About The Author
Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit in 1960. After gaining an MA in Creative Writing from Stanford University, his first notable success was receipt of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship for his story 'Here Comes Winston, Full of the Holy Spirit'.
His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published in 1993. Told in a first-person plural narrative voice, it centres around the suicides of five of teenage girls in Michigan in the 1970s and soon became a cult classic. A film version was released in 2000, directed by Sofia Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay), produced by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst and James Woods.
His second novel, Middlesex, was released in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.As well as giving Eugenides the opportunity to explore his own Greek heritage, it followed the family life of Carl Stephanides, a hermaphrodite living in Detroit and then San Francisco, and was highly praised for its portrait of Greek immigrant life as well as its thoughtful take on a much misunderstood medical condition. It has sold over three million copies worldwide.
After editing a book of short love stories, My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, he completed his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, which recounts the experiences of three friends studying at Brown University, one of whom shares Eugenides' Greek heritage. As they pursue their studies in the fields of literary theory and theology a complicated love triangle develops.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Jeffrey talks to Frances Gertler about how his book originally started out as another novel entirely, how reinventing older forms can push the novel forward and why his sympathies are with the tortoise!
Read the first chapter here.
Questions & Answers
Your new book takes place over the course of just a year so, focuses on three central characters and is altogether more traditional than your last novel, the comic epic Middlesex. Was this a deliberate attempt to throw all the balls into the air?
Writing any novel involves throwing a lot of balls in the air. You always have--or at least I always have--a few plotlines going, and juggling them constitutes the work and the fun. If you mean, was this new book a deliberate shift for me, I suppose that's true. I feel I've always been a realist at heart (even Middlesex, for all of its fancifulness, remained accurate about the facts of the case, the biological realities, and never violated the principles of physics.) But I take your point: on the face of it, The Marriage Plot seems to be more 'traditional'. It exhibits the Aristotelian classical unities, more or less: the unity of action, place, and time. There's no monkey business. That said, what I learned in writing this book is that terms like 'traditional' are not terribly useful. For instance, in portraying the mental anguish of one of my protagonists, Leonard Bankhead, I had to develop verbal and narrative strategies that were every bit as experimental as my supposedly more experimental novels. It's just that the effort is more concealed, less foregrounded, and used in service of the greater, realistic narrative. But the last thing that writing the book felt like was retrograde.
You've commented that whereas multicultural or non-Western novels can focus on the 'marriage plot', 'the greatest subject the novel has ever had' it may no longer be a valid subject for the American novel, marriage no longer carrying the weight it once did. Why then, did you choose to make it the subject of your new novel?
One way you can push the novel forward, it seems to me, is by re-using or reinventing older forms. Yes, it's impossible for me, as an American writer living in 2011, to re-write a Jane Austen or Henry James novel. Fortunately, I had no desire to do so. My Marriage Plot bears only a slight resemblance to the marriage plots of yore. As you say, marriage no longer carries 'the weight it once did'. But it still carries weight. Why else would match.com exist? Why else would there be a political debate, here in the US, about gay marriage? Most people still dream of getting married, or if not getting married, of finding 'the one', a soulmate to go through life with. We have internalized the marriage plot of Austen so that it now plays out in our heads. That's what my book is about. The barriers that used to be social and religious are now emotional and psychological. When I was in college, I thought about marrying every woman I got involved with, and even quite a few whom I was never involved with. I don't think I'm the only one. Yes, the marriage plot goes on, just in a different form, and it was my job, in this book, to figure out how it influences the lives of my three heroes.
Mitchell writes a letter to Madeleine that she never receives and which, if she had heeded its advice, might have changed the course of her life. Is this a conscious and playful nod to the conventions of the romantic novels Madeleine is so besotted with - Thomas Hardy particularly springs to mind?
Really? Thomas Hardy? I'm ashamed to say I don't get your particular reference. I wasn't being playful at all with that letter. I was in earnest. Mitchell was in earnest when he wrote it (and also high on a bhang lassi.) No, letters were written once upon a time (the 80s, in other words) and sometimes didn't reach their destinations. I wasn't being po-mo there at all. I was serious. But I don't think the letter would have changed Madeleine's mind. The letter is important, as any letter is, not least for what it says about its author, Mitchell. He makes a big emotional leap in writing that letter, and that's what interested me.
One section is set in India; how much of that part, if any, was inspired by your own year out, part of which was spent in Calcutta?
Who cares? The only thing that matters is whether the section functions dramatically in the novel as a whole. Fiction-writing draws on personal memories and autobiographical detail all the time, but it's not the autobiography that's important. What's important is that these shards of memory mix with invention to tell a story beyond the simple facts of autobiography. I know, Mitchell Grammaticus is half-Greek and grew up in Detroit. He appears to be a stand-in for me. But I'm equally Madeleine and Leonard, or nearly so.
You've written about Mitchell before, in a short story. Was this novel originally intended to be about him until Madeleine took centre stage?
No. The Marriage Plot began as another novel entirely. It was a novel about a family throwing a debutante party, and as I began to write about one of the daughters, Madeleine, her story took off. After about a hundred and twenty pages I realized that she didn't belong in the family I was writing about, or the book I had started. So I put the book away (the product of three years of work!) and proceeded with Madeleine. At that point, I didn't even know that her story would have anything to do with the marriage plot. It was all about semiotics, Roland Barthes, and collegiate sex.
Having not previously done it to any degree, did you find it easier or harder to include autobiographical material in your novel?
I don't believe it's possible to write autobiographical fiction. Any time you try, you quickly realize that you're fabricating events. All memoirists are liars, though the best ones are honest about the subterfuge. I find it difficult to write about myself, or an event that happened to me, because I end up putting down everything that happened, in an artless fashion, whereas if I'm imagining an event, I can more quickly see the arc of the story. I know what to leave out. In describing my own life, I don't, and so blather on. I did that in the Calcutta section. It's only 45 pages in the novel but took me over a year to write (and was closer to 90 pages at one point.) Actually, it took 30 years to write, since I tried to write about my experiences in India shortly after I went there, in 1981. I could never do it justice, however. Finally, with 'Asleep in the Lord', I managed it. But only by transmuting autobiography into fiction, a higher form of truth.
How was it to reinhabit your 1980s college days? Was it easy to conjure up the mood, the issues, the life of the student from memory?
Very easy. It seems like yesterday. My entire youth, adolescence, and early adulthood seem like yesterday. Whereas yesterday is rather dim.
Madeleine is an incurable romantic, in love with love and the kind of love she reads about in novels. It's hard not to see Mitchell's fascination with religion as an alternative form of delusion. Did you intend for the reader to see them somehow as counterpoints for each other?
You're being very hard on my heroes! I don't think they're deluded at all, and I never had any intention of making fun of them for being so passionate about the things they're passionate about. I don't think that love or religion is a delusion, though I am friends with Christopher Hitchens. He believes in one of those things, by the way.
Your portrayal of the difficulties of having depression and living with someone suffering from it seem very true to life; how did you do your research for these elements?
The Internet is a wonderful thing.
How could you make your fans wait 9 years for your next novel (since Middlesex)? Are we going to have to be equally patient next time around?!
I hope not, but they said that after Middlesex, too, and I made people wait. Happily, I have another book almost done, a collection of stories. That will come out in a year or so. And I'm eager to start another novel and to move along more swiftly. I think I'm getting the hang of this. But each book presents its own problems. You can't force a book to be finished before you've figured out how to write it. My sympathies, clearly, are with the tortoise.