Questions for Jeffrey Eugenides
The author of The Marriage Plot discusses his new novel, the character that's not based on David Foster Wallace, and why he works in a windowless room.
Slate: How did the rumor get started that Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace? Was it just that the character wears a bandana and work boots?
Eugenides: I’m glad you called it a rumor. It just got started by New York Magazine’s online Vulture site, and they stated it not as a question but as a fact, and it seemed to flow from that. I’m waiting for it to pass by. Now people are saying there are so many differences between [Leonard and David Foster Wallace], the basic one being that Wallace didn’t even have manic depression. I think they’re reading too much into the bandanna. I was thinking Guns N' Roses and heavy metal guys, but what can you do?
Slate: The other thing that to me felt quite real was the aimlessness the characters displayed in their post-collegiate moment. Did you have that kind of malaise?
Eugenides: I was directed because I knew I wanted to be a novelist, but I didn’t have a very good job or a way of getting published. I found those years to be among the most difficult of my life. I think back and I feel it’s a shame, because you’re young and full of health and power and strength, but at the same time psychologically, it's probably the most destabilizing time.
Slate: My sense is that it’s a particularly rude awakening for people who went to elite colleges, because whether or not it’s overt, there’s this sense that you are entitled. You’re supposed to be set up for some glittering life.
Eugenides: Yeah, because everyone did well in school, and more or less enjoyed school, for 22 years. If you’re in the humanities, something where you can’t make very much money, if you don’t go into investment banking, suddenly you’re confronted with temping or whatever people did. That didn’t bother me. It was a recession when I graduated, but I was so unequipped to have a job anyway, I don’t think it would have mattered if the economy was booming. I think I was expecting bad jobs. But as it went on through my 20s, I began to wonder how things were going to turn out.
Slate: Did you do a lot of research for Mitchell’s spiritual journey? Were these places where you had gone, or did you read a lot of theological texts to get that right?
Eugenides: I took a lot of religious studies at Brown, so I had a lot of familiarity with those texts. The ones that I remembered best sometimes I would re-read them. I lived in Europe for five years so I could describe his European travels. And I did take a trip around the world—I took a year off from Brown to travel, and I drew on some memories of those trips to give Mitchell his trip.
Slate: I also read that The Marriage Plot grew out of more than 100 pages of another novel that you started and then abandoned. How do you make the determination of what is worth fleshing out completely when you’ve already done a considerable amount of work going in a different direction? Is it just purely instinct? How does this process of what you’re going to pursue as a novel—as a finished product—work?
Eugenides: You can tell when something’s not moving forward anymore. When the doubts you have about it don’t go away. With that novel, it was a novel about a big debutante party, all the characters were coming home to attend the party. One of the daughters in that family was Madeleine. That novel was going reasonably well, but it somehow felt a little empty. I wrote a sentence: “Madeleine’s love troubles began at a time when the French theory that she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” And suddenly I started thinking about semiotics at Brown in the ’80s and began writing more and more about her. And the prose suddenly had an energy and a freshness and sounded contemporary to me in a way the other novel didn’t. So I just broke free of that other book. And I just realized there was something wrong with that book all along, or something I hadn’t solved, and I had this idea of Madeleine and her boyfriend—I knew he was going to act depressive. And I knew there was this other character, Mitchell, who was in love with her. And I just took these three characters out of the book and pursued them, and at that point I didn’t even know what that book was going to be about. I knew who was going to be in the book, but I didn’t know it was going to be about the marriage plot, or that it would be called The Marriage Plot, or that anyone would get married. Any of the things that happened in the book I didn’t know when I began.
Slate: After Middlesex—that’s such a big book; it spans 70 years and is cross-continental—did you want to write something that was less sprawling? Was that a conscious decision or was it just something that came out of you?
Eugenides: I completely wanted to write something different. Even the book I was unhappy with was an attempt to write a tightly dramatized novel. That novel, I thought, was going to happen only over a few days. So it was a reaction to the large canvas of Middlesex, even though the book ended up a healthy 400 pages, it’s much tighter and just different in its voice and in its narrative method. And that’s what I wanted to do. When you finish one book, you don’t want to just write the same book again.
Slate: People really like hearing about writer’s routines. Do you have an average day? Do you set yourself a writing schedule?
Eugenides: I spend most of every day writing. I like to write every day if I can. I don’t start extremely early. Richard Ford gets up at 6 in the morning and writes till midday. I tend to get up late and start at maybe 10 o’clock and work through the day until evening. And that schedule accords with family life, and, you know, I have a daughter. If I lived alone I think I might stay up later and start later in the day. But I sort of have to keep it like a professional job. Like a 9-to-5 job, but seven days a week.
Slate: Do you have a particular place where you work? Do you have a room in your house that you go to?
Eugenides: I have two different rooms. I have a very beautiful room that in my house that we bought in Princeton. It’s glass on three sides, and you’d think that’s the perfect place to write. Somehow in that nice room I feel too exposed, and I can notice I’m too distracted by things going on, so I end up writing in a not-very-nice office bedroom. So sometimes you just want to go into a small space where you’re not distracted. I always work in a room where there’s no Internet to keep from being distracted so easily. A few years ago in Chicago, I rented an office, and I went there every day. For the most part I do work at home in an ugly room.
This interview has been condensed and edited.