A gang of brash young writers rattled the fiction world in the 1990s. Among them were David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, whose 1993 debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, would later be made into a critically acclaimed movie by director Sofia Coppola. Eugenides followed up with the Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex in 2002 and his most recent novel, 2011’s The Marriage Plot. Contributing Editor James Franco talks with Eugenides about the dangerous science of turning real life into art.
EUGENIDES: It became time to leave California. I had a bad breakup with a girl I’d met in Providence years before, and in a way that soured me on the whole town. I just wanted to get out of there so I wouldn’t have to run into her. The only other place for me to go was New York. Most of my friends from Brown were living in the city, so I had a lot of connections there. I had kind of always wanted to live in New York, but I guess I was just too scared to do it. Finally, I did, at the age of 28. Once I got there, everything worked out for me.
FRANCO: Your first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is about five star-crossed sisters who commit suicide. It’s told by a collective narrator made up of a group of young boys who obsess over the sisters. How did that style come about?
EUGENIDES: I just sort of started writing it that way. I wanted to write the book from the point of view of the entire town. As I started to write, I had this “we” voice, and it encompassed everybody—old people, young people. But as I continued to write, I realized that the best parts were from the point of view of the adolescent boys, the men who remembered their times. It was as though more heat was being generated by that part of the narration. I narrowed the focus of the “we” to just that, to just a male narrator—a many-headed male narrator. I didn’t know where it came from.
FRANCO: To me, one of the most solid things to come out of it is all the details of time and place, specifically the portrait of Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
EUGENIDES: If you think about childhood and adolescence, your ego is not that well formed and you’re kind of amorphous. You bleed into your friends, and you move in a pack. But your sensations are extremely vivid. In a way, the external world is really vivid and you are not that vivid. That’s what those boys are like.
FRANCO: As a writer you’re probably asked how much of what you write is based on real life. People don’t seem to understand that, when something is put into a creative work, it’s completely changed. The significance has changed. The context is different.
EUGENIDES: Those questions are annoying because either they want to get gossip out of you or, worse, they want to simplify it. Like, if they find the true part, that means it isn’t artistic. But that’s not how it is at all. Exactly as you describe, if you take these things from your life, once you put them into a story or a novel, because of the way you’ve used them—and you probably put them in a different form and a different sequence—they are completely transformed. It’s almost as if your experience is paint and you’re taking little bags of all these different experiences and putting them on a canvas to create a completely different picture, but you have to have the paint or nothing will show up.
FRANCO: One thing I’ve found is if I use material that’s based on experience, I can limit myself. I can’t get away from what actually happened. What you seem to do is add a strong foreign element that acts as a lens to take your own real experience and put it in a completely different view. The most obvious is the character in Middlesex.
EUGENIDES: Right. I take a lot of the facts from my life, but then in Middlesex I make them apply to a man whose life is completely different from mine, who has a genetic condition I don’t have. At that point, if people still think it’s autobiographical, it almost makes me laugh. [laughs] It’s so different. I always compare it a little to Method acting—or what I know about Method acting—in that you have to use your own sense memory and your own body and voice to play a role, even though the person you’re playing is fundamentally very different from you. You can’t pretend you don’t exist in order to do that.
FRANCO: Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize. How did that affect you when you started to write The Marriage Plot?
EUGENIDES: I work in stealth for many years. I don’t show anything to anybody. I just heard that Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, at the end of every day, come home and read what they’ve written that day to each other. That’s the method that works for them, but I would never be that way, even if I were married to another novelist. It’s very secret, and I don’t want anyone to know. I’m embarrassed by and ashamed of it, and I’m also secretly excited by it—or something. Whatever it is, I don’t want anyone to see it. [laughs] What about you?