Eugenides: Lost in the woods, and loving it
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Jeffrey Eugenides has some advice for Detroit’s automakers.
“You know what they should do is change their logos,” Eugenides said, impulsively, near the end of a recent telephone conversation. “Like the Ford logo that’s on everything, the big blue thing, it looks bad, actually, and they should redesign it. They think they can’t change their logo, but no matter what the automakers do with the design of their cars, that thing sits on there and it makes it look bad.
“Even if the [design of the car] looks good, the logo just looks kind of clunky. It’s not even retro.”
This observation feels inessential to an article about Eugenides, if not for the impromptu manner in which it was offered up. Eugenides, to be clear, grew up in the Detroit area, but doesn’t work in the auto industry. Rather, he is the acclaimed novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in 2003, for “Middlesex,” a big, strongly flavored stew of a book whose narrator is a hermaphrodite named Calliope Stephanides.
Asking a transcendent American writer like Eugenides for his thoughts on car makers in his hometown feels like asking Bob Dylan about ice fishing in northern Minnesota, but it’s the one question that elicits the most unrehearsed answer.
And what’s obvious in the reply is that Eugenides, as his two novels make clear, is not interested in covering ground that’s already been well-worn. That includes the exhausted questions he has repeatedly been asked about his writing influences, his work method and his success.
The author’s inspiration for “Middlesex” is a perfect example of finding pleasure in the fresh and unexpected.
Eugenides, who makes a rare Aspen appearance at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words series, said it’s no secret that writers themselves are often hermaphroditic in their imagination, trying to channel the feelings and personalities of their male and female characters.
Writers are judged by how well they do this. Eugenides himself was intrigued by the possibility of stepping outside of those constraints and creating a narrator who knew what it was to be both male and female, someone who was like no one else, and yet like everyone at the same time.
“I guess I thought it would be nifty to write a book told by an intersex person who had grown up as a girl and become a man,” he said. “The idea of a narrator who knew more than most narrators about what it means to be either sex, it intrigued me.”
It also presented an immense challenge. After the release of his first book, “The Virgin Suicides,” Eugenides spent some nine years working on “Middlesex.”
During that time, the author said he was often “lost in the woods.”
“And yet I was intrigued by the woods at the same time,” said Eugenides, who is teaching creative writing at Princeton while working on a new novel. “It was kind of a combination of excitement and discovery and also bewilderment that would oscillate day by day, or even hour by hour. My mood would go up and down depending on how things were going.”
Eugenides said he wanted to approach his subject from a realistic angle, and be as accurate as possible about the biology in the book. That led to painstaking research about the genetics of intersex individuals, which then took Eugenides in a completely different direction than the one he had originally envisioned.
“It became a book about a genetic mutation, and that involved a certain number of generations of this family so the reader would see this gene coming down the bloodline,” Eugenides said. “Once I realized that the genetic condition I was going to write about usually happens in isolated populations, I began thinking about setting it in a small village somewhere in the distant past. Once I did that, I not only had to educate myself about the genetics and the science, but about the history of where these people came from.”
The end result is an unquestionably original work that takes readers on a sprawling journey, both over time and distance.
The book borrows from a number of other traditions ” Greek epic poems, American immigrant stories, coming-of-age tales ” but, like its narrator, it is hard to place it in a single category.
That is what Eugenides originally intended. For him, the process of exploring new ground is much more interesting than following paths he has already been down.
“I’m much more interested in what I’m doing now and what I will do,” Eugenides said, when asked whether he feels pressure to measure up to the success of his previous book with the one he is currently working on. “My concentration is just all about trying to get better. My mind is always thinking about trying to get better. I’m not trying to be just as good as I have been.”
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