Appearing at the Appel salon in the Toronto Reference Library tonight, to a sold-out crowd, he spoke about his new novel, The Marriage Plot, his earlier works, and the writing life. (Spoiler-free, of course.)
The Marriage Plot grew out of his own experiences at Brown in the 1980s (Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are students there then too.)
He was an English major and, at the time, there was considerable conflict in the faculty, between those who wanted to continue teaching English as they always had and those who were being increasingly influenced by semiotics (i.e. the semioticians).
He felt like the child of divorce, caught in conflict, with an allegiance to each of his divorced parents.
He had known since he was 15 or 16 that he wanted to be a writer and he started by writing poetry, but ultimately he switched to fiction at Brown, because the hook of narrative was too great to resist.
He didn’t get this from the same books that Madeleine does though; he is not a true Austen-ite, and he traces his love of narrative to Tolstoy rather than to Victorian literature, which is most important to her.
(If he was to choose a favourite novel in which the “marriage plot” is a solid device, he would choose Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. If he was to choose a favourite line in The Marriage Plot, it would be the John Barth quote which serves as its epigraph.)
He sees Madeleine, too, as being caught in a conflict, between her head and her heart.
When asked how he got into a woman’s perspective so believably, he stated that many of her thoughts were thoughts that he had himself (for example, the belief that simply entering a room and confronting a lover, out of sincerity not strategy would be enough to jump a difficult hurdle in a relationship).
But he also said that he had heard many stories from women who had had relationships with men like Leonard, and understood how intense those relationships had been for those women, and he had been around a bit himself. He had, for instance, had to go out in the middle of the night to buy cranberry juice (playing on the fact that Madeleine inwardly debates the risk of a urinary tract infection during one of her sessions with Leonard).
These characters had a particular pull and make great characters because they are essentially acting like adults but at this time in their life, in their college years, they are making some very sudden — and some very dramatic — decisions, without a lot of life experience.
This fits with how he remembers his own college years, as an extremely bookish time. People were constantly talking about books, and trying on philosophies; a good idea might work for you for a week.
When asked how much he has drawn directly from real life, particularly in regards to comments being made about Leonard’s character being based on David Foster Wallace, he clearly states that Leonard is not, that he is based on someone he has never met, something of a composite character.
He has, however, bestowed upon Leonard one DFW-like quality, which is Leonard’s habit of keeping his chewing tobacco in his boot. What many have suggested, about the bandanna Leonard wears being inspired by DFW, Eugenides adopted from Axel Rose’s wearing of a bandanna. Lots of people were wearing them in the 80s, he said.
Where memory did compete with the demands of fiction, however, was in the character of Mitchell, whose search for spiritual meaning is something that the author experienced in similar ways, as he also travelled to Calcutta to determine whether he could devote his life to altruism in the way that Mother Teresa did.
That was a life-changing experience for him, just as it was for the character of Mitchell, but that phrase is usually used to mean a good thing and his life-changing experience was not entirely a good one.
When asked whether he revisits his earlier work, he responds that he views a chasm between the writer that he was when he wrote The Virgin Suicides and the writer who has written The Marriage Plot.
He had a 13-year-old daughter now and would not be able to write The Virgin Suicides; he is no longer a young man who can be so cavalier about such things, and has not allowed his daughter to read that novel (and she’s not interested in his others yet, though he expects she will read them).
When asked about the process of writing Middlesex, which felt as though he was building a house and constantly finding something to add (e.g. a garage, a gazebo) just when he thought he might be finished, he said that he feels this is a more tightly dramatized work but that there is still room to live in The Marriage Plot.
It took 5 or 6 years to write The Marriage Plot and he was concurrently working on short stories, several of which have been published in “The New Yorker”. When he finished another story or two, that collection will be ready for publication (definitely on the market within two years time, he assures an eager audience).
When asked how he feels about e-books, he mentions that he has heard that his book was, at one point, outselling in e-book to print by 2:1, but that stands in contrast to the tour he is on, in which, of course, everybody is purchasing actual books in order to have them signed.
He is, like everyone else, “disturbed and compliant” about it. What gives him the greatest concern is his awareness that, while standing in an independent bookseller’s shop, he knows those e-sales will result in indie staff-members being laid off, in margins growing tighter, possibly in the disappearance of that kind of browsing and book-buying experience.
In all, he was a remarkably responsive reader; he spoke directly to questioners and gave off an air of authenticity, even though he has undoubtedly answered many of these questions hundreds of times. (And a chunk of that credit goes, too, to Tina Srebotnjak, who always interviews as though she has read every book of the author’s twice: I love that!)
If you have the opportunity to hear Jeffrey Eugenides read/speak, snap up a ticket. It’s worth it!