Jeffrey Eugenides: the interview

On the day that I was down to chat to Jeffrey Eugenides, he had already been interviewed by Kim Hill early that morning, been a participant in the session The Future of the Novel, signed about a gazillion copies of his book and somehow lost his assistant.

Even though I bet all he wanted by that stage was a beer and a burger, he was easy to chat to – forthcoming and attentive, the perfect gentleman. But it does go some way toward explaining why (in the photograph that was taken when we’d finally worked out where he was next expected to be), the poor man looks quite curdled by it all!

In fact, he looked a lot like the Talking Heads quote in the front of his book The Marriage Plot:

And you may ask yourself, Well how did I get here?
And you may tell yourself,
This is not my beautiful house.
And you may tell yourself,
This is not my beautiful wife

On with the interview:

Christchurch Library users love your books! One of the questions I have been asked recently is: “If I loved Middlesex, will I like The Marriage Plot?” Do you think this new book will appeal to your existing fans or will it attract a whole new readership?

Well, my books tend to be not very like each other. So each time I write a book, sometimes I change my style – the way I write the book – so if someone is looking for Middlesex 2 they might be disappointed. But if they like my writing and my sensibility, the reading experience my books have provided them, I would think that they will also like this book. In some ways I think it is my best book, so I hope that they would like it, but sometimes people have a huge affection for Middlesex and it might be more difficult for them to love this book.

One of the differences between the two books is that Middlesex has a huge cast of characters and The Marriage Plot has a focus on only three main characters. Did that change your writing a lot?

This book is very much about character and it is the first time I have gone deeply, deeply into the psychology of people. The canvas in Middlesex is broader – it’s more populated but the characterisation is not as searching. Whereas in The Marriage Plot, I’ve dug quite deeply into what these characters think and feel, the verisimilitude of those characters in other words.

Perhaps that’s why I ended up being able to identify with all the main female characters in the book in one way or another. Madeleine when I was younger, her mother now and even her sister, Allie, who appears about three quarters of the way through the book.

Well, I hope that means that it will be a relatively easy book for people to find some points of connection with – certainly that was one of my intentions.

Are you a re-reader of books?

If I have a book that I love, I read it many times so I can find out more about how it is put together. When I first read a book I’m just figuring out what the story is, taking in the book but when I read it the third and fourth time I start to see the architecture of it. This is very helpful for me as a writer.

CoverI’m not normally a re-reader of books, there is just so much other stuff out there that I want to get stuck into. But I did re-read parts of The Marriage Plot because I struggled to synthesize the literary aspects of the book (Madeleine’s research and readings) and the plot line at the same time. Have other people had a similar difficulty?

Well, I think there are two ways of reading the book. A certain kind of reader likes to read just for the story and another one can read it for the dual levels, the literary metatextual structure of the book, that the book is commenting in some ways on the traditional marriage plot. There is no right or wrong way to read a book, in my opinion.

Would my reading of The Marriage Plot been enhanced had I more knowledge of the writers that Madeleine was studying in her Semiotics course?

I don’t think so. I know that some readers become somewhat intimidated in so-called Books About Books. In the case of The Marriage Plot, the reference to the books Madeleine is studying is really there to help the reader enter into that world. They are like the props in that world. You don’t have to know how the props are made or where they come from, you just need to use the props to help position yourself, as the reader, in a certain time and place. So I would say, do not worry about any of that. The books are just the furniture of the novel.

It took nine years to write this book. Madeleine must feel like a part of your family. Do you ever wonder what would happen to her next?

No, she does not live outside of the book for me and when I finish a story about any character, it is because their story is finished. I am not a writer of sequels.

Madeleine is a very reactive character. Almost all her decisions are made for her by the men in her life. I worry about her, I really do.

Yes this is a woman who thinks she can save a troubled man by loving him, she is in a way ensnared by her feelings to be good and helpful. But I do think she gets some degree of clarity about herself by the end of the novel.

The Marriage Plot is a great read and, I think, it has the best ending ever. Tell us a little bit more about how you got to this perfect ending.

I certainly didn’t build up to it, it really came to me right at the end. And I must say I am very pleased with it as well.

What’s the main difference, in your opinion between The Pulitzer Prize and The Man Booker Prize?

That’s easy, the Booker Prize we care about in America but the Pulitzer Prize is not particularly cared about in Britain.

If you could go back to university now, and study anything that you liked, what would it be?

Can I be young?

Yes I’ll let you be young!

Science and history – I would broaden my education.

How important have libraries been in your life?

We had a bookish home in my childhood. We had lots of books on our shelves and this had a fairly profound effect on me. But we did use the public libraries as well.

What’s Princeton Public Library like?

My daughter’s there all the time. It’s a beautiful place but libraries are not as quiet as they used to be. I miss that, I remember when they were church quiet, there was a sense of sanctity about them. That said, in Princeton, the library is the anchor of the community – people of all ages are going there all the time. I believe you can borrow e-books from libraries now, I am worried about that, how e-book use in the future will affect writers’ incomes and hence their ability to write.

Then out of the blue Jeffrey Eugenides asked me a question. He said:

Have you ever fasted?

A girl can only take this one of two ways: you look as if you need to (fast that is) or: I’m getting really hungry now. Time to end the interview methinks!

The future of the novel is ……..

Here’s how my day started. No internet connection, burnt toast at breakfast and a room change.

But then things got much, much better. The future of the novel was a festival event with Jeffrey Eugenides and Emily Perkins discussing whether the novel has been fatally wounded by the modern breakdown of marriage. I managed to squeeze into the venue and nab one of the last eight seats.

Listening to authors of this calibre talking about the novel, you do not want it to die. You want it to live and thrive well into the future. And according to these two authors it will. Because what is at the heart of every good novel is not marriage, maybe not even love but – desire. And desire, let’s face it, is here to stay.

As Eugenides , the author of The Marriage Plot,  said:

Every novel of mine has desire at its centre. You can’t find a dramatic scenario centred on the absence of desire.

And Emily Perkins, who wrote The Forrests,  quoted from one of Goeff Dyer’s Rules of Writing:

Have regrets in your writing, because on the page they flare into desire

Both writers also commented on humour in writing, about good writing making the tragic comic. Eugenides says all his writing is a blend of tragedy and comedy and as Perkins put it:

There is absurdity in everything

It was in question time that things got really scary. Several of the questions related to technology and the future of the novel. Eugenides is very nervous of the direction in which technology is taking writing. He has no internet connection on his work computer which he essentially uses as a word processer. He says: “I don’t like the cloud!”

But in answer to further questions in this vein, both authors conceded there is a possibility in the future that there will be collective ownership of writing on sites like Twitter. People will just add bits of writing onto other peoples’ writing, creating never-ending stories . This will all be done anonymously. The future of the novel will be The Zombie Novel.

Perkins looked pale and Eugenides said “Now I feel depressed.”

It was a brilliant session.

Goldilocks and the three blogs

My favourite festival cover this year.

It had to happen eventually – Goldilocks got tired of bears, their furniture and yucky porridge and took up blogging instead. Her first blog was too hard – she sweated bullets over that one, she really did. Her second blog was too long – she’d got life story and blogging all mussed up. But her third blog was just about right and Goldilocks really got into the swing of it and settled into a steady blogging rhythm.

Then she got sent to Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and that was when Goldilocks realised that there’s blogging and then there’s FESTIVAL BLOGGING. Four days of frantic reading, writing, interviewing and panicking. Colours seem brighter, ideas come faster and she never once thought of porridge. As for beds – that was where you collapsed at 2am, all blogged out. Turns out that festival blogging is like blogging on steroids. And Goldilocks found that she liked steroids!

Youth, hair and flouncing dresses way off to one side here, I’m the Goldilocks in this story. And after much deliberation, here are some of the authors that I am really looking forward to hearing,  meeting and definitely blogging on at AWRF this year.

But first there’s the technology to master. So I took my new laptop to a wifi cafe for a trial run and prevailed on my waitperson to photograph me for this festival blog. In the first photo my nose looked too big. In the second my nose looked too…., you get where I am going with this. After the third shot, my waitron put the camera firmly back on the table and said:

You’re really excited about this festival thing aren’t you?

However did she guess?