Close Up with Jeffrey Eugenides
Last night I went to see an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides. I haven’t been to many author events before and I really enjoyed it. He read an excerpt of The Marriage Plot, was interviewed, answered questions and then signed copies of his books. He came across as genuine, funny and very intelligent.
Eugenides has a studio to write in, in which he bans the internet from. Day to day he writes from 10am until dinner time, regardless of whether he feels inspired or not. Each of his novels have taken a number of years to write and complete, which he confessed meant it was hard for him to know when they were finished; there were a few anecdotes of his editor coming to physically remove manuscripts.
He claimed the hardest bit in writing was finding the tone of each of his novels. Once he finds the tone the writing is not hard to sustain over a number of years, but it can take years of work to eventually find that tone. He talked about how ‘nostalgia’ in Greek means ‘a painful return’, which is a feeling he likes to capture in his writing.
He described living in Berlin as his favourite time to write because the sunlight in the summer lasts well into the night. He said that he misses Berlin now he does not live there, because the cost of living meant artists could live as artists comfortably – almost like Paris in the twenties. Whilst he doesn’t see himself writing about Berlin yet, he can see it in the future when it feels more nostalgic.
An interesting observation came when somebody asked him his thoughts on the film version of The Virgin Suicides; he said the only thing to concern yourself with when your book is made into a film is whether its a good film. They are completely different media so sometimes staying faithful to the plot of the book makes a terrible film not worth making. Incidentally he said he did like what Coppola had done because of the soundtrack and mood.
Eugenides finished talking about writing by telling us that novels often spin out of the smallest ideas, for example all the author might know is that he/ she wants to write in the first person. So the novel you eventually write can be quite unexpected.
The Virgin Suicides
The idea for this book had come from meeting a babysitter who had said she and her sisters had all tried to commit suicide. Eugenides said the big themes in the novel are growing up in Detroit, how boys misunderstand but are fascinated by girls, and how it feels to survive suicide. The story is actually all about the boys, not the sisters. When writing this novel he had deliberately limited what he could write about by making the girls so elusive: he could only write about things the boys could conceivably discover. Whilst he said this was challenging, it paid off because he needed these restrictions to be able to write well as a first time novelist.
Originally the book was to be a very slim autobiography of an intersex person. Eugenides had described reading Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite by Michel Foucault, captured by the title, and being very dissatisfied by it. The disappointment had come from a loss of Herculine’s voice – everything he had read about intersex people involved myths and melodrama. So Middlesex began as the book he had wanted to read. The Greek story – a ‘mock epic’ – was added when he began researching hermaphroditic conditions and found the most interesting one to originate from a mutated gene found in inbred families or communities. I thought the most interesting thing he said about this book was that to be a good writer you need to know about men and you need to know about women. He said he didn’t know enough to write about women when he wrote The Virgin Suicides, but Cal was his way of getting an omniscient narrator.
The Marriage Plot
Eugenides described beginning the novel with this sentence (now on page 17):
Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.
He wanted this novel to be all about characterisation. He had enjoyed getting to write really good characters in Middlesex, but wanted to do this on a smaller scale. Originally he had tried to write the book set all in the same house, but he found this too constricting. This is why there is a lot of traveling in the novel. When I read this book I couldn’t see where the Calcutta section had come from, but Mitchell’s experiences in India working with Mother Theresa’s volunteers is something from Eugenides’ own life. He said it was something he had been trying to write about since it happened, and that was 30 years ago. Initially he had written a chapter 120 pages long (now about 40 pages) and had included everything he had seen, everyone he met, all the food he ate, the streets he walked, but it hadn’t made any sense. Whilst he has experienced the same thing, what ended up in The Marriage Plot was very much a fictional path. Lastly, Eugenides claimed common ground with Madelien’s attitude to love: She wants to externalise and separate her romantic tendencies, but easily falls in love.
I’m left with a huge respect for Jeffrey Eugenides and an enthusiasm to reread his books.