One of the most anticipated new books around the FSG offices (and out in the real world, I daresay) is Jeffrey Eugenides’ follow-up to Middlesex. That 2003 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was later selected for Oprah’s Book Club, has sold more than 2 million copies and is on many readers’ lists of their favorite contemporary novels. We caught up (virtually) with Jeff in his studio in Princeton, New Jersey, where he is rounding the turn on his new novel.
—Jonathan Galassi, President and Publisher of FSG
Galassi: Please tell us everything you can about your new book, starting with the title.
Jeffrey Eugenides: I hate to begin by withholding information, but I’d rather not divulge the title of the new book at the moment. I remember when my wife was pregnant and we were trying out different names for the baby. Anytime we told someone a prospective name, they would find something wrong with it. It rhymed with something not-nice. It was just begging to be deformed into a schoolyard epithet. The result was that we never named our child and refer to her now only by her SS#. So I’m not going to make that mistake again and tell you the title of my book.
What I can tell you is its genesis. Awhile ago, I was writing a book about a family throwing a debutante party. As I followed one of the characters, her story began to swell until I finally realized that I had two different books on my hands. I then had to surgically separate the two books, like conjoined twins, hoping that each retained sufficient major organs to survive. I’ve put the first book in a drawer for the time being, working on the second. I don’t quite know how to describe it. A college love story? Maybe. It begins on graduation day, in 1982, and involves three main characters. The sweep of the action takes place over the next year or so, as the characters begin their lives outside the university gates. The book deals, among other things, with religion, depression, the Victorian novel, and Roland Barthes. I really don’t like to talk about it. It’s about 400 pages long so far, and two-thirds done. I don’t think it will be a long book, not as long as Middlesex, anyway. It’s different from my other books. More tightly dramatized, less fanciful. What else? It’s not a Detroit book, not this time. Though one of the characters comes from Detroit, the new book ranges in setting from Providence, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod to Calcutta.
Galassi: As I recall there were parts of Middlesex that didn’t make it into the final text, including some fascinating excursuses into anthropology.
Eugenides: I believe one of the reasons they didn’t make it into the final text was that you, dear Editor, weren’t so sure about them. Early in the writing of Middlesex, I had two completely different versions going. The first was close in tone and content to the final published edition; the other was a stranger beast altogether. Told from many points of view (rather than by the controlling intelligence of Cal), this version included an extended sequence about the sexologist Dr. Peter Luce’s trip to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Luce goes there to study a tribe, the Simbari Anga, who have in their bloodline the same genetic mutation that Cal has. It was fascinating stuff, based on facts, and presented a people who have developed a third gender category to accommodate their ambiguous offspring. Anyway, as I recall, you liked that version well enough, but said that you didn’t know what that book was. Whereas, with the other version (the manuscript that became Middlesex), you did know what that was. You didn’t force me to choose between the two, but you helped me to choose. There were a lot of things to like about Version #2, but there were limitations as well. Mainly, it threatened to spin out of control. Anyone who’s interested in sampling the flavor of that version can read “The Oracular Vulva,” which was published in The New Yorker. “TOV” was from Version #2 and involves anthropology. As you’ll note, “The Oracular Vulva” is also a chapter title in Middlesex. I did manage to use some of Version #2 in the final book. So it wasn’t a total loss. But I had a big story to tell already and to add subplots involving sexologists in the jungle . . . you were probably right.
Galassi: One aspect of your new book that I’m most intrigued by is its Indian dimension. You’ve written short fiction about a young man’s experience working for Mother Teresa. Without divulging anything untoward, what can you tell us about the role that India has played in your life—and in your fiction?
Eugenides: After my junior year in college, I took a year off to travel the world. A bit of that experience made its way into a short story of mine called “Air Mail,” which is about a college-age guy suffering amoebic dysentery on a small island in Thailand. I’ve tried without much success to write about a similar character’s experience volunteering for Mother Teresa. I tried in my twenties and then I tried again in my thirties. But I never published anything on the subject except for a small nonfiction piece. Well, in the new book, I’m trying yet again, and we’ll get to see if I’m getting any better at it. Part of the book involves a backpacking trip through Europe, and, later, there’s the section in India. I’m working on the Calcutta part right now. It won’t be long, no more than forty or fifty pages. I’ve had to pare down the autobiography in order to find the fiction. I’ll tell you what: I wouldn’t want to write a memoir. In the first case, autobiography is a largely fraudulent exercise. People don’t understand their lives or what happened to them; they only think they do. In the second case, autobiography (or life) is artless. When I try to write autobiographically, I end up putting in scenes and events that blur the “truth” of what I’m trying to write about. Bellow was good at writing about himself, but not me. I don’t know who I am. I have to transform autobiography into fiction, which means that I use my imagination at least as much, if not more, than my memory.
But I see that you’re tricking me into revealing more about the new book, and I better shut up.
Galassi: Is this book fun for you? Is writing fun for you?
Eugenides: It is, actually. It’s a pleasurably absorbing activity. I do it a lot, obviously. Most every day, and all day long. So I had better well be enjoying myself. And yet it’s often demoralizing. Right now, though, and ever since I figured this book out, I’ve been working away more or less happily, or at least without significant dread. Chekhov said he wrote as easily as a bird sings. That would be nice. I’m like a bird who’s listened to all the other birds singing. Over there, in the next yard (very distant), are the songs I like. For a while I imitated them as best I could, until I figured out my own song, which I am now contentedly singing. Of course, what the bird doesn’t know (because it has a birdbrain) is that it isn’t just a matter of learning one song. You have to come up with a new song for every book. For now, I’ve got the song for this book. And that’s when it becomes fun. That’s why you don’t want to finish too quickly. Because the part that’s fun comes between the discovery of the song and the singing of the last note. Then you’re back to silence, and listening. And that can be a bit rough, especially for an increasingly older bird like me.
Galassi: You’re eternally young in our eyes. And we’re eternally (im)patient. Work well!
“Extreme Solitude” in The New Yorker, June 7, 2010