter relationship. (In the late 1980s, Brawley, at the time an African American 15-year-old from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., falsely accused several white men of raping her.)

Oates said she tends to identify with the younger characters in these dynamics. That's because she feels her ideal age is 14, she said.


"Even though 14 is actually a bit behind me," joked 76-year-old Oates.

Oates said she has a strong affinity for adolescents because their personalties are fluid and not yet formed: They're curious, they feel like they're outsiders, they feel and look awkward, they're easily depressed and defeated, but suffused with energy and usually bounce right back.

"To me, adolescence is the very spring of our lives," she said.

Oates -- recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction -- also warned authors against writing before they've let their characters and scenes develop in their minds.

Oates said she meditates on her stories when she's running, and knows fully what will happen in a story before she begins writing.

Characters are elastic, she said, and if you give them room to live in your mind, they'll surprise you. If you sit down to write and fix them to words before you know what they're going to do, she said, "you'll have them captive in a way that's not helpful."

Check out the Festival of Books schedule for this weekend.


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