Mr Jeffrey Eugenides On How To Write A Story
Illustration by Mr Joe McKendry
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist behind The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex and The Marriage Plot (and MR PORTER customer) on the way he constructs his stories.
Fresh Complaint, the first book of short stories from acclaimed novelist Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, has been many years in the making – it brings together work that spans the years from 1988 (five years before Mr Eugenides published his breakout debut novel The Virgin Suicides) to the present day. But Mr Eugenides is an artist who likes to take his time, and if that wasn’t clear enough from the long gaps between his novels – his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex came almost a decade after The Virgin Suicides, in 2002, while his third novel, The Marriage Plot, followed in 2011, it’s certainly implied in his description of the story-writing process. “Nothing I've ever written has arrived in one piece,” he says. “If it did, I wouldn't trust it. I spent years on some of these stories, putting them away and taking them out again. A few came more quickly, but they all involved a measure or re-writing and editing.”
The book itself comprises a tightly edited selection of 10 stories, some previously published, some never-before seen. Some of the characters will be familiar for fans of Mr Eugenides work – Mitchell from The Marriage Plot appears in “Air Mail”; Dr Peter Luce from Middlesex in “The Oracular Vulva”. But new characters, too, arrive with their own rich, and often heartbreaking backstories: the protagonist of “Early Music” reminisces about a summer in Germany while preparing to default on the loan for his seldom-played clavichord; titular story “Fresh Complaint” follows an academic returning back to his family after being exonerated for a sexual assault charge. How did Mr Eugenides choose what to include? “The same way I choose clothes from MR PORTER,” he says. “By the quality of the material.” Such judiciousness is evident in the final package, which, we at MR PORTER can testify, is difficult to put down, filled as it is with warmth, humanity, and the sheer pleasure of reading Mr Eugenides’ incisively intelligent, but wonderfully direct prose. In honour of its release, we caught up with Mr Eugenides to ask his thoughts on the art of storytelling – scroll down for some choice words from a modern master of the form.
What do you enjoy about writing short stories?
I guess I Iike the maddening difficulty of them. They’re each like a Rubik’s Cube you keep twisting around, trying out different permutations until the colours align.
For you, how does a short story start? Is it an image, a character, a dramatic setup?
It’s almost always a situation. A person with a problem, or a dramatic conceit. Of course, these sometime come with characters, so it’s never an either/or situation.
What are some of the most important elements of a short story for you?
The stories I love are too dissimilar to have much in common. A story like “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson is nothing like “Spring In Fialta” by Nabokov, which bears no resemblance to “The Moon In Its Flight” by Gilbert Sorrentino. No, I take that back. Language is of primary importance in all of these, and melancholy in the latter two. What most impresses me is when the ending of a short story can solve the tensions of the story while radiating significance and wisdom outward, in the way of overtones in a Tibetan chant. Very few writers can pull that off. To have the story be both specific and universal.
Which authors do you think instructed you most in the art of storytelling?
Alice Munro. Martin Amis. JD Salinger. Saul Bellow.
**Is there some sort of mythic structure that applies to all good stories? **
Nabokov said all great novels are great fairy tales. I suppose that might apply to stories, too. But that sort of thing doesn’t occur to me when I’m writing. I’m looking for plausibility. To convince the reader of the reality of whatever I’m writing, even if it's lavish, outrageous, or highly comic. It doesn’t help me to think in the abstract.
Many of these stories focus on people confronting their immaturity in middle and late life. Do you think we ever grow up?
Most of the characters in these stories may start off deluded or immature, but they end up being chastened along the way and learning a thing or two. We do grow up. Life demands it of us. It happens to some people later than others, depending on when the shocks come. Bellow talked about people having “grief registers”. At a certain point, every person's register gets filled up. A strange beauty attends that late stage. The oldest people in these stories perceive that beauty. It’s what allows them to accept death.
Does our love of stories make us all fantasists?
Stories are a way or ordering experience and explaining it, not evading it. We do dream away our lives and many of the mistakes we make come from pursuing fantasies. But literature is the antidote to all that. It teaches you to separate fact from fiction, through fiction. Nobody who reads Don Quixote becomes quixotic. Just the opposite.
What keeps you writing the next story?
The illusion of finally getting it right.
Fresh Complaint (Farrar Straus and Giroux) by Mr Jeffrey Eugenides is out now