Sophomore Superstar

When Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published in 1993 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, it was welcomed with rave reviews. The New York Times said Eugenides was “blessed with the storyteller’s gift” and others commented on his hypnotic and magical prose. The book won the Whiting Award and was named the American Library Association’s book of the year. Then, in 1999, it was made into a movie directed by Sofia Coppola–which generated even more interest in the book and what Eugenides would write next.

As the world awaited his sophomore effort, Eugenides moved to Germany to take a fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, where he remains today with his family. Then, in fall 2002, Middlesex (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was released. The story spans three generations of a Greek family, starting with the grandparents’ immigration in 1922 from a small village in Asia Minor to Detroit. The all-knowing, first-person narrator (and granddaughter), born as Calliope in 1960, discovers at the height of puberty–and at the book’s climax–that he’s not the girl he was raised as.

The second novel has received as many as accolades as the first, being singled out as a best book of 2002 by Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review. It was also nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Eugenides says he’s not sure if he experienced a sophomore slump or anxiety about his second effort, but he does know the difficulties of writing Middlesex were sufficient to make his progress very slow.

“Most of the time I seemed to be struggling with the book itself and not struggling with the need to write the book. I was always working in those nine years, and I was always producing pages–they just weren’t always the right pages,” he says.

Eugenides’ main troubles in writing Middlesex concerned its complex point of view and the narrator’s voice. Since Cal must relate events that happened decades before his birth, Eugenides wasn’t confident of the best way to approach it.

“I wanted to tell the book with a first-person voice because I wanted to be very intimate about the psychosexual details of my narrator. At the same time I was writing a book about genetics and a family, so I needed access to the minds of the grandparents and parents,” Eugenides says. “I tried it all first person, then I tried it all third person, and I did various drafts of the book until I arrived at the flexibility where I could shuttle to first-person voice to a third-person voice.”

By constructing the book with a measure of playfulness–and giving it a postmodern spin–Eugenides overcame his inhibition of creating a narrator who knows every detail of the time before his birth.

“I put in many clues that Cal perhaps is inventing his past as much as recounting it. His need to explain his unusual life is so great that it leads him to this leap of faith in his own narrative abilities. Cal’s omniscience–and perhaps it’s a little unreliable–does tell you about his desperate need to understand himself,” he says.

In addition to time spent on numerous revisions, Eugenides had to research the details of genetics and history that are vital to the novel’s plot. These aspects weren’t part of his writing process during his first novel, which took three years to write. Before he started The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides set strict guidelines for himself–to limit his options and keep him on the straight and narrow.

“Had I decided to write a second short book with a simple plot, I think I would’ve been able to do it rather quickly. [In Middlesex], I tried to write about what I know, but I take it to a place that I’ve never been,” he says.

Both of Eugenides’ books are set in Michigan, and Detroit plays prominently in his work. When Eugenides started thinking about Grosse Pointe, Mich., where he grew up, he discovered a driving force that would produce the material for his novels.

“I had been trying to write about myself, as many young writers do, through my 20s, and I didn’t know a lot about myself. Once I set my story in Grosse Pointe, I did find that my work acquired a depth that it hadn’t had before,” he says.

Eugenides believes that a writer’s first book is a gift–not that it’s easy, but somehow it’s written without you knowing what you’re doing or if you’ll finish it. Yet even before deciding to pursue novel writing, he first concentrated on writing well and refining his craft.

“I first learned to write sentences, then plots and characters. I spent 15 to 20 years working on the actual sentence itself,” he says. “I write 800 words a day and work them to a polish. I’ll throw them away if they don’t work in the overall scheme. I hold on to it for a very long time before I show it to anyone, and only when I’ve taken it as far as I can take it do I let anyone else read it.”

Now at work on his third novel–which he says will be a fairly short one–Eugenides says he feels a clarity about his writing that he didn’t have after The Virgin Suicides, when he wasn’t sure what direction to take. But he says he never did feel a pressure, now or then, to write a break-through book or trump his previous efforts.

“I tried to write a couple of books before I wrote The Virgin Suicides, so in some ways that was my third book. After that, I wasn’t feeling like I had to break through,” Eugenides says. “I only publish a book when I feel like it’s the best thing that I can do, then that’s it. I don’t think about the steppingstones and which one will break through and things like that.”

You can find this interview and much more in the April 2003 issue of Writer’s Digest

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