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Pulitzer Prize Winner: Jeffrey Eugenides

June 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The narrator of the novel Middlesex has quite a problem. “I was born twice: First, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

She, or he, also has quite a family history. Several generations of Greek-Americans moving from war-torn Asia Minor in the 1920s to life in Detroit in mid-century: Working for Ford, losing their inner-city business in the 1967 riots, making their way to the suburbs, a nice house, and a Cadillac in the driveway.

But moving with them has been a rare genetic condition that makes the narrator a hermaphrodite: Calliope Stephanides, raised a girl, who becomes Cal Stephanides, teenage boy.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you used to live in this neighborhood?

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: I lived here for four years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of this unusual tale, and this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

BOOK STORE EMPLOYEE: As you can see, we have your book. There’s not that many left.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Oh, good.

JEFFREY BROWN: We met recently at the community bookstore on a visit to the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived for many years as a young writer. He now lives in Berlin. At 43, Eugenides is himself Greek-American, Detroit-born, suburb-raised– all sources of inspiration for his second novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jeffrey Eugenides, welcome and congratulations.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Nice to be here. Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: I had the sense very early on, reading your book, that this was a modern-day Greek epic that you had written. Did you feel that way?

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: I did. It’s a mixture of many different things. There’s sort of epic storytelling at the beginning, and as the book moves along, it becomes a more deeply psychological, more modern novel. But certainly I was trying to retell an ancient myth of metamorphosis for our time, investing it with scientific information and medical information and biological facts.

JEFFREY BROWN: So on the one hand, you have a traditional, sweeping novel, a big story.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the twist here is that what we’re actually following is a gene.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: You follow the gene from 1922 in the bodies of the grandparents, and you follow this gene as it goes into the parents of the narrator and finally into his body. I wanted to make this person real, and I had to do a lot of research into hermaphroditic conditions or intra-sex conditions, as they’re called today.

I went to the medical library and I came across this syndrome that I use in the book, five- alpha reductase deficiency syndrome. And the salient fact of this condition is that it only happens in inbred communities where there’s a lot of inbreeding. That’s at the moment when I started thinking about the story as a family story. I thought it was a new way to tell a family story through a gene and watching the gene on its rollercoaster rider through time.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you had in your sense his kind of ancient Greek mythology?

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Well, Greek-Americans are always thinking back to their so-called glorious past, and it’s… it’s a good place for comedy– the distance between Sappho and Souvlaki, basically– and I try to use that in this book.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a passage that I noted in which your narrator seems to look back at his life and see it whole, in a sense, for the first time. I wonder if you could read that.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Sure, this is Cal, speaking about Calliope, his former self, his self as a girl:

“Hers was the duty to live out a mythical life in the actual world, mine to tell about it now. I didn’t have the resources at 14, didn’t know enough, hadn’t been to the Anatolian Mountain the Greeks call ‘Olympus,’ and the Turks, ‘Uladog,’ just like the soft drink. I hadn’t gotten old enough yet to realize that living sends a person not into the future but back into the past, to childhood and before birth, finally, to commune with the dead. You get older. You puff on the stairs. You enter the body of your father. From there it’s only a quick jump to your grandparents, and then before you know it, you’re time traveling. In this life, we grow backwards.”

JEFFREY BROWN: I like this notion of, “in this life, we grow backwards.” That’s how you told your story.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: It is. It’s sort of the way I tried to imagine myself into the characters. I had a lot of trepidation about writing a historical novel or writing about people who lived in 1922, because what do I know about 1922, really? But what I found is that as I’ve turned 40 myself, I sort of understand what it was like for my father, at 40 physically, mentally.

And with that kind of physical recognition you’re able to understand what your father was going through when he was 40, which would have been 1960. And you can kind of leapfrog in that way through a physical understanding of your parents and grandparents to sort of get into their bodies and finally get into their minds what they were doing in 1922. And this is not their story, but it is the kind of my imagining of their story in a different guise.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: How are you? Good to see you.

GUS VLAHAVOS: Good to see you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eugenides used Gus Vlahavos and his Brooklyn diner as models for one important part of his fictional family’s life. Eugenides used to be a regular here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does the Greek-American community keep up with…

GUS VLAHAVOS, Owner, Tom’s Diner: The Greek-American community can’t say enough, especially the literary Greek American community, can’t say enough about Jeff and his accomplishments.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: I was writing about a fictional diner in Detroit. I was writing this in Berlin and describing Brooklyn. I used this window from the Orthodox Church. And I used this “Enjoy a Cherry Lime Rickey” sign.

JEFFREY BROWN: Enjoy the cherry lime Rickey’s we did, and talked with Gus, whose family has owned this diner for 66 years.

GUS VLAHAVOS: The Greeks came… when they originally came, they went into the restaurant business, the bar business, the flower business. And they’ve always resented those types of menial businesses, so their ultimate aim was to educate their children and make professionals out of them. The second and third generation now, everything has branched out. They’re in everything, everything. They’re doctors, they’re lawyers, they’re politicians.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: They’re novelists.

GUS VLAHAVOS: And yes, they’re novelists.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your book told that story. From Asia Minor to Detroit inner city and then to the suburbs of Grosse Point.

GUS VLAHAVOS: Yes. Now we’re really enjoying the fruit of our labor, so to speak. Our youth is coming… and they’re succeeded in what their parents and grandparents wanted for them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Winning Pulitzer Prizes.

GUS VLAHAVOS: That’s one of them, very important. He’s still a good boy. ( Laughs ) And he’s got character and that’s very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a movie, was a shorter book, telling a narrower tale. It would take more than eight years to write Middlesex, a bigger story in every way.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pleasure for you as a writer seems to be in the telling. You spread it all out. You slow it down. You go backwards in time. You go forward. You say… your narrator says, “Stop for a minute. Let me tell about this.”

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: I mean guess there had to be pleasure in it. My memory of writing the book was… was one of such pain and despair most of the time. The pleasure was not uppermost in my mind. But certainly I wanted for the reader to have a sense of pleasure and a narrator who could do everything.

In my first book, The Virgin Suicides, I gave myself very strict rules about the narrative voice. And it was a good thing to do when you’re writing your first novel, is not to give yourself too many options. It’s easier that way. This time, though, I gave myself every liberty you can imagine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you go through your own metamorphosis?

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: I certainly did. I mean, a lot of things happened in my life while I was writing the book. I was married and had a child. I went from despair to finally acceptance of being finished with the book, which was not easy to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what does winning the Pulitzer mean for you now?

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Well, when you spend eight or nine years on a book, it’s nice to know you haven’t completely wasted your time. And I didn’t feel that I had, but it’s nice to have a kind of, you know, official recognition of that. So that… that gave me a lot of pleasure when I found out, and still does.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jeffrey Eugenides, thank you and congratulations again.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Thank you very much.