The novel takes us back through three generations of the Stephanides familyfrom a tiny Greek village overlooking Mount Olympus to the motor city of Detroit through war, Prohibition and even race riots. The book's narrator, Calliope, is a typical American teenager who finally discovers the shameful family secret that explains why she is not like other girls. Genetically, she is a he.
It took Jeffrey nine years to finish the novel, but when Middlesex finally arrived, the literary world awarded it the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Jeffrey says he got the idea for Middlesex from a memoir by Herculean Barbin, an intersex person who lived in the 19th century, but he was first inspired after reading Ovid's Metamorphosis in high school.
One of the stories in Metamorphosis details an argument between Hera and her husband, Zeus, king of the gods, about whether men or women have a better time in bed. Zeus says women do, and Hera says that men do. "They go back and forth and finally they bring on Tiresias because he's been both a man and a woman to judge the matter, and he says 'If the pleasures of love be as ten, three times three belong to women. One belongs to man,'" Jeffrey says. "I was 16 when I read that, so I knew there wasn't much to hope for as a man. I decided to become a writer at this point."
Still, the character of Tiresias made an impression on Jeffrey. "What struck me about that was the incredible utility of this figure, Tiresias, this person that knew more than a normal person," he says. "And the novelist's job is to know as much as he can about men and women. Novelists like Tolstoy are the greatest novelists because they were able to do that the best."
But there is one major difference between Jeffrey and Cal. "He has a condition where he would not respond to dihydrotestosterone [the substance that causes baldness], so Cal actually would have a full head of hair."
Jeffrey says he spent a lot of time at the medical library at Columbia University. "I researched all the different intersex conditions and then I found the one that I used 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, which Callie has," he says. "I used that one because it's a very dramatic shift in gender."
Cal, Jeffrey says, experiences many of the same things we all do growing up. "I feel that Callie, in my book, goes through things we all go through but to an exaggerated or to an extreme degree. In adolescence, all of us have extreme physical changes, we learn who we are. And that might include who we love, who we're attracted to," he says.
"So I think anyone reading the book remembers adolescence and remembers all those feelings, and that's how I thought about it," Jeffrey says. "And I never thought about an intersex person as so different from me, and the emotional life of such a person wouldn't be alien to me at all."
Jeffrey says there were times when he was "plenty sick" of writing Middlesex .
"There's no question. It did take nine years. It didn't seem like nine years I guess, you know, time flies when you're in agony," he says. "I was engrossed with the book, I was having difficulties with it, and I just didn't notice the years were going by."
The thing that kept Jeffrey going was that he'd never had such an idea before. "Usually my ideas are small. Much smaller. And this one I had such a structure pretty early on and it was a ravishing thing for me and I kept seeing it in the distance and it kept me plodding toward that goal," he says. "And every time I wanted to throw it awayI tried to simplify the book many times, tried to write it in different voices, tried to scrap itbut I just had this feeling that I did have at least the structure, and that's such an important thing in a novel that I didn't want to give it up."
Watch Jeffrey answer audience questions after the show!
Learn more about growing up intersex.