- A Conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides
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Few debuts over the last twenty years in American literature have been more auspicious than that of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. This widely admired first novel, which tells of the suicides of the five teenaged Lisbon sisters, renders in glorious detail their familiar yet disturbingly peculiar suburban community. Central to its success [End Page 100] and originality is its memorial collective voice. A band of middle-aged men, paunchy and balding, tells the story, looking back nostalgically and with some degree of creepiness upon their adolescence and the five girls whose physical presence stood at the center of their yearning. The novel is marked by Eugenides' verbal wit, narrative energy and transformation of the everyday into the mythic. Michiko Kakutani called it a "piercing first novel" that "insinuates itself into our minds as a small but powerful opera in the unexpected form of a novel."
Such an auspicious beginning is tough to follow, but Eugenides took his time and published Middlesex, which for many readers surpassed his first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2003. A large, complex work, Middlesex is a family and immigrant saga dealing with Greek-Americans. It's also a psychological coming-of-age story about a contemporary hermaphrodite who discovers the complexity and ambiguity of her gender as she reaches adolescence. Wrote one critic, "Eugenides has taken the greatest mystery of all—What are we, exactly, and where do we come from?—and crafted a story that manages to be both illuminating and transcendent."
Born and raised in Gross Pointe, Michigan, Jeff Eugenides received his BA from Brown University and his MA in creative writing from Stanford University. He has worked as a cab driver, a busboy, a staff writer and photographer, a volunteer with Mother Teresa in India and a teacher; however, for more than a decade now he has worked full-time as a novelist. While Chicago has been his home since 2004, he has also lived in Detroit, Providence, New York and Berlin. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he has won the Aga Khan Prize from Paris Review, awards from the Whiting Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA. [End Page 101]
During a recent visit to Cincinnati, Eugenides was interviewed by James Schiff, assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and author of several books on contemporary American fiction. What follows is based on an interview that took place before an audience on the campus of the University of Cincinnati on April 13, 2005.
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INTERVIEWER: Going back to 1993, you emerged very big with The Virgin Suicides. It was a debut reminiscent of Philip Roth with Goodbye, Columbus in terms of making a large—
EUGENIDES: Except that he won the National Book Award.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, that's true. But I'm curious about the work which preceded The Virgin Suicides . During the 1980s you were at Brown, studying with John Hawkes, then at Stanford working on an MA in creative writing. I assume you were writing a good deal, and I'm curious, if we went back to that apprentice work, what we would find.
EUGENIDES: Well, you'd find a lot of different things, miscellaneous productions. I didn't think much about publishing at an early age. Virginia Woolf said you shouldn't publish a novel before you're thirty, and that always made sense to me. (Good thing, too, as I didn't write much worth publishing in my twenties.) As an undergraduate I wrote many stories, but I knew it was all apprentice work, if that. It wasn't until I got to Stanford, where most of the writers were Stegner Fellows, older, in their thirties, and all very keen on publishing or already in print, that I started thinking about sending stories out. As for the stories that I did send out, I don't know that I can categorize them. In college I wrote a lot of stories about monks. I was obsessed with Thomas Merton. I flirted with becoming a monk...