Webchat with author Jeffrey Eugenides
We welcomed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides in May 2012 to co-incide with the release of his third novel, The Marriage Plot. Your questions ranged from how he researched mental illness, to the idea behind the plot of Middlesex, as well as what he made of the movie version of The Virgin Suicides, his first novel.
The Marriage Plot is Jeffrey's third novel, and follows the story of three students at Brown University in 1982 as they embark on a journey of discovery and find that life and love as an adult resembles neither fairytale nor Jane Austen.
Kandinskygirl: I loved the ending of The Marriage Plot, and I thought the fact that Madeleine didn't have to end up with someone after her marriage ended was a positive statement about women. It sends a strong message that women are capable of being OK, without having to be in a relationship.
However, I did like to imagine that after a while Madeleine and Mitchell would end up together - but in a healthy way, rather than rushing into it. Do you carry on the characters' stories in your head or do they end for you when the book ends?
Jeffrey: Generally not. A book ends for me when the story ends, when I've said all that I can about the characters and their particular situation. If I had more to say about them, if I thought the reader needed to follow them into the future, then I would expand the book. But when I feel I've suggested everything that might happen to them in the future, when the book suggests the trajectory of their stories beyond the end of the book, that that's what I call a successful ending.
In terms of The Marriage Plot, I do hint at what will happen to the characters later on, but it's a story about young adulthood not middle age or old age, and so it ends with the first real check to the characters' ambitions and illusions. They grow up, at the end, and do not live on in my imagination.
carriemumsnet: With The Marriage Plot, did you sit down to write a novel full of literary references and parallels? Or did you have the story in your head and the references came naturally as you went along? Are all those folks spotting literary references wrong, and it's just a jolly good read after all?
Jeffrey: I hope it's a jolly good read. But it's also a book about reading and readers. The literary references came in as a result of that. The epigraph is, "People wouldn't fall in love if they hadn't heard love talked about." Or as I rephrase it, "If they hadn't read about it."
Madeleine reads a lot of love stories. As a result, she develops illusions about love, illusions that her own experience will force her to abandon. The idea for the book began with Madeleine, a college student caught between Jane Austen and Roland Barthes, who, as she reads French theory deconstructing love, falls in love with a boy in her class. It began with that ironic situation.
I don't think readers needs to know all the writers I mention in the book. In a sense, the writers are just part of the environment these three characters inhabit. If I were writing about footballers, I would have mentioned footballers. But I was writing about reading and young love.
minimuffin: Middlesex was one of the most well-written novels I've read for a long, long time and one that I looked forward to wallowing in at the end of every day whilst I was reading it. It has a particular resonance for me as my eldest son was born with the same condition as Cal, although thanks to immediate diagnosis and a very skilled surgeon he will thankfully not face the same issues as Cal.
What I wanted to know as I read it was, how on earth did you decide to write about this subject? I can't believe I now have the chance to ask you!
Jeffrey: The inspiration for Middlesex came from two sources. The first was a book published by Michel Foucault called Herculine Barbin: Memoir of a 19th century French Hermaphrodite. The memoir promised to be an amazing document and I began it with great interest. Unfortunately, a large measure of my curiosity wasn't satisfied by the document, and so I decided to write my own.
The second inspiration was, of course, Ovid, whose Metamorphoses my Latin class read in high school. There I encountered the figure of Tiresias, who had been both male and female. I thought I'd update his story and, rather than writing a myth, would try to be as accurate as I could about the biology and genetics involved.
Research into intersex conditions led me to 5 alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, which led me to genetics, which led me to genealogy, which led me Greece, and back to classicism. I appreciate your question, and wish you and your son the best.
Nancymumsnet: I've noticed you often revisit a theme of emerging teenage sexuality, confusion and subverted desire, particularly within young women (though this was obviously across more of a spectrum in Middlesex). Was this always an interest of yours? Have you studied it? What draws you to writing about this?
Jeffrey: I'm often asked this question but I never know the answer. It must have something to do with my own experience growing up, some kind of vividness and mystery that I both enjoy revisiting and try to describe or explain.
I haven't had any kind of special education in 'teenage sexuality' but I did engage in my own experiments at the time, like most everyone else, and the memory lingers. I'm not talking about sex so much as about feeling, feeling so intensely about things, as one does in youth. All your senses are keen then and everything that happens is happening for the first time.
hippy99: I like how The Marriage Plot was told from the perspective of different characters. This also enabled me to understand the manic depression theme from both the sufferer's viewpoint and those people around them. It seems that as an author, you understood both sides. Was this purely from research? Or do you know people personally who have or had manic depression?
Jeffrey: I don't know anyone well personally who has bipolar disease, though of course have met people in the past who I now suspect had it. At any rate, I wasn't describing someone I know, but was trying to imagine what it would be like to have the disease.
yUMMYmUMMYb: How did you research the theme of mental health? The scenes appeared so vivid to me. I lived with a manic depressive flatmate for three years, and your descriptions were uncannily accurate.
Jeffrey: I didn't do a great deal of research. I just mainly used the internet to acquaint myself with the chief symptoms of bipolar disorder and the treatments available in 1982, as well as the side-effects of those medications. Then I threw myself imaginatively into Leonard's mind and body, and tried to describe what he felt like in his highs and lows.
Abcinthia: You mentioned many different authors and their work in the book, so I was wondering which author(s) and/or novels inspired you the most to become an author yourself?
Jeffrey: A Portait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. That was the book that made me want to become a writer, like its hero, Stephen Dedalus. I read it when I was 16 and didn't pick up any of the irony. I took it straight. The artistic vocation was akin to a priestly vocation. Put on the mantle of art. Create 'the uncreated conscious' of your race. Etc. And now look what happened to me all these years later! All from reading a book.
MayCanary: You write very fondly (it seems) about Provincetown. Do you have connections with the area?
Jeffrey: My wife and I spent a winter in Provincetown when she was a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Centre there. I do have some fond memories of the place and the people we met. I was just beginning Middlesex then and used to jog through the dunes after my day's work, trying to work out problems in my head.
Bellstar: I loved The Virgin Suicides - I read an excerpt in Cosmo when I was a young teen and ran straight out to buy it. But I felt disappointed by the film version, and wondered how you felt about it?
Aimee: I like Sofia Coppola, and all her films, including 'mine'. Of course, you can't replicate a novel in cinematic terms. They're different animals. And The Virgin Suicides, with its odd narrative voice so fundamental to the novel, presents a particular problem for the filmmaker. Sophie caught the mood of the book, though, its atmosphere. I loved the soundtrack by Air - probably one of the most successful I know of. Great music, all on its own.
juneau: How long do you spend researching and writing your books, because it's been a while (about eight years?), since Middlesex appeared. Have you been working on this book all that time? There are authors out there who churn out book after book, but you turn out one finely crafted piece and then appear to take a break - so do you go off and do something else for a bit?
Jeffrey: After Middlesex, I started another novel that didn't work out. Lost about three years on that. Happily, three of the characters in that book came out alive: Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell. I gave them their own book, which turned into The Marriage Plot.
wickerman: Your novels seem to take you a long time. Why is this? Are you meticulous, a procrastinator, a teacher, a libertine, a tennis pro, a stay-at-home father? I suspect the first, as the scope and sweep of your novels is immense.
Jeffrey: I have no excuse. My books are quite different, one to the next, so each time I write a book I have to re-invent the wheel. I can't rely on past practice. This slows things down, as do my many doubts about the work itself. I work every day though, many hours of each day, so it's not as though I'm off gallivanting or gardening. I'm going to try to get better at this thing, or at least faster, but we'll see what happens.