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Nov 04, 2008

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex talks about the indelibility of superstition, the changing landscape of American politics and how he’s finally growing up.

By Amy Van Vechten

Jeffrey Eugenides is raking piles of orange and crimson leaves in his front yard. The house, which he and his wife recently purchased, is a stick-style Victorian in an affluent neighborhood near Princeton University, where he has just begun his second year as a professor of creative writing.
Acclaimed for his vivid writing style, Eugenides was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 2002 novel, Middlesex. His unusual protagonists—like Middlesex’s hermaphrodite, Cal, and the five doomed teenaged sisters in his 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides—tell captivating stories imbued with humor and tragedy.
But as the soft-spoken author leads the way inside to a series of sparsely furnished, high-ceilinged rooms, he doesn’t come across as the sort who would create such haunting tales.
What does come across is Eugenides’s humility; it’s hard to get him to take credit for his success, much of which he attributes to “hard work and dedication.” He starts our discussion by claiming he was a slow learner.
“Even though I started early, I was slow to develop my writing style,” he explains. “It just seemed like I wouldn’t have the maturity to write a book until age 30.”
He was 33 when The Virgin Suicides was published. It was a notable debut and inspired Sofia Coppola’s heralded cult film of the same title.
It took ten years for Eugenides to publish his second novel, Middlesex. Although he had a clear idea from the beginning of the story he wanted to tell, finding a consistent voice for the book’s omniscient, intersex protagonist proved to be time-consuming and challenging.
His patient and deliberate approach proved effective, as critics extolled the singular treatment of such a unique narrative voice.

As a child growing up in Detroit, a city that serves as the setting for much of his work, Eugenides read voraciously. His interest in literature led him first to Brown University, where he studied classics and Latin, and then to Stanford, where he studied creative writing.
After leaving Stanford, much of Eugenides’s life has been spent exploring, including residences in Chicago, San Francisco, India and Berlin. Each location, he says, has influenced both his worldview and his approach to writing.
Now, at 48, he feels he is just beginning to grow up, and just starting to be able to write about adults.
“When you write your first books, you often write about your teenage years, because that’s what’s both available to you and at a little bit of a distance,” he explains. “But I like writing about young people, because they go through dramatic changes. Their romantic lives are combustible. They make good characters.”

Eugenides’s speaks out about the reception of his various works, and what it was like to edit a collection of love stories.

Part of this development involves pushing his ideas and characters into new arenas, like politics. In “The Great Experiment,” a short story published in the March 31, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, the protagonist is influenced by Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and reflects on the perversion of democratic principles.
Though he did little political writing when he was younger, Eugenides says he has found it hard to avoid commenting on the last eight years of American politics.
“There’s an anti-intellectualism that’s always been in America that flares up now and then, and we’ve just gone through a period when it really flared up,” he says. “I don’t know how you can write during times like these and not have it influence you in some way.”
While Eugenides works on his new book, he says he is wrestling with how to teach creative writing in his second year at Princeton. The easiest part, he remarks, is making better readers out of his students and jokes that, oftentimes, they end up just talking about the mechanics of writing.
“Even at Princeton sometimes, grammar and punctuation aren’t where they should be. These students are going off to run the world,” Eugenides says with a grin. “So I hope they can at least write some sentences.”

“Chicago, refulgent in early-evening, late-capitalist light:” Eugenides reads from his recently published story, “The Great Experiment,” for FLYP in our exclusive video.

“Young people go through dramatic changes. They make good characters:” FLYP sits down with the notoriously private writer to discuss everything from living abroad to intersex characters to superstition.

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