Story: An evening with Jeffrey Eugenides

Some things are made to order when it comes to themes of near-universal interest: love, romance, coming of age. And yes, hard times for hope when adult life gets under way during recessionary economic times.

How rich the experience, then, for those who came to hear

Jeffrey Eugenides

talk Friday evening with Tribune Literary Editor

Elizabeth Taylor

about his blockbuster new book, "The Marriage Plot."

The first part of the program was back-and-forth between the two, amplified by some choice readings by the author. A quick summary: The story is about English major Madeleine Hanna, a

Brown University

student, who has a romance with Leonard Bankhead while an old friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, nurtures a romantic hope of one day becoming Madeleine's mate.

Then came the fun part: the questions from the audience. How much do you know about the characters when you begin to write? Do you do big chunks and then shape and frame, like a sculptor? How have he and his work evolved? How did he struggle with his "relationship" with the creative process of Middlesex, his

Pulitzer Prize-winning

novel of 2002?


One question that a man asked got Eugenides' full attention. "What books have you hated and why?"


"That's a really good question I've never been asked," came the reply. And while he talked around the idea, he acknowledged that he hadn't really thought about books in that way, save for a general like or dislike for a genre, such as historical fiction.

Instead, he eased into some thoughts about the issue of influence on writers and whether that is good or bad. When you like a book, it's telling you something about your own character and style, he mused. And so, Eugenides offered that people could be easier on themselves and open themselves up to those other voices and approaches. "People should be less anxious about influence than they are," he said.

That, to Cathee McBride, was illuminating. Like Eugenides, she is from Michigan, and she has written some short stories for publication. It felt like she was being given permission. "That's what I really enjoyed about tonight," she said.

There were many points of connections for the audience and the author. Michigan was one. So, too, was the college experience captured in "The Marriage Plot." McBride's daughter Brandee Lozano, who accompanied her mother to the program, graduated from Arizona State in 2005. She is well into her adult life and could immediately connect with the idea of the college arts-theater character described in a passage that Eugenides read aloud.

The fictional character Moss Runk was, in the novel, one of those artsy types trying out personas. "Other people thought she was weird, but not Mitchell and Larry," he wrote. "Their silence (about her odd fashion style) registered solidarity with Moss against all the conventional people in their down vests…spending the last period of total freedom in their lives doing nothing the least bit unordinary."

For Lozano, this resonated in the form of an immediate recollection of a campus experience when, in the middle of the night, a man began singing, loudly, his voice echoing across the grounds. "I immediately thought, ‘I'll bet he's in theater,'" she said. She, and many others, knew a Moss Runk.

Another key point of interest for the audience was that the book is set in 1982, another recessionary time. Why, one young man asked, didn't he write it as Brown University 2012 and make it more current and meaningful for this recession?

Part of his thinking was that he knows what it was to be in college in the early 1980s. People of other college generations could still be able to identify with the experience, and he could tell the story more authentically, he said.

Beyond that, Eugenides said, is that that period of beginning anew is filled with experiences that many of us share. And they can be very challenging. "I found things very, very difficult," he said. "I remember then and wanted to describe that period of life."

People are fully adult, he said, "but at the same time, they're so unformed. They're trying out different selves."

Another theme the audience followed closely was his description of how his work has evolved. First, he said, he started out just trying to write effective sentences. He focused on craft. And "The Virgin Suicides," published in 1993, was the first phase. "I spent a lot of time worrying about my prose," Euginedes said.

And in "Middlesex," he learned to plot and began to develop a better understanding and comfort with the process of characterization.

His career has been a growth process -- from the sentence to the plot to the character, the last dimension being the dominant feature of "The Marriage Plot." And in this latest work, Eugenides said, he was able to stand back and let the characters shine instead of the writing so that people would stay focused on the characters.

To Andrew Freels, the characters and the college experience feel very real to him, very personal. At 29, he is from the Detroit area, and he came to know Eugenides' novels when the author visited the

University of Michigan

campus when Freels was in school. Better yet, Freels was born in 1982, so he especially identifies with the setting for "The Marriage Plot."

"Coming out of college, seeing it from a different angle and some time away, I'm very interested in seeing what the book says," Freels said. "This is very nostalgic for me."

Margaret Holt is the Tribune's standards editor.