To Not Be Me All the Time: Jeffrey Eugenides at the Michigan Union


Jeffrey Eugenides

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides told the Rogel Ballroom crowd, "I’ve never really gotten over being a teenager."

Michigan native Jeffrey Eugenides told the crowd at the Michigan Union's Rogel Ballroom on Sunday that he never set out to be a regionalist. His three novels, The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot, all revolve around characters from Detroit in their youth. Eugenides said that his time growing up in Detroit still makes up some of his most vivid memories, and that writing about something so innate to himself just “makes my job easier.”

Eugenides was joined by Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus, to discuss his recently published first book of short stories, Fresh Complaint. The collection contains 10 stories, including two that relate to his previous novels. One is an outtake from Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex and another, “Airmail,” is made up of letters written by Mitchell, the main character in The Marriage Plot.

Watkins and Eugenides both mused about the differences between short stories and novels. Like many, Eugenides said he started his creative writing education by learning to compose short stories. Fresh Complaint collects work from Eugenides entire career, and he joked it feels like a posthumous collection. The oldest story was written while Eugenides was still in grad school and the newest was completed just this past year.

Short stories are tasked with keeping readers hooked even as they know that they won’t be spending an extended period of time with the characters. Eugenides compared trying to fit a breadth of information into a short story to a little puzzle, constantly reworking sentences to make every word count. This challenge can lead to perpetual editing, and Eugenides said he has spent an inordinate amount of time on just one small story in the past. But he also looked to the form as a break from writing his novels, and a few of the stories were written concurrently with his books. The stories became a bit of a relief from the characters he was spending so much time with, or they were used as a writing exercise when stuck with where to go next with the plot.

Eugenides novels all revolve around protagonists in their adolescence or young adulthood and the growing pains they endure. When asked about his focus on teenage protagonists, Eugenides described it as coming from his own dramatic youth, saying, “I’ve never really gotten over being a teenager.” Apart from personal experience, Eugenides also described that age as providing fruitful material for fiction because it follows people as they are in the midst of changing themselves, of finding out who they want to become.

Middlesex follows Cal as he discovers he is intersex and begins to explore his gender identity. Published 15 years ago, Middlesex was groundbreaking. Few works of fiction that made it to the mainstream detailed characters who were questioning their gender identity. Eugenides said that he didn’t set out to write something topical, and he’s not sure he could do it again. Instead, he said anytime he has consciously tried to write about current events he always ends up behind.

Toward the end of the night, Eugenides spoke about why he chose to pursue fiction writing. For Eugenides, fiction is a way to escape, “to not be me all the time.” But it also is a way to explore his past and to write about someone he could have been. Both explanations are perfect reasons to read his work as well.

Katrina Shafer is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library.

"The Virgin Suicides," "Middlesex," "The Marriage Plot," and "Fresh Complaint" are available from the Ann Arbor District Library.