Interview: Jeffrey Eugenides on writing in C major
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Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, ‘The Marriage Plot,’ tops our bestseller list Sunday. Eugenides won a Pulitzer Prize for his previous novel, ‘Middlesex,’ which was also an Oprah pick; his first novel, ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ was made into a film by Sophia Coppolla. Delightful and smart, ‘The Marriage Plot’ follows three Brown University graduates trying to figure out literature and love, with varying degrees of success. Carolyn Kellogg spoke to Eugenides at Skylight Books before his full-house reading.
Jacket Copy: Tell me about your experience at Rhode Island and Brown.
Jeffrey Eugenides: I studied English literature in the honors program, which means that you had to take courses in various centuries. You had to start with Old English, Middle English, and work your way toward the modern. I figured if I did that it would force me to read some of the things I might not read on my own. I thought that would be a good preparation for being a writer.
JC: I grew up in Rhode Island. There was a moment during the opening scene when Madeleine is waking up and it’s really sunny, and I was thinking, this can’t stay sunny and be true to Rhode Island.
JE: The interesting thing about that is I wrote that scene about bright sunshine and then I was talking to my friend about his graduation in 1982. I should have graduated in 1982, but I took a year off so I graduated in 1983. So when I asked my friend about what happened in 1982, he said that weekend was incredibly stormy and rainy. I wanted it to accord with the reality of that year, so I put in the proper weather. It was following the historical record.
JC: You have such tremendous skill for really evocative detail – I was wondering how you access those memories. In one scene, I don’t even know whose point of view it is, somebody looks and the pull on a shade is like a life preserver --
JE: It’s Mitchell, when he’s seeing the priest for the catechism. I have a good memory for early life. My visual memory is good about childhood and adolescence, and less good in the last 10 years. I could probably tell you less what happened in the last 10 years. I remember what houses looked like, sometimes they just pop into my head.
JC: You’ve said in interviews that writing autobiographically, you put too much in.
JE: I put too much in in the one section about Mitchell in India. Because that’s the part that I actually lived. My memories were competing with the fictional story of Mitchell -- it made it difficult to write, because I had many more episodes that I remembered that seemed significant to me. When I looked at it as a novel, I realized those things didn’t need to be there; they were just there because they happened to me. Whereas when I was writing the Leonard or Madeleine section, even though some of the things that happened to them would come from my life as well, I knew what to put in and what not to put in.
Basically you come up with the fictional idea and you start writing that story, but then in order to write it and to make it seem real, you sometimes put your own memories in. Even if it’s a character that’s very different from you. Things that happened to Madeleine and her family are things that happened to me, and thoughts she had are thoughts I had, and books she read are books I read. But I’ll give them to her, and it will seem like a young woman is doing it, and no one would suspect that it’s something that I did. There’s things that Leonard does that come from my life, and Mitchell too. That’s the way I will write characters, put a fair amount of myself in them, and then everyone else who was like that person, I will pick and choose. Madeleine has maybe every girlfriend I had in college, little bits and pieces put together. JC: Since you teach now, are there any points of commonality or difference with the people that are in your classes who are 20, 22, and the 22 year-olds you were writing about in “The Marriage Plot”?
JE: Not really, because I started this a long time before I came to Princeton, and I was relying on my memory. I wasn’t in need of a refresher course from my own students –- and I don’t really know what their lives are like.
JC: It seems like there was a period where you didn’t talk a lot about your past and now you’re talking about it a little more. Were people just less nosy?
JE: It’s a myth that I didn’t talk about my past. I don’t think there was ever a period where I particularly did that, any more than anybody else. Novelists are always resisting autobiographical readings of their work, because they know how false those can be. Maybe I’ve done that. I have no secrets -- that I know of. (laughs)
JC: After Brown, you went to Stanford. Were you in the Stegner writing program there?
JE: No, at that point they had a masters program as well as the Stegners; I was in that. There were only two of us my year – there were more Stengers, they were older, more accomplished. It was good for us, because we were in classes with them and they’d already been to Iowa. It was intimidating in a way because some of them were in their 30s and I was about 24; it was also helpful to be with them because they were good writers and far along in their critical abilities.
JC: And Rick Moody, who was a classmate of yours at Brown was also in San Francisco?
JE: We moved from Brown to San Francisco. He lasted about six months in San Francisco and then went back to New York, as did my other roommate. So then I was alone in San Francisco in the apartment we had rented and I had to fill it up; I advertised for roommates and got a motley assortment of roommates over the years.
JC: People are starting to notice that a generation of writers, which includes you and Jonathan Franzen, are wrestling with the question of how you create a novel after postmodernism.
JE: Schoenberg said it’s still possible to write music in C major, and that’s coming from Mister Experimental himself. That strikes a chord in me; I think with the novel, at a certain point you realize it’s still possible to write in C major and have some kind of narrative content. And meaningful characters that readers can, you know it’s an old-fashioned term, but people can fall in love with the characters and become caught up in their lives. If you don’t have that, you cease to have te kind of novel that can be compelling.
-- Carolyn Kellogg