The Books Interview: Jeffrey Eugenides

Literary theory looms large in your new novel, The Marriage Plot. Would you say that being put through the theory machine is the defining experience for American writers of your generation?
I think it probably is. Theory was at fever pitch in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when we were going to college. In my own experience at Brown, what you had was a very old-fashioned English department where the professors had been teaching for a long, long time, and then this new cadre of theory people.

Depending on which professor you had, he was ignorant of it, or aware of it and contemptuous, or fanatically in favour of semiotics. It caught your attention as a student, because you'd shuttle back and forth between these poles.

What do you think the experience did to you and your peers as writers?
It infected us with some of the despair of those theoreticians vis-à-vis the death of the author, of literature and the possibility of writing realism. For many years, I was trying to find a way out of that quandary by writing experimental fiction. Then, later on, I was looking for ways to fuse more realistic narratives with some of these concerns.

Your previous novel, Middlesex, was published nine years ago. Do you think your style has changed in that time?
The Marriage Plot is the novel where I go deepest into character. The plot was secondary, whereas Middlesex was a lot about plot, figuring out how a complex story could be told. Here I was really trying to go into the psychological innards of my character.

People's reactions to this book have been more visceral, somehow. They seem to be talking to me about the figures in the book as though they were real people. And they are talking about the time [the early 1980s], how they remember it. Whereas before, they would talk about how the book was written, here it's as though they've met someone.

Did you always have it in mind to write about your college years?
I didn't think I would write a novel that dealt with my college years. But when I was writing Middlesex I was having trouble going forward, and we weren't getting along so well. So I began flirting with another novel, about a rich family having a debutante party. One of the characters in that book was Madeleine, who had a boyfriend who was a manic depressive.

I opened her section with the line, "Madeleine's love troubles began at the time that the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love." I just kept writing her story, and started thinking about semiotics and college.

Is The Marriage Plot a campus novel?
I don't like it when people call it that, though of course it deals with college. I was also interested in the years after college, because they were such destabilising years and are still vivid to me.

You're cosseted your whole life until the age of 22, and suddenly you have to figure out what you're going to do, how you're going to make a living. It should be a happy time of life, but I don't think I was ever again as neurotic as I was from 23 to 28. It makes for bad living, but good fiction.

Are there any campus novels that you admire?
There are novels about college that I admire. I remember being very much engrossed as a student by the parts of Virginia Woolf's The Waves when the characters are in college. And there's Brideshead Revisited. But when I hear the phrase "campus novel", it sounds like collegiate high jinks.

The Marriage Plot is, among other things, a novel about readers. What were you reading when you wrote the book?
Most of the books that are referenced in the novel are also books I read at college or know well - so it didn't involve going back
to reread them.

What are you working on next?
I have a book of short stories almost finished, which will be published soon. Then I have another idea for a novel, though that hasn't gone very far.
I thought I would return to the novel that led to The Marriage Plot, but now I'm not sure I want to do that.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Jeffrey Eugenides's "The Marriage Plot" is published by Fourth Estate (£20)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B