Jeffrey Eugenides stopped by the FSG offices a couple weeks ago, in advance of his book tour for The Marriage Plot. We used the opportunity to let his Facebook fans ask a few questions, some of which are featured in the video below.
Q. In the introduction for My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead you speak of the concept of a “love story” and provide a selection of short stories in that vein. Which novels do you believe also fit the mold of a “love story,” and did they influence your writing of The Marriage Plot?
The novels that influenced The Marriage Plot were mainly the English novels that contained the marriage plot. I’m actually not an expert on Jane Austen at all—though Madeleine Hanna, the heroine of the book, is—but the books that I thought of, that I had most in mind were Anna Karenina and Portrait of a Lady. The latter book being very significant: it’s about a young woman meeting her destiny. She goes to Europe, she doesn’t have a lot of money but she has a lot of spirit. This rich guy gives her an inheritance that should allow her to have freedom but all it does is attract some unseemly suitors (and some decent suitors). The plot of the book is what’s going to happen to her? Who will she choose and what will be the repercussions of her choice?
That’s probably the main model for my book. But I have to stress from the outset it’s not trying to be a marriage plot or a 19th century novel, it’s trying to be a contemporary novel—in fact, it is a contemporary novel, dealing with some of those ideas.
Q. What do you recommend writers do when they’re not writing?
They should be eating, sleeping, or walking the dog. [Laughs] Nothing else, though. It’ll just mess them up.
Q: The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex were quite distant from each other in content and voice. Does The Marriage Plot further this distance?
I think that’s true. All of my books are very different. Usually I’m tired of working in one mode and I rebel from what I’ve done after a number of years working on a book. I have to, in a way, have to learn a bunch of new skills to write my next book, which is one of the reasons I’m not the fastest writer on the planet. With The Virgin Suicides I had the first-person plural voice and the novel kind of “rode” on that voice. And then when I went to Middlesex, I had to learn how to plot: Middlesex is a very densely plotted novel, whereas Virgin Suicides is not. In fact the first paragraph tells the reader pretty much what’s going to happen. With Middlesex, there are a lot of surprises, a lot of loop-de-looping storylines that come back and swerve away.
So I was learning how to plot and to write a large, comic epic with Middlesex. And then after having done that for many years, I rebelled against that and I gave myself one directive: write a book that was tightly dramatized. I wanted it to happen over a fairly short period of time, and I wanted to recede from the action and let the characters come to the fore. In my first two books, they are stylistically showy, in a certain way. You really notice the voice in The Virgin Suicides; there’s a lot of playful narration and narrative tricks in Middlesex. You’re very aware that the narrator is writing the book. But with The Marriage Plot it is, on the face of it, more traditional: it’s a third-person voice, and the language is really trying to show how the characters are thinking, to try and capture the interior music of the characters’ lives.
I had to learn lots of new things in order to write it. That means a lot of false starts and drafts that I had to throw away before I finally found the right tone and the right strategy for writing it.
Q: What do you read when you can pick up anything you want?
I just read two books, one was called The Wild Trees by Richard Preston. It’s about the people who climb the giant redwoods. This is something that hadn’t been done until the 1960s and 1970s. People couldn’t figure a way to explore the canopy of the trees, and they had to invent climbing methods to do so. Once you get up a redwood, there’s a whole ecosystem up there, a whole world of interlocking limbs where you can almost exist on a second Earth up there. They’ve found aquatic creatures living at the top of redwoods who’ve never been on the ground because of these pools of water. . . The found this kind of shrimplike animal, there are bushes with berries. . . And they speculate 50% of biodiversity might be up in the canopy of not only rainforests but temperate rainforest trees like redwoods. Richard Preston lives not far from me, in New Jersey, and he learned to do this climbing technique for the book. It’s a really interesting book about these slightly nutty people who devote their lives to finding the biggest redwoods and climbing them.
And I’m reading right now Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family, a book of short stories. He wrote The Master and Brooklyn, and this is his newest collection. They’re wonderful, wonderful stories. Speaking of love stories, there’s an amazing love story in there called “The Street” and it’s written from the point of view of a young Pakistani immigrant to Barcelona who’s living in a bedroom with about six other male Pakistani immigrants. He falls in love with one of the other men, and of course it’s forbidden, they can’t speak about it. In the way of my book The Marriage Plot it manages to write about love, a contemporary love story where there are social barriers, as they had in the 19th century. And his is more 19th century than mine is, in fact. It’s a great story, and there are many other great stories in that book.
I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. I think that would make it hard to concentrate. Saul Bellow used to listen to Mozart operas while he wrote; I can’t imagine it. I like silence, I wear earplugs. The only melodies I want to hear are in the prose. Yeah, total quiet.
There’s music in the new book. It’s the 1980s and they’re in college, so there’s Patti Smith and the Talking Heads. But… music doesn’t really influence my writing in any way that I’m aware of.
Q. How about films? Do they affect your work?
Maybe in some deep narrative way from growing up watching films and television. Writers now might have a more cinematic way of structuring narrative, but what I’m aware of is my books come from other books. I’m very aware of the writers that I admire and the things that I’ve learned from them.
For instance, something I always liked about Anna Karenina is the fact that the character of Karenin, you don’t get access to his consciousness until very deep in the book. You meet him as Anna’s unpleasant husband and you dislike him for most of the book. Then on page 400 or 500 Tolstoy goes into Karenin’s head and you see the world from his point of view and you begin to sympathize with him. And I found that so amazing and startling when I read it. I always wanted to do that, so I did something similar with The Marriage Plot where the character of Leonard, you don’t really find out his side of the story in the book. So I’m aware of books teaching me how to write my books.
Q. Did you revisit the deconstructionists for this book?
When I started writing the Madeleine section and put it in a Semiotics course, all of those memories came flooding back to me of what I read in college. How excited I was about French theory, and at the same time how slightly skeptical I was. It’s a love-hate relationship that’s continued through my life and I think has affected my work. Once I started working on it I was already pretty intellectually and even emotionally connected to that material. It hadn’t been written about very much—I hadn’t written about it, certainly. So it felt very fresh to me, I was excited to give it a try and investigate those times.
Q. Is it true that certain parts of The Marriage Plot came from discarded pieces of other novels?
I’m not sure. I’ve certainly been trying to write about India and my experience of working and volunteering for Mother Theresa—which is the part of the book that is supposedly “autobiographical.” For many years I’ve tried to write about that. Pretty much from the time directly after I experienced it in 1982. I’ve never been able to find a place for that material. One of the problems is I’m not innately an autobiographical writer. I find it difficult to write about myself, and when I do so the problem is I remember too much. I record everything that happened to me, every person I met, every actual event that happened to me. And the stories become inevitably kind of artless and shapeless because of that. Maybe because they’re more like life. But I cannot find the dramatic structure in my own life.
In The Marriage Plot, that chapter where Mitchell goes and volunteers for Mother Theresa’s maybe forty pages long but that took me longer than any of the rest of the book to write. I had countless drafts, and at one point it was about a hundred pages. And now it’s forty. I had to cut out a lot of my life, my recollections to find the actual spine of Mitchell’s story. The story that of course relates to my life but is not my life, and is the one that fits with the other storylines in the novel.
So that’s the part of The Marriage Plot that might’ve existed in other forms because I’ve tried to write it many, many times. The rest of it was new material.
Q. The characters in the book all read voraciously and use books as a moral compass to some degree. How did that come about?
I began this book already feeling a little sorry for myself as a contemporary writer, because it seemed to me the great subject of the novel was marriage and had been marriage from Jane Austen through Tolstoy and all the great 19th century writers like Henry James. And we’re not able to utilize the marriage plot anymore. Some people get to do it: Vikram Seth gets to do it because he’ll write about a traditional family in India and he’ll write A Suitable Boy. So I was feeling sorry for myself that I couldn’t do that, but I began playing around with the idea, and I realized I was right. It’s impossible for a contemporary writer to write a marriage plot now. It just doesn’t exist. Women are freer now, you can get divorced easily, you can get a prenup. If Isabel Archer could’ve gotten a prenup, she wouldn’t have had any problems with Gilbert Osmond.
What I realized in terms of my characters caring about books is the marriage plot plays out in our own heads. We’ve internalized a lot of these romantic ideals, through 19th century books but also through movies. We have expectations about finding the one person and it affects our behavior a lot. The Marriage Plot is a book to a large extent about how books influence our behavior even after a time when some of the social conditions have changed. That’s why one of the epigraphs from the book is by La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.”
That’s the inspiration for the whole book. How does reading about love affect the way we fall in love today?
Q. Any early reactions from your students?
I’ve read from The Marriage Plot at a few colleges. People say, well, there’s no cell phones, there’s no internet, it seems like it’s some long-ago decade. . . But then they all say, “Oh, that’s just like my boyfriend” or “It’s just like my girlfriend.” These things are kind of eternal, I think.
Q. What is the most important quality a writer should have besides creativity?
Perseverance is the one that I think is the most important. With any art form there’s a lot of people who are talented, and I’ve known them. The ones that ended up writing books and being successful are the ones that just didn’t quit, almost universally. That’s the most important thing. Not only writing, but with just about anything you’re trying to do.
“All Things Considered,” NPR, Oct. 5th, 2011
Jeffrey Eugenides and Colm Toibin in Conversation, The New York Times, Oct. 1st, 2011