Field Work: Jeffrey Eugenides on Writing Novels and Reliving Adolescence

Source: The Guardian online

Source: The Guardian online

On October 28, novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, a Pulitzer-Prize winner for his book Middlesex, delivered the William Gifford lecture at Vassar College. The author of The Virgin Suicides, which was later adapted into a film directed by Sofia Coppola, introduced his lecture by talking about the sights of the scenic Hudson and regional elements as he neared campus. He was acutely aware of the decaying houses in the outskirts of the city – a response he attributes to his origins in Detroit. He brought up the way in which society presently deals with space, how “we like to move away and watch things fall apart.”

Eugenides mentioned the growing prospect of finally demystifying the mythological “Vassar girl,” whom he asserted much has been written about, mainly concerned with the stereotypical female dressed in black from head to toe, cigarette in hand; wry, sarcastic, wonderful– “either wildly sexual or slightly suicidal…or both.”

Talking about writing, he believes what’s needed is honesty of vision–for which self-knowledge is fundamental. He followed this by reading an excerpt from The Marriage Plot, his most recent novel which concerns three college graduates with intersected lives and much figuring out to do. He brought new material, warning us that it probably needed more working out, and then proceeded to read a story about pastel salt water taffy and characters in manic states.

Given that The Marriage Plot is Eugenides’s third novel, one audience member was compelled to ask the writer if there is a reason why he has a tendency to write longer works. Though he is in fact working on a collection of short stories, Eugenides admitted that he is “inclined to write novels” because he feels that the length of novels provides him with more space and opportunity to fully develop his ideas. The short story form, by contrast, is “essentially the hardest form” according to Eugenides, which is why many teachers and professors choose to teach this form first.

Another audience member pointed out that all of Eugenides’s novels focus on adolescent characters and asked if there was a specific reason for this choice. “[I] keep wanting to write a grown-up and adult book,” Eugenides said with a bit of a chuckle. “I’ve tried to get out of the confines of adolescence but it is charged for me.” The writer expressed how the sensations and images of childhood are powerful for him in his writing process, and when he engages in these memories “something goes off in [his] imagination.”

“I don’t like being the adolescent old guy,” Eugenides said, though he admitted that when he writes, he is not only writing a book for himself, but for multiple audiences. While The Virgin Suicides, for example, is often thought of as a story told by a group of teenaged boys, “really it’s a group of middle-aged men who haven’t grown up,” Eugenides revealed. In this way, not only can adolescent readers enjoy reading the novel and putting themselves in the narrators’ shoes, but older audiences can also “be nostalgic and read it.”

In spite of his tremendous and enduring success in writing, Eugenides is still a writer who encounters the same difficulties and challenges as every other aspiring writer and artist. “Doubt about my own work is my worst form of distraction,” he said. Eugenides often spends much of his “vast amount of time […] daydreaming” rather than “writing profitably.” He also spoke about “writing block” and how it can lead to “producing things that don’t lead anywhere.” Oftentimes ending a novel can present an even bigger challenge than starting one, as Eugenides described not merely the surprise, but the “despair and bafflement” experienced in reaction to the endings of his works. “It always ends with a three-pointer at the buzzer,” said Eugenides.

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