Nov 7, 2011

Jeffrey Eugenides at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Jeffrey Eugenides reading from The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides reading from The Marriage Plot. Apologies for the poor quality of the photos; the light wasn’t the best and flash was of course not an option.

Yesterday evening I went to see Jeffrey Eugenides at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. The session started with Eugenides reading from The Marriage Plot for about fifteen minutes – he read the section about the early stages of Madeleine and Leonard’s relationship, ending with the memorable scene where she throws her copy of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse at his head. The reading was followed by a discussion with journalist Dave Haslam, a q&a session with the audience, and a book signing.

The discussion began with questions about his writing process: like most (if not all) successful writers, Eugenides is a believer in working hard rather than waiting around for inspiration to strike. When he’s working on a novel, he spends the day at his desk. Not all these hours are spent producing usable prose, but it’s important that he be there if any writing is going to take place.

When asked if sustaining a novel’s tone over the long periods of time it takes him to complete it was difficult, he answered that finding that tone in the first place was the difficult part. Once you have it, it’s easy enough to sustain. He also said he has a problem knowing when he’s done with a novel. His editor usually has to go to his house and physically take the manuscript away from him. He’s the “taskmaster” who tells him when he’s finished; otherwise he’d keep revising forever.

Jeffrey Eugenides at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Regarding The Marriage Plot, Eugenides said that the genesis of the book was the following sentence, which can be found on page 19: “Madeleine’s love troubles began at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” He added that he wanted to focus on the period following graduation, which he personally remembers as a stressful and miserable time filled with uncertainty (I guess that puts me in good company).

However, he disagreed with the interviewer that his characters’ youth makes them unable to process their feelings and experiences. Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are all very articulate, and Eugenides felt that The Marriage Plot was the first of his novels to fully focus on adults; he thinks of the characters as fully adult regardless of the fact that they’re young graduates. He said he enjoyed writing about young people because they’re passionate but sometimes confused; because they’re trying on new selves and he finds this process fascinating. But nevertheless he doesn’t think he’ll go back to writing about them in the future.

Jeffrey Eugenides at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Of the three main characters of The Marriage Plot, Eugenides found Mitchell the most difficult to write. This is because Mitchell is intelligent, sincere, but also a little dubious in his positions. He didn’t want him to go too far in either direction and become either an overearnest laughing stock or a complete sceptic. Similarly, he found the Calcutta section the most challenging to write because it’s the one closest to his own experiences. He concluded by saying that his one goal for The Marriage Plot was deep characterisation – and I’d say he certainly achieved it.

He was (surprisingly) also asked about the lack of representation of connections formed online in his novels and in contemporary fiction in general. This was because the interviewer felt that the absence of modern technology and the 1980’s setting gave The Marriage Plot a very antiquated feel. Although I disagree that this was the case with this novel in particular, this is a subject that really interests me, and I do agree that most writers don’t know how to go there yet. Eugenides answered that although the means of communication were different in the 1980’s, the emotional reality behind what people were experiencing was the same. He doesn’t think the Internet has changed how people experience relationships; just the medium through which some of their interactions take place.

Jeffrey Eugenides at the Whitworth Art Gallery

I was counting the minutes until the inevitable question about whether Leonard was based on David Foster Wallace, and someone eventually obliged. Eugenides said the same he has said in several interviews to date: that although people are running with the idea the similarities are more superficial than anything else, and that he began writing the book long before Foster Wallace’s suicide.

The conversation moved on to the rest of Eugenides’ work. Following a question about the difficulties of getting inside the minds of teenage girls (oh look my favourite question ever), he said that he didn’t feel that The Virgin Suicides was about teenage girls at all, but rather about how the narrators didn’t really know the Lisbon girls. The book focused on the distance created by idealisation more than anything else. He was also asked about the movie adaptation, and he answered that his greatest concern was never that the adaptation be faithful to his material, but rather that it be a good movie. With The Virgin Suicides, the unreliability of the narration was impossible to get across. Seeing the Lisbon girls’ lives on the screen makes them far more tangible than they ever are in the book, and that alone makes it a different story altogether. Nevertheless, he thought Sofia Coppola made good choices as a director, and he quite liked the soundtrack by Air.

Regarding Middlesex, he was asked a somewhat dubious question about the process of writing such a “niche character”. Eugenides’ answer was that he doesn’t mean for his characters to stand for entire groups (Madeleine for all women; Cal for all intersex or Greek-American people). First and foremost, he wants them to be individual human beings. He also added that he didn’t want Cal’s gender choice to be read as the “right” choice for everyone and to erase lesbian identity. Of course, authorial intent is worth what it’s worth; none of this means that such readings are not possible. These are complex questions, especially when characters from underrepresented groups are concerned, as they’ll frequently invite generalisations regardless of what the author may desire. There’s obviously a reason why people who care about literature continue to debate these things.

After the talk, Eugenides signed copies of all of his novels. He’s one of those authors I thought I’d find incredibly intimidating, but he was actually rather friendly and approachable – and also very funny all through the talk, which shouldn’t have surprised me but did. Sadly my copies of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex aren’t here, but I did get The Marriage Plot signed and had a chance to tell him how much I have enjoyed his work.

Jeffrey Eugenides signing my copy of The Marriage Plot


Wheee

You can read my thoughts on The Marriage Plot here.

ETA: Buried in Print and Brenna also attended similar events recently; do check out their posts!

20 comments:

  1. Great summary Ana! I love the story about how his editor has to go wrest manuscripts from his house!

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  2. Sounds like an amazing event Ana. I'm saving your review to read after I've actually read the book. But I was a huge fan of Middlesex and loved the film of The Virgin Suicides (I have the book on my tbr) so I'm looking forward to reading more by him.

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  3. It sounds like a wonderful event! His writing is so wonderful that I would be just as intimidated as you thought you would be—so it's nice to hear that he's approachable and friendly.

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  4. It's interesting to hear his thoughts, and that's great that you spoke to him and had your book signed! I'd never thought about the lack of representation of online connections in fiction, but it is an interesting topic.

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  5. Your review of the Marriage Plot made me add it to my queue, and now I'm really impatient to get it! Thank you so much for sharing your experience. What Eugenides said about the period following graduation being a stressful and miserable time and wanting to create characters who are young but fully adult shows his unique perceptivity. I'm puzzled by that gap in portrayed life-experience in "serious" novels. It's as if fiction shows the whole teenaged world; and then there are books about 39-year-old householders worrying exclusively about their kids and professional lives and ageing parents and flagging marriages. Maybe that's what attracts to certain genre-ghettoized young adult novels: they come the closest to showing whatever comes between.

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  6. Crap, Ana. After our little exchange on Twitter regarding Eugenides, I might actually have to try this one. Enabler! :D

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  7. So, so exciting that you got the chance to meet Eugenides and hear him speak! I am so envious! I think The Marriage Plot is going to be my next audio choice. I have been hearing good things! Great post today, thanks for sharing it!

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  8. I'm so glad you posted about this, how cool you got to meet him! I hadn't heard the Leonard/Wallace comparison, but it makes sense. I wish he was coming to my city, but until then I'll enjoy his readings vicariously through you.

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  9. How awesome to see Eugenides in person! I am in the middle of The Marriage Plot right now so the timing of your post was serendipitous.

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  10. Jill: That really made me laugh :D I can just picture it.

    Sakura: I can't wait to hear what you make of The Marriage Plot. If you loved the movie version of The Virgin Suicides I think you'll enjoy the novel too.

    Clare: He came across as really unassuming, which was a nice surprise.

    Sarah: It is, isn't it? I'd love to find a novel that represented them well, though of course that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with novels that don't go there.

    Trapunto: That's such an excellent point. I think it's the same with me. I'm not sure what the reason may be, but it seems that the experiences of this age group are outside the boundaries of what's considered a fitting subject for "serious" literature.

    Andi: Just promise you won't hate me if you hate it ;)

    Zibilee: I can't wait to hear what you make of it!

    Melissa: I got to enjoy the John Green event vicariously through you, so it's only right :P

    Lola: I hope you're enjoying it!

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  11. Wow it sounds like the discussion was quite interesting. You took great notes! Either that or you have a fantastic memory.

    Like you, I was surprised by how funny he is. Also, he totally wore the same outfit to your reading that he did to mine. So cute :)

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  12. I'm just now reading and enjoying my first Eugenides - Middlesex.

    How great that you got to go see him!

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  13. He read the same segment when I saw him here in Toronto, too, but I haven't read the novel yet myself. If you're interested, my notes on the event are here; it sounds as though the questions asked in each of the events we attended were complementary, so I especially enjoyed reading your summary. Thanks for all the work you put into it!

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  14. I didn't think it felt antiquated, either. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself that it was set in the 80s! (Although the travels in Europe with the traveller's cheques did bring back some memories.)

    Thanks for sharing this with us!

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  15. I love this post- The Marriage Plot is next on my "to be read" list and it was wonderful to read your impressions of the author. Sounds like you had a great time.
    “He added that he wanted to focus on the period following graduation, which he personally remembers as a stressful and miserable time filled with uncertainty.”
    This is kind of where I am right now which makes the book more appealing that it already is for me! :)

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  16. Wonderful to know that you were able to meet Jeffrey Eugenides and hear him read and talk about his books and the writing process! Envy, envy, envy you :) That sentence which Eugenides says is the genesis of the book - my favourite part of the book was six consecutive pages starting with that sentence. I wanted to highlight those six pages :)

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  17. Wow! What a wonderful experience. I am so jealous! No great authors ever come near me. :(

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  18. Even though I've yet to read anything he's written yet, I found this post to be quite enthralling! And yes, I now want to finally give him a whirl even more...even if I am still a wee tad (or more) intimidated.

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  19. Hahaha, I love that he crossed out the printened version of his name! So cute. Glad you had such a good time!

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  20. I am so jealous you got to see him...thanks for this amazing recap! Interesting to hear his thoughts about TMP a bit more in-depth. Most of his interviews haven't gone this far. Unfortunately, I wasn't that crazy about the book, but I still think he's an amazing writer.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.