“Well, I used to be ‘urban.’ And I’m currently a ‘daddy.”
Such is how my phone conversation with Pulitzer-prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides begins. I’d reached out a few weeks prior, as a fan of his work, in the hopes of discussing his forthcoming collection of short stories, Fresh Complaint, which comes out today. Fortunately, the name of this humble publication was enough to pique Mr. Eugenides's interest.
This tireless preoccupation with language is fitting, if you’re familiar with Eugenides previous books. His debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, an almost mythical tale of five adolescent sisters who take their lives one-by-one, narrated in the first-person plural by a chorus of nostalgic adult men reflecting on the defining event of their childhood, is a precise work of rueful lyricism. Middlesex, a multi-generational epic, is at once a love story, an immigrant novel and a bildungsroman, told through the voice of Cal Stephanides, an hermaphrodite who, raised female, ultimately decides to live out his life as a male. In his third novel, The Marriage Plot, Eugenides attempts to adapt the classic Victorian-era novel “marriage plot” to a contemporary society which, in many important ways, rejects the traditional notions of marriage altogether. On top of being a simply unputdownable story—let’s just say there’s a very juicy love triangle—it's a classic college novel, and contains some of Eugenides's most richly drawn characters to date.
Fresh Complaint arrives as a collection of short stories that nonetheless reveals the extent of Eugenides’s predilection for the novel. They are long, for one, and several seem to claw at the form itself, lurking somewhere between a standard short story and novella. Written between 1988 and 2017, they exhibit the full range of Eugenides’s`moods, from the cool, intellectual jigsaw puzzle of the oldest one, “Capricious Gardens,” to the more deeply felt introspection of the longtime friends in “Complainers,” one of two new stories that bookend the collection. Readers of Eugenides will recognize his proclivity for Midwestern settings. “Airmail,” a dare-I-say transcendent story about diarrhea, also served as inspiration for The Marriage Plot; and “The Oracular Vulva,” which has to be the most suspenseful, morally complex story about a blowjob I’ve ever read (and I’ve read, like, three), is an outtake from Middlesex. So feel free to start with those.
With semantics regarding the name “UrbanDaddy” out of the way, Eugenides and I get down to talking about the new book. Also discussed: what it’s like to revisit old work, the reception of Middlesex and why writing about Trump is the least original thing a writer could do.
How did this collection came to be? Why did you choose to publish all these stories in a collection now?
The stories come from various years. Some of them are much older and some material is new. I put it together and wrote a significant amount of new material, so the book wouldn’t merely be stories from my youth. It just kind of happened organically, in terms of having enough stories to fit the space of the book.
What was it like to revisit some of the older stories?
I can compare the experience to reading a journal or a diary. I don’t really keep journals or diaries, so I don’t know exactly what it’s like. But you read something, you remember it, you remember the person you were at a certain time, the experiences that were happening to you, the books you were reading...there’s a recognition, a little bit of surprise to be suddenly back in the presence of your younger self. With that said, the stories had been written and published and finished, so it wasn’t as if I was delving back into them to rewrite them or to bring them up to a level or kind of writing I’m using at the moment. The stories in the book exhibit many different styles and manners of narratives, so I let them be the way the where.
What sort of styles, exemplified in these stories, are of the sort you don’t practice anymore?
Well, I don’t have a consistent style, so it’s not as though the stories exhibit a manner I wouldn’t use again. Some of the stories are highly comic and could be described as comic and some of the newer stories are more somber in quality. The oldest story in the collection, “Capricious Gardens,” is written in a playful, analytical, slightly intellectual manner, where the characters are held at a distance and examined in a philosophical manner. And it’s very unlike the title story, “Fresh Complaint,” where the psychology of the characters is delved into quite deeply and are taken very seriously as human beings, not ideas. But it’s not a question of something I’ve abandoned, just something I was into at the time. It’s more like music, I guess, someone like Bob Dylan doing folk music sounding really country-ish, and on his later albums, being sort of dark about the world and aging and things like that. It’s more like that. An assortment of moods.
In several of these stories you frequently alternate between the different characters’ point of view, sometimes in jarring and unexpected ways. This tactic is common in novels, of course, but less so, I think, in short stories, which tend to stick with one character’s point of view. I almost read “Conspicuous Gardens,” perhaps my favorite story in the collection, like a novella. Why do you think you gravitate towards this mode of storytelling?
I think I am essentially a novelist, so even in writing these stories sometimes I try to think of it like a novel. I have a large idea and description of a person’s life that comes closer to a total description of what has happened to the person. And then I try to boil it down into as small a space as I can.
There are two ways to write short stories. You either write about a very short expanse of time and try to suggest ultimate significance [that way], or you can try to write about a large amount of time and cram that all into a shorter space. Most of these stories are pretty long. “Fresh Complaint” is almost 50 pages. It’s not a novella and it’s not a typical short story. So they do have qualities of a novel about them, like, as you mentioned, many different points of view. The question is how much can you get into a small space and how much do you need to give the reader a sense of an entire life, an entire story. When I feel like a lot of life has been rarefied and distilled into a small beaker—those are the stories I’m most moved by. That’s what I was trying to do, especially with these new stories.
I know you’ve said that you have more trouble writing short stories than novels. Why is it easier for you to write novels?
I think it’s probably easier for everyone. Just because novels are more forgiving, you have more space to work, and the short story form is devilishly difficult. You have to set everything up very quickly and have events transpire quickly and then shut everything down. And if you’re like me, I tend to have a mind that has an idea and connects it to another idea and connects it to another idea, and wants to describe the multiplicity of viewpoints and make connections between dissimilar things. So if I’m writing, very quickly I begin to gather some steam and baggage and suddenly I have a lot in my head. And it just works better for a novel. I really am still writing short stories and quite keen on trying to get equally proficient with novels and stories, but they require different attitudes.
I was just asking because usually, as a writer, you start out with short stories, so you would assume it’s easier. But I guess not.
Yeah, I mean obviously it’s just an easier way to have a writing workshop. You can’t write a novel for your first attempt at writing something. You want to write something short, because you’re working on language, and you’re working on the sentence. So that makes sense, but to write a successful short story is hard. Larry McMurty taught a class [I attended] and he said he thought novels were easier than short stories, and that had never occurred to me before. I had just assumed that novels being longer would be harder. When he said that, I took permission to think maybe I should try writing longer things, writing novels. After that I really did become a novelist. There are good reasons to being a novelist for practical reasons, too. Publishers like them more. Readers like them more. I also like not dealing with the publishing side of things. Being a novelist allows you to work for many years in obscurity and on your own, and I tend to like that.
I wanted to talk about the story, “Find the Bad Guy.” The voice in that is so different and more specific than in the other stories. How did you find it?
Well, that voice came to me in pieces. I started writing it one day with an impulse to write with a Texas twang—someone who was Texan, talking about his life. And then I realized that he wasn’t really Texan, that he was from michigan, and he was faking it; in a sense, trying to become Texan. Then it became more interesting to me that he was fraudulent and at a distance from his authentic self. That story deals with those very things, of mendacity and guilt and truth. So the voice became part of the story’s theme and part of the story’s meaning. That’s what I’ll do when I come up with a voice. A voice isn’t there just to be strange. It has to be there because it relates to the psychological state of the narrator. In Middlesex, it’s a first person narrator that goes into the third person, and that’s because the events of Cal Stephanides life makes him want to break out of his own story in order to explain his own existence. The narrator there and the strangeness of that narrative voice is really psychologically motivated. It’s the same with “Find the Bad Guy.” His Texas voice is something like George W. Bush having such a deep Texas accent, despite his family being preppies from the east coast. I know he grew up in Texas, but he could proabably modulate that a bit. I think a lot of people take on a voice depending on where they’re living, and that’s what I was playing with.
You mention George W. Bush. With the exception of the story, “Great Experiment,” which had some Bush-era politics, the stories are more or less apolitical. Do you think the responsibility of a novelist has changed since back then? Do you feel the pressure to wade into politics in your work?
If you think about Henry James, and you read a Henry James novel, do you ever wonder, “I wonder what was going on with the Teapot Dome?” That’s a way of saying I don’t feel a responsibility to do that. I didn’t really become a writer to have a type of responsibility thrust on me.
I think when you write about the world you live in, that you do inevitably address social and political questions. When I wrote “Great Experiment,” it was before the Great Recession. I could feel something strange was happening in the economy, and people who didn’t seem to deserve it were getting rich, and some people were getting left behind. And I imagined what this one failed poet would do trying to get his piece of the pie, and how he would turn to a life of criminality—kind of in a Breaking Bad way before Breaking Bad was a on TV.
At the same time, he’s publishing [Alexis] de Tocqeuville’s Democracy in America, and the story really does take up questions of what kind of country America is, how was it founded, what was it meant to be, what America was like early on. Apparently, there was a great degree of economic equality, so much so that the founders didn’t really worry about putting certain laws on the books that would guard against oligarchy. I was just reading something last week on this issue. They were so sure at the time that most everybody had a little piece of land and a little bit of money that there wouldn’t be that many rich people (I’m mostly speaking about white people). That’s so different from the country now, with the huge disparity in wealth and money affecting elections. I think [“Great Experiment”] is extremely political. I think it’s as political as something I could write, if I wrote about Trump directly. Right now, we’re so awash in the news and in Trump, that I would think the least original thing a writer could do would be to write directly into that. I wouldn’t attempt it. It would bore me instantly.
I know some of the stories are set in Chicago and some are set in Detroit (in addition to The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex). Do you consider yourself a Detroit writer the way Bellow is considered a Chicago writer? Or do you resist that kind of label?
I have my most vivid memories of Detroit from growing up there, so I don’t resist that title. I know Berlin well, but of course I can only write about Berlin from an expatriate’s perspective. I know New York and I can write about New York, but a lot of people write about New York. I felt that I could write about Chicago, having lived there and feeling a certain affinity for the city. If you’re from Detroit, you can understand Chicago more readily. If I go to Los Angeles I feel out of my depth. I don’t really understand the society and how the city works very well. I’m on most stable ground if I write about a big industrial city in the Midwest with great history and racial tensions and economic decline and a great deal of hope for a future. Those type of things I understand immediately.
How much does that sense of place set the tone for you when you’re writing?
Setting helps you imagine the story. You need to know where the character is, what the character might be seeing on a daily basis, where the character lives, what the character’s house looks like...once you know where you are it helps to create the pictures in your head that you need to write. It’s not helpful to me to think of an unknown place or a vague place that makes everything fuzzy in my head. I like to know where my people are.
I read Middlesex a long time ago, but I'm curious: what do you think the reception of it would be were it published today, given the increased openness surrounding gender and sexual identity?
It’s amazing. Because when Middlesex came out people didn’t know the term “gender identity.” I usually had to explain it when I did readings. People that knew that little world had thought about it, but your basic citizen didn’t know about gender identity. Now it’s talked about all the time. When it came out [in 2002] there was a fair amount of resistance to the material. It took a while for people to get comfortable with it. If it came out now, it would seem like just another one of these books about the subject. But back then it was much more unusual.
Are you working on anything else now that we can look forward to in the future?
[Laughs] I hope so.