- 08 Jun 17
Set to be interviewed by Florence Welch at Borris House this weekend, the writer’s Cork roots, his love of Joyce, Sofia Coppola’s classic adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, and his views on Trump-era America are all on the agenda as he talks to Paul Nolan
One might not immediately think from his surname – which is of Greek extraction – but Pulitzer-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides has Irish roots.
“Yeah, I actually found out a bit more about this a while ago,” says the softly spoken author, speaking down the line from New Jersey, where he teaches at Princeton. “Apparently my lineage goes back to Cork in the 1650s; they may have been Anglo-Irish Protestants. Then obviously they moved over to the US. I also have some English and of course Greek in my background.”
Perhaps fittingly given his Irish roots, one of Eugenides’ major formative influences was James Joyce’s masterpiece A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, which he read as a teenager in Detroit.
“There was the Irish link in my own background, but I also had another Irish-American friend,” explains the writer. “His family were hugely into Joyce and that really introduced me to him. Then we read A Portrait Of The Artist in our high school English class and I just went for it hook, line and sinker; the priestly idea of the artist appealed to me. The character Stephen Dedalus with this strange Greek name allowed me to identify with the character as well, in a certain odd way.
“That’s when I wanted to become a writer, and if you’re in that kind of mood, the portrait of Dedalus presents such a great model. I didn’t see any irony in the portrait – that he was perhaps a bit young, dreamy and full of himself – and so I read it pretty straight. But took it as what I wanted it to be, so it affected my life quite a bit.”
Eugenides’ own first novel, the magnificent The Virgin Suicides (1993), had a similar effect on a generation. Like many other readers, I first became acquainted with it after seeing Sofia Coppola’s brilliant film adaptation, released in 2000. Telling the story of a group of sisters in ’70s American suburbia who all eventually commit suicide, the book’s incredible portrait of teenage angst and its unforgettable poetic prose style – lauded by John Banville, amongst others – made it a cult classic.
“The Virgin Suicides was definitely a breakthrough for me as a writer,” says Eugenides, whose second novel, Middlesex, would win him the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. “It was the first time I wrote about where I came from. People say write about what you know, and sometimes you can think, ‘Well, there’s nothing extraordinary about me or my surroundings, maybe I should write about something else.’ That can sometimes be a major mistake. When my writing got more personal, it had a certain resonance it didn’t have before.
“The town in the novel isn’t named, but it had similarities to where I grew up. Then I put that together with other elements and that created the story. I mean, it is a work of fiction – I didn’t know a group of sisters who killed themselves. But later in life, I did meet a babysitter of my brother’s children who said she had tried to commit suicide, and so had some of her sisters. So I got the idea from there and transposed that into my own adolescence. In terms of Sofia’s adaptation, that was a rare experience for a writer – she loved the book and I felt very respected throughout the whole process.”
Eugenides has a new short story collection coming out this autumn, Fresh Complaint. Taking pieces from throughout his career, the author says that one story in particular – written during the George W. Bush era – does inadvertently touch on the current political upheavals in America.
“Day-to-day life here is not actually the same now,” Eugenides says of the Trump era. “It constantly comes up in conversation and the general atmosphere has changed. I do remember Watergate, but I can’t honestly recall a period like this. It’s a very strange time. Like everyone else, I regularly find myself thinking, ‘What the hell is actually happening?’”
Coming from Detroit – the home of the MC5, Iggy Pop, Motown and a massively influential techno scene – Eugenides is also quite a music fan.
“I remember going to see The White Stripes as well,” he notes, citing another of the city’s most famous musical exports. “I suppose people think because I’m a writer I might be hanging out with Jack White, but I’m not quite at that level! Although I did meet Nick Cave at one literary festival and he gave me some tickets to a show. Funnily enough, it was actually Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth who first gave Sofia a copy of The Virgin Suicides. And of course I’m really looking forward to talking to Florence this weekend.”
Paul Nolan’s full interview with Jeffrey Eugenides will be in issue following our 40th Anniversary Edition, released on July 6. To purchase tickets for the Borris House festival, see festivalofwritingandideas.com