Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides

October, 2011

Jeffrey Eugenides Nine must be novelist Jeffrey Eugenides's favorite number. After his well-received debut, The Virgin Suicides (adapted into film by Sofia Coppola), the writer took nine years to produce Middlesex, his Pulitzer Prize-winning family saga structured around a hermaphrodite. Now another nine years have passed, and Eugenides is back with his third hotly anticipated novel. The Marriage Plot tells the tale of three Ivy Leaguers in love. Drawing from his own experiences as a graduate of Brown University and a professor at Princeton, Eugenides mixes intellect and passion to give the traditional "marriage plot"—seen in the work of authors such as Jane Austen and Henry James—a modern-day update. Eugenides chatted with Goodreads about the universal struggle between our heads and our hearts.

Goodreads: The Marriage Plot opens with a description of a character's bookshelves. Like many college students, the novel's central trio —Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard—are greatly influenced by the books they are reading. Do you believe that you can know a person by what they read?

Jeffrey Eugenides: I think you can know a lot about someone from their books, and I've certainly done that before on my first and early dates with people. Seeing the wrong books can spell disaster. You can certainly know what someone's interests are. You can place them socially and intellectually. It's always bad to have a snap judgment either from clothes or books, but we all do it. I do it. It's probably not fair, but compared to how someone looks or is dressed, I think books are a better measure of the person.

GR: The novel's action is set during college and into the first year after graduation—a time that is often pivotal. Is it a period you remember vividly?

JE: I remember the five years after college as being perhaps the most difficult years of my life. You're protected—if you have decent parents—from infancy all the way through college. Then that ends very abruptly, and you are faced with choosing a career. Economic anxiety looms pretty quickly. It created romantic anxiety, too, because your social life changes, and you don't have the college campus where you can meet up with people and go to parties. It's a lonely time. I moved away to a new city, so I didn't know too many people. I remember that time in my life as being the most anxious I've ever been. For that reason it appealed to me as a time to write about characters. I usually like to write about characters who are going through a time with a certain amount of trouble, because through the trouble is when people make some important decisions about their lives. It's a very dramatic time of life.

GR: What is the "marriage plot" as it applies to 18th and 19th century novels?

JE: The traditional marriage plot involves a young woman confronting her destiny. The destiny is always a man, the person she will marry. As the marriage plot began, the plot revolved solely around that decision. For example, a Jane Austen novel, where you have a spirited and intelligent young heroine with a number of choices for suitors, and she chooses one, and the book ends with a wedding. It's traditionally a comedy. As the marriage plot progressed through the 19th century, it extended to follow the heroines into their marriages, and often those marriages were not happy ones. Of course, all this played out at a time when women's choices were limited economically, politically, and socially. Finding their husband was finding the amount of money they were going to have throughout their lives. So it was like getting into college—the one big thing that would determine their future. Of course, that is no longer the case, and it was my job to find out how the marriage plot could operate in a time when women's conditions were equal to men's instead of subordinate.

GR: Attitudes toward traditional marriage have changed since the 18th century, yet most of us still seek love. What place does romance have in the marriage plot?

JE: The conditions of the original marriage plot are no longer operative. It still plays out in our heads; we've read the books, we've seen the movies that are based on these marriage plot novels. We can't really get away from this idea of finding the one true perfect love. Certainly, Madeleine in my book still has that dream. So does Mitchell. So it conditions our dreams, our attitudes toward romance, and our expectations about love. Madeleine is caught in a place where she is reading semiotics; she understands that romantic love is a social construct from reading her Roland Barthes, and yet this intellectual knowledge doesn't keep her from falling madly in love with Leonard. I think it's a fairly universal condition where we have this struggle between our head and our heart. They're not always in accord, and we think smarter than we act.

GR: A love triangle is a common idea in great love stories. How did you shape the character Madeleine and choose the two men in her life?

JE: I chose all three of them at once. I was writing a different novel about a family having a big debutante party. In that book there were three characters: a Madeleine, who was a daughter in this family, and there was Mitchell, who was in love with Madeleine, and Madeleine was going out with a manic depressive boyfriend. As I was writing that book I realized that she didn't really belong in the family into which I was trying to put her. All of the material that I had written about her was really a different book, so I had to separate them. The book for me was about these three characters, not so much about a woman with two suitors. A real marriage plot would only be from Madeleine's point of view.

GR: Goodreads member Susan Gusho asks, "I'd like to know if he drew inspiration for the character of Leonard from the late David Foster Wallace. From the bandanna-wearing affinity to the focus on philosophy, it seems to me that there might be some connection. For the record, I think Wallace was both brilliant and tormented in much the same way as Leonard Bankhead."

JE: The bandanna is from Axel Rose of Guns N' Roses. There is more than one guy who wore a bandanna. I started this book back in the late '90s, before Wallace's tragic suicide, so it predates it.

GR: Goodreads Author Emily Roberts asks, "It's been almost 20 years since you published your first novel. Has your view of literature, or of what you intended to do with literature, changed since then?"

JE: My view of literature...I don't know if I can say it has changed. My view about myself and what I'm interested in doing has changed a bit. It's deepened. This book has the deepest characterization that I've attempted so far. I spent a lot of time going into the characters' minds and thoughts and tried to make them as real and vivid as possible. In comparison, The Virgin Suicides was very lyrical and sly. A lot of the pleasures of that book have to do with the narrative voice. It was, on the face, a more literary novel than this one. As I've become older, I've become more interested in character. My faith in realism hasn't diminished but has grown stronger. I am quite happy at this point to be writing a realistic story. I have found that in writing a realistic story, a writer is called upon to come up with a lot of surreal themes in order to manifest human consciousness. For example, Leonard is manic, and when he goes into his manic state I had to convey to the reader what it's like to be manic. Those sections of the book felt to me as experimental as my earlier books did.

GR: Goodreads member Laura Power asks, "The atmospheres in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex play such an important role to the tension and the characters' relationships in the stories. How conscious are you of creating this while you write? Do the setting and the atmosphere set your stories on a path, or are these instead a result of the story and characters?

JE: All these things are simultaneous when you're writing. You're basically trying to get the tone of the book, and in that tone is your atmosphere, and the attitude you have toward your characters is the personality of the book. I think they all go hand in hand. I would want a book to have a strong atmosphere. When I read a book I love, I feel like I'm plunging into a different world immediately. The prose signals what this world is like, and the flow of the sentences draws me into that world. That's what I'm trying to do when I'm writing. You want to keep it consistent and vibrant.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

JE: Have breakfast and sit at my desk. It's really very dull and simple. The German phrase sitzfleisch [the ability to sit in a chair and endure a task], it means you have a lot of meat on your behind. The person that has sitzfleisch can sit in the chair the longest. The Germans think this is very important for scholarship and for work in general. I agree that this is what you need for writing novels. It's a long and slow haul, and there's nothing about the process that is particularly interesting. I don't have any special things I do, like a little stuffed animal that I stroke or a kind of potion that I drink. There's nothing about it except the regularity of it.

GR: You seem to be averaging nine years between novels. Do you like to have breathing room between projects or is each book truly a multiyear process?

JE: I'm always writing, and I'm always trying to write the next book. I don't take breaks except when I'm on book tours. I have a book of short stories that I'm almost finished with, so it should be coming out in a year or two, so that should break the nine-year cycle.

I originally thought I was going to go back to the other novel from which I separated The Marriage Plot. But now it's been about five or six years since that happened. I'm not sure I feel like going back to that particular book. I have another idea for a novel, and I need to do some reading and research to see if I can do it. I have a little glimmer. After I write a couple more short stories and finish the short story book, I'll be leaping into another novel.

GR: Do you find it's a necessary part of the process to begin something and then abandon it for another idea?

JE: Yes, that happens to me all the time. Usually I get to a point where I think a book isn't working, I get very anxious about it, and I have to put it away for a little while. In those gaps I usually start something new. Sometimes I think I'm starting something better, but then, of course, I write the new thing, and I see that's also going to be difficult, and then I go back to the first one. I'm constantly doing that: shuffling between different projects. Maybe that will stop now at middle age, but that's how it's been so far.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

JE: Well, we've talked about the 19th century writers like Henry James, and Anna Karenina and Tolstoy are in there as well. Coming up in time: Nabokov, Saul Bellow, those would be the main ones. Salinger is also a major influence on me. His investigations of religion in a modern novel—you don't encounter that too often. I was certainly trying to reprise some of that in The Marriage Plot. The marriage plot that I like the best is The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. If reading my book sent someone back [to read marriage-plot novels], it would be to that one.

GR: What are you reading now?

JE: I'm reading a few books. I'm reading The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín, his recent collection of short stories. Great book. I just finished a book called The Wild Trees by Richard Preston, which is about people who climb the giant redwoods, a nonfiction narrative book. And I'm reading the biography of Malcolm X by Manning Marable—the poor guy. It took him maybe 20 years to write the book, and then he died two weeks before it was published. I'm trying to be very careful crossing the street these days.


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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Lanette (new)

Lanette Good interview. I'm terribly excited about this new novel, Middlesex was such a great one. I'm glad that Eugenides takes his time writing, but it is good to know that he's constantly writing and I look forward to reading the short stories, as I love short stories.


message 2: by Kalpana (new)

Kalpana Can't wait to get my hands on this book. In fact, we're going to read it in our book club. Middlesex was such an experience......
Yes, Mr. Eugenides....please be very careful crossing the street! We need to read more books by you.


message 3: by Emily (new)

Emily Very interesting interview, can't wait to read this book! Thank you very much! :)


message 4: by Kerem (new)

Kerem Mermutlu good interview, i loved Middlesex, so i hope this one is just as good!


message 5: by Huw (new)

Huw Rhys Excellent interview - a real insight into the working of the novelists' drive to tell his story, evn though he gets diverted on the way... loved it.


message 6: by Isabel (new)

Isabel I was already excited about this book coming out, but now I can't wait to read it. For someone with his talent to be so unassuming is very refreshing.


message 7: by Pat (new)

Pat Thank you, this was a delightful interview. I did love Middlesex and am excited he has a new book. Eugenides has a remarkable ability for character development, and such diverse characters!


message 8: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Witt-pinaire Going to read The Marriage Plot next. Loved both of his previous novels. Since i live in Princeton,i would love to audit one of mr. E'S classes. Bet it would be fascinating!


message 9: by Melinda (new)

Melinda Freeland Good interview. I haven't read either of his other two books, although I had heard of the movie The Virgin Suicides. THis book sounds very intersting and I've put it on my "to read" shelf.


message 10: by Ezimozo (new)

Ezimozo Nwokogba This is good to my friends who want to know more about marriage and its merits and demerit. I know you will find it good and widening your experience about the institution.


message 11: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Wooten Will definitely read this book. I love to get into people's heads. TV and movies just never measures up to being as insightful as a book.


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

I have to read this book, Jeffrey is amazing.


message 13: by Kerem (new)

Kerem Mermutlu Camelia wrote: "I have to read this book, Jeffrey is amazing."

Yes, he is :) Can't wait to read!


message 14: by S.C. (new)

S.C. Skillman I've put "The Marriage Plot" on my to-read list - my interest was 1st aroused by an article about this book and author a few days ago in a magazine "We Love This Book" (picked up at my local independent bookshop. I also feel a sense of sympathy with Jeffrey Eugenides in terms of how long it takes to write a novel!


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