Ivy league love triangle and real world lessons

Sue Leonard talks to Pulitzer prizewinner Jeffrey Eugenides, about his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, a romantic triangle among three college students

The Marriage Plot,Jeffrey Eugenides

Fourth Estate,

€15.99; Kindle €8.53

THERE’S always a moment, in the best interviews, where the interviewee connects to a question, and lets the barriers fall. It was a while before that happened to me with the Pulitzer prizewinning Jeffrey Eugenides.

He was polite; he seemed engaged, as he sat, and fixed me his intense gaze, but I felt he was simply going through the motions. Then I told him I’d learned loads from his novel. I said that men who claim never to read fiction should read it. And he laughed, relaxed, and agreed.

“Men always tell me their wives read my books. American men think they have to read something that informs their work. I’m disappointed to learn that you meet men like that in Ireland, too.”

I’m talking to Eugenides on a stunningly sunny winter Saturday, and he’s in Dublin for a public reading of his third novel, The Marriage Plot.

Set in ‘80s America, it explores love through life and through books. It contains a love triangle; a search for religious truth; and a desperate struggle to manage the symptoms and treatment of bipolar disorder.

What, to Eugenides, is the overriding theme? “I’ll tell you what the book’s not about. It’s not a book about books.” He says this rather testily. “It’s about people at college and the effect that books have in informing their lives.” Isn’t it also about disillusion? “No. Though certainly the characters do lose their illusions.”

This campus novel centres on three people. There’s Madeleine Hanna, who is writing her thesis on the Victorian novel, and the marriage plot that drove such great novels. There’s the charismatic Leonard Bankhurst, who Madeleine has lost her heart to, and there’s her friend Mitchell, who is convinced he’s destined to marry Madeleine. Mitchell is an all-American, who just happens to be half Greek. So is Eugenides. Mitchell studies religious philosophy and toys with the idea of conversion. He travelled the world after college, working for Mother Theresa in Calcutta. As did Eugenides.

So is the book full of autobiography? “The scenes in Calcutta were the hardest to write. The descriptions were based on my experience, but everything that happens is fiction.” Eugenides did keep a journal. But he wrote it as fiction. “I knew I was going to be a writer from the age of 16. So I wrote my journal as Thomas; and wrote down the things that happened to him.”

Eugenides studied Christianity at university — he went to Brown, then Stanford — because he felt he needed to in order to understand ancient English for his primary degree.

“I nearly converted to Catholicism. I loved the idea of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and all that Brideshead Revisited stuff.

“I found that tantalising. Then I realised, by reading more closely, how similar the Greek Orthodox teaching was. I’d been baptised Greek Orthodox, but I hadn’t been brought up in the tradition. My mother was an Irish protestant.”

Madeleine is a beautifully drawn character — and a totally authentic woman. A composite of many of the women Eugenides knows, she has some aspects of his character and biography.

“I didn’t study the Victorian novel like Madeleine, but like her I thought it was cool to go into the semiotics class. I got on better there than she did, but like her, I really liked Barthes.”

His phone beeps at this point, and apologising, he checks it. He’s worried about his wife, an artist, because she’s due to fly to Dublin but her car hadn’t turned up.

For the record, the couple have a daughter, Georgia, who’s 13, and they live in Princeton where Eugenides teaches creative writing.

Leonard Bankhurst started out as a minor character, there to act as a brooding foil to Mitchell. But Eugenides became so fascinated with the manic end of bipolar, that he grew on the page.

“I got the idea from watching girls in college who went out with guys with bipolar disorder. They could be the very best boyfriend, and the very worst. That dichotomy fascinated me. Women seemed to love that bad boy element.

“And then Leonard is intense. In conversation he gives that complete attention. It’s like Bill Clinton. When he talks to you he makes you feel you are the only person who matters. That, I think, can be seductive.

“I loved writing the chapter when Leonard went into his mania. It was the most satisfying literary moment. Depression is often written about, but rarely mania. That was the element that interested me.”

We follow Leonard through his highs and his lows. Drug dosage — higher in those days, is discussed at length, and his side effects, and the effect on those around him come in for close scrutiny. Surely there was a lot of research?

“Not really. I looked up the dose of Lithium, and I did check my facts with a psychiatrist. But I wrote the book first.”

Eugenides isn’t known for the speed of his writing. His Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Middlesex took nine years to write; and though the Marriage Plot has taken a relatively short six years, nine years have elapsed, because Eugenides spent three years on a novel that didn’t work out.

“Realising that, wasn’t my best working day.”

It wasn’t a case of post Pulitzer block. The prize made the writing process neither easier nor harder.

“But it was useful for that book,” he says. “The subject matter — that of transgender — was off-putting to some people, and after the prize it gained readership through word of mouth.” It has sold more than three million copies.

It’s clear Eugenides is a perfectionist. He won’t release a book until he is sure it is the best book he could possibly write. And he doesn’t see the hurry. He loves staying with his characters, working on them, and enjoying all the new intricacies of the plot.

“The worst thing is when I can’t think of a title. That’s hard because it has to say what a book is about. I panic until I have one.

“That took a long while with Middlesex, but came comparatively quickly this time around.”

There’s no mystery to writing. Eugenides treats it like any day job.

“I drink my coffee, get into my office and start to write.” But if he needs inspiration to start putting words on the page, he reads a master of prose, like Saul Bellow, to get his literary juices flowing.

“I read all the time. And I reread great books constantly. I read them to see how they are structured. You can learn so much by rereading the greats like Tolstoy or Henry James.”

In the novel, Leonard Bankhurst says, ‘My goal in life is to become an adjective. People would go around saying, That was so Bankheadian.’

“You’re going to ask me if that’s my ambition too?” He laughs. “It’s not.” So what is his ambition? “To write my next book more quickly. So that people will stop asking me why I take so long to write books.”

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