Interviews

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Art of Fiction No. 215

Interviewed by James Gibbons

Born in Detroit in 1960, Jeffrey Eugenides lived through the city’s last glory years as the heart of the American auto industry. His first two novels, The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002), are rooted in Detroit and the adjacent suburb of Grosse Pointe, where he spent much of his youth. These two settings—the once-proud, dying city and its affluent suburb, separate yet inextricably linked—are rendered as vividly as the characters in these two books. The Virgin Suicides takes place in Grosse Pointe (“our waterlocked spit of land French explorers had named the ‘Fat Tip’”). The story of five sisters and their gruesome deaths is told in the collective voice of their would-be suitors, now older but still haunted by the girls’ suicides.

Eugenides’s use of the first-person-plural voice in The Virgin Suicides was an audacious gambit; no less risky was his choice of an intersex person to narrate Middlesex. Raised a girl, Callie Stephanides decides, after a tumultuous puberty and several visits to a creepy specialist in Manhattan, to cross the divide of gender and live as a man. To understand who he is—socially, biologically, and genetically—the grown-up, male Cal not only revisits his childhood memories of the sixties and seventies but also reconstructs, as best he can (and at times fancifully), a family history that moves from the early twentieth century in a Turkish mountain village to Detroit during the boom years of the automotive age.

Middlesex received the Pulitzer Prize. In 2007, Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club, making Eugenides a household name. By that time, he was deep into The Marriage Plot, a novel that looks back at his college years at Brown in the eighties, dramatizing the collision of radical French theory and the orthodoxies of New Criticism. The story of three bright, restless characters on the cusp of adulthood, The Marriage Plot is in some sense a novel of ideas, but ideas that matter only as they bear on the messy business of living.

Our interview was conducted over two sessions last August in Eugenides’s home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and daughter. As we reviewed the transcripts, Eugenides began an extended book tour of the United States, Canada, and Europe. Questions were revisited by phone, and many answers were clarified, or rewritten, by hand on hotel stationery—evidently during moments of turbulence—as Eugenides flew between Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and Toronto.

James Gibbons

INTERVIEWER

This is a beautiful room. Do you write here?

EUGENIDES

This is my summer office. It’s mostly glass and looks onto the garden. I thought it would be my dream studio, but actually the glass is distracting, so I end up using a dismal bedroom upstairs. Leonardo said that small rooms concentrate the mind. I find that I like working in small, cramped rooms with not much in them, as compared to a pretty studio. But I feel guilty about not using this room, so I come down here in the summer and try to do something useful. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to use my nice studio. Actual composition I don’t want to do in a pleasant space. I’m even thinking of moving up into the attic because it’s the most austere and removed place in the house.

INTERVIEWER

In the other places you’ve lived, have you done your work in similarly small rooms?

EUGENIDES

In college and in the apartments I lived in after college, I had just one room that was mine—my bedroom. So I’m used to working at a desk that’s not that far from the bed. I worked in the living room for part of Middlesex. Finally, when we moved to Berlin, we got a bigger apartment, and I worked in one of the extra bedrooms. Mainly I’ve written my books in bedrooms of apartments. This is the first house we’ve ever owned, so now I have an actual studio. I was almost fifty by the time I had one.

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep to a strict writing schedule?

EUGENIDES

I do. I try to write every day. I start around ten in the morning and write until dinnertime, most days. Sometimes it’s not productive, and there’s a lot of downtime. Sometimes I fall asleep in my chair, but I feel that if I’m in the room all day, something’s going to get done. I treat it like a desk job.

With The Marriage Plot, the last year or so, I started doing double sessions where I would work all day, have dinner, and then go back and work at night. I didn’t want to put myself through that, but I had so much to do and a lot of things were coming together, so I had to work long hours. I’d go to bed at midnight and wake up at seven or eight and start again.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any special rituals, or is writing something you just have to hunker down and do?

EUGENIDES

Nothing out of the ordinary. The usual stimulants—coffee or tea. And at the end of a book, when I’m extremely exhausted, mentally fatigued, I sometimes sneak off into the yard and smoke a cigar, maybe six or seven times per book. That’s a bad habit I picked up when I lived in Berlin.

INTERVIEWER

Cal in Middlesex smokes cigars.

EUGENIDES

That’s why that got in there. Occasionally, instead of having a Red Bull, as a twenty-year-old might, I resort to the Thomas Mann method, the Maria Mancinis, but not very often. Cigars are the perfect literary drug. I understand why Mann, Freud, and so many durable people smoked cigars. It really focuses the mind. But I didn’t do it much with The Marriage Plot. I was in healthy, nonsmoking America and stayed mainly clean.

INTERVIEWER

Do you always write on the computer?

EUGENIDES

I compose on the computer. Now and then, I print out what I’m working on and make handwritten corrections. There’s usually a period where I make corrections by hand, turn the page over, and write new paragraphs on the back of the sheet. I used to do that almost every day. It seems I do that less and less often. Now I can go as long as a month before printing something out. But there are always handwritten corrections at some point. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you rewrite your sentences over and over again or do they come out fairly finished in a first draft?

EUGENIDES

The Virgin Suicides was written in a slow, methodical fashion, sentence by sentence. Parts of my other books were written that way as well. There were small transitions in Middlesex, even though they were only three or four sentences long, where I had to spend a long time to get them to move. There are so many time shifts in the book, and it was difficult to give the right signposts so that the reader knew what was happening. I rewrite a lot. That’s why I don’t publish books very often. The fact that I’m working every day and publish so seldom shows that I’m reworking and rewriting a lot on the sentence level, and on the paragraph and structural levels, too.

INTERVIEWER

Do you outline your novels?

EUGENIDES

I don’t start with an idea and outline it. I don’t see how you can know what’s going to happen in a book or what the book is about beforehand. So I plunge in headlong, and after a while I get worried that I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, so I begin to make a fuzzy outline, thinking about what might happen in the book or how I might structure it. And then that outline keeps getting revised. I’ll have it there, like a security blanket, to make me feel better about what I’m doing, but it’s provisional. Always you discover things and have ideas of how it might work out as you’re writing, and often the surprise of coming to these conclusions is what makes the book’s plot points surprising to the reader, too. If you can see on your first day what’s going to happen, the reader can likely guess as well. It’s the more complex ideas, the more difficult-to-foresee consequences of your story, that are more interesting to write about, and to read about as well.

INTERVIEWER

What about metaphoric patterning? Silk, for example, is so important throughout Middlesex. How extensively do you plan for those sorts of recurring motifs?

EUGENIDES

You just delve into certain subjects, and the patterns start to crop up. With Middlesex, the narrator’s grandparents were silk farmers. I was interested in writing about that and the town in Asia Minor they came from. Then, as I started reading about silk, I came upon the legend of the Chinese princess said to have discovered it. This is a beautiful story, and it immediately seemed to have a connection with the story I was writing. So when you’re working on something, especially something as long as Middlesex—I think Joyce said this—everything out in the world seems to refer to your story. You constantly find things that metaphorically align with what you’re working on. Slowly, as you write the book, you become aware of these correspondences, and then you make them cohere into a pattern. So in the case of Middlesex, the thread of silk becomes a metaphor not only for genetic transmission but for storytelling itself.

INTERVIEWER

Silk enables a highly unlikely confluence of the character Desdemona and the Nation of Islam in Detroit. Was this something you’d planned to write about from the beginning?

EUGENIDES

That was serendipity. I was already long engaged with my story of Greek immigrants, former silk farmers, newly arrived to the Detroit of the thirties, when I came across an article by Darryl Pinckney in The New York Review of Books about the Nation of Islam. The founder was a man named W. D. Fard. He was reportedly from the “near East.” He was a silk merchant. He propagated theories full of racial antagonism and genetic engineering—and there he was, right in Detroit in 1932. He begged to become part of the novel, and soon he was.

INTERVIEWER

At what point do you feel comfortable giving drafts to other people to read?

EUGENIDES

Extremely late. Years and years go by without anyone seeing anything. I want my mistakes to become obvious to me before anyone else has to suffer reading them, so I never feel the need to show anything for a long time. Finally I do, but, for instance, The Marriage Plot was entirely written before my editor, Jonathan Galassi, read a word of it, except for the excerpt that was in The New Yorker. But I don’t know if it’s the most effective way to work. I think I’m so scared the book is going to be bad that I don’t want anyone to see it until I’ve fixed everything that can be fixed. And you can keep fixing things ad infinitum.

INTERVIEWER

How much revising do you do in proofs?

EUGENIDES

Usually I’m turning the book in at the last minute. I always say it’s like the Greek Olympics—“Hope the torch lights.”

With The Marriage Plot, I handed in the manuscript in December 2010. At that point, the penultimate chapter was unfinished and the last chapter unwritten. I expected that Jonathan would want to publish in the spring of 2012, but, after reading the book, he told me that it was almost there and that he wanted to publish in the fall of 2011, nine or ten months away. For the next four months—from Christmas until just after Easter, I worked like a madman, finishing the last two chapters and revising the entire four-hundred-and-fifty-page manuscript. I turned in the final draft in May, at the time when most fall books would already have been copyedited and printed in galley form. But those four months were enough—Jonathan was right. The thing was done.

INTERVIEWER

Were the changes prompted by Jonathan Galassi, or were they largely your own?

EUGENIDES

I had four readers for the book, Jonathan, my wife, Karen, Lorin Stein, and my German publisher, Alexander Fest. I responded to all of their queries and suggestions. And I worked on passages and sections I wasn’t happy with myself. My wife, who’s a very good reader, and whose help was immeasurable, got a tad overzealous. Her notes ran to a hundred and fifty pages. Finally, I told her that her notes were going to be longer than my book and that she should publish them as a novel of her own!

When the first page proofs came back, I bore down on the book once again, this time listening only to my inner promptings. I inserted new transitions and polished everything I could. I kept going deep into the summer, staying alone for a month in Berlin. When the final proofs were sent to me, there was little left to do. It was July by then—three months until it was to be published—but the book was done. I sprinted the last mile and held out the sacred flame, in the form of a red pencil.

INTERVIEWER

When did you decide to be a writer?

EUGENIDES

I decided very early—my junior year of high school. We read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that year, and it had a big effect on me, for reasons that seem quite amusing to me now. I’m half Irish and half Greek—my mother’s family were Kentuckians, Southern hillbillies, and my paternal grandparents immigrants from Asia Minor—and, for that reason, I identified with Stephen Dedalus. Like me, he was bookish, good at academics, and possessed an “absurd name, an ancient Greek.” Joyce writes somewhere that Dedalus sees his name as an omen of his destiny, and I, at the dreamy age of sixteen, did as well. Eugenides was in The Waste Land. My Latin teacher pointed that out to me. The only reason I was given to these fantasies in the first place, of course, was that the power of Joyce’s language and the story of Stephen Dedalus refusing to become a priest in order to take up the mantle of art were so compelling to me. Dedalus wants to form the “uncreated conscience of his race.” That’s what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t really know what it meant. I do remember thinking, however, that to be a writer was the best thing a person could be. It seemed to promise maximum alertness to life. It seemed holy to me, and almost religious. 

I went about it very methodically. I chose Brown largely in order to study with John Hawkes, whose work I admired. I entered the honors program in English, which forced me to study the entire English tradition, beginning with Beowulf. I felt that since I was going to try to add to the tradition, I had better know something about it. 

INTERVIEWER

When you were younger what sort of reading did you do?

EUGENIDES

In the house I grew up in, there was a large, built-in bookcase in the living room. My parents, who had grown up in modest circumstances—my mother quite poor—aspired to a higher condition, culturally and financially. And so they were the perfect marks for encyclopedia salesmen. In those days, salesmen came to your door and rang the bell, and my parents invited many of them in. With three boys to educate, my parents invested in various sorts of books: the Great Books series, the World Book Encyclopedia, the Modern Library editions, et cetera. My mother was, and is, a big reader of novels, so there were lots of contemporary books as well. The big bookshelf exerted a power over me as a kid, not unlike the fascination the family bookshelves have for Madeleine in The Marriage Plot. Sometimes in high school, as I grew to be aware of literature, I found we had many canonical works on our shelves—often unread. I found Ulysses that way and An American Tragedy and, way up on the top shelf, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. At the same time, I was being forced to read Henry James at school. I hated it. With the result that James became one of my favorite writers.

I arrived at college not knowing much, however. It wasn’t until my twenties that I became a serious reader. Between the ages of twenty and thirty, I read with a voraciousness unmatched in any other decade of my life. I was trying to become less stupid.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember your first efforts at fiction?

EUGENIDES

In elementary school, our teachers used to give us the first half of a story and then tell us to finish it. I loved doing that. It excited me like nothing else. Later, in junior high and high school, I began writing short stories and submitting them to the lit magazines and the school literary contest.

INTERVIEWER

Who were some of the writers important to you later on?

EUGENIDES

In college, the writers I was most interested in were the great modernists. Joyce, Proust, Faulkner. From these I went on to discover Musil, Woolf, and others, and soon my friends and I were reading Pynchon and John Barth. My generation grew up backward. We were weaned on experimental writing before ever reading much of the nineteenth-century literature the modernists and postmodernists were reacting against. It was like studying art history by starting with Cubism before going to look at the Italian Renaissance. In my early twenties, I read Tolstoy for the first time and discovered what I’d been missing.

I liked the muscular cerebration in Joyce, the high-priestly manner, the puns, the play of language. I liked the specificity of his Dublin portraits and the self-reflective nature of modernist texts themselves. But I liked the clarity of Tolstoy even more, and the vividness, the lifelikeness of his characters. His method didn’t seem worn-out to me. It was still conveying meaning to me, directly from Yasnaya Polyana to my third-floor apartment. My entire career so far has been an attempt to reconcile these two poles of literature, the experimentalism of the modernists and the narrative drive and centrality of character of the nineteenth-century realists.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned John Hawkes. How did he affect your development?

EUGENIDES

Hawkes taught me how to write sentences and how to think fictively. He disciplined my prose, pointing out where it was fuzzy or overwritten or where the tone or voice slipped. And in his enthusiasm for portions of my work and the work of others in the class, he taught us to recognize what was good about it—good, for Jack, being the presence of arresting, deeply psychological, often sexual or sensual moments. Sometimes he misread our stuff, seeing things in it that weren’t there. But in doing so he often provided a lesson in how to think about art. We watched him doing it right in front of us. Much of what you learn from a writing instructor happens by osmosis.

INTERVIEWER

Was there anyone else important to you at that time, including your contemporaries?

EUGENIDES

Rick Moody and I were in a number of workshops with Hawkes. It was great to have a friend who was as serious as I was about writing. There were also two women, Carrie Twichell and Melora Wolff, who were serious writers, and we were kind of a foursome, reading one another’s work and bathing in Hawkes’s attention and approval.

INTERVIEWER

Were you ever interested in poetry?

EUGENIDES

I started out as a poet. I wrote poetry in high school and in college both. The first prize money I ever received from writing came from winning second place in a college poetry contest. My submission was an imagist poem, strongly influenced by Pound, called “Fox Point.” I got seventy-five bucks and was thrilled.

It was narrative that came between me and poetry. My favorite poems, in a sense, were ancient epics, the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. I wanted poetic language to be in service of narrative, and that seemed to me to be
the province of the novel now—a lyrical novel, maybe, like my first, The Virgin Suicides.

INTERVIEWER

The Virgin Suicides is so vivid and dreamlike that it comes across as a sort of prose poem. Were you very conscious of the Updike-Cheever tradition of suburban fiction while writing it?

EUGENIDES

Not really. I was aware that you weren’t supposed to write about suburbia, that it was undignified in some way, the subject matter not momentous enough. And so, for a long time, that kept me from writing about it. But once I began, I realized it was just as interesting as anywhere else. I’d been writing for years before I wrote The Virgin Suicides. But The Virgin Suicides was, oddly, one of the first things I set in my hometown, even though I didn’t name it.

Like a lot of young writers, when I started out, I had a dim conception of my material. I wrote about people and places that were vastly separated from those I knew. Then, too, if I tried to write about my own self, the results were far from illuminating, for the simple reason that I didn’t understand myself too well. As soon as I began writing The Virgin Suicides, however, I suddenly realized that I knew a lot, not about my own psychological dimensions so much but about the town where I grew up. I knew everything about the people who lived on our old street. I remembered their oddities and family histories, the rumors and gossip, and I remembered the weather, the local legends, the racial tensions, the flora and fauna. I stopped being embarrassed about being from a suburb in the Midwest. I treated it like my own Yoknapatawpha County and, for the first time, produced something that interested adult readers.

INTERVIEWER

Suburbia is designed to be a safe, uneventful place, and yet, of course, some basic human impulses, and especially the unruly energy of adolescence, work against that. The Virgin Suicides takes shape around this tension. The setting occasions a particular sort of longing and, inevitably, its disappointment.

EUGENIDES

The Virgin Suicides is about the city, too. It’s about Detroit in an indirect but crucial way. It was years after writing the book that I came to understand this. When I was born, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the country. The population stood at more than a million people. But people were already beginning to flee, and in 1967, when the riots occurred, the trickle turned into a flood. My entire childhood coincided with the demise of Detroit. I grew up watching houses and buildings fall apart and then disappear. It imbued my sense of the world with a strong elegiac quality—a direct experience of the fragility and evanescence of the material world.

That was what I was really writing about. I had imagined a family of suicidal sisters, five brief lives, and I’d put them in an atmosphere of ruin and decay—the dying automobile plants, the dying elm trees—but the source of all this, psychologically and emotionally, had to do with the impermanence of everything I knew as a child.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you always plan on telling The Virgin Suicides in the first-person plural?

EUGENIDES

Yes, I started it with the “we” voice. In an early draft of the first chapter, I had one of the boys speak for the others. Donald Antrim read it and gave me a very useful suggestion. He said, “Why do you have this one I after all these we’s? You don’t really need to.” And he was right. The whole thing was we except for one or two instances. I had the we voice, but I wasn’t trusting it completely. And Don gave me the confidence to do so.

INTERVIEWER

If you were pedantically minded you could try to find out which of the boys is narrating, but you’d fail. It makes The Virgin Suicides the most obviously “experimental” of your three novels.

EUGENIDES

In James Wood’s How Fiction Works, he writes, “The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, though successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed.” They are rare, and on that basis alone, The Virgin Suicides qualifies as experimental. The first-person plural was very rare when I used it back in 1993. I only knew of two examples—Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. Lately, a lot of writers have been using it, often, as I did, in novels about childhood and adolescence.

A narrative voice allows you to say things you couldn’t otherwise. It frees you from the prison of the ego and the limitations of habitual thinking. One of the great mysteries of writing fiction, and one of the greatest pleasures, is the discovery of a voice that opens up a channel to impersonal, but specific, knowledge.

INTERVIEWER

The idea of an intersex narrator seems completely novel. Were there any precedents you looked to with Middlesex?

EUGENIDES

In the eighties, I read Michel Foucault’s Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. The story intrigued me—I wanted to know what it was like to be Herculine. Unfortunately, she was unable to describe her own life in the detail I desired. The memoir is evasive about Herculine’s anatomy. The style is melodramatic. Herculine was a convent-school girl, and she writes with the reticence about sex and the lack of psychological insight you might expect. The memoir frustrated me. I wanted it to be a different document from the one it was. And so I decided to write that document myself.

The precedents were obvious—the ancient myths, Ovid’s Metamorphoses especially, and Woolf’s Orlando. Unlike those examples, I didn’t want to write a story about a fanciful figure who magically changes sex. I wanted to write about a real person to whom this happened, and I wanted to be as accurate as I could about the biological facts. To that end, I began to do research at the Columbia medical library, reading about the various so-called pseudo-hermaphroditic conditions. The one I chose to give my narrator—5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome—suited my purposes dramatically. People born with the condition appear female at birth and then virilize significantly at puberty. The salient fact of this condition, however, is that it results from a recessive genetic mutation. As soon as I learned that, the book became a different thing altogether. Instead of a short fictional memoir on the level of a Herculine Barbin, the book would be the story of a mutated gene that is passed down through three generations of a single family, until two copies of the gene end up in the body of my narrator and bring about his unusual, but very plausible and real, life.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a line in the novel that says to know Cal you have to know what came before.

EUGENIDES

The genetics led me back a few generations and, inevitably, into history. Because 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome only occurs among inbred, isolated populations, I got the idea to begin the book among Greeks living in a small village in Asia Minor.

INTERVIEWER

Did it turn out even longer than you expected?

EUGENIDES

At that point, I knew it would be a comic epic. It took me a long time to get the right voice for the novel, but I knew I had a big book on my hands.

One last point—people often ask me why I chose to narrate a novel from the point of view of an intersex person, and my answer is, every novel should be narrated by an intersex person. The job of the novelist is to inhabit both male and female characters, so in a sense every novelist should possess a hermaphroditic imagination.

INTERVIEWER

What do you feel is the difference between male and female points of view?

EUGENIDES

I don’t think in terms of a male or female point of view. I think in terms of individual people. I never write about “women.” I write about one woman, or one man, or one intersex person. Fiction should be specific rather than general, because people are specific.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a view on whether men and women write differently?

EUGENIDES

The stereotypes are that men write in a linear, forward-driven, logical fashion, and women write in a more circuitous, intuitive one. Well, that first description fits Flannery O’Connor, and the second description fits Proust. So I don’t think the distinction is terribly useful.

INTERVIEWER

Kate Christensen talks about unleashing her “inner dick” to write one of her novels, disputing the notion that there’s some kind of essentialist way of writing for either gender.

EUGENIDES

Again, with Middlesex I tried to be as specific as possible. I analyzed Cal as a doctor would. Cal has XY chromosomes. He was exposed to normal male levels of testosterone in utero, neonatally, and at puberty. If these things affect brain chemistry, and if that in turn results in a linguistic patterning that is identifiably male or female—and again, the jury is out on that—then Cal would write in a so-called male way, whatever that means. All I needed to do was to devise a voice that was Cal’s particular voice. I didn’t have to sound feminine or hermaphroditic, which was good, because I’m skeptical of those categorizations anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Did you get any responses from intersex people?

EUGENIDES

When the book first came out, I was in Portland, Oregon, doing a reading, and I got picketed by a splinter group of the Intersex Society of North America. They were upset that I had used the word hermaphrodite, which they consider pejorative. After my reading, I had a discussion with them and we came to an agreement.

I agreed never to refer to actual, living people as hermaphrodites. I promised to promote this distinction as much and often as I was able. However, I reserved the right to use hermaphrodite when speaking about mythical and literary figures, such as Tiresias. The term hermaphrodite has a long history, and it would be wrong to make it entirely off-limits. The demonstrators thought this was reasonable and none of my readings has been picketed since.

After the book had gained more notoriety, I began receiving letters from intersex people—all of them positive. Then, when I was on Oprah, the show was mainly devoted to the issue.

Just last week, a person came up to me at a reading and whispered in my ear that he has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. He was the first person I’ve ever met with the condition, on account of its rarity. He gave me a letter, thanking me for writing Middlesex. He said that the book had saved his life in high school. He also said that, in addition to being grateful to me, he is sometimes angry because he feels that I wrote the book he should have written himself.

INTERVIEWER

The first half of Middlesex is basically a historical novel. Was that difficult to write?

EUGENIDES

It was difficult because I don’t tend to like historical novels. To claim to be able to understand and re-create a lost time, perhaps a century before your birth, is, at a minimum, hubristic. And then there is the narrative tone of so many historical novels. They try to sound period, with the result that the prose becomes wooden. They become inflected by the bygone days they seek to chronicle. And so I had to avoid those pitfalls with Middlesex, and how I did it was to make no claim of total omniscience. Cal tells the story of his grandparents as truthfully as he can, but it’s clear he’s making things up, embellishing his tale. There are many asides to the reader where Cal admits as much. I felt that this admission was an honest way to treat the reader. I also felt that the tone of the book accorded with Cal’s character. His need to understand how he came to be the way he is drives him to tell this historical tale, sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third, literally breaking out of the confines of his ego. Cal’s narrative method is a response to his genetic condition. The history is all personal, even when he’s narrating events before his birth.

INTERVIEWER

Did you go to Izmir, the city that used to be Smyrna?

EUGENIDES

I was there in 1985 without realizing the significance. At that time, I knew little about my grandparents’ history in Turkey. Only when I decided to write about a Greek village near Bursa did I begin to learn about it. It was years after writing Middlesex that I finally visited the village where my grandparents came from.    

INTERVIEWER

The burning of Smyrna and the Detroit riot echo each other in the book.

EUGENIDES

The book is full of echoes, of repetitions, as any novel about genetics is likely to be. The burning of Smyrna brings up the other difficulty I had in writing the historical sections of Middlesex, the difficulty being that I didn’t know anything. I was at Yaddo when I was writing about Smyrna, and the book wasn’t proceeding at all. I was trying to body forth the city and the fire completely from my imagination. One day, I despaired. I was about to give up on the whole novel when I discovered a book on a table in the mansion. The book was by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, and it was called Smyrna 1922. That book taught me everything I needed to know about the burning of Smyrna, and it taught me to start doing more serious research. Imagination wasn’t enough.

INTERVIEWER

One of the things I admire about Middlesex is the way you manage the incest between Lefty and Desdemona. Because it’s such a fundamental human taboo, the incest risks overtaking the rest of the narrative.

EUGENIDES

Not everyone thinks I managed it. I’ve heard that some people slam the book shut at that point. Incest was necessary for the story, however. I needed to dramatize inbreeding. Inbreeding is slow and invisible and takes place over centuries. I had to make it happen quickly, so I have a brother and sister who fall in love.

Zeus and Hera were brother and sister, too, of course. Middlesex begins as a kind of fairy tale. The idea was to have the book recapitulate the DNA of the Novel. Therefore, it begins with epic events and becomes, in its second half, more modern, psychological, and realist. The incest happens in the mythic, fabulist portions of the novel. It doesn’t possess the realism that might make it offensive. So, yes, you’re right. I was trying to manage this scandalous material, to handle it lightly.

INTERVIEWER

When Calliope goes to private school she is something of an outcast, not because of her condition but because of class, and similarly in The Marriage Plot you have Mitchell, when he comes to stay with Madeleine’s family, being exposed to a different world, one presided over by the college-president father and his formidable wife. It seems like you’re interested in writing about the upper class from the perspective of people who are connected to it but not of it.

EUGENIDES

My mother was born into a rural Kentucky family who were thoroughly Southern in their speech and manners. During the Depression, like so many poor Southerners, they loaded up their truck with every possession they had and lit out for Detroit, hoping to find work in the factories. In Detroit, my mother’s father abandoned the family, so she was raised by my grandmother, who supported herself as a waitress and, later, as a worker at the Packard plant. My father was the son of Greek immigrants. My grandfather ran a bar and grill on Detroit’s east side. As a young man, my father considered taking over the bar and, later, he pursued a career in the military, but he finally ended up in the mortgage business. He did well, and by the time I came along, the youngest of three sons, our family had moved into the upper middle class, at least financially.

I mention all this to give you a sense of where I was coming from when, in seventh grade, I was sent to private school. There, for the first time, I came in contact with kids from monied families—this was Grosse Pointe, after all. These kids gave off a strong sense of entitlement. Around them, I became conscious that I was one generation removed from hillbillies. We didn’t have the same kind of furniture in our house as those rich kids had. We didn’t have the same traditions, didn’t summer in Vinalhaven, or have boozy cocktail parties.

For some reason, I felt that they were doing it the right way and we were doing it wrong. I became self-conscious about my curly hair and aquiline nose. As a Greek, I was considered “ethnic,” a word I loathe—who isn’t ethnic, when you come down to it? I was fourteen years old, and I had become aware of class.

The rich kids at my school, the Waspy kids, tended to do poorly as students. That was part of their entitlement. The “ethnic” kids did well. So I developed both a superiority and an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the rich kids. We looked funny and didn’t know how to dress, but we were smarter. As school went on, I became close with many of the gentry, and these divisions faded, as they have generally in the United States. But this experience shaped my thinking about the world, no question.

Ian McEwan just wrote me about the new book and said, “People say there’s not a class system in America. Now I know there is, and I can tell them what to read if they don’t know.” I didn’t know The Marriage Plot was that much about the class system, but I guess it is.

INTERVIEWER

The snooty clique of rich girls at Baker and Inglis, the Charm Bracelets, are depicted satirically. Have you ever thought about writing a full-blown satire?

EUGENIDES

Middlesex is as close as I get to satire. Parts of it are broadly comic. But I’m a realist at heart, even in my most fanciful moments. The Marriage Plot is my most realistic book yet, and more serious emotionally than a satiric treatment would allow. I’ve tried to write pure comic satire, but I haven’t found the right subject for the satire to be not only biting but bracing.

INTERVIEWER

There are incomplete novels you’ve set aside?

EUGENIDES

I have four or five novels, each about 120 pages in length. One is a satiric novel very much like the one you’re wondering if I would ever write.

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t The Marriage Plot come out of one of those unfinished novels?

EUGENIDES

Yes. Appropriately for a novel titled The Marriage Plot, the book began as an instance of literary adultery. In the late nineties, while I was writing Middlesex, I hit a rough patch and put the manuscript aside. I hadn’t fallen out of love with the book, but I wasn’t sure where the relationship was headed. Predictably, I started flirting with another book, about a rich family throwing a debutante party. I thought this new book would be less demanding and easier to be with, but after a month or so I realized that I was dreaming. I missed Middlesex, too. I thought I knew why we hadn’t been getting along and so I returned to it, chastened but fervent. After Middlesex came out, I went back to the debutante book and worked on it for another couple years. It was all right, but I had qualms about. It felt vaguely antique. Then one day I wrote a sentence that changed everything. It’s on page nineteen of The Marriage Plot now, and it goes like this, “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” This didn’t feel antique. It felt fresh, connected with personal memories of college. I became so interested in Madeleine and the two male figures who orbit around her that I kept writing about them all, greatly extending that section of the book. One dark winter day in Chicago, I came to the conclusion that I had two novels on my hands. Over the course of the next weeks, I surgically separated them, leaving the debutante party behind, and followed Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard on an entirely different journey. I didn’t know, at that point, that the book would have anything to do with the marriage plot or that the marriage plot would provide me with a structure for the novel.

INTERVIEWER

How did you respond in college to the literary theory that Madeleine reads?

EUGENIDES

When I arrived at Brown, French theory was just washing up on American shores. Many of my English professors were distrustful of it. Another cohort in the English department was so smitten with Derrida and company that they finally decamped and created the Program in Semiotic Studies. To be an English major at the time was like being the child of divorcing parents. You loved both. I was attracted to the rigor of semiotic literary theory, especially in comparison with some of the vague pedagogy that constituted the by-then old New Criticism. I was persuaded that it was possible to examine the underlying structures of literature and, in a sense, anatomize the body of literature. At the same time, I wanted to be a writer. I resisted the idea that the author was dead. And I still believed, as I believe today, that it’s possible for a novel to transmit meaning, something that was being called into question by deconstruction.

INTERVIEWER

In a recent interview, Philip Roth said that after finishing a long book, a writer stages a rebellion against that previous book in the next project. Did you feel a desire after Middlesex to do something quite different?

EUGENIDES

When you finish a book—long or short—you do feel rebellious. You’re tired of working in one mode, and you want to do something different. Middlesex is quite different from The Virgin Suicides. The Marriage Plot is quite different from both of those. Maybe I’ll settle into a period where I can do a number of books, like Roth’s American Trilogy, where I’m working in a certain manner, but at the end of that I’m sure I’d want to change it up again. That’s what keeps it interesting. You’re trying to learn how to write new books. You don’t want to just repeat the same thing.

INTERVIEWER

One evident departure in The Marriage Plot is the narrative voice, which is less playful, more austere, than those of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Was it a conscious decision to tell the story in a more restrained way?

EUGENIDES

It was. I was trying to find a narrative voice that would be at once omniscient and authoritative, but also flavored with the consciousnesses of the characters I was writing about. On the one hand, it had to sound the way my characters think and be expressive of their youth, personalities, and level of education, and on the other it had to be flexible enough to open up gaps where authorial comment could operate, to move in or out depending on necessity. I don’t think the voice is austere, but it’s certainly less showy than the voices of my other novels.

The Virgin Suicides is a book that exists purely in its voice. The plot is given away in the first paragraph, and the characterization is handled in an objective way. I never go into the heads of the Lisbon girls to tell the reader what they are thinking. That was the strategy—to make the girls mysterious and unknowable to the boys who are so obsessed by them. These self-imposed limitations were useful to me as a first-time novelist because, at that point, I didn’t have the skills needed to develop character directly, and so I managed to do it indirectly. Young writers should be advised not to try everything at once. Often, by limiting your options and maximizing one aspect of a book—in this case, narrative perspective—you can achieve much more than you expect.

The progression of my work has gone as follows: from sentence, to plot, to character. For the first ten years of my apprenticeship in the art of fiction, all I thought about were sentences. How do you write a good sentence? What distinguished dull or clumsy prose from engaging, precise writing? Stylists like Nabokov and Bellow were my models. With Middlesex, I taught myself to plot. The narrative strands of that book are quite complex. They depart and interweave, and a whole lot happens. The atmosphere is completely different from the insularity of The Virgin Suicides. I began to go more deeply into character in Middlesex—to go into people’s heads—and with The Marriage Plot I’ve gone even deeper. It’s a highly character-driven book. In order for the characters to move into the foreground, the language had to recede a bit. The sentences weren’t necessarily any easier to write, but I was working in a Jamesian, rather than Flaubertian, mode. 

The question is, How do you move the novel forward? For a long time, I was a card-carrying postmodernist. I thought the way to make something new was a question of form. I think you can see that with The Virgin Suicides. But now I don’t think it’s that simple. A lot of the so-called experiments people attempt today are not really new. People did them in the seventies already, or the twenties! People forget, or just don’t know, and they’ll do something they think is original, and it’s not.

INTERVIEWER

How have you done new things with the novel?

EUGENIDES

By a process of hybridization. By mixing the old and the new. By pushing ahead formally at times, but also in terms of sheer content. Middlesex is in some ways an old-fashioned novel. There are classical allusions and epic events. At the same time, the emotional content of the book—the realistic account of the life of an intersex person—is not traditional at all. The general mode of the book is postmodern, but the narrative movement is Aristotelian, and the sensibility, while comic, is anything but ironic. With The Marriage Plot, I’m hybridizing again, playing off the most traditional plot of the novel—the marriage plot—in order to create something entirely different. Adam Thirlwell, the British novelist, wrote a wonderful article about Roland Barthes in The New Republic. In it, he talks about Barthes’s theory of “the reality effect.” Barthes believed that realism wasn’t real—it was just a system of codes—and he mentions a passage from Flaubert where Flaubert describes a barometer hanging on the wall. Barthes said that Flaubert’s barometer was there only “to denote reality.”

At the end of his life, however, Barthes came to believe that there were certain moment in novels—the death of Bolkonsky in War and Peace and the death of Marcel’s grandmother in Remembrance of Things Past—that weren’t mere reality effects. On the contrary, Barthes found such moments to be expressive of absolute truth. The truth isn’t about realistic details so much, or not entirely. It arises out of the dramatic sweep of a book. This great literary theorist, so distrustful of realism, began to believe in verisimilitude, in the capacity of the novel to convey meaning. And I agree. There are moments in novels that are absolutely true—and those are the kinds of novels I want to write. 

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything in particular critics have gotten wrong about your work? Were there misperceptions you feel were unfair or somehow missing something you wanted to get across?

EUGENIDES

All you can ask is that the reviewer review the book you wrote, and not some other book they wish you had written. Some reviews bring their own agendas to your work. For instance, some critics were unhappy that Cal discovers his male identity largely because he falls in love with his female best friend. Some critics have taken issue with this because, obviously, same-sex attraction doesn’t determine gender identity. Gay men are men. The thing is, though, Middlesex isn’t a novel about gay identity. It’s a novel about intersex identity. And not all intersex identity, but just that of one particular person. That Cal discovers his sexuality in the way he does is not indicative of other people’s experience, only his. Critics like to generalize. Novelists particularize. But many critics do review the actual book you wrote, and that’s all you can ask.

But let me give you an example of how impermanent reviews can be. When Middlesex came out, The Economist gave it a negative review. I haven’t been reading my reviews for The Marriage Plot, but my mother read part of the review in The Economist over the phone—before I could stop her. Now the magazine claimed to be a tiny bit disappointed by the new book. Why? Because it didn’t live up to the “impossibly high standard” of Middlesex! Which they hadn’t liked when it came out!

Books make their own reputations over time. That’s the thing to remember.

INTERVIEWER

Has there ever been a negative criticism you found useful?

EUGENIDES

Writers are quite aware of the flaws in their books. We know what we haven’t managed to do and what we’d like to do better the next time.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write with a sense of your audience? Or is it more like Gertrude Stein said, that you write for yourself and strangers?

EUGENIDES

I tell my students that when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining. You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to.

I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not “audience.” Not “readership.” Just the reader. That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for. I want my books to be worth the reader’s time, and that’s why I don’t publish the books I’ve written that don’t meet this criterion, and why I don’t publish the books I do until they’re ready. The novels I love are novels I live for. They make me feel smarter, more alive, more tender toward the world. I hope, with my own books, to transmit that same experience, to pass it on as best I can.