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.