What does Chapter Eleven mean?  
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

I am confused about why you refer to Cal's brother as Chapter Eleven, yet at other times you refer to him by his given name?

— Stacy S.

Dear Stacy,

Cal, the narrator of Middlesex, never refers to Chapter Eleven by his given name. Neither does anyone in the book. The nickname, "Chapter Eleven," is bestowed on Cal's brother by Cal himself, retroactively, in the act of writing the book. If you can find a place where Chapter Eleven is called something else, Stacy, let me know, but I'd be very surprised. His "given name" is something I didn't give the reader.

As for the meaning of the nickname, that's another story. The character of Chapter Eleven is introduced in the first pages of the novel but it's not until page 512 that Cal provides clues as to what this name means. There's a long passage where Cal sketches what will happen to his brother in the years to come, but, unlike just about every other Stephanides family story, Cal elects not to go into it. Still, the hints are there and include the maxing out of credit cards, etc., all of which point to a situation that might involve something known in U.S. tax law as Chapter 11.

By the way, Stacy, your question is the question I get asked most often by readers of the book. The name "Chapter Eleven" really confuses people in Europe and Asia, as you might imagine. (No one files for Chapter 11 in Japan.) In some cases, Germany, for instance, where I know the language, I've worked with my translators to come up with an alternative. In the German edition of Middlesex, Chapter Eleven is called Der Pleitegeier. This refers to the circling buzzard that presages doom, usually of the financial variety.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
How do you describe Middlesex?  
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

I have been an absolute fanatic about this book for about five years now. As a part-time library clerk, full-time second-hand bookstore owner and overtime avid reader, I am constantly recommending Middlesex to other readers—but I can't ever say what it is about because it is so epic in scope. I usually end up saying something like, "Well, the flap copy says it is about a hermaphrodite—but it's really not..." Not the best description to get others to read it! I am curious how you explained this book (prior to its current status) to those who asked what it was about?

— Jessica F.

Dear Jessica,

I share your pain. I've always had a difficult time explaining the book in a sentence—or even a paragraph.

The best thing to do is to get people to read the first 50 pages and let things take care of themselves. If pressed, I say that Middlesex is the story of a family with a genetic mutation in its bloodline. The book is told by the final inheritor of this gene, who traces the recessive mutation down through three generations. True, the mutation in question results in the narrator's being intersex—labeled as female at birth, he later adopts a male identity. The novel itself, however, concerns a welter of events aside from his own sexual transformation. Rather, Cal's transformation makes him suited, intellectually and emotionally, to tell these other tales of metamorphosis, be they national, racial, or historical.

Middlesex is a hybrid itself: part immigrant saga, part psychological novel, part comic epic, part medical mystery. Of course, I never thought in these terms while I was writing the book. They may serve as useful handles, but any notion of genre is anathema to me as a writer. That's why the books I write are so difficult to pigeonhole.

I've had to rely on people like you, Jessica (and now, happily, on Oprah, too) who've read the book and know what it's "really" about to serve as its ambassadors in the world.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
Did you use different literary styles to reflect characters and time periods?
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

I noticed that the form of the book paralleled parts of the characters' lives and historical time periods. For instance, the opening alludes to Greek Mythology with references to Mt. Olympus. The section on the Ford plant seemed to be written in the same mechanical style as the section on turning people into extensions of machines in [John] Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. The section about adolescent confusion was written in the style of [J.D.] Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and the ending of the novel was written in the magical realism style with the father's fantasies as he was about to die. Also, the end of the novel had a modern take on Greek mythology by turning mythological images into American commercialism with Hercules Hot Dogs and the Golden Fleece Hair Salon.

Am I reading too much into this book, or did [you] mean to parallel the plot of the family's progression with literary styles that reflected literature of the various time periods?

— Carolyn G.

Dear Carolyn,

You aren't reading too much into the book, Carolyn. While I didn't always intend the precise allusions you mention, you may in many places be right. I'm a great admirer of Salinger, for instance, and a lot of my stuff bears his influence. I didn't set out to refer to his work when writing about Cal's love for the Obscure Object, but any tale of adolescence necessarily evokes the great J.D.

What I did consciously intend was the following: Since Middlesex is the story of a genetic mutation, it seemed to me that the structure of the novel should represent the novelistic genome. That is, the book should contain and recapitulate various historical forms of narrative. For that reason, the novel begins with epic events (the burning of Smyrna, etc.) and gradually becomes, in its second half, a more modern psychological novel. I didn't want to get too schematic about all this. My model wasn't the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter in [James] Joyce's Ulysses (where Joyce recreates the evolution of the English language, parodying just about every great English writer in the process). I wanted this rather academic exercise to exist in the background of my story. For that reason, I never explicitly set about performing the imitations you suggest. My aim was to have this ghost literature haunt the book, there for alert, close readers like you to notice, but not mandatory for understanding or enjoying the book.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
Did you study creative writing?
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

This is the most exquisite book I have ever read; the prose, the descriptive passages! Please let us know where you learned to write. You must have always had this talent, but where, if anywhere, did you study, or did you study creative writing? Your vocabulary is immense!

— Ellie B.

Dear Ellie,

At the resolute age of 15, I decided to become a writer. This was partly the fault of James Joyce. I read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that year, and, full of admiration for Stephen Dedalus and also identifying with him strongly (we were both good students, we both had "prophetic" Greek names), I decided to follow in his path and "forge the uncreated conscious of my race." I hadn't yet read Ulysses, a far more cautionary portrait of the artist, beginning, as it does, with Stephen Dedalus 10 years on, still living in Dublin, and totally broke. My misreading of the Portrait, in fact, was what made me want to become a writer. I missed the irony. I took Stephen's youthful idealism at face value, being so full of it myself at the time.

I was, however, an arty, dreamy, ambitious kid. I'd always enjoyed writing stories and, yes, my teachers claimed I showed "talent." So I set my sights on pursuing a literary life.

It was another 13 years before I published my first short story. Another five passed before my first novel appeared.

What happened in the meantime? The old joke says it best: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice." I approached writing, Ellie, the way you would any profession. First, I tried to educate myself. I went to Brown, mainly because my favorite writer at the time, John Hawkes, taught there, and I wanted to study with him. While there, I majored in the honors program in English, rather than creative writing, because the honors program required you to get the entire English literary tradition under your belt. (You had to read Beowulf in the original, not just Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night.) It seemed to me that anyone hubristic enough to propose adding anything to the literary tradition had best be familiar with it. So I read a lot, read all the time. I read old difficult stuff, as well as recent difficult stuff. I took seven years of Latin. My classics studies introduced me to the literary figure of the hermaphrodite  in the person of Tiresias, and I credit Latin with giving me a firm sense of English grammar. I did my best to read the things I thought a novelist should read—philosophy, history, theology. Where I fell short, it seems to me, was in mathematics, chemistry and physics. My knowledge of these subjects is laughable. Biology I liked, and that certainly helped when I came, years later, to write Middlesex. Aside from pursuing these academic subjects, I tried my hand, in my teens and 20s, at writing fiction and poetry. I did indeed study creative writing, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student (at Stanford). Years passed, happily, in bohemian redoubts. I never wanted to publish early. Wasn't at all concerned about it. Virginia Woolf said that no one should publish a novel before he or she was 30. That sounded about right to me.

Like a tennis player, I spent years practicing my strokes, developing my topspin, improving my serve, performing footwork drills and trying to move up in the rankings. Like anything else that's worth doing, writing is mainly hard work. It's dull, repetitive, impractical, often unremunerative, completely maddening, and I love it madly.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
What inspired you to create a narrator like Cal?
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

While reading the book Middlesex, I felt quite an intense connection with the story's protagonist, who starts her life as a girl but realizes that she is quite different. As we read more, we learn that while she may be of both sexes, her story really is one that most people can relate to. Callopie's story involves many of the matters we as adolescents faced or face. Sexual identity, finding out who we really are and our true selves. What touched me most while reading Middlesex was that I read it when I was 14, so many of the character's struggles came close to home. So I will ask you this question: What inspired you to create a story where the narrator is one you wouldn't see in most books these days?

— Ben S.

Dear Ben,

For some reason I want to say, "Dear Ben," possibly because your question is intimate and so requires an intimate response, but also because your question makes me happy and warrants a proper thank-you note. Your reading of Middlesex is the reading I'd hoped people would have. It was never my intention to write a book about a "freak." I didn't see Calliope as unfortunate or even unusual. Consider Greek mythology. The tales of Zeus turning himself into a bull in order to seduce Europa, or of Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection, are fanciful. But they aren't inhuman. We recognize ourselves—our impulses, weaknesses, longings—in the Greek myths. You could say, then, that Middlesex is a modern myth. It's a modern myth about adolescence. What Calliope goes through is what we all go through, in the maelstrom of puberty. Her experience of the process, physically and psychologically, is merely more dramatic than our own. Callie's life differs from ours in degree but not in kind. So you saying that Calllie's "story is one that most people can relate to" is exactly right. Or at least, it's precisely what I'd hoped for.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
Why is the house called "Middlesex?"
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

Why is their house called "Middlesex?"

— Peggy N.

Dear Peggy,

The house isn't really called "Middlesex." Not, at least, in the way "Wuthering Heights" was called "Wuthering Heights." "Middlesex" is simply the name of the street the Stephanides lived on. Cal refers to the house by its street address in the way people call The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
How did you come up with the title of the book?  
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

How did you come up with the title of the book? Did you ever refer to it by another name?

— Meg A.

Dear Meg,

It took me a long time to come up with the title. Yes, I had other titles for the book early on, poor choices which I'd rather not remember. As I made my way along with the book, however, I reached the 1970s, and arrived at my old neighborhood: Grosse Pointe, Michigan. It hit me that we had lived in Middlesex Blvd. and that the name of our old street was the perfect title for the book. Not only did the name suggest the androgynous nature of my hero, it suggested American suburban pretensions (the Anglophilia of our street, city and county names.) Finally, Middlesex alluded to another long novel about a family and a town by an author I much admire, George Eliot. Her masterpiece, of course, is Middlemarch.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
Why do you use the word "hermaphrodite"?  
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

I have friends who are intersex and as someone who identifies as neither fully male or female and who is a friend and ally to intersex people, I am wondering why you weren't more sensitive to terminology. Why are you using the word "hermaphrodite" in your book—a word choice that is either terribly ignorant or unforgivably callous. I admired the book so much for the humanity it gave to the central character and I was so disappointed to have it dashed by this thoughtless use of the word "hermaphrodite." Can you please explain why you chose this?

— Reece J.

Dear Reece,

I alluded to this concern in a previous answer, but let me address it directly here. First of all, Reece, I appreciate the issue about terminology you raise. I've had conversations with intersex people about this very subject and, as you can see from this very sentence, I do try to use the term "intersex" when referring to actual, living persons. Middlesex, however, grows out of Greek mythology. The story of Hermaphroditus, the beautiful son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is one I retell, in modern guise, in two different sections of the book. The nymph Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphroditus when he took a swim in her designated pool one day. He rebuffed her advances, but she clung to him, pleading with the gods to keep the two of them from ever parting. Her prayers were answered. Hermaphroditus and Salmacis were physically fused into one being.

Why am I going into all this? Because when I use the term "hermaphrodite," I'm referring not to a person or a group of people but to a literary character. Hermaphroditus had many children: Tiresias obviously, but also Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Hermaphroditic figures appear in the mythology and folklore of just about every culture that exists. As a writer, I use the term "hermaphrodite" when speaking about such characters.

But you're right. When speaking about real people, I should—and I do my best to—use the term "intersex." One of the first source materials I consulted when I began writing Middlesex was the journal Hermaphrodites with Attitude published by The Intersex Society of North America. The writers in the journal have co-opted the term "hermaphrodite" in the way gay men and women have reclaimed the word "queer." Is it surprising, then, that my narrator, who is intersex, might use the term at times? It's paradoxical: Cal can say "hermaphodite" but I can't. Or shouldn't.

I don't know if this will satisfy you, Reece, but I hope it gives you some idea of my thinking on the subject and testifies to the fact that I have thought about it. As a writer of English, I resist any depredations to its marvelous vocabulary. I could never support a moratorium on the use of the word "hermaphrodite." I do entirely agree with you, however, that people should be aware that the proper term to apply today, when talking about human beings, is intersex. This distinction is getting ever more widely known, I think. Your question speeds that process along, and I thank you for it. I do appreciate the fact that you admired the "humanity" of my book and might add in my defense that anyone who reads Middlesex will undoubtedly respect the humanity of its narrator and central figure. Which is the main thing, after all.

— Jeffrey Eugenides

What is intersex? Watch this video.
Why did you decide to use Cal as the narrator?
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

Why did you decided to use Cal as the narrator and were you concerned that his/her omniscience would confuse or distract readers? How did the narrative voice of Cal affect your telling of the story (chronology, emotional perspective, tone, etc.)?

— Kristin K.

Dear Kristin,

It took me a long time (years, literally) to come up with a narrative voice supple, complex, and intimate enough to suit the content of Middlesex. On the one hand I wanted a first-person voice that could relate Cal's own life history from the inside. A first-person voice also allowed me to avoid the pronomial clutter you had to step over in your question (the his/her problem.) Much better, more truthful, and more individualistic to say "I."

The difficulty was that I also had other characters' stories to tell. This worked better from a third-person perspective. So I played around with first- and third-person, writing many drafts that never saw the light of day. Gradually, I came up with a hybrid voice, well-suited to my theme, that shifted from first- to third-person on a dime. Is it too complicated? I hope not. I took great pains to make the transitions as smooth as possible. Some time-shifts, consisting of a line or two, took days to write before I got the right rhythm and sense. I didn't want to trip up the reader. Flashlights are provided at all intersections. The reader, however, is expected to look where she's going.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
What's your next project?
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

Are you planning a new book? What? When?

— Michael Z.

Dear Michael,

Not just planning, actually sitting down and writing. At my usual, frenzied, leisurely pace. I don't like to talk much about what I'm working on, but I can tell you, Michael, that it's a very different book from Middlesex, more tightly dramatized. The majority of the story takes place over a few days, rather than eight decades, and so the whole thing is like a snowball rolling downhill. This, I should mention, is something I don't quite know how to do. I'll have to learn how to do it. Learning how constitutes the entire effort of this book. There are lots of characters and a great deal of dramatized action, of scene-making. It'll be finished when it's finished. I've also been writing short stories and am slowly amassing (to use a grand term for a small output) a collection.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
Did T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" influence Middlesex?
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

As I'm sure you're well-aware, T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" has a character named Mr. Eugenides from Smyrna. Did this reference inspire you to set the beginning of Cal's family history in that region?

— Kelly W.

Dear Kelly,

Upon seeing my name on his class list, my ninth-grade Latin teacher looked at me and began to quote from "The Wasteland": "Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, bearded, with a pocketful of currants..." That was the first I'd heard of it. Since then, I've tried without success to find out who this Mr. Eugenides was. An appeal to the T.S. Eliot archives brought nothing. My relatives did come from the region and, who knows, maybe Eliot's "Mr. Eugenides" was real and, furthermore, a distant relative of mine. I don't know. I didn't consciously set the early chapters of the novel in Asia Minor because of the Eliot quotation, but it may have played an unconscious role in turning my gaze eastward. By the way, the annotated edition of "The Wasteland" suggests that this Mr. Eugenides is an unseemly character. But I was happy to find him there, at 15, in one of the last century's greatest poems.

— Jeffrey Eugenides
How did you choose the character names in Middlesex?
Dear Jeffrey Eugenides,

It's interesting how you use names in this book. Some characters have eloquent Greek names, after figures in history and mythology. Very cool. Other people are given strange nicknames that describe how they fit into the story. Their real names are not really important (like The Obscure Object). Can you talk some more about why you named characters in these two distinct ways?

— Sharon B.

Dear Sharon,

I have one requirement for characters' names: They have to help me see the character. The name has to be right or I can't conjure the personality. So I cast around, usually, trying out different names until I find one that feels right. In Middlesex, I used some nicknames to add credibility to the narrative. It seemed to me that Cal, like any memoirist, might choose to disguise certain people's identities. But mainly I liked calling The Obscure Object "The Obscure Object." That name was the open-sesame that revealed her to me.

— Jeffrey Eugenides


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