Jeffrey Eugenides: I don't know why Jodi Picoult is belly-aching

The novelist tells Salon about Gordon Lish's "Virgin Suicides" edit and dives into debate over reviews and gender

Published September 26, 2012 8:48PM (EDT)

Jeffrey Eugenides     (AP/Mel Evans)
Jeffrey Eugenides (AP/Mel Evans)

Jeffrey Eugenides is not wearing a vest. He looks more professorial (albeit a professor with a porny mustache) than that cocksure author who spent parts of last fall on a Times Square billboard, clad in an almost jaunty vest. The billboard, promoting Eugenides' latest novel, "The Marriage Plot," spawned its own Twitter feed and lots of jealousy among other writers -- even a parody earlier this year by Jennifer Weiner.

Indeed, Eugenides -- like Jonathan Franzen -- is that rare writer so successful with both readers and critics that he tends to be at the center of debates that have nothing to do with his work. "The Marriage Plot" (just available in paperback) made plenty of top-10 lists but was shut out from the list of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists -- stoking arguments about whether those awards were out of touch with readers. (It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award; 2002's "Middlesex" won the Pulitzer.)

But while Franzen seems to agonize over perception, over Oprah, Eugenides radiates no such angst. In person, he locks right in, holding a handshake a beat longer than you'd expect, maintaining an eye contact that's both magnetic and searing. (And without a vest!)

We met last week in his publisher's office in New York's Flatiron building. When the book came out in hardcover, Eugenides answered enough questions about how he designed "Marriage Plot" to satisfy the pleasure centers tickled by the big 19th-century social novels, but also to be self-conscious enough about books and reading to amuse the postmodern crowd. So we asked Eugenides to reflect on the writing of all three of his novels, the four he abandoned -- and to weigh in on some of those controversies he's thus far avoided. He jumped right in.

I'd like to start by talking about your first sentences. There's an elegance and a completeness to them: When you look back at those three sentences, you can see how they reflect the entire book. When in the process do you lock in the first sentence?

You’re absolutely right that what I’m searching for with the first sentence is the entire book. They’ve come to me in different ways with the three books. And the process is not always the same, but finally there is a sentence that seems to suggest the entire narrative and the tone and the narrative strategy and everything all in one. That’s when I know essentially that I have a book that I can write.

This is how "Virgin Suicides" opens: "On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope." What's the story behind that sentence?

With "The Virgin Suicides," I guess luckily because it was my first book, the first sentence really was the first sentence that I wrote. I sat down and wrote the first paragraph, I think, but then didn’t know exactly how to proceed. So it sat around for a long time. And I hadn’t at that point completely committed myself to the first-person plural. I had in this story about these multiple suicides, this tender but darkly comic treatment of them, and I had a sense of place for the first time in my writing. It was going to be set in this suburb that was quite familiar to me, though unnamed. I had a story there -- but I wasn’t quite sure how to write it. Even though I had the beginning, it was a year and a half before I hit on the idea to really tell it in the first-person plural and then began writing the book. With "Middlesex," it took years of work.

"Middlesex" begins like this: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

That came after years of trying different voices in which to write the book. First-person voices, third person. And doing research into the material to understand finally that it was going to be based on a genetic condition. Whenever someone compliments me on the first page of "Middlesex," I say, “Thanks, it took me two years to write.” Because it was so many false steps before I got it.

But once I got to that sentence, and really the first page, I really knew what the book was doing. And both of those books in a way tell the reader what the story is going to be about and serve as blueprints for the narrative. That always helped me. I could always refer to them, to try to remember what I was setting out to do.

"The Marriage Plot" opens much more simply and directly: "To start with, look at all the books."

Yes, with "The Marriage Plot," it’s different. Because the first sentence of that book I arrived at in the same circuitous fashion as "Middlesex" -- but the first sentence of this book is really on Page 19.

This one: "Madeleine's love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love."

Yes, that’s really where the book began for me and I understood what it was about. The problem was because I was working on another book in which these characters appeared that I abandoned. Once I wrote that sentence, I realized the book that I truly wanted to write had three characters who were loose in the narrative, loose in the world -- and I had to go back and create the first 20 pages to get to that point. That was difficult. I had to rewrite the beginning a lot to make it come up to that moment. So the first sentence of this one came a little bit more in response to a need or a demand. It wasn’t the launching off point for the book and it didn’t entirely contain the book for me. I took a number of stabs about how I could begin it. And when I got onto the idea of all the books in the room, it seemed to set up the characters which I was trying to build a bridge to on Page 19.

The last words of these three books feel very considered as well: In chronological order: together, next and yes.

Obviously, when you’re ending a book you’re extremely conscious about the words you’re choosing. I’ve never thought of them forming a little trio that way, a rather optimistic trio as you repeat them to me.

There’s an interesting story about the ending of "The Virgin Suicides." After "The Virgin Suicides" came out, I received in the mail one day a package from Gordon Lish, which contained my book, edited by him. Not at my request, but in response to what he said was admiration.

I imagine it was much shorter.

Yes! It was like a Raymond Carver story. I was curious to see what edits he’d made, and they were very Lish-like. Usually they deleted words and made things sharper as well as darker. And the end of the book -- “They are alone, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together” -- he had changed to “alone, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death.” I was persuaded that that was better.

So I changed it for the paperback edition. I cut off that last little bit, “where we will never find the pieces to put them back together,” so there is existent somewhere in the world books that end “deeper in death.” And then the movie was being made, and I was discussing this with (director) Sofia Coppola, and she said, “You know, I kind of like the putting the pieces back together.” I started thinking about it too, because it brings back the narrator. “Deeper in death” ends with the girls, but the pieces we can’t put back together brings us back to the narrator. And the book is really about the narrator. It's still a sad ending -- but it’s not quite as black as deeper than death. So I restored it. And now it will remain in its original form. But I understand why Carver could submit to Lish, he’s a very persuasive, intelligent man.

"The Marriage Plot" also has such an elegantly constructed ending. And since it is out in paperback and people have had a year to read it, let's issue a quick spoiler alert and then talk about that. The problem with a love triangle like this is the book usually has to end with the woman choosing one of the two suitors. And you found a way beyond the two obvious possibilities and even brought it back around to themes of reading and love. It feels so true to the book. When did you hit on the ending?

Yes, I would say the ending is about reading and books -- but also love, in a way. Because you’re writing a book about a marriage plot. And the traditional marriage plot cannot be rendered anymore. So how are you going to end this one? I knew that it wasn’t going to have a happy ending; she wasn’t going to pick between these guys. Yet I didn’t want to make it so modern that it was without the kind of sentiment or romance or feeling of love that you would get in a traditional marriage plot novel.

The love here is a love that allows Mitchell to give Madeleine away, or to give her her freedom in a sense. So there’s a different kind of love and a different kind of self understanding is happening at the end, which in a way is not unlike the ending of a 19th-century novel but is in keeping with 1980 and our own time.

I didn’t know the end, though, until quite late. I had some sense that Madeleine wasn’t going to end up with either man, but it was extremely late in the writing that I opened up the back structure of the book. For a while, Madeleine and Leonard weren’t even getting married in my conception of the book and when I realized that he’s going to propose to her, I realized that in the midst of writing about his manic episode and what it would lead to, and why that would be a strategy for him to keep her. And the reason being his need and his poverty in comparison to her and all these other reasons. So suddenly, they’re married. And then, of course, that led to the idea of their annulment and the failure of this marriage and the idea of the second possibility of Mitchell coming in swooping in and marrying her, perhaps, too.

But all of that came very late. For my writing life, it was the most athletic sort of three-pointer at the buzzer feeling that I’ve ever had writing. Usually I proceed at my own pace and think about it. This time I had most of the book, and when I realized I was opening the back, lots of things were going to happen. I was aware that I wanted the pace of the novel to speed up at the end; the chapters are short. But the ending came right when I needed it. And once I’d found it, I knew it’s what I wanted. So I was content with it.

These characters, you mentioned, came out of a book you abandoned. And there are at least four books you've abandoned -- one more than you have published. How hard is it to walk away from a book?

You don’t know it right away, you resist it. And you try to fix it, because often when your book is feeling like it's bad, you can’t really discriminate illness from mortal illness. At a certain point you realize that it’s just not working. I had that bit about Madeleine and semiotics and the '80s, and it felt to me more energetic and fresher -- I enjoyed it more. So as my structure of the other book started to collapse, I had somewhere to jump. The only thing that saved me was the excitement of this new possibility.

For me, it’s not that hard to throw away a year’s worth of work. My problem is throwing away things that I actually might be able to save, or things that I haven’t figured out how to improve. Throwing out too much is probably more my problem than not throwing away enough. And I’m serious -- it really can be a kind of debilitating state. But with this one, I knew that something wasn’t working in that book. I’d spent enough time writing ("Virgin Suicides"). And talk about hermetic. That was horribly hermetic. I mean, that was happening in a house. It was like writing a play. And I didn’t have the freedom. Once I had this book, I knew I had India coming, I had traveling, I had this whole novelistic suite. So then I felt a great freedom and excitement. That’s what allowed me to do it and kept me from being too desperate.

"The Virgin Suicides" feels like an exercise in voice. "Middlesex" is about plot. And it's characters at the heart of "Marriage Plot." Is that focus something you decide before you begin writing, or does it happen as you settle into a narrative voice? 

It’s a conscious reaction to the book you’ve done before. I think writers have simple objects or simple desires when they write a book, “I want to write this kind of book.” And then they figure out how to do it. Richard Ford once told me that the whole Frank Bascombe trilogy started because he just wanted to write in the first person in the present tense, which made sense to me. He’d gotten sick of third person; he got sick of saying “was” one day, and he wanted to say “is.” I think you do respond in that way.

So for me I really did want to spend maximum time with a minimum small cast of characters with "The Marriage Plot" because it was something I hadn’t done before and felt I had the facility to try to do after writing the first two books. The next novel I will do will be in some ways a reaction against this. It will be a reaction against the hermeticness of "The Marriage Plot," which is just a short bit of time, and essentially a short or a limited age range of the characters. "Middlesex" has old people, has young people, and the next book will be populated by a larger cast of characters and more different kinds of people, and that will be a response to having spent a number of years as a 22- or 23-year-old. I enjoyed it, but it’s enough.

You mentioned the India passage -- Mitchell, after graduation, goes off on a quest to answer his own questions about spirituality. It echoes a similar trip you took after graduating from Brown. It stands out precisely because so few literary novels these days seem willing to engage questions of spirituality. It's not a fashionable topic.

I don’t think so. And with Hitchens and McEwan, it’s not going to be helped too much.

Why do you think writers shy away from that?

Well, they didn’t used to. They used to write about it all the time. And those things are amazing to read. To read Levin’s struggles in "Anna Karenina." Obviously Dostoevsky is completely about that, all the Russian writers. And I remember reading those as a young person and being very involved with that. It went out of fashion the way religion went out of fashion. It’s odd because people still constantly go through these searches of meaning and stages where people believe things for a while. Where they believe in something for a while. Even Ian McEwan, if you can believe Hitchens’ memoir, had a kind of new-age period for a while, and now he’s Richard Dawkins' best friend. You can go through these stages and still not be that person anymore. But that was a very important period, and it just seemed to me that few people were writing about the spiritual searches that especially young people go through and I wanted to try to do it. Especially since I had gone through something like that myself. At the time it was extremely, extremely powerful. And I think it’s still in my brain.

That entire college period is a time when we’re prone, and wonderfully vulnerable to, not only spirituality but the other big topic of "The Marriage Plot," literary theory. 

You are very open then, and it’s a wonderful time. And that’s why I enjoyed having characters at that stage. Everyone is going through some sort of big transformation. Even Claire, the feminist, she’s in that first stage of having read — she’s like Naomi Wolf before writing "Vagina."

What were the books that dazzled you at that age?

People asked me, “Did you have to do research for the books that they’re reading?” And I didn’t, because those were the books that got me. [Roland Barthes']) "A Lover’s Discourse" did get me. [William James'] "Varieties of Religious Experience" did get me. And they stay in my mind, clear as a bell, from that time. And so many other things have faded away. Can’t even remember many of the books that I was assigned in college. The ones that are still bright are the ones that I used. I had to look back at them sometimes, but I knew the ones I wanted.

"The Marriage Plot" became fodder for the debate about how the ways in which books by men and women about relationships and family are received and reviewed.

I heard about that.

Do you think books by men and women on similar topics are received differently?

Well, over there [Eugenides points to his publisher's book shelf] I see "NW" by Zadie Smith, and I think that Zadie Smith is treated exactly like one of the literary male authors that had been brought into this category. It seems to me that there’s a difference between the kinds of books that Jonathan Franzen writes and Jodi Picoult writes -- so it’s not surprising to me that they’re treated differently in terms of review coverage or literary coverage. I don’t think that’s based on gender.

I think right now probably the writer that every writer loves the most is Alice Munro. I teach with Joyce Carol Oates; I don’t think she suffers from this. To me, it’s a question of actual category writing. It was kind of a genre novel bumping up against a literary novel. I think those are actually different things. I don’t think it had to do with male or female.

Would "The Marriage Plot" have had a different cover if it was written by a woman? Something pink or frilly or less serious?

As a male you can never know and you’re not supposed to talk about it. But I have lots of female literary novelists who I don’t think would agree. I’m friendly with Meg Wolitzer and she was a big fan of "The Marriage Plot," and she wrote something about this, and especially about the treatments of the covers. I wondered about that, if that might be true, if women get treated differently in the way that their covers are marketed. You know, it’s possible.

To me, it was a little bit … I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention, in my mind -- so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching. There’s plenty of extremely worthy novelists who are getting very little attention. I think they have more right to complain. And it usually has nothing to do with their gender, but just the marketplace.

Best-selling writers want more acclaim. Acclaimed writers want more sales. We all want everything.

We’re all greedy. A lot of literary best-sellers would like to be on the best-sellers list.

What are you working on now?

I’m starting to write the screenplay on ("Marriage Plot"). And I’m working on a book of short stories. A number of them have been published in the New Yorker and I have a few more to complete the collection, which will be a very mixed bag of stories, quite different, not all arranged around a certain theme.

So the next novel: If the first three were voice, plot and character, what will the focus of the next one be?

It’s going to be all three, I hope. I have an idea; I don’t know if it’s going to work. But it’s going to be a larger canvas, many more characters than in this book. Again, I’m going to respond to a very small directive. It’s going to be written, well, I’m not going to say -- but I know how it’s going to be written and what the structure’s going to be, and it’s going to be quite different than "The Marriage Plot."

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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Author Interviews Books Jeffrey Eugenides Jodi Picoult Jonathan Franzen