A Conversation With Jeffery Eugenides
It's difficult to pinpoint the moment when Middlesex took root in my imagination. As far back as 1976, in a high school Latin class, I was introduced to the figure of Tiresias, who'd lived as both a male and a female. We were reading Ovid's Metamorphoses and we came to the part where Zeus and his wife, Hera, have an argument as to which sex has a better time in bed. Zeus, somewhat surprisingly, says that women enjoy themselves more. Hera claims men do. To adjudicate this matter, they ask Tiresias, who replies: "If the pleasures of love be as ten, then three times three belongs to woman. The rest belongs to man."
This was important information for a 15-year-old boy. (I knew, then and there, not to expect much in life. "Might as well become a writer," I thought to myself.)
I also remember being struck by the marvelous utility of this figure, Tiresias. Here was a guy who knew what it was like to be a woman. How amazing! And how useful, from a literary standpoint. If the novelist's job is to go into the minds of both women and men, if we value most of all the writers who are best able to do this (namely, Shakespeare and Tolstoy ), then telling a story from the point of view of Tiresias (or someone like him) might gain the writer a measure of that longed-for omniscience.
All this is the soil from which Middlesex would one day grow.
It's rare for me to get an idea for a book as large and fully formed as the idea for Middlesex. At a certain point early on, I saw the entire structure of the book in crystalline form inside my head. The elegance of this structure bewitched me. When I felt like giving up—and I did almost give up, many times—the thought of that crystal palace in the distance kept me plodding on.
Did you incorporate any of your own experiences growing up as a Greek-American into Middlesex?
I didn't only study up on genetics and history to write Middlesex. I studied up on myself, on my so-called ethnicity. I'm only half Greek, and that half is thoroughly Americanized. I didn't grow up in a Greek-American hothouse, and when my paternal grandparents died they took a large measure of my heritage with them. The immigrant customs I describe in Middlesex, the Orthodox rituals, the superstitions—most of that is a product of my reading, not my personal experience. I can recall the outlines of that lost immigrant world. It used to assemble, after all, every Sunday in our living room. But those people were old and spoke Greek while I was young and spoke only English. I drew on memories of mournful grandmothers and industrious great uncles. But I filled in these outlines with research, and imagination.
Try these Greek recipes while reading Middlesex!
I've received a lot of mail from intersex people and I'm happy to say it's been almost universally positive. While writing the book I was in contact with ISNA (the Intersex Society of North America) and, when the book originally appeared—and far fewer people knew about it—the ISNA people appeared pleased with my treatment of the subject. At a reading I did in Portland once, I was briefly picketed by some intersex people who objected to my use of the term "hermaphrodite." They find the term pejorative. I met with them briefly after my reading and discussed their objections. The accommodation I came to is as follows: When speaking about living people, I try to use the word "intersex." But when speaking about Greek mythology and literary characters like Tiresias, I reserve the right to use the normative, historical term: hermaphrodite. The word comes to us from the myth of Hermaphroditus, after all, and who am I to throw out the Greek myths?
But, yes, I've gotten a lot of feedback from intersex people. Letters of thanks. Fascinating e-mails. People come up to me after my readings to tell me things I didn't know. From what I hear, Middlesex is also being read by lots of pediatric endocrinologists. So both sides of the debate are reading the book and, hopefully, something good may come of it.
What are the most unusual questions you've been asked about Middlesex?
They usually involve my pants. People want me to remove them. It's difficult to convince some people that I make things up for a living. They think all this really happened to me, which it didn't.
Some Pulitzer winners—novelists—have confided to me that getting the prize screwed them up. It messed with their heads. That hasn't been my experience. Obviously, with the long slog that writing Middlesex was, it was immensely gratifying to have something to show for it. The night I won, I was in Prague, and as news spread around the hotel, women ran up to give me kisses. It was the closest I'll ever get to winning the Tour de France.
On a more serious level, winning a prize like the Pulitzer changes your life not at all. The daily act of writing remains as demanding and maddening as it was before, and the pleasure you get from writing—rare but profound—remains at the true heart of the enterprise. On their best days, writers all over the world are winning Pulitzers, all alone in their studios, with no one watching. The grail remains interior.
Aside from spasms of triumph, this thing called "success " isn't much, really. Everybody in America is after it, of course. It's the national imperative. But "success" is a curiously vacant state. Success doesn't happen to you. It happens out in the world somewhere. It happens to a public persona not equivalent to the person who writes the books. Success is a kind of numbness, an analgesic. It feels like nothing. Failure, envy, these things have a far keener, physiological effect. No Iago for Success exists. Who is the Iago of Success? Nobody. Because the baser emotions are more fiery, and success, if anything, a temporary shelter from them.
A writer who gets 10 rave reviews and one negative review will only remember the negative review.
Kingsley Amis said perhaps the only thing you can say about literary prizes. He said, "They're nice when you win them." And they are. They are nice when you win them. Hopefully, winning a prize draws off the bile a bit, lances the boil of overweening ambition. Winning a prize, if it does anything, should make you more generous toward other writers' achievements and more stoic during the difficult times no prize can protect you against.
The Pulitzer isn't a physical object. You can't hold it in your hand. You get some money ($7,500 in my day), and you get a little Tiffany's paperweight with your name on it and the image of Joseph Pulitzer suspended in the crystal. When people see my "Pulitzer" (I keep it in my sock drawer), they are pretty amazed at its meagerness. But it's important to realize that the paperweight isn't my Pulitzer. The Pulitzer Prize is an idea; it's a vote of confidence. Like literature, it exists purely in the mind.
Who have been your greatest influences in writing?
The ancient Latin poets, obviously, Vergil and Catullus. The great Russians, Tolstoy and Nabokov. And the great American Jews, Bellow and Roth. Plus Henry James, J.D. Salinger, García Márquez, lots of others.
Just as I'm serving Marcel Proust an apertif, I realize he has nothing to talk about with Jesus, who—let's face it—might have dressed up a bit. In an attempt to save the evening, I seat Rita Hayworth next to me, but she spends the whole night talking with Shakespeare.
Have you had any unusual jobs in the past? If so, what were they?
I was, briefly, a cab driver in Detroit. My shift was from six in the evening to six in the morning. I had to rent my cab from the taxi company and pay for my own gas. On a good night I would make back the money I'd spent renting the cab and buying the gas.
It's an eye-opening experience to drive a cab in Detroit in the middle of the night. I drove a lot of mothers with young children around. Why they needed to move from one house to another at 3 a.m. I never figured out. I ferried drug dealers to important meetings. I was in college during this time, a poetic youth. The only thing that saved me was that, a week before starting the job, I'd perversely shaved me head. No one had a shaved head in those days except people in the army. People asked me, "You in the military?" And I didn't say no. My bald head was my only protection. Do you have more questions for Jeffrey Eugenides? Read this Q&A between the author and readers of Middlesex.