In Love with Storytelling

An Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides

by Drew Dickerson

Illustration by Edith Young

published September 27, 2013

You can buy a copy of The Marriage Plot at Cable Car. Jeffrey Eugenides B ‘83’s third novel came out in 2011, my own sophomore fall. Nearly everyone I knew owns a copy of the loudly jacketed hardcover and has at least thumbed through it. The book is a very different animal from either of the author’s previous works, Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides—in both form and content it is a much more conventional novel. I feel like I’m too close to the subject matter to write cleanly or clearly about it. I asked a friend of mine what he thought of the book and he thought that bipolar disorder was very well realized in the character of Leonard. This is a sharp take away. Mr. Eugenides and I talk here about genetics and Roland Barthes. There was a long pause in our conversation as he went to answer the door for a man here to help him move his things.

The College Hill Independent: I was hoping to talk about the importance on place in your work. In your three novels we have the suburb of Gross Pointe, MI, as well as Detroit and Providence. You also deal with San Francisco, Berlin, and India in these works—all places in which you’ve lived. How is important is location in your work?  

Jeffrey Eugenides: I think most novelists have to draw on memories of places where they’ve lived in order to create any kind of fiction that’s credible. Sometimes you can write about places you’ve never been. In The Marriage Plot I set part of the book in Monaco and I’ve never been to Monaco. So it’s certainly possible to write about places where you haven’t lived. But it’s more natural and easier—and often more beneficial—to write a book about places that you know well because you can be accurate about them. You know how people behave in those places and how they sound. And that kind of goes with the territory, obviously. I’ve always felt that, at least in terms of Detroit, that I was fortunate to grow up there. As the world is coming more and more to understand, it’s an extremely important place. If you write about Detroit you are able to concentrate on many major issues that have been going on in the United States. So I’ve never seen a reason to write about another place. Detroit seems to be the place I know. 

The Indy: I think Detroit is especially interesting. As a Rust Belt city it seems to occupy a certain place in our imagination as to what post-industrial life might look like. Representation and coverage of the city has a political importance.

JE: Many cities in the United States are facing the same situation, sometimes to not such an extreme extent. I was just in Indianapolis and there are many things about Indianapolis that reminded me about Detroit. Lots of places in the Midwest are in the same predicament. So it’s something that America needs to face up to. We have a big country and we tend to abandon cities and move somewhere else when they run into trouble. Whereas in Europe, where they have more limited space, they tend to have to learn how to reinvent cities and keep them going because they just don’t have the space to move away. I think at some point that’s going to be the same situation in the United States. We just can’t continue to abandon cities and huge amounts of our population to those kinds of conditions and that kind of under-performing economy.

The Indy: I saw in my research that your first moneyed prize was for a poem about Fox Point. 

JE: It was. That’s true.

The Indy: I’m very interested in your treatment of Providence and your treatment Brown more specifically. I understand you went to Brown in order to study under the writer John Hawkes—and you came to the school in 1978, the same year that John Gardner’s polemic against Hawkes and his contemporaries (Coover, Barth, Gass, etc.) On Moral Fiction was released. It seems to me that the Brown of The Marriage Plot is a very highly combative intellectual environment, although in the novel the major camps are Poststructuralism and New Criticism. Do you think the Gardner characterization of conventional, moral fiction as exclusive to “postmodern” writing at all colored your experience of Brown and, in turn, your representation of that experience?

JE: I remember when Gardner published that book On Moral Fiction. I don’t think most of the professors with whom I studied at Brown were on board with that at all. Nor were they big admirers of Gardner’s fiction. I think we dismissed that idea. It seemed rather prescriptive, telling people how novels should be and they should only be written in one way. Hawkes was a somewhat experimental writer, but he wasn’t the kind of writer who only believed in one school of writing. He just knew that he had to write in a certain way. He didn’t force us or even encourage us to write in a certain mode. I think the Gardner idea was just a little bit limiting. There’s so many different ways to think of what morality is in fiction. You can look at the books of Robert Coover and find them to be extremely strong and strident in their moral points about democracy and the American project—though they wouldn’t construct their morality in the rather old-fashioned way that a John Gardner would. So, it remains to be seen what is moral. Sometimes I think writing well and keeping the language pure is a kind of demonstration of morality. But the big issue on campus was, as you correctly described it, was the one between New Criticism and Semiotics. There was a battle going on between those two camps and when I was there it was certainly raging.

The Indy: I wonder if the anxieties aren’t the same though. The sentence in your book, what I take to be the thesis statement: “Madeleine’s love troubles began at a time when the French theory that she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” That’s not the Gardner argument exactly, but the thrusts seem similar. You’re very sensitive to people who might call certain formations of something like love outmoded.

JE: I arrived at Brown wanting to be a writer and was promptly told that the author was dead. I certainly resisted the idea that there was no longer a possibility of telling stories or of trying to have narrative in a piece of fiction. So that’s a little bit of a traditional belief. I think what I’ve tried to do in my career is satisfy that traditional belief while trying to move the project of the novel forward, in keeping with some of the things I learned about postmodernism without abandoning some of the central energies and pleasures of the novel. In terms of love, though I was talking about a young woman at college having romantic difficulties, I might have been talking about the predicament the contemporary novelist finds himself or herself in—that of being in love with storytelling and narrative at a time when those things are under threat. I don’t really think they’re under threat out in the wide world but I think they’re under threat at least in the seminar on Semiotics. To be in love in Madeleine’s way is a little bit to be in love with storytelling, I think.

The Indy: You do seem to have a definite concern for the history of the novel. As I look at Middlesex, there’s a progression of style and convention from a sort of prosaic magical realism through to something that, by the end, looks very much like a contemporary social realist work.

JE: The scheme of the book was to try to contain the DNA of the novel itself in hopefully not too overly-dramatic a way, but to begin with some of the oldest forms of storytelling—epic storytelling, in the case of Middlesex mock-epic storytelling, but still nevertheless epic—and then to move through the book and end up with a more psychological treatment. So the book is about genetics, it’s about something passing down through history and mutating and containing the past in the present. So I wanted the book’s style to shift, in a subtle way, through all those different possibilities.

The Indy: Would you describe your relationship to literary history as a genetic one?

JE: I think so. You certainly bear traces of everything you’ve read before and the different centuries of writing. If you’re writing today you’re not free of that. You’re conditioned to a certain degree by what’s come before, and then you’re trying to write something about your own time. You’re trying to maybe mutate into something that hasn’t been seen before. But you certainly do contain a blueprint of a lot of literary genetic material.

The Indy: I feel like the way you deal with influence is different than that of some of your contemporaries. Where Jonathan Lethem might take something from Raymond Carver and bring it to bear on something else lifted from Raymond Chandler, you’re at something different. You seem more interested in problems of convention. You’re interrogating classical forms like the marriage plot. It’s a different formation of your own place with respect to book culture.

JE: I would have to say it depended on the book I was writing. I don’t think I have a project that I am prosecuting from book to book. I am writing short stories now which are very different from The Marriage Plot and The Marriage Plot is very different from Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. So I don’t have a methodology that I’m repeating. I think I’m constantly adapting my style and my narrative manner depending on what I’m interested in at the moment and what I’m trying to work on. Certainly in The Marriage Plot I was trying to reinvent or investigate the idea of the traditional marriage plot and make it valid for today, or to see what part of that lingers on. I decided that the marriage plot still operates in our heads, and operate in our world in terms of forcing women to get married and never to get divorced. It still conditions a lot of our expectations. In that way I could agree that I was dealing in a literary tradition. But that won’t be the case for all of my books.

The Indy: You just seem to be tapping into something older than somebody like Lethem or Colson Whitehead or Michael Chabon, who might be concerned with the magazine or television.

JE: That’s true. I’ve never been into cartoons. I’m not into all of those things, so it wouldn’t appear in my work very much.

The Indy: In your interview with the Paris Review’s Art of Fiction column you say “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.” I was curious whether or not you still agree with that statement and whether or not you could be said to have a project in that case.

JE: That interview came out not so long ago, and it would be folly for me to disown it completely and say I no longer believe that. But one is encouraged in an interview to come out with grand statements like that. And as soon as you make them you start to wonder how true they are or how true they will remain. The thing about fiction is that I think it’s quite a shape-shifting medium. You’re constant getting new ideas and trying new things. These kinds of statements, while they may be true, they’re rarely in the front of your mind while you’re writing. You never sit down and think, “Today I will try to reconcile experimentalism with the traditional novelistic approach.” That never occurs to you. You just kind of do what you’re interested in. Maybe later, in a more analytical mood, you come up with these sorts of statements about your own work. It doesn’t mean they’re not true, but they’re certainly not the driving force behind one’s daily labor.

The Indy: I was wondering if maybe—you say also in an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer for BOMB Magazine, “you don’t create your originality, it creates you”—I was wondering if you don’t agree with Barthes on the idea of death of the authorship a little bit more than you realize. It seems like the thrust of both the above line and what you were just saying is that genius doesn’t precede art but is constituted alongside it. It’s pretty well in keeping with your thought that you don’t have a grand authorial mission, that you’re interested more in the text and the craft.

JE: As I said, I remain influenced by a lot of the literary theory that I read while I was at Brown. So I wouldn’t be surprised if things I say conform to a Roland Barthes idea. When you’re writing a book or any kind of text, you do interact with the text. You write things and then you look at it and you get different ideas about what to do next from the text itself. So there’s a moment where, in a sense, the text is telling you what to do next or giving you ideas.  You begin to interact with it, which I think is probably the same in many artistic media. If you’re painting, you look at the paint and get ideas and begin to interact with what you’ve done before. It’s part of the creative process. So in doing that, you’re no longer entirely in charge of what you set out to do. The work gets better and deeper and more surprising the more you interact with it. Part of your brain needs to be working with the sheer intellection, the intellectual force, and part of it has to be working with the intuition. You go back and forth between those two modes of thought. The intuitional part is the part where maybe the text begins to speak back to you. I think that’s necessary and has been necessary in all kinds of writing. It doesn’t matter what kind of writer we’re talking about.