Monday, September 30, 2013

Fiction: Dinner with Eugenides

I had dinner with Jeffrey Eugenides.

This is not fiction.

I'm working toward my MFA in Creative Writing at Butler and this semester I enrolled in a fiction workshop.

I struggle to write fiction—it's hard to make stuff up.

I'd been in class less than a month when Pulitzer Prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides came to read.

At dinner I sat next to Jeffrey Eugenides and struggled to make small talk.

My balsamic chicken, roasted sweet potato and salad greens rested on the plate in front of me, but I was star-struck, unable to lift my fork. Had Jeffrey Eugenides been wearing cologne, I would have smelled it—he was that close. Classmates carried the conversation. Finally I spoke. “What do you think of the movie version of “Virgin Suicides”? and as the words left my mouth, a warmth bloomed across my cheeks.

Mr. Eugenides turned from the extroverts at our table and focused his gaze at me. “What did you think about it?” he asked.

I froze.

Was this a trick? I'd spent the earlier part of that day behind the closed blinds in my living room watching the movie. I loved it. But did Eugenides love it? Movie adaptations are famous for butchering novels. No doubt the author found many things wrong with the film adaptation of “The Virgin Suicides,” but I was probably too unstudied, too dense, to catch them. But he'd trapped me. It would have been impolite not to answer.

I took a breath. “I had the feeling that they tried to be as faithful as possible to your book. As I watched I couldn't help but picture the people making the movie taking your book in their hands and holding it lovingly.”

“What did you think?” I asked.

“I agree,” he said. I didn't know if he was being polite or truly agreeing with me. He said a few things about what it was like to have Hollywood turn your novel into a movie, but I was too preoccupied, thinking I'm having dinner with Jeffrey Eugenides to remember a single word.

I love his novels, but I was curious about his life.

I had read that the Pulitzer Prize winner was married and had a 15-year-old daughter, but something about the way he dressed—his attention to his appearance was obvious—gave me the impression he was available. My teenage daughters will attest to my fashion cluelessness, but I would have bet his loafers hailed from Italy. His not-quite-as-narrow-as-Russel-Brand's slacks seemed too stylish to have been pulled from a rack at Macy's. The author emanated lit-glam, something we don't see much of here in the Hoosier state. Google search “Jeffrey Eugenides” for images, (I did), and your screen will fill with professional portraits, his hair styled to look as if tousled by a gentle wind, his chin soul-patched. Dapper and fit, Eugenides looked like he'd made good use of his gym membership since his last publicity shots. (I later found out through the grapevine that he's going through a divorce.)

It wasn't until after he left town that I discovered evidence of this curious intersection of literary and style in “The Custom of the Country: Vogue Re-Creates Edith Wharton's Artistic Arcadia.” With text by Colm Toibin, and photography by Annie Leibovitz, this Vogue spread features Eugenides, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Hollywood notables. Check it out here and here. Intriguing still, his daughter, Georgia, appears in Teen Vogue, here.

Eugenides may have had lit-glam, but he was a good sport. Every time a camera was proffered by a fan, he posed. He obliged with an autograph every time.

At his reading Mr. Eugenides opened with a joke about his accommodations. Staying overnight in the guest quarters in Butler's Efroymson Center for Creative Writing house, he voiced concerns that the bed he was to sleep in had been occupied by other visiting writers. And then he joked that writers who followed him would probably worry about sleeping in a bed in which he had slept. Eugenides read a short story, one that has yet to be published, but lent itself to being read out loud.

After the reading, and at the next day's Q&A, he entertained questions about his three novels.

About “The Virgin Suicides”

The idea for the book came to him after he met a woman who had tried to commit suicide and all her sisters had, too. “'The Virgin Suicides' is driven by language, is all about mood. I wrote the book in one sitting over three years,” he joked. He spoke about that slippery concept of voice. “Once you get the voice of a book you can replay it, like music you can play each day.”

“Roth said that once he had to write 120 pages before coming up with a sentence that contained the DNA of the whole book.” The first and last lines of Eugenides' novels are famous for possessing just this quality. “When you find the voice of a novel it allows you to tell a story that's latent, one that's waiting to be created.”

About “Middlesex”

“'Middlesex' is a book driven by plot. With “Middlesex” I began with the idea of writing a short novel about an intersex person.” Here, the crowd laughed. “Middlesex” is one of my all-time favorite books, but at over 500 pages, it's a beast of a read. Eugenides had read “Herculine Barbin,” a book about a hermaphrodite by Foucault, but found it melodramatic and unsatisfying. Frustrated at not understanding such a person, Eugenides became interested in writing about an intersex character. “I didn't want my story centered around a mythical person. And I didn't want to write a fanciful story.” In order to figure out how to write a realistic story about an intersex character, Eugenides researched different conditions before deciding to write about a protagonist who had 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. “The gene that causes this condition is recessive, so I decided to write about three generations.”

Eugenides' hometown of Detroit figures in each of his novels, but is most prominent in “Middlesex.” The author said that although many tie Detroit's decline to the riots of '67, he sees those riots as the culmination of a downward spiral that began in the '30s and '40s when the car industry began to move out operations.

About Calliope Stefanides (Cal), the protagonist of “Middlesex,” Eugenides said, “I gave Cal the ability to go into the mind of other characters because I didn't want to splinter the emotional story between them. It's really Cal's story.”

He compared the raucous and winding plot of “Middlesex” to a Greek epic. “Desdemona and Lefty (Cal's grandparents) were the Greek Gods who ran over Cal's life. “Middlesex” is a mock epic. Being Greek is inherently funny. You begin with Greek gods and end with souvlaki.”

About “The Marriage Plot”

In his third novel, a story about a love triangle that takes place in the early '80s between Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard, Eugenides said he went deep into each of the three main characters' minds. “This novel,” Eugenides said, “is completely character-driven.” At first he thought he could create these characters solely out of his imagination, but they were far from his experience. “This didn't work very well,” he said, so he started, little by little, drawing from people he knows. “It's difficult to nail a person on paper. Creating a character is the hardest thing a novelist does.”

“The Marriage Plot” is set in the same year Jeffrey Eugenides arrived at college. Like the book's characters, Eugenides also studied literary theory. “'This book can be read as a deconstruction of the traditional marriage plot, or of love stories.” Eugenides shared that when he started college as an aspiring writer, Roland Barthes had just declared “the death of the author.” “At the start, I was writing into the stiff wind of literature.”

“A loss of selfishness and ego comes through writing fiction. It allows you to find a voice that can get you outside your own ego. It improves one's character, leads to a more intense examination of your life. Writing fiction makes me feel alert and alive.”

I'm not making this up: After the reading Eugenides went out for drinks with some of my writing buddies. They claim they would have called me, but that they didn't have my cellphone number. “I'll get over it,” I said. Now that was fiction.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A visit from Jennifer Egan

The petty, immature, myopic part of me flamed with jealousy when Jennifer Egan visited Butler last spring. Cheekbones like cliffs, delicate features, porcelain skin. Willowy figure. When I saw her I thought Cheryl Tiegs. But Egan has something Tiegs does not, that accessory that goes with everything, a PULITZER PRIZE. My god. Last year, Jhumpa Lahiri, another Pulitzer winner, spoke at Butler. But while Lahiri—an introvert—was private, some might say guarded, Ms. Egan, was breezy and casual. Jennifer Egan had about her an informality that caused my envy to instantly melt away.

After reading the first chapter of “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” Egan went on to share the genesis of that story. Years ago her wallet was stolen, and someone from the credit card company called to confirm the theft and verify her personal information. After Egan got off the phone, she realized she'd been had—the caller wasn't an employee of the credit card company, but the thief. Some time later Egan looked down at the floor of a public bathroom and spotted a purse and wallet. This sighting rekindled her curiosity about the person who stole her wallet, giving her the seed for a short story that became the first chapter of Goon Squad.

Egan said that this short story prompted ideas for more stories, and she began each new piece featuring one of the characters from the preceding story. And so the novel began, each chapter written in a different tone, employing different structures, techniques, and standing on its own. Egan said she didn't know what these stories would become or under what genre they might fall, but had an epiphany when she changed the headings in this collection of stories from Part One and Two to Part A and B. What she was writing was the literary equivalent of a concept album. Something about the collision of tones, styles and moods contributed to the story as a whole.

The day after her reading a handful of grad students, including moi, got to chat with Ms. Egan about all things literary over Bazbeaux pizza. Topics included her book club, her writing group, and her love of epic poetry. “Byron's 'Don Juan,'” she said, “is inspired and is the funniest adventure story you'll ever read.”

Egan participates in a writing group that began in '89. The members submitting work don't send it to the group to read ahead of time, but instead read their submissions aloud at the meeting. This, Egan said, has the added benefit of putting the critiquers on the spot—they can't fudge their responses. She said that if readers haven't examined a piece closely enough, they may concentrate on the less important parts of the text. (With this comment I remembered the many times I fell into that particular trap, giving my classmates' pieces short shrift, and I'm sure my face flashed bright pink.) Her group asks the question: Does the writing have a pulse? Egan admitted that it's a difficult process for her. Even though her animosity is short-lived, she hates it when people criticize her work. And even though it irks her when members of the group come up with solutions to problems in the text, it's useful because it makes her focus on those issues. “A good solution solves more than one problem,” she said. “And once in a while the solution is actually right.”

Egan genially answered questions about her writing process, and about writing in general.

How does she begin a story or novel? “With time and place,” she said. She starts with a “where,” an atmosphere, a sense of place to which she can attach a longing memory.

She writes her first drafts by hand without making any changes along the way. This keeps her in a “continuous present.” “Reading these first drafts is terrible,” she said, but she reads them to give herself a sense of what she has. Then she goes back and develops an extremely detailed outline of revisions. For her novel “The Keep,” her outline—single lined, 10-point font—was 80 pages long.

Egan spoke about voice, which she compared to the stock of a soup. When she wrote “The Keep,” she had been using the voice she used from her last book, which she finds is often the case. “That old voice scorned the new text,” she said. She kept writing, struggling to find “The Keep”'s true voice. Out of frustration she wrote in her notebook the phrase “I'm writing a book,” and it was when she reread this that she found the piece's voice and realized there was a first person narrator behind the third person narrator of the book.

Her writing advice? “Push everything to show as much as possible about the character. Every structural unit—every story, chapter, paragraph, even sentence—has to tell a story.”

Egan peppered our discussion with fun anecdotes. In a fascinating bit of literary trivia, she told us that the original manuscript of Proust's “In Search of Lost Time,” began not with the now iconic madeleine, but a “biscotte.” Who knew?

Butler's wide array of visiting writers is fabulous, and my goal is to learn everything I can from each and every one. The authors always bring their A-game, although when a Pulitzer Prize winner has a casual sensibility, the learning comes with a certain ease.

“I have to have fun when I'm writing,” said Egan. “It's critical to the reader. I really believe in fun.”

Monday, July 29, 2013

Chuck Klosterman, author of 'Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” riffs on villains, LSD and McNuggets

With shaggy auburn hair swirled around his bearded face, Klosterman looked a little like a grown-up Peter Brady. Despite his recent crossover to the bad side of forty, in his cable-knit sweater and jeans Klosterman could have passed as a young grad student. His footwear was, of course, black Converse and those shoes never stopped moving. In someone else that might have been a sign of nerves, but the author of “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” seemed at ease, if not brimming with energy. Klosterman gesticulated to add punch to his points, and moved around the podium as if in conversation with a few hundred of his closest friends.

Klosterman, author of five nonfiction books on popular culture, a few novels, and the “Ethicist” column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, said he never reads his work to audiences, but usually free-forms his talks, expounding on pop culture and answering questions without a script. The winter evening he spoke at Butler, he said, would be an exception. His book, “The Black Hat,” a collection of essays that explores villainhood, was hot off the press, and he would read us the two pieces that bookend that work. But first, Klosterman spoke off-the-cuff.

“It's impossible to out weird me,” he said of the unusual audiences he tends to draw. As an example, he was once asked if he would rather have fingernails in place of hair, or vice versa. “For some reason,” he said, “I seem to get a lot of LSD users.” Once, he said, a clutch of acid-droppers showed up early to one of his talks. “It was at a bookstore, a great place to kill time—like a library without homeless people,” he quipped. But instead of perusing the shelves, the fans chose to fill the extra time by taking LSD. He looked up at us, grinned, and added, “I’ll bet that doesn’t happen to Rushdie.”

The ease and speed with which Klosterman conveyed his novel analysis of pop culture, both in his off-the-cuff remarks and in the essays he read from “Black Hat,” was dazzling—ideas cascaded rapidly like a column of carefully-spaced dominoes. My first inclination was to describe his delivery as a manic stream of consciousness, but Klosterman's remarks were measured, analytical and thoughtful. And just plain smart. He wasn't manic at all. He simply had an intense interest in pop culture and had a lot to say about it.

At the Q&A with creative writing students the next day, Klosterman shared some thoughts about craft.

On writing essays: “I take two things that are fundamentally dissimilar but have a unifying characteristic.”

On the three things that make writing good: “One,” he said, “be interesting.” The point is to show readers how to look at the world in a different way. “Two,” he said, “be entertaining.” One way to achieve this would be to organize the material of the piece to mirror what you’re writing about. “Three,” he said, “be clear.” This where he spends most of his time, making his sentences clearer and clearer with each pass.

On trying to capture the truth in writing and the problem of cliché: “True things tend to be clichés, and clichés tend to be true.” Klosterman tries to arrive at the clichéd truth from a different place so the principle seems clear in a way it didn’t before.

On how he deals with writers' block: “I assume it's part of the writing process and just assume it's going to happen.”

On process: “Ideas and thoughts are like balls of yarn in your head. Writing untangles this.”

On revision: “Don't get hung up on the idea that there must be multiple drafts for a piece to be successful.” Klosterman said that in the old days, using typewriters, the idea of drafts was real, but now he simply revises as he writes.

On his “Ethicist” column: When first approached about taking this on he first had to distinguish between etiquette and ethics. Answers to etiquette questions are either yes or no. Answers to questions concerning ethics are more complicated, more gray area.

On interviewing: “I think it's best to interview people at the beginning of their careers or at the end—they don't know or they don't care.” Two of his favorite interview subjects were musicians: Jeff Tweedy from the rock band Wilco and Bono, the face of U2. One of his least favorites was Mike Stipe, lead vocalist for the rock band R.E.M., who Klosterman found arrogant. When commenting on his famous Esquire Magazine interview with Brittany Spears, he said society couldn't reach a point of clarity about the pop star, as she had no insight into her fame or her life. When asked who he would like to interview, he listed Axl Rose, David Letterman, and Prince.

On reviewing: “It's easy to write good bad reviews but harder to write good good reviews.”

Klosterman on about pop culture. “People use culture to explain their lives to themselves.” The conversation naturally veered to social media. Referring to the heated, venomous posts sometimes seen on Facebook, he said, “Social media gives people a haven to be insane as it removes the possibility of others becoming violent as a result of something they've said.”

In Klosterman's meta essay on pop culture in Esquire, he wrote about Morgan Spurlock's documentary “Super Size Me.” Spurlock's 100% McDonald's diet had him vomiting by the second day. As he continued, his weight ballooned and his cholesterol skyrocketed. Klosterman embarked on his own McDonald's diet, eating only Chicken McNuggets for seven days and visiting the doctor at the start and the end. Klosterman found not only that his cholesterol stayed the same, but he lost eleven pounds, and so suspected Spurlock had begun his project wanting to show a specific outcome and may have falsified the results. “I hate it when people begin a project with a pre-ordained idea of what they are trying to do,” said Klosterman. The New York Times knew what they were doing when he nabbed Klosterman for the “Ethicist.” His insistence on honesty was as strong as his fascination with dissecting pop culture.

“People care way too much about what I say,” said Klosterman. “No one cared what I said before 1999, before (his breakout book) “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.” He spent time pondering the concept of popularity and concluded that, “The main thing that makes you popular is being popular.”

As Klosterman spoke I could almost hear the whir of his brain, his intensely curious mind, its gear stuck in overdrive. Which may explain the answer he gave when someone asked him if he could be any villain, which would he would be. “The Riddler,” he said. “I like the question marks.”

Want more? Check out Chris Speckman's excellent interview with Klosterman in the June issue of Booth, Butler's literary magazine.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Visiting Writers: Eduardo Corral

It embarrasses me that there are huge swaths of literature I don't get. Is it an age thing? Maybe so. That's certainly the case with some experimental fiction and with stories that are sexually explicit. Then there's poetry. I've been known to say “I don't speak poetry,” although I don't think this has anything to do with the fact that AARP has started sending me applications. My cluelessness about poetry has less to do with age and everything to do with my lack of knowledge. That's why I try to hear as many visiting poets as I can.

Eduardo Corral, the author of “Slow Lightning,” came to Butler months ago. Unfortunately, shortly after his visit, family obligations pulled me away from the world of poetry. My notes laid fallow. What I remember about Corral's Q&A is that as he addressed us, his responses were exceptionally thoughtful and measured.

Corral came to poetry by accident. He thought he was signing up for a literature class, but it turned out to have a creative-writing component. The professor, taken with his work, encouraged him. Corral began reading current poets, and then telescoped backwards, learning the work of older poets. “I read, read and read,” he said. Once certain poets influenced Corral, he latched onto the work of those who influenced them, and eventually developed many poet obsessions.

“I move through the world by listening and seeing,” he said. As the eldest child of immigrant parents, he took on the role of translator for them. The experience of growing up as an outsider led to an increased sense of observing. Labels are lenses through which he sees the world. “We’re all outsiders, to a degree,” he said. “What other people see as marginalization, I take as a strength.”

In daily interactions, the only place his parents were acknowledged by non-immigrant members of society was the library. It was a profound experience that librarians, authority figures, acknowledged his marginalized parents. Corral loved the library. In the relative quiet he learned to pay attention to and love small sounds in the background, and began to jot them down, translating white noise—like the sound of doors closing, the A/C shutting off, etc.—into words. Corral encouraged us to think back to the first time we were enveloped in a nourishing silence.

In relation to his poetry, Corral first thought of silence as a hindrance. He felt pressure that his words had to balance the silence within and between lines, but other poets taught him that the well-crafted line can balance silence. The moment of silence between words and lines is like a moment of gratitude. “Now I realize that moments of beauty exist in a well-crafted line.”

I asked Corral about his use of Spanish in his poems. He said he never wrote in Spanish in graduate school. “I was writing to please teachers and gain acceptance from peers.” In the beginning Corral felt behind his classmates, and assumed that their acquired knowledge was simply a natural brilliance. He worked to catch up by imitating poems he loved. But as he found his voice, Spanish found its way into his work. “My Spanish is not academic Spanish, but that of the working poor. A certain marker,” he said. “By making the decision to write in Spanish, I refuse to privilege the way of seeing the world one way over another.”

In speaking about the specifics of his writing, Corral said he always has a notebook with him to capture anything—a texture, a person. “If I write about it in my notebook, I know I'll probably write about it eventually.” He describes himself as a slow, deliberate writer, throwing away poems that no longer surprise him. He cautioned us against sending our work to other readers. He used to do this, but would get as many opinions as readers. He encouraged us not to be passive readers. Develop a poetic instinct, and you can hold this against other readers’ opinions. Corral encouraged us to pull all influences into our work, and to not be afraid of pulling in weird obsessions, even if they’re not literary, even if they're not language. He left us with this: Read like a writer. Read good poems. Language can't approximate experience, but is elastic. Fragile.

I can't say that after the Q&A I understood poetry, but the word “clueless” no longer seemed to apply. I felt curious. I may be on the wrong side of fifty, but I left the talk invigorated.