Jeffrey Eugenides by Jonathan Safran Foer

BOMB 81 Fall 2002
BOMB 081

This interview is featured, along with 34 others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.

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Jeffrey Eugenides. Photo by Karen Yamauchi.

I’ve known Jeffrey Eugenides for several years and in several contexts—first as one of his readers, then as a student of his at Princeton, and now as a friend. From the beginning of his novel The Virgin Suicides to the end of his most recent email, I’ve always been enamored of how vivid Jeff’s mind is and how clearly he seems to know what it is he wants to say. All of which made me excited not only to have an early look at his forthcoming novel Middlesex but to hear some of his ideas in this more formal context about writing and life.

Whatever you might be expecting, Middlesex will surprise you. Whereas The Virgin Suicidesis a localized story (suburban Detroit) addressing one incident (the suicides of the Lisbon girls) and told with a kind of darkly humorous melancholy, Middlesex is a roiling epic that careens from Greece to America, misadventure to misadventure, magical to social realism. The story—though there’s no one, definitive story being told—is narrated by Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite living in Berlin at the beginning of the 21st century. Cal traces his heredity back several generations, through different geographic and political landscapes and several literary styles. Even though the book has enough technical twists to please any postmodern reader, it is, at its core, a good old-fashioned story—the kind of book that urges to be read in one day, then reread.

Jonathan Safran Foer It’s been an awfully long time since we last spoke. Four years? And it’s been a long time since the reading world last got new material from you. About seven years? What’s been going on?

Jeffrey Eugenides I’ve been writing a book.

JSF Have you been happy?

JE I’ve been absorbed.

JSF One of my biggest problems as a writer is that I get tired of what I’m working on. Or rather, I feel that a project can’t keep up with how I think about writing and how I think about the world. How were you able to commit yourself to one story for such a long period? And how did the passage of time influence what you were writing?

JE Well, one of the hardest things about writing Middlesex was trying to stay true to the original impulse. I felt young when I began the book but something more like middle-aged by the time I finished it. All sorts of life-altering things happened to me while I was writing it, too. My father died in a plane crash. I became a father myself. William H. Gass says it’s difficult writing a long book because as you go along, you get better, and then you have to go back and try to bring the rest of the book up to the same level. I did a lot of that. I obsessively went back and reworked the early parts of the book. Even so, I made sure the later chapters had the same voice and spirit as the early chapters.

JSF And what about fatigue when writing? How’d you deal with that?

JE My fatigue was alleviated by the structure. Nearly every chapter of Middlesex takes on new historical or emotional terrain. Once I was finished dealing with the Greco-Turkish War, I had to summon up Detroit during Prohibition, and then later I launched into genetic and sexological concerns. Middlesex has lots of different storylines in it, so when I had done all I could with one I could refresh myself with another. The book allowed me to grow along with it. But there was pain, sure. There was lots of pain.

There must have been some kind of perverse comfort, too. I had this torture waiting for me every day, but at least it was my torture. The book was my jailer and we became friendly. I was like Patty Hearst with her Stockholm Syndrome. Little by little the book expanded to fill every inch of my consciousness. It lasted as long as the Trojan War. But I didn’t want to be Harold Brodkey. I knew before things got really ridiculous I had to set sail for home.

JSF Along these lines, Middlesex strikes me as a book that begins as a fairy tale (albeit a violent, racy, political fairy tale) and develops into a coming-of-age story. You have a daughter. Do you think the development of the style was influenced by her development?

JE My daughter was born midway through the composition of Middlesex. Her influence shows up in the plot, not the style. There’s a preoccupation with birth and fetal development in the book. There’s a lot about what women go through during pregnancy, and how beside the point men feel in the process. I see my daughter’s fingerprints in those details, but the book took shape long before she arrived on the scene.

Nabokov said all great novels are fairy tales. The first two parts of Middlesex were conceived in the spirit of epic literature, which isn’t so far from fairy tale. I wanted the book to exist on different levels. On one, it’s an immigrant or family saga. On another, the book mirrors the progression of Western literature, something in the way the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Ulysses does. I’ve always loved that part of Ulysses, the way it begins with old English and goes on to Middle English, mimicking the styles of succeeding epochs and generations and even particular writers. I didn’t do anything nearly as comprehensive, nor would I have wanted to, even if I could have pulled it off. But I did see the book as beginning with heroic epic narration and then, as it went along, becoming more realistic, more deeply psychological. The book, like its hermaphroditic narrator, was meant to be a hybrid. Part third-person epic, part first-person coming-of-age tale.

Since I was writing about a genetic condition, it also seemed incumbent on me to pass on classical literary forms to what is, after all, a 21st-century book. “Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny.” The traits of the ancestors show up in us today. I wanted Middlesex to be like that, a kind of novelistic genome. But I wanted to do all this without disrupting the story I was telling, without being too modernist or postmodernist. I didn’t want these kinds of academic concerns to be the story; I only wanted them to support the story.

JSF It’s a very fine line, isn’t it? But do you consider yourself a postmodern writer? In the New Republic, Dale Peck recently said you were upholding the high literary postmodern tradition, a tradition Peck claimed was bankrupt.

JE On the issue of postmodernism, Dale Peck and I would agree more than he thinks. I don’t see myself as a high postmodernist. I always say it like this: my generation of writers grew up backwards. We were weaned on modernism and only later read the great 19th-century masters of realism. When we began writing in high school and college, it was experimental fiction. I think now that a certain kind of academic experimental fiction has reached a dead end. Middlesex is a postmodern book in many ways, but it is also very old-fashioned. Reusing classical motifs is a fundamental of postmodern practice, of course, but telling a story isn’t always. I like narrative. I read for it and write for it.

Recently I was reading an old panel discussion from 1975 called “The Symposium on the Future of Contemporary Fiction.” Almost 30 years ago now, but they were basically debating the same thing. How do you make something new in literature? How do you move it forward? This discussion took place among Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass, and Walker Percy. Barthelme and Gass, at the apex of their careers back then, kept going on about creating new voices by means of theoretical exertion. But it was Grace Paley who turned out to be right. It didn’t appear that she was right, but now we can see she was. She said that new language rises again and again from human voices, not just new theories. If you look back now, you see that postmodernism hit a dead end, and what took over were the kinds of books—call them multicultural or whatever you want—that Paley was prophesying.

If there’s anything new in Middlesex, it’s not a matter of formal or theoretical development but closer to the new human experience Paley was talking about. The content in the book is new. The narrator, Cal Stephanides, is a real living hermaphrodite, not a mythical creature like Tiresias or a fanciful one like Orlando.

JSF As long as we’re talking about contemporary writing … Who’s your favorite contemporary writer?

JE Right now my favorite writer is A. A. Milne. Let me give you a sample of why:

Rabbit leant over further than ever, looking for his [stick], and Roo wriggled up and down, calling out, “Come on, stick! Stick, stick stick!” and Piglet got very excited because his was the only one which had been seen, and that meant that he was winning.

“It’s coming!” said Pooh.

“Are you sure it’s mine?” squeaked Piglet excitedly.

“Yes, because it’s grey. A big grey one. Here it comes! A very … big … grey … Oh, no, it isn’t. It’s Eeyore.”

And out Eeyore floated.

“Eeyore!” cried everybody.

Looking very calm, very dignified, with his legs in the air, came Eeyore from beneath the bridge.

“It’s Eeyore!” cried Roo, terribly excited.

“Is that so?” said Eeyore, getting caught up by a little eddy, and turning slowly round three times. “I wondered.”

JSF That brings me back to your daughter. Is it important to you to write something that your wife and daughter like? Would you be disappointed if they didn’t like it? And if so, whom would you be disappointed in, them or you?

JE As far as my daughter goes, I hoped Middlesex would appeal to all sorts of readers, but three-year-olds weren’t on the list. I tend to be obsessively secretive about my work. A few of the early chapters of Middlesex appeared in magazines, but for the last four years or so no one saw it. If I can still make the book better on my own, I’m not eager to show it to anyone.

I don’t think about my family while I’m writing. Or, I think about them constantly, but not as potential readers. I keep filial respect out of my mind until I’m done. And then compunction rushes in. During the editing of Middlesex, I took a few things out that might have stung my relatives. There may still be things in there that will sting. But to me, now, it’s all made up. I blend fact and fiction until everything seems completely true and yet also impersonal.

JSF Speaking of family, have you ever been ashamed of your writing? If yes, when and why?

JE You mean ashamed as in embarrassed? Well, as you might expect, that was one of the hardest things about writing my hermaphrodite’s tale. I have something of my mother’s prudishness in me. It was hard for me to plunge straight into the anatomical features of my hero. It was hard for me to write about a life experience so different from my own. That’s why it’s a family novel, too. I couldn’t inhabit Cal’s consciousness without knowing his entire clan, without putting him into perspective as a child like any other, with parents and grandparents. There is full disclosure, eventually, but it’s handled, as my mother would like, tactfully.

JSF It surprised me, actually, how little of the book is “about” Cal. That is, while she/he narrates the novel, there’s very little characterization, or plot involvement, until about three-quarters of the way in. I would never describe Middlesex as being about a hermaphrodite. I would describe it as a family epic, with a very unusual narrator.

JE I suppose you could describe it that way, though Cal (as Calliope) is there from the beginning. She gets born in the first chapter. There are of course short sections throughout the novel concerning Cal’s life as an adult in Berlin. Calliope’s life story properly begins around page 250, exactly halfway through the book. It’s a long book and her part on center stage takes up almost 250 pages itself, which is as long as many novels. And, as you say, Cal is telling the entire story, so he’s there in every sentence.

JSF What wouldn’t you sacrifice for your writing?

JE I used to be scared of that line from Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” I thought I’d never be able to make that choice, that I wasn’t disciplined enough, or committed enough. It sounded so painfully ascetic. But now I find that my work pretty much is my life. I don’t think I could operate without it. The lucky thing is that writing has only made me sacrifice things I can get along without: a frisky social life, a manly feeling of being “out in the world,” office gossip, teammates. You can be married and write. You can have a family and write. So you do have a life, after all. It’s waiting for you just outside your studio.

JSF I’m sorry, frisky social life?

JE Like the one you’re leading now, young man.

JSF Ahem. You allude, many times in Middlesex, to national epics, particularly Greek ones, of course. It seems to me that our modern epics—UlyssesOne Hundred Years of SolitudeMidnight’s Children—have had their greatest influence outside the countries of their origin. Am I wrong in sensing some ambition on your part to write a Greek epic for an American audience?

JE I’ve always wanted to write a big comic epic. The books you mention are books I loved in my late teens and early twenties, and back in those days I dreamed of trying my hand at the same thing. I thought I’d better give it a go before I got too old, because I knew it would be physically and intellectually draining. And because the comic spirit might dissipate with age. I never set out to write a “Greek-American” epic. At first I just wanted to write a fictional memoir of a hermaphrodite. This summoned other literary hermaphrodites, like Tiresias. Hermaphroditism led to classicism. Classicism led to Hellenism. And Hellenism led to my family. I used my Greek ancestry because it worked in the story I wanted to tell, not the other way around. But with a name like Eugenides, what do you expect?

JSF Baklava?

JE I had that coming.

JSF Roth and Rushdie seem to be the two poles of your influence. Do you feel that way?

JE One review of Middlesex compared it to the early novels of Saul Bellow. Which was fine by me. (But can you imagine Saul Bellow writing about a hermaphrodite?) I bring this up because my supposed influences are always changing. When The Virgin Suicides came out, I was accused, in England, of being too influenced by Salinger, especially by Franny and Zooey. There was only one thing wrong with that—I hadn’t read Franny and Zooey at the time.

Literary influence is like genetics, too. Rushdie got some of his fireworks from Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez. García Márquez got things from Kafka and Faulkner. So, with Middlesex, you could say I inherited traits from all these ancestors, not to mention good old Homer. But some of my stuff bears no relation to these writers. Different gene pool entirely.

Influence isn’t just a matter of copying someone or learning his or her tricks. You get influenced by writers whose work gives you hints about your own abilities and inclinations. Being influenced is largely a process of self-discovery. What you have to do is put all your influences into the blender and arrive at your own style and vision. That’s the way it happens in music—you put a sitar in a rock song and you get a new sound. It’s hybridization again. Hybrid vigor. It operates in art, too. The idea that a writer is a born genius, endowed with blazing originality, is mostly a myth, I think. You have to work at your originality. You create it; it doesn’t create you. If I look at the writers who have influenced me, I see that many things about their lives accord with my own. Take Roth, for instance. He grew up in Newark, a town not so different from Detroit. He was the son of middle-class American parents and the grandson of grandparents with funny accents. From this hardworking but hardly culturally elevated milieu he went on to study English and become a good college boy. Now take Rushdie. He came from exotic origins, Bombay, (exotic to the English, anyway) and went to Cambridge. With both these writers, there is belonging and not belonging. In my own case, I was sent to a private prep school in Grosse Pointe, a place that made me more aware of my supposed “ethnicity” than I had been in public school. This marked me. I think it’s no surprise that I might be influenced by a writer like Roth who writes very much about being American but also about being Jewish. I also happen to admire his books.

But I don’t want to take this similarity business too far. I love Henry James but I’m not much like him. Maybe that’s the Grosse Pointe in me, though. After all, I went to black-tie affairs when I was 16. We smoked pot behind the bushes in our tuxedos. Very Jamesian.

JSF Your bringing up pot reminds me of something I think about every now and again. There’s a timeless tradition of associating creativity with drug use. I’ve often wondered if writers and artists use drugs because they think they’re supposed to. (Here I don’t mean smoking the occasional joint, of course, but damaging stuff.) If you want to be as important as Jackson Pollock, you’d better be as degenerate. The same is true for depression. I know a lot of people who think that artistic creation is born in grief. I certainly don’t believe that. It’s just the opposite for me. I think that’s why I asked if you were happy when you were writing Middlesex.

JE You’re right that people can’t become talented by adopting the weaknesses of great artists. Pollock was a great artist not because of his self-destructive habits but in spite of them. Lots of people drink too much. Only a few of these people paint well. Same goes for depression. The depressives who write well do so by battling their depression, though it may color their work in significant ways. I tend to think I write best when I’m feeling happy, too, but writing a novel takes years, and you can’t be in a good mood every day. So you have to learn to write in whatever mood you happen to be in. Extrapolating this over an entire lifetime, you have to learn to write with whatever disposition you’ve been born with.

JSF In The Virgin Suicides, the narrative voice was a first-person-plural “we.” Middlesex is told by a hermaphrodite who was raised as a girl and later started living as a male. Obviously you like to complicate the narrative voices in your fiction.

JE I like impossible voices. Voices you don’t hear every day. The “we” voice in The Virgin Suicides came easily, however. It was the first thing I had, really. The first paragraph was told by this collective narrator and the book grew from that. With Middlesex, it was different. I had a story in mind but I didn’t have the right voice to tell it with. The voice had to be elastic enough to narrate the epic stuff, the third-person material, and it had to be a highly individualized first-person voice, too.

For a long time I didn’t believe what I was writing, but then I gave Cal permission to zigzag between first and third person, and then I did believe it. A lot of time passed while I was screwing around with all this, but then I finally had my starting point. All I had to do was write another 530 pages.

JSF There is a chapter in Middlesex that deals with the rise of the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1932. It’s one of the many disparate elements that somehow get woven into the story of the Stephanides family. Did you have that in mind from the start? And how did you balance telling the family’s story, and the country’s story, which you were also obviously tracing?

JE Pretty early on, but not immediately. When you’re writing a book, everything you come across seems to fit into it. When I was working on the early chapters of Middlesex, I read an article about W. D. Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam. My grandparents were silk farmers in Asia Minor. I was already dealing with the silk farming in the book when I came across this mysterious historical personage. Fard described himself as a mulatto. No one knew where he came from, but he was reputed to have been a silk merchant. Fard seemed ordained to become part of Middlesex, and the more I learned about him, the more his story amplified the book’s themes of genetic mutation, metamorphosis, and racial conflict.

I didn’t see myself as tracing the country’s story so much as the history of Detroit. And it wasn’t a question of balancing the Detroit history against the family history. I needed the history in order to tell the family story, in order to put my characters in a real place and understand what their lives were like. I have a perverse love for my place of birth. I think most of the major elements of American history are exemplified in Detroit, from the triumph of the automobile and the assembly line to the blight of racism, not to mention the music, Motown, the MC5, house, techno. All made in Detroit. So I guess you’re right. In telling a little bit of Detroit history I was telling the story of the nation as a whole.

JSF Do you consider Middlesex a historical novel?

JE No. Historical novels take place purely in the past. Middlesex runs up to the present and the history in it is an itinerary of the journey taken. I’m chronicling the transmission of a genetic condition as it passes down through a Greek-American family. There’s a generational aspect to the book, and so there’s history. But the book constantly cuts between the present and the past, and the past exists in Cal’s memory or reconstruction of it, not as a period piece. There is a lightness of touch and a sense of comic self-dramatizing that, I hope, mitigate the stuffiness of historical novels. Still, I tried to be accurate about the historical events in the book, from the burning of Smyrna in 1922 to the Detroit Riots in 1967. I spent a lot of time in libraries reading microfiche. I visited historical museums to see what kind of radios people listened to in 1932. So I wasn’t cavalier about the history. One of the joys of writing the book was coming to know my grandparents through the act of imagining their contemporaries. My grandparents died when I was relatively young, so this was a way of meeting them again, as an adult.

JSF Once Callie’s condition is discovered, she ends up at a gender identity clinic. The sexologist there, a Dr. Luce, puts her through a barrage of tests to determine her “true” gender identity. Much of this part of the novel concerns the nature/nurture debate in regard to gender identity. How did you see this playing out in the novel?

JE I grew up in the unisex ’70s. The heyday of nurture. Everyone was convinced that personality, and especially gender-specific behavior, was determined by rearing. Sexologists and feminists insisted that each child was a blank slate and that rearing determined gender roles. Now everything is reversed. Biology and genetics are considered the real determinants of behavior. Having lived through the demise of the first oversimplification, I suspect the imminent demise of the current one. Right now we exaggerate the role of genes in controlling our destiny. As Cal says, the ancient Greek notion of fate has today been carried into our very genes. But that’s not the way it works. Genes and environment interact during a specific, crucial developmental period. They coauthor the human being. Biologists understand this, but the culture at large still doesn’t, quite. So we have these pat theories about evolutionary causes for our present behaviors. Men can’t communicate because 20,000 years ago they had to be silent on the hunt. Women are verbal because they had to call out to each other while gathering nuts and berries. This is just as silly as the previous nurture explanations.

The life of my hero plays out this debate. Callie is reared as a girl but, due to her virilization at puberty, adopts a male gender identity. Cal “operates in society” as a man. But that doesn’t mean that he’s really a man. Nor is any man exactly like any other man. Between the alternatives of nurture and nature, I argue for a middle place. That’s one of the meanings of the title, obviously. But the Middlesex I’m talking about is not only a third gender category. It also represents a certain flexibility in the notion of gender itself. It’s a very American concept really. It’s a belief in individuality, in freedom. I think we are freer than we realize. Less genetically encumbered. Researchers expected to find 200,000 genes in the human genome. Instead they found about 30,000. Not much more than a mouse has. There literally are not enough genes to account for our human capacities. How did we become the way we are? The mystery is still unsolved. Middlesex is Cal’s account of his own formation, his journey of self-discovery.

JSF Another issue that’s sure to be discussed in relation to your book is whether or not “voice” is gendered. I didn’t notice a dramatic shift in voice when Cal moves into manhood. Should I take that to be your answer to the question you beg?

JE I tend to believe there’s not an innate difference between the way women and men write. Or at least I believe that differences between individuals are more significant than differences between genders. You’re right about Cal’s voice. It doesn’t change, and it shouldn’t. He’s all grown up when he writes his story. If innate language abilities exist between males and females, this would result from brain chemistry and the formation of the brain in utero, in response to different levels of hormones. Calliope’s brain would be that of a male and, as it happens, a heterosexual male, since she is attracted to girls. Well, I know something about that. Cal looks like a man and talks like one, with a deep voice, and he writes as a man might, too. So I didn’t have to settle that thorny question. Cal’s voice is his own, as I think everyone’s is. Still, he was a girl at one point and has to render female experience credibly. When I finished the book, I gave it to Karen, my wife, to read, and to a few other women. I asked them to tell me what I’d done wrong. Future women readers can make up their minds, but my consulting group said that I had the emotional stuff right. What I didn’t know much about was toenail polish. I had to ask a lot of questions about details like that. But Callie’s life, her attraction to her redheaded, preppy best friend, her pubertal anxieties, her longing—all that I felt I knew about. Calliope Stephanides, the fourteen-year-old male pseudohermaphrodite and girls’ school student—c’est moi.

JSF Do you ever feel feminine? Have you ever felt feminine? (This is a serious question.)

JE It’s a very serious question. And the male author of a novel about a hermaphrodite couldn’t fail to answer it in the affirmative. (Was that diplomatic enough?) My parents had two boys before me. They wanted me to be a girl. They even had a girl’s name picked out for me: Michelle. I remember being little and hearing that Beatles song “Michelle” and thinking about the fact that I was supposed to be a girl but wasn’t. This was a minor thing; please don’t draw too many psychiatric conclusions. Did you know that Hemingway was made to dress like a girl until he was 11 or so? You could say he overcompensated in later life. When I was 13 or 14 I was very pretty. It seems amazing now, Jonathan, but that was the case. I’d be hanging out with a bunch of girls and one of their mothers would come out and say, “Would you girls like something to drink?” Bellow says in Humboldt’s Gift that being a poet is “a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing.” So I’d say that to be a writer you have to have something feminine about you. As these tiresome categories go, anyway. Gender is a continuum and everyone falls in a different spot. There’s no other way to think about it, really.

JSF I’ve felt that the visual arts influence my writing more than literature does. What art do you like to look at? What has been the role of art in influencing your writing?

JE The visual arts haven’t influenced my writing more than literature has. With Middlesex, though, I had two visual models in mind. One was the interior of a Greek Orthodox church. Those gilded interiors covered with icons, faces everywhere you look. And dark grottoes where candles are smoking. And lots of noise from people talking during the service. And the big face of the Christ Pantocrator on the dome, looking down. That was like my narrator, Cal, both omniscient and not, both transcendent and immanent in creation, born of woman. The other image in my mind was the Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, depicting the automotive industry (Detroit Industry, 1932). I urge anyone who ever ends up in Detroit to go see it. I grew up looking at it and it still has a totemic power over me. Interestingly, long after I started Middlesex, I went to see it again and noticed the four races of humankind up near the ceiling. My attention had always been on the assembly line and smokestacks on the lower panels. But now I saw the four races. And Rivera had rendered them as hermaphrodites. This was back in 1932. I never knew about any of that as a kid. I just loved the activity of the mural, all the colors, and the feverishness of the workers, and the social implications, and the fact that so much was going on. Just like on the walls at church. I wanted Middlesex to be like that, both teeming and serene.

JSF Teeming and serene. I really like that.

JE Well, I didn’t feel serene. Not while writing the book. But that was the idea.

JSF You working on anything now? Someone once said that every book is a response to the previous book. What kind of response will Middlesex call for?

JE It calls for something short, tangible, and easily verified. I’m working on a short nonfiction book about Berlin, part of the Writer and the City series for Bloomsbury.

—Jonathan Safran Foer is editor of the limited-edition anthology A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell (D.A.P., 2001). His stories have been published in the Paris Review and Conjunctions. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, was published in April by Houghton Mifflin.

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Originally published in

BOMB 81, Fall 2002

Featuring interviews with Jane Hammond, Walid Ra’ad, Martina Kudlacek, Mahmoud Darwish, Jeffrey Eugenides, Steve Reich, Beryl Korot, and Christopher Shinn

Read the issue
BOMB 081