Questions for Jeffrey Eugenides

The author of The Marriage Plot discusses his new novel, the character that’s not based on David Foster Wallace, and why he works in a windowless room.

Jeffrey Eugenides

Photograph for Associated Press.

It’s been nearly a decade since Jeffrey Eugenides released his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah’s Book Club-approved, mega blockbuster novel Middlesex. The writer’s highly anticipated new novel, The Marriage Plot, is getting the promotion one would expect for such a long-awaited work, including a cowboy-style billboard in Times Square. Eugenides’ varmint-killing pose is a strange juxtaposition considering his new novel’s plot: It’s about a love triangle among three highly intellectual Brown University students in the early ‘80s named Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Madeleine is a beautiful, semiotics-obsessed WASP who totes a copy of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse  around with her wherever she goes; Madeleine is in love with Leonard, her charismatic, brilliant, and mentally ill classmate; Mitchell, a sensitive soul from Detroit, is hopelessly devoted to Madeleine. The novel follows the three twentysomethings in their senior year of college and into their freshman year of life.

Slate spoke to Eugenides about whether or not Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace (an issue of some dispute), his own post-collegiate malaise, and his daily writing routine.

Slate: What made you decide to use your alma mater, Brown, as a setting?

Jeffrey Eugenides: I was going to set it at a different college. At a fictionalized college. Then I started writing it, and it seemed too much trouble for what it was worth. I knew Brown better. Who would I be kidding if I fictionalized it and called it B college. I figured there’d been lots of novels about Harvard and other places so why not Brown.

Slate: There’s a set of cultural expectations that people have when you namecheck Brown—like the obsession with semiotics, which was still in full effect when I attended. Did you major in modern culture and media when you were there?

Eugenides: It was called the program in semiotics studies, and it wasn’t a department. It was just starting out, really, which is partially why the craze seemed so at its height, with people taking sides whether this was an appropriate discipline or not.

Slate: The novel seems to gently mock the study of semiotics, but at the same time it has a sense of reverence for it. What was your take on it at the time?

Eugenides: I’m ambivalent. My intention wasn’t just to mock it because I found a lot of value in many of the theorists that I read, and I continue to wrestle with and against their pronouncements. It still has a meaning for me. On the other hand I do remember the way people took to theory as if it were some kind of creed. Almost took it up as a religion. That seemed comic to me and excessive even at the time. It seems more comic to me now that the grip of French theory seems to have loosened.

Slate: In the character of Madeleine, you got the intrinsic melodrama of college girls just right. Did you base your characters on any of your peers?

Eugenides: No, the main characters are fictionalized. Each of them has a large part of me, including Madeleine and Leonard. Some of the smaller characters are drawn from life but the main characters are not.

Slate: A colleague of mine who’s read the book felt the portrayal of Leonard’s mental illness made him realize how highly intelligent people could commit suicide because you captured the depressive brain space so accurately. What did you draw on for that character besides what’s in yourself?

Eugenides: Well, I read up on manic depression just a little bit just to know what kind of behaviors people would have in mania. We’re all well-acquainted with depression, we all know what the low moods are, but the mania was not something I knew much about. I didn’t know that it would make someone dress extravagantly or start to pun, and to stay up and drink. So I tried to find correlatives in my own life for that kind of behavior. I guess it’s like a non-stop drunk college party in your head. That’s how I imagined it. I would take my most wild moments and try to exaggerate them to the maximum and try to imagine what it would be like if you just were taking so much speed and drugs and you kind of overheated. That’s how I imagined Leonard in his mania, and for the depression I just did it in the opposite direction. What are my lowest moods and what were the lowest they could be if I tried to get them to the maximum, stretching from my own experience.

Slate: How did the rumor get started that Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace? Was it just that the character wears a bandana and work boots?

Eugenides: I’m glad you called it a rumor. It just got started by New York Magazine’s online Vulture site, and they stated it not as a question but as a fact, and it seemed to flow from that. I’m waiting for it to pass by. Now people are saying there are so many differences between [Leonard and David Foster Wallace], the basic one being that Wallace didn’t even have manic depression. I think they’re reading too much into the bandanna. I was thinking Guns N’ Roses and heavy metal guys, but what can you do?

Slate: The other thing that to me felt quite real was the aimlessness the characters displayed in their post-collegiate moment. Did you have that kind of malaise?

Eugenides: I was directed because I knew I wanted to be a novelist, but I didn’t have a very good job or a way of getting published. I found those years to be among the most difficult of my life. I think back and I feel it’s a shame, because you’re young and full of health and power and strength, but at the same time psychologically, it’s probably the most destabilizing time.

Slate: My sense is that it’s a particularly rude awakening for people who went to elite colleges, because whether or not it’s overt, there’s this sense that you are entitled. You’re supposed to be set up for some glittering life.

Eugenides: Yeah, because everyone did well in school, and more or less enjoyed school, for 22 years. If you’re in the humanities, something where you can’t make very much money, if you don’t go into investment banking, suddenly you’re confronted with temping or whatever people did. That didn’t bother me. It was a recession when I graduated, but I was so unequipped to have a job anyway, I don’t think it would have mattered if the economy was booming. I think I was expecting bad jobs. But as it went on through my 20s, I began to wonder how things were going to turn out.

Slate: Did you do a lot of research for Mitchell’s spiritual journey? Were these places where you had gone, or did you read a lot of theological texts to get that right?

Eugenides: I took a lot of religious studies at Brown, so I had a lot of familiarity with those texts. The ones that I remembered best sometimes I would re-read them. I lived in Europe for five years so I could describe his European travels. And I did take a trip around the world—I took a year off from Brown to travel, and I drew on some memories of those trips to give Mitchell his trip.

Slate: I also read that The Marriage Plot grew out of more than 100 pages of another novel that you started and then abandoned. How do you make the determination of what is worth fleshing out completely when you’ve already done a considerable amount of work going in a different direction? Is it just purely instinct? How does this process of what you’re going to pursue as a novel—as a finished product—work?

Eugenides: You can tell when something’s not moving forward anymore. When the doubts you have about it don’t go away. With that novel, it was a novel about a big debutante party, all the characters were coming home to attend the party. One of the daughters in that family was Madeleine. That novel was going reasonably well, but it somehow felt a little empty. I wrote a sentence: “Madeleine’s love troubles began at a time when the French theory that she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” And suddenly I started thinking about semiotics at Brown in the ’80s and began writing more and more about her. And the prose suddenly had an energy and a freshness and sounded contemporary to me in a way the other novel didn’t. So I just broke free of that other book. And I just realized there was something wrong with that book all along, or something I hadn’t solved, and I had this idea of Madeleine and her boyfriend—I knew he was going to act depressive. And I knew there was this other character, Mitchell, who was in love with her. And I just took these three characters out of the book and pursued them, and at that point I didn’t even know what that book was going to be about. I knew who was going to be in the book, but I didn’t know it was going to be about the marriage plot, or that it would be called The Marriage Plot, or that anyone would get married. Any of the things that happened in the book I didn’t know when I began.

Slate: After Middlesex—that’s such a big book; it spans 70 years and is cross-continental—did you want to write something that was less sprawling? Was that a conscious decision or was it just something that came out of you?

Eugenides: I completely wanted to write something different. Even the book I was unhappy with was an attempt to write a tightly dramatized novel. That novel, I thought, was going to happen only over a few days. So it was a reaction to the large canvas of Middlesex, even though the book ended up a healthy 400 pages, it’s much tighter and just different in its voice and in its narrative method. And that’s what I wanted to do. When you finish one book, you don’t want to just write the same book again.

Slate: People really like hearing about writer’s routines. Do you have an average day? Do you set yourself a writing schedule?

Eugenides: I spend most of every day writing. I like to write every day if I can. I don’t start extremely early. Richard Ford gets up at 6 in the morning and writes till midday. I tend to get up late and start at maybe 10 o’clock and work through the day until evening. And that schedule accords with family life, and, you know, I have a daughter. If I lived alone I think I might stay up later and start later in the day. But I sort of have to keep it like a professional job. Like a 9-to-5 job, but seven days a week.

Slate: Do you have a particular place where you work? Do you have a room in your house that you go to?

Eugenides: I have two different rooms. I have a very beautiful room that in my house that we bought in Princeton. It’s glass on three sides, and you’d think that’s the perfect place to write. Somehow in that nice room I feel too exposed, and I can notice I’m too distracted by things going on, so I end up writing in  a not-very-nice office bedroom. So sometimes you just want to go into a small space where you’re not distracted. I always work in a room where there’s no Internet to keep from being distracted so easily. A few years ago in Chicago, I rented an office, and I went there every day. For the most part I do work at home in an ugly room.

This interview has been condensed and edited.