Jeffrey Eugenides on the writer's craft: 'People wouldn't fall in love if they hadn't read about it.'
EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra (The Philippine Star) - October 14, 2012 - 12:00am

Some months ago I received, via e-mail, an invitation to appear at the 9th Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali, Indonesia. Naturally I thought it was a mistake — I hadn’t done anything literary in years; I would be spotted instantly as a fraud. Then I saw the list of writers who were coming to the festival. It included novelists I regard with awe and terror, such as Jeffrey Eugenides (author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex), Chang-Rae Lee (The Surrendered) and Colson Whitehead (Sag Harbor, Zone One — probably the best zombie novel every written).

I accepted the invitation and hoped the mistake would not be discovered till it was too late.

The UWRF was organized to support the community in the aftermath of the Bali bombings (in 2002 and 2005); since then it’s grown into the largest, most acclaimed literary festival in the region. This year 140 writers from 30 countries converged on picturesque Ubud, recognizable to many as the setting of Eat, Pray, Love (and of the asinine Julia Roberts movie). There were panel discussions, readings, workshops, tours, movies, a concert by Nick Cave, and film screenings. I participated in two panel sessions and managed not to get anything hurled at me (given the large population of ducks roaming around the open-air venues it would’ve been easy to grab random fowl and throw them in anger).

The best part of the festival was sitting in the presence of some of the most gifted novelists of our time and hearing them talk about writing — not as some mystical experience/divinely-inspired ritual, but as a job they toil at, flesh, blood and brains. I tried to get an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, whose first book The Virgin Suicides is my definition of “incandescent,” but he managed to evade my requests. I had to be content with attending his talk, which turned out to be better than my planned interview. The author was in good form, the moderator asked the right questions, and the audience was knowledgeable and appreciative.

“I’m always working on a book,” began Eugenides (Eu-GEN-ee-dees), 52. He took us back to the start of his career, when he was trying to get short stories published in magazines. Like most writers he amassed a collection of form rejection slips — sometimes there would be a scrawled “Try us again” at the bottom, and this would be enough encouragement for two years. After years of rejections, he got a story published in a small literary magazine; his next story, published in the Paris Review, was the first chapter of The Virgin Suicides. At which point a literary agent called and took him on.

“Virginia Woolf said you should never publish before you’re 30,” said Eugenides. “A lot of people have written wonderful books in their 20s, but I did not have the ability. It took me a while to settle down and be able to control a voice and a tone.” He made three novelistic attempts, each of them surviving until page 150, before he completed The Virgin Suicides. “What was happening on page 150 that made you give up?” someone in the audience asked. “It was probably happening on every page,” Eugenides laughed. “Something wrong with the prose.”

The Virgin Suicides came out of a chance encounter with a young woman who had babysat his nephew. “She said she and all her sisters had tried to commit suicide. I asked her why. She said, ‘I don’t know, there was so much pressure.’”

Writing The Virgin Suicides took three years. He was working a 9-to-5 job, then writing two hours every night, four hours on weekends. “Sometimes on the job I would write, and eventually I got fired ‘cause they caught me writing The Virgin Suicides on stationery where I was supposed to be writing a letter to a client.” Meanwhile the pressure to publish was building. “People ask, ‘What do you do? Oh you’re a writer, have you published anything?’ It’s okay at age 24, 25, but at 31…

“You have no other purpose, you’re not suited to anything (but writing). I should’ve gone to dental school, or dental hygienists’ school,” he laughed. The Virgin Suicides was published to rapturous reviews and adapted for film by Sofia Coppola. “It was great because no one was expecting me to write; they were hoping I would quit. Later there was some expectation: You’re a writer, do it again.”

His next book was the ambitious Middlesex, an epic told from the point of view of an inter-sex person who is born female and becomes male at puberty. There are many such characters in literature, he pointed out, beginning with Tiresias the seer of Greek myth. Eugenides went to the medical research library at Columbia University to find a condition that would suit his purpose: he came upon 5-alpha-reductase-deficiency, a genetic condition found only in small, isolated communities. The slim fictional autobiography he had foreseen became the far more complicated story of a gene passing down through many generations, ending up in the body of the narrator.

The moderator noted that Eugenides’ wife become pregnant while he was writing Middlesex, and there is a pregnancy in the novel. Eugenides told the story of how he, his wife, her brother and his wife, went to a screening of the David Cronenberg movie Crash. It’s a very creepy sexual movie none of them cared for, but two weeks later both couples conceived. In Middlesex, two couples go to a racy cabaret and the same thing happens.

“The difficulty I had in writing Middlesex was mainly getting the voice of the novel,” he declared. “I had an inter-sex narrator so the question was, Should she sound like a man or a woman? Is there a difference between the way men and women speak? How do I tell a story that’s going to encompass different generations?” The shifting narrative voices presented a technical problem.

 Another problem was the historical background of the novel. Eugenides describes himself as “half-Greek, half-Kentucky hillbilly” — on Sundays his parents’ house would be full of Greek immigrants speaking a language he didn’t understand but was familiar with at the same time. The novel called for an isolated community: he decided it would begin in Asia Minor, where his grandparents came from. Initially he tried to write about Greece in1922 using only the force of his imagination. He couldn’t do it; it rang completely false. But during a stay at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, he stumbled onto a book about Smyrna 1922, the Greeks in Asia Minor. The novel was on its way.

The title was the last thing that came to him: he remembered growing up in a city called Middlesex, and the name just sounded right. It’s very American, he noted, dignifying suburbs by calling them something English. All over the US there are things named Middlesex; meanwhile, in England, Middlesex is considered a terrible place. That title brought all the themes of his complex novel together.

Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Asked how he feels about awards, he quoted Kingsley Amis: “Prizes are good when you win them. They’re mood elevators, they can change careers, but they’re not necessary. When you start on your next book you’re the same schlemiel you always were.”

His latest novel The Marriage Plot began as “an instance of literary adultery. I was writing Middlesex and having a difficult time. I put it down because I had another idea for a short book that would be easier to write. I went off with the new book and inevitably that relationship became just as difficult as the one I was fleeing. We weren’t getting along, so I went back to Middlesex and finished that book. When I was finished I had about 100 pages of another novel waiting for me.

“When you throw away a book it’s usually because something else is brewing in your imagination,” he explained. “So often I do stop working on a book to get some perspective on it.”

Someone asked him if he worked from outlines. “I don’t think you can come up with an interesting plot on the first day of writing a book,” he said. “You can think of the story and try to imagine how it’s going to play out. But most of the time, if I have an outline, the ideas get very predictable. And once I get to writing them, they don’t satisfy me. So I have to think of something less predictable and I can’t come up with those solutions until I’m actually immersed in the book.”

One of the characters in The Marriage Plot — Mitchell, a young American of Greek descent who attends Brown University and volunteers with Mother Theresa in Calcutta — sounds exactly like Jeffrey Eugenides. The author acknowledged drawing from his own life. “It’s almost easier to write about places you haven’t been, because then your imagination doesn’t compete with your memory. That section of The Marriage Plot that dovetails with my personal experience was very difficult for me to write, because there’s the truth, and there’s the story I’m trying to tell.

“It’s called The Marriage Plot because the main character Madeleine is a young woman who’s read far too many Jane Austen novels. La Rochefoucauld said, ‘People wouldn’t fall in love if they hadn’t heard love being talked about.’ People wouldn’t fall in love if they hadn’t read about it. That was the starting point of the book.”

There has been plenty of speculation — not brought up in this session — that Madeleine’s boyfriend Leonard, the hulking, bandanna-wearing, tobacco-chewing bipolar genius, is based on the late writer David Foster Wallace. Eugenides has denied this in interviews.

In order to write the Leonard character, he said, he did research on bipolar disorder, which in the ‘80s was called manic-depression. In the manic phase one has a feeling of grandiosity and incredible energy —“It’s the only mental illness where there’s a benefit,” he observed. “For many people who’ve had it, when their symptoms are under control they feel that the best part of them has been lost. You can imagine how difficult it is for them to take medication.

“Weirdly,” he added later, “(Leonard’s chapter) was the easiest part of the book to write.”

Eugenides’ next book will be a collection of short stories. At present he is writing the screenplay adaptation of The Marriage Plot. “They’ll probably go to a script doctor who will change it,” he said. “Books are not movies, they need to be changed to make them visual.” Aside from The Virgin Suicides, his short story “Baster” was adapted for a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman. I asked him about it while he was signing books. “Well, the beginning was like the story, and then…” he shrugged.

“Seeing a film of your book is an uncanny experience,” he told the audience, “because on one level it’s extremely recognizable. After all you wrote it, some of the dialogue coming out of the actors’ mouths is dialogue you wrote. And yet it’s radically altered by your memory and vision. It takes a while for you to be able to see it as a film.” He recalled coming home to his apartment in Berlin at 3 a.m., not exactly sober, turning on the television and seeing The Virgin Suicides dubbed in German. “I thought it was terrific.”

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with