THE NOVEL AS A MENTAL PICTURE OF ITS ERA
"What I do as a writer, I work with situations, characters, certain situations and characters that appeal to me. And then, I try to imagine them and write the story that seems to flow from them. At a certain point, I can realize the themes are merging from this. But I never start from a thematic point of view, that I'm going to write about reinvention of self, identity, or any of these things. Usually, after the book is finished and I start talking about it, that it becomes analytical in that way. And in some ways it's a distortion of what the process has been, writing the book."
Bram van Moorhem interviews Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
JE: Middlesex grew from my first idea, which was to write, basically, the fictional memoir of a hermaphrodite. And I thought the book would have been around 300 pages long. But, in contrast to the way hermaphrodites have appeared in literature -- miserable creatures like Tiresias for instance -- I wanted to write about a real person with a real condition. I did a lot of research on the details, but in terms of figuring out what hermaphrodites psychologically went through, I did that from my imagination. That's how I work, I try to identify my narrator and my characters as much as I can, instead of going out, observing other intersex people and focus on the details. Hopefully I make the right assumptions and choices about all these characters, so that someone is interested in intersex reads the book. Originally, I worked from the Memoirs of Herculine Barbin, published by Michel Foucault in the late seventies. The book is obviously interesting from a historical point of view. Foucault was interested in showing how doctors and medicine were brought to bare on the body and how they became the educators of someone. He is interested in power and the state and how these things marshal to oppress the human body. For him, it was a very important book. He shows her memoirs, writes an essay about it and then you have the report of the doctors and all those things. It's definitely completely interesting from that point of view. But as an expression of what it is like to be a hermaphrodite, from the inside, Herculine Barbin's memoir is quite disappointing. She just tends to go into this moaning, talking about how misfortunate she is and… it's sad. You can go and read it, but she didn't have enough self-awareness to be able to understand what was going on. In a way she was pre-psychological in her knowledge of her self. And when I read that book I didn't get any information about someone with such a condition.
The hermaphroditic condition I finally chose, the 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, is the result of a recessive mutation that happens in isolated communities, usually. At that point I saw the possibility of bringing my own personal history in the book. So, the fictional memoir of a hermaphrodite became a family story and a historical story with a hermaphrodite narrator.
3AM: Was there a specific point where you decided to insert the family saga into the novel, the result of a specific problem you encountered while writing?
JE: No, it was more of an opportunity to make a different kind of book. I wanted it to be about many things. In a way, some people say, the book is not about a hermaphrodite at all. And I understand that, it's about reinventing your identity on different levels, be that Greek to American, female to male -- and there's other instances of it in the book. So, making the book turn into a family saga was something that allowed me to talk about a range of things and a range of characters and a range of a historical period. I was eager to do that, as opposed to constructing the book as merely the story of a hermaphrodite. People have these simplistic ideas about what the book is about. I'm trying to get the message out to potential readers that it is not merely about a sex-change or something like that, but it really is a sort of family saga with this narrator.
3AM: Obviously, a narrator incorporating some symbolism.
JE: I use the hermaphrodite in this book not to solely talk about intersex conditions, but more. The hermaphrodite is a correlative to adolescence, to illustrate a period everyone goes through. Adolescence implies being confused about identity and being confused about sexuality to a certain extent. When people read it they find that they're sympathizing with Callie as she goes through the metamorphosis far more than they expect, because many of the things that take up the occupations and the anxieties are what one shares and one has. At the end of the novel, I put Callie in Berlin, a little bit because the book is so much about division, between Greeks and Turks, blacks and whites and, obviously, male and female. It made sense that Cal would be writing form a city that is divided and has been reunified.
3AM: How do your books grow? Do you start from a certain theme?
JE: No, I don't work with themes. What I do as a writer, I work with situations, characters, certain situations and characters that appeal to me. And then, I try to imagine them and write the story that seems to flow from them. At a certain point, I can realize the themes are merging from this. But I never start from a thematic point of view, that I'm going to write about reinvention of self, identity, or any of these things. Usually, after the book is finished and I start talking about it, that it becomes analytical in that way. And in some ways it's a distortion of what the process has been, writing the book.
3AM: So, you start with a specific character or situation and take it from there?
JE: It goes different ways in different books. This one, that said I had the idea of the hermaphrodite, but I didn't know how to write the book and I did a lot of research. I tried writing the book in many different ways. Then, at a certain point, I got the first page. And with my two published books so far, the beginnings of those books have served as blueprints for the rest of the novel. It's almost like a germ, a germ where the rest of the book will grow from. And when I know that I have this germ cell that contains all the elements I need -- plot, sense of character, sense of narrative voice and tone, I know I'll be able to write the book. Sometimes it's easier to get to that germ cell than other times. This one took a long time to get to the beginning.
3AM: The tone and voice of this book must have been quite a struggle.
JE: The voice was one of the big problems, because I wanted to tell his story in the first person -- I wanted this intimate portrait of an intersex person written from the inside. At the same time, I was writing a generational story and I needed to get access into the mind of grandparents and parents. So how do you have a first person voice that is also third person? I played around for a while, until I found a voice that contained the flexibility to do that. That was one problem. Another problem was the voice's gender. Should the voice sound like a woman writing or a man writing? Which then brought up the question what does a woman sound like writing? And, for that matter, what does a man sound like writing? Are there any differences in that? I finally decided that my narrator has XY chromosomes and normal testosterone levels of a male and a uterus also present. And if it's true that these things affect your brain chemistry, your brain structure, can that lead in its turn to any linguistic patterning? My narrator would write not so different form the way I write, with XY chromosomes and, hopefully, normal testosterone levels. After a while I stopped worrying about the voice from moment to moment, whether it sounded like a woman or a man, I just let the voice be either masculine or hermaphroditic, whatever it was. The only problem remaining was to make the teenage girls' experience credible to female readers. So, I had to go in to a girls mind, I didn't have to worry about the voice every single second.
3AM: You seem to be fond of impossible narrative voices. There's Callie in Middlesex, switching from first to third person, even talking before he/she was born. And The Virgin Suicides in its turn makes use of a beautiful, mysterious first person plural. What's the motivation behind these strange voices?
JE: I don't know why I seem to like impossible voices. I think it may come from religious literature, you get a voice that issues from a mysterious place and tells you things of the utmost importance. There's something I like about that, about not being able to know exactly where the voice is coming from. Certainly, that's the case in The Virgin Suicides where you don't know how many boys it is. Is it one, two or a hundred, you don't know. But the voice is compelling and holding your attention and it seems to me that only in novels and in literature can you come up with such voices. So I, at least in these two novels, tried to take advantage of the ability of novels to be told by voices that you don't encounter every day.
3AM: An echo of Classical influences perhaps? The boy's voice in The Virgin Suicides almost resembles a Greek chorus. In Middlesex too, there are a great deal of Classical themes and references -- like Tiresias, Callie's metamorphosis and so on: a modern interpretation of Classical themes?
JE: It's possible to view my work that way. For The Virgin Suicides I didn't think I was working with Classical motives and I think that if my name hadn't been Eugenides, people wouldn't have called the narrator a Greek chorus. The traditional Greek chorus stays apart from the action, but the boys in The Virgin Suicides meddle in the action quite a bit, so they really different from a traditional Greek chorus. This book, yes, obviously. Like a finite number of genes, you recombine Classical elements in different ways. There's no end to stories and no end to the elements, you can recombine them almost endlessly. Take this Greek-American theme of metamorphosis in this novel. It is overtly involved Classical ideas in a kind of mocking way.
3AM: Speaking of metamorphosis: were you inclined to use the American Dream as an ultimate incarnation of metamorphosis in contemporary literature: the reinvention of self?
JE: I don't think that Desdimona (a character in the novel -- ed.) is seeking the American Dream, she'd be much happier staying in Asia Minor and being a silk-farmer. Lefty though, is transfixed by all things American. But it really is the need to save themselves from death that makes them go to America, more than the pursuit of the American Dream. Perhaps Milton is the one who really personifies the idea of the American Dream and gets it to a certain extent. Reinvention of self is an enduring theme in American literature in general, not just contemporary, but it runs through much of American fiction. This, in a way, has obviously Classical antecedents that are ancient Greek and ancient Roman or Latin, and those are the things that inspired me: metamorphosis and changing, more than the idea of the immigrant experience.
3AM: Apart from that obvious Classical line of thought, Middlesex uses a larger -- some may even call it "European" -- canvas than The Virgin Suicides, which is unmistakably American in its setting, isn't it?
JE: At a certain point I discovered I was writing an epic novel, but I didn't think of it as either being American of European. I guess I've thought about it… Well, I come out of a European tradition of writing. Obviously, the great novels that I've grew up reading were always European. I don't actually make a big distinction about American literature or European literature. Americans are building on edifices that European novelists constructed. It is already there. And many of us have European heritage, so it's easy enough to blend European and American influences. The book only reflects my genetic make up, part Greek, part Irish: hybrid, like all Americans. All of those things go into what I am. The book reflects that.
3AM: In Middlesex there are subtle hints to the nature/nurture debate. You implicitly tend to favor free will by creating room for coincidence?
JE: I wasn't setting out to do this, but you can read Middlesex and decide it is advocating a curtailment of present genetic determinatives that seem wrapped up in -- especially popular views and popular culture, the idea that everything is determined by a gene. Evolutionary psychologists are coming up with reductive and simplistic explanations of human behavior, based on human behavior in prehistory. That said, in the seventies, the heyday of unisex, I remember when everyone thought it was just environment that made us what we are. Now everyone just thinks it's genes. I've talked to geneticists about this and they've said: "no more than 50 percent genetics and 50 percent environment". How these things are related is equally important, so my narrator is determined by her genes, she has this genetic mutation there's no escaping of. But the mutation does not make her who she is, does not determine everything about her life. There is still a great amount of free will and possibility in her life, and that's one of the things the book is strongly determined in.
3AM: But still, there's also a fair share of historical determination in the novel.
JE: You mean can a person be just as determined by historical events as by genetics? Yeah, that's true, but the book is not conceived as an historical novel. I always think a historical novel continuously remains in the past. This book tries to explain the past and comes up to the present day. There are several historical sections in it, and that is because I'm writing about generations. If you write about generations you have to consider the history generations are living through. So, in a way, that comes with the following of the gene through time.
3AM: Coming back to the heyday of unisex, the action in the book abruptly stops in the 70s.
JE: It's a story about metamorphosis and once the metamorphosis was complete, I figured the story was pretty much over. I do have the last chapters where Cal is writing as a male, and you get a certain amount of information of his life, you learn about his continuing romantic problems and his current love-affair. I thought that was sufficient enough for the reader to learn where Cal ended up.
3AM: Reading The Virgin Suicides, there's this particular image by William Eggleston that, in my opinion, captures the spirit of the book quite well: a car stops in a suburban area, rear lights flash and a mysterious girl steps out on the leafy pavement. If you would pick an image that reflects the spirit of Middlesex, what would it be?
JE: A single image? Well, the only pic or visual artifact that I had to the book was actually the interior of a Greek Orthodox Church. They are very gaudy in many respects, iconography on all of the walls. There's a lot of activity in the same way there's a lot of activity in Middlesex and in all of the characters. There are very bright spots and there's also many dark spots where you have the lamps swinging, smoking and a litany of pray… There usually is also a dome, and across the dome you'll find the Christ Pantocrator, who's transcendent, looking down on the partisans and on creation. In a way, I think my narrator as a Christ Pantocrator. So, the idea of something very colorful and swirling with light, with a dominant intelligence screening over, was the image that I had in my mind, if I did have a single image.
3AM: You're an avid reader of 19th Century Realistic fiction.
JE: It is true. Tolstoy's Anna Karenia is probably my favorite novel. I don't feel like Middlesex is much like a 19th Century book, but some day, I can imagine writing something along those lines. So far, I would say, it's not the 19th Century that has influenced my writing. I don't use film or music as an influence either, I write about life. Life is enough for literature (laughs). There's a fair amount of cinematic things in the book. Film going backwards, time elapse… Growing up in the film age is probably affecting that. Of greater importance to me, well at least in this novel, were Virgil, Ovid -- Illiad and Metamorphosis -- and maybe, in this book, the line from Tristram Shandy that runs through Kafka, Günter Grass and Rushdie. I usually say my biggest literary influences are the great Russians: Nabokov, Tolstoy and the great Jewish Americans: Bellow and Roth. And Classical literature, 'cause I had Latin as my major.
3AM: Is that why you tend to write more traditional, realistic novels, rather than experimental stuff?
JE: I've blended postmodern and traditional I think. My narrator in Middlesex is not entirely reliable; he's inventing the past as much as he is telling it. "You can't really know much about what you really know" is the bottom line, which is an old postmodern strategy. There's a lot of self conscious narration in the book, which is an issue in a lot of postmodern literature as well. Along with that, there are very old-fashioned narrative techniques in it, of telling about wars and the burning of Smyrna. But postmodernism is always recuperating old styles of narration. The one thing that I definitely believe is that strict postmodernists don't all believe that I believe in this power of story-telling. I think that people are still interested in this old-fashioned goals or traits of novels. Something that seizes you, that grabs your attention and gives you a ride through a book. So, I don't want to constantly frustrate the reader by taking him down on dead ends, at the dead end of literature or something -- that doesn't interest me. I want, in a way, a Classical shape to my books and a pleasing and elegant form to them, which is old-fashioned. But within that, I still have a lot of postmodern play without the continuing sense of relativism that… I got so tired of.
3AM: In addition to 19th Century Realism, emerging in an artistic era in which the social and aesthetic virtues of art were emphasized, do you think contemporary fiction became the expression of an individual?
JE: Certainly there's a period in American literature Mark Lewis refers to, this thing called the Higher Autobiography. Writers like Updike and Bellow are people that use their own persona again and again in an autobiographical way to transcend themselves. Bellows books, for instance, are from the point of a male viewing the world. My books don't have a central authority like that. Certainly in The Virgin Suicides, there's no central authority, there's just this group of boys. In Middlesex I go a lot in different people's heads and there's many different characters, so I don't think it corresponds to an idea of a higher autobiographical book, in that sense of a selfish… selfish may be a bad word, but a self-centered view. I know many writers who try to open up the canvas and try to see it from a different angle, as much as from one. Certainly, that is what I meant to do.
3AM: What about the social commitment of contemporary literature?
JE: Gabriel Garcia Marquez says "the only obligation the writer has, is to write well". And I think that's true. Obviously, the writers that I love, that made me feel more alive after I've read their books, that have made me, while I was reading them, a more intelligent person -- if only I could borrow their intelligence for the time I was writing, seems to me a very great gift. And the greatest writers can be a part of you, a great social and a great human gift. To make you feel more alive after you've read something, after you've noticed things more closely and you know more about the world, you just feel sharper and even happier. And those things, for me, constitute whatever obligation there is to fulfill for society.
3AM: What is, according to you, the relevance of literature in the 21st Century? Or, for that part, the purpose of literature?
JE: The main purpose of literature, as it always has been, is to map human consciousness at a certain time, remembering your thoughts. Even there's all this scientific investigation of consciousness and the brain world, the only thing that renders consciousness is actually the novel and art, not science at all. I think it's true, that is what novels are: a mental picture of a certain era. I think that's the main use of it. And then, of course, there's also the great pleasure of story-telling and making your chaotic existence coherent in a way. Getting order in the chaos, making a testament. These things are obviously what the novel is about.
3AM: Don De Lillo says "writing is a concentrated form of thinking". Would you agree?
JE: I would agree, but I would add "the concentrated form of thinking and feeling". I would put feeling up there with thinking. In a way feeling is what remains in our memory, more than thinking. You can go back to when you were ten and not remembering what you were thinking at a certain time, but you remember what you were feeling. I wouldn't want to make this feel like an exclusive intellectual thing.
3AM: I'm asking this because I wonder about the process of selecting raw material for a novel. I'm inclined to believe it isn't exactly a strict rational or emotional process. How do you make a selection?
JE: It's hard. I've only written two novels. It sores and treats me at the same time. You become more self-conscious, I think, when you go on. When your book becomes a commodity, then you start to see it from different angles you would've never suspected. You realize it can be summed up in a few sentences and on the basis of those sentences, people will decide whether they want to read it or not (laughs). So you do start to image what when you write your next book. How will they describe this book? I always think that no-one can describe this book adequately, I'm aware about my next book, how will it be described and what will it seem like. It's not going to change what I will write because I only be excited about certain ideas.
3AM: Those ideas have to be commercially successful, of course?
JE: Well, sometimes people write two books and then decide: "I'm going to have a real commercial idea". And then they come up with some commercial idea nobody likes. (laughs) Then they say: "I'm going to write whatever I like". Usually, those books somehow work -- very difficult to figure out how you translate it. (laughs)
3AM: Do you encounter "magical moments" while writing?
JE: Yeah. There are moments when things work out that way. With this book there were a few magical coincidences while I was writing it. Kind of amazing: five or six coincidences. What I was writing about actually did occur in the world. In this book, for instance, two couples almost got pregnant on one night. One reader said: "well, that's very implausible". One of the only things in the book that's true is actually my wife and I and her brother, we all got pregnant in the same house, under the same roof on one night. Both women got pregnant on the same night. Sometimes you can't use the truth, people won't believe it.
3AM: Truth is always stranger than fiction, isn't it?
JE: I guess you could say that, yeah. (laughs)
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Bram van Moorhem once pursued a career in philosophy at the university of Ghent and Helsinki. Bored with the implications, negations and proof theories of symbolic logic, the inertia of academics and long, ice cold winter nights, he co-founded Writemen Unlimited , a partnership focussing on speaking, writing and imaging. As a musician he tries to master the Bossa Nova, as a writer he drafts a volume of short stories. He resides in Antwerp, Belgium.