Jeffrey Eugenides

On Writing and Reading

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, whose short story collection Fresh Complaint was published this fall, discusses volunteering with Mother Teresa, the time he played golf with Philip Roth in a dream, and his writing vices.

What was your first experience of writing as a child? (What did you write, why did you write it, what did it mean to you, what was it about?)

JE: In elementary school, every so often our teacher would give us the first half of a story and tell us to write the ending. I don’t remember the content of those stories but I do remember how much fun I had finishing those tales off, coming up with what I thought were surprising and satisfying endings. That was my first experience of the joy and excitement of writing. I was probably working in an O. Henry mode back then, without having read O. Henry. I wanted a twist at the end.

Which specific aspect of your childhood, upbringing and early education has impacted your writing most, and why?

JE: I don’t know if this can be considered “early education” or not, but probably studying Latin, from the age of 13 to 18. Having to discern the meaning of those ancient sentences and to master the complications of Latin grammar made me attentive to the grammar of English, and it’s still something I rely on today, as I sort out my who’s and whom’s. Also, when I got into high school and we starting digging in to Ovid and Vergil, I became aware of the ingenuity and discipline those poets had to draw on to compose their stuff, all of which was written to accommodate rigorous metrical forms while narrating a myth and making pictures bloom inside your head. I could feel Vergil sweating it out, way back in 29 B.C., and that made a big impression on me. Interestingly, I only recently learned that Vergil suffered from bad health and was a semi-invalid all his life. Died at 50.

What was your relationship with writing and books during your time spent in Calcutta, volunteering with Mother Teresa?

JE: I’m beginning to feel guilty about my time with Mother Teresa. Because most of my life has been spent alone in a room, there’s not a lot of biographical info for journalists to latch onto, and so they latch on to my brief time volunteering at the Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. I tried to write about that experience for years until I finally succeeded in doing so in The Marriage Plot. My relationship with writing and books during that time was that I already knew that I wanted to be a writer but I was also trying to find out if I could be a saint as well. (I failed.) I carried a notebook around in those days—I traveled the world for an entire year—and I was always writing quasi-fictional accounts in it about a character named “Thomas” who bore some resemblance to myself. Thomas was a rather gloomy young guy, suffering religious and erotic torment. The tone was detached and ironic. I was learning to write fiction on that trip by translating what happened to me into third-person narration, fictionalizing my experience.

How important is it to you to feel part of a writer’s community—in particular, in your early years when you, Jonathan Franzen and other young writers were friends?

Writing one’s first book has a purity about it. No one cares if you write it or not. You’re not even a “writer” while you write it, which I think is the right frame of my mind to have, always.

JE: It’s not important at all or something I ever think of. The only group I’m a part of is generational, which is a situation you can’t escape. Writer friends are like colleagues in any field. They know what the job entails. They’re a source of comfort, insider knowledge, gossip, and they serve as both exemplars and competitors. Writing is an individual sport, like tennis. Unfortunately, no one can agree on the score. There’s no Hawk-Eye, even, to judge if a shot is in or out.

Where did the idea for The Virgin Suicides originally come from? And how do you feel about that book, written by your early 30s-self, today? Would you change anything?

JE: It came in two pieces. The first was hearing from my nephew’s babysitter, a girl I only met once, that she and her sisters had all attempted suicide. I don’t remember what prompted this question. I asked her why, and she responded, “We were under a lot of pressure.” So I was left with that mystery. A year or so later, I sat down and began writing about five suicidal sisters, using the 1st-person plural. When those two streams came together, the narrative and the voice, the book began to be written. Once I finish a book, I move on to the next one. I don’t re-read it or look back and so it would never occur to me to want to change anything. You can’t change the past. About The Virgin Sucides, I have no regrets, however. Writing one’s first book has a purity about it. No one cares if you write it or not. You’re not even a “writer” while you write it, which I think is the right frame of my mind to have, always.

To what extent has literary success—and in particular, winning a Pulitzer Prize—impacted upon your subsequent novels? Does success put additional pressure on you, and if so, why? (Or if not, why not?)

JE: Upside: more money, paid lectures, teaching jobs. I’ll never have to use a laundromat again or go back to driving a taxi. Downside: you see other past winners who haven’t written a decent book for a while, and you think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” But who says you have God’s grace? Maybe you don’t. So between faith and works, you do your best to have both, but you make sure you do the work.

How, specifically, has your writing routine/ritual developed over the last 25 years?

Year 1: Wrote sitting at desk. Year 2: Wrote standing up. Year 3: Decided standing was a pain so began sitting down again. Years 4-25: Kept sitting.

Which of your books was the greatest challenge to write, and why?

Each book feels equally difficult to write. If it didn’t, if it felt too easy, I would think something was wrong and would add elements to the book to make it more difficult, increase my pain and, weirdly, make myself happier.

JE: Each book feels equally difficult to write. If it didn’t, if it felt too easy, I would think something was wrong and would add elements to the book to make it more difficult, increase my pain and, weirdly, make myself happier. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I might enter a Zen-Art-of-Archery stage where I begin to write, as Chekhov described his process, “as easily as a bird sings.” I’m not against this happening. But it would be a change.

Which person in your life (specifically) has influenced your writing most, and why?

JE: I don’t know the answer to this question. It’s not someone I’ve met. I’m sure it’s a writer whom I know only through books. It’s probably Philip Roth. I’ve never really met Roth but I’ve read his books for years and years, again and again, and his example of discipline, fidelity to his craft, and stylistic and formal variation has always been an ideal to me. Roth appears in my dreams every so often. One time, we were playing golf together, we were on the putting green, and he looked tremendously handsome. Of course, this dream-Roth was actually my Idealized Self, and the golf course must have symbolized some Valhalla of success, given my suburban American origins. I don’t remember if I made the putt or not.

How disciplined are you when writing? What distracts you? And what are your vices (while writing)?

JE: At this point writing doesn’t require discipline. It’s too ingrained a habit. As soon as I start my day, that what’s I want to do. It takes discipline to get me to skip writing. While I’m at my desk, though, I find ways to check my email, or nap. The naps I’m okay with. They’re restorative. But the email is bad. I don’t have my computer connected to the internet. I write in the attic. But since the advent of the smart phone the internet has sent out a tentacle to wrap itself around me once again. I’m thinking of leaving my phone downstairs but, being a parent, that’s hard. My daughter needs to be able to reach me.

What inspired you to write Fresh Complaint?

JE: The title story of my collection Fresh Complaint is based on an anecdote told to me by a friend, a former town prosecutor. I started with only a vague outline. A young American girl whose parents emigrated from India meets a middle-aged British cosmologist who is lecturing at a small college in Delaware. I don’t want to give the story away, but what I was interested in was subverting the power relations and expectations in a story of this kind, about an older man and a young woman. Putting it like that makes it seems as though I was interested in the “theme,” which I’m usually not. The story, as related to me, just seemed amazing and surprising, and I wanted to fill in the blanks of my curiosity about the people involved. I was also trying to write a story that had the density of a novel, so I conceived of it as a longer work and wrote many, many drafts and pages, and then slowly took out everything absolutely nonessential, to leave what’s a precipitate of a narrative distilling process. It was very maddening and involving and a great relief to finally finish.

As for the other stories in the collection, they deal with all kinds of things, but there’s an emphasis on thwarted ambition, financial difficulties, as well as an investigation into how the present-day United State lives up to the ideals of its founders and first citizens. Some stories, like “Great Experiment,” which was written before the Great Recession, seem more relevant today, given the present political situation. But there are other stories in a comic mode, like “Baster” and “Find the Bad Guy.” It’s something of a smorgasbord.

What is your relationship between your fiction writing and your home life? To what extent does the former shape the latter, and in particular the challenging and difficult periods?

JE: I’m a single father and my daughter, who has a chronic illness, has lived with me for the past 3 years. So I’ve had full care of her, and have had to deal with all the medical necessities as well as the domestic. Thank God for Blue Apron, which is a meal-kit delivery service here in the States. It allows me to appear to be able to cook. When my daughter first became ill, it was very difficult to write. I did so, showed up at my desk every day, but my mind was always attuned to how she was doing and feeling downstairs. Now she’s much better and I’m free to work most of the day, when I’m not teaching. But it’s been a hard slog, these past few years, easily the most difficult of my life. I’ve never cared about anything other than writing, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out, and prove to myself, that I care about being a father even more. Still, I’m grateful to my daughter for making the job easier on me. She wants me to keep writing too.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received/single piece of writing advice you give to your students? And in what ways has it helped you?

A writer has to find the position from which he or she can most authentically and expressively describe the experience of being alive in the world.

JE: I can tell you about a piece of writing advice I haven’t followed. Find your voice. What does that mean? Does each person have a distinct voice? Only one of those? Or do we have the ability to adopt or create an assortment of voices, for different projects and circumstances? Wouldn’t it be boring to find your voice and then just keep reproducing it forever? But if by “voice” they mean “your inner self” or “your material,” then I think it makes sense. A writer has to find the position from which he or she can most authentically and expressively describe the experience of being alive in the world. No fudging, no fraudulence, no acceptance of common assumptions or quotidian language. Lately, after all these years, I’ve been working on something written in what feels like “my” voice in that it combines both adolescent and mandarin locutions and registers, which is what I think I’m like in person, both a kid from Detroit and a rather fussy, slightly ridiculous, “tasteful” person, curmudgeonly and sophomoric at the same time. Anyway, even if I can get this voice to work, it will represent only one incarnation of the Godhead of language available to all of us. It won’t be “mine,” or it will be only for a certain amount of time, while it’s useful.

Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit and attended Brown and Stanford Universities. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published by FSG to great acclaim in 1993, and he has received numerous awards for his work. In 2003, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex (FSG, 2002), which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and France’s Prix Médicis. The Marriage Plot (FSG, 2011) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won both the Prix Fitzgerald and the Madame Figaro Literary Prize. Eugenides is a professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton.

This interview originally appeared in The Sunday Telegraph.