During his college years, Jeffrey Eugenides said he focused on writing “a decent sentence, and then a decent story.” Now he is looking to teach other students to do the same.
Eugenides, author of the cult classic “The Virgin Suicides” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” will give a reading at Ithaca College as this year’s first speaker in the Department of Writing’s Distinguished Visiting Writers series. The reading will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Emerson Suites. Eugenides’ most recent short story “Extreme Solitude” was published in the New Yorker in June.
Contributing Writer Gena Mangiaratti spoke with Eugenides about his writing process, teaching and how popularity affects a writer’s life.
Gena Mangiaratti: What first inspired you to start writing?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Well it was a long time ago, but I think I began writing as early as elementary school. I guess what made me want to write was the pleasure I always found in writing and telling stories. Just as anyone else would like to play basketball, I enjoyed writing, it’s much the same sort of thing.
GM: When did you realize writing would be something worth pursuing as a career path?
JE: I don’t think of writing as a career, and I don’t remember a moment when a light went on and I thought … I would pursue it as a career. It is something I wanted to do at a young age. At about the age of 16 or 17, I decided to be a writer, and I went about it fairly methodically but not really thinking of it as a career as you might if you were to become a doctor or a lawyer.
GM: How does a story usually begin for you?
JE: I usually start with a person in the middle of a troublesome situation or some kind of dramatic situation, and as I think about the character in the situation and toy with it in my mind, I begin to see whether it has any dramatic possibilities and whether it’s worth my time to pursue.
GM: Do you know where the story is going when you start writing, or do you create it as you go along?
JE: You usually can’t figure out everything in a story before you begin. As you work, different thoughts and ideas occur to you, and you put them into the manuscript and that will inevitably change what you’ve already written, and you’ll rewrite it and rewrite it again. The entire manuscript is always undergoing a certain amount of change from day to day, and that’s the excitement of it. So as much as you plan it beforehand, you have to allow yourself a certain amount of play, and you have to allow contingencies of daily life to come in and interact with your work.
GM: How did the popularity of “The Virgin Suicides” change your life?
JE: I don’t know that a writer is changed by the popularity of his or her books. Obviously it has certain repercussions on your practical life. In my case, I was able to quit my 9-to-5 job and concentrate on writing, but in terms of how it changes a writer’s life, a writer’s life stays very much the same. You’re at your desk working on whatever book and either having a terrible time with it and getting desperate or having a pleasant time and getting very excited. You sort of go back and forth between those two states — from despair to a kind of elation. Oscillating between those two points, hopefully you can push the book along.
GM: You are currently a professor of creative writing in the Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University. What do you like best about teaching?
JE: I like working especially with my senior thesis students in getting their theses developed and written. When I’m teaching a workshop, I get to work with students only for a 12-week semester. The seniors, I work with them all year long and see their work as it develops from an idea to a longer finished work. It’s a one-on-one relationship, more like an editor with an author or just an older author with a younger author, and that seems to me to be a more natural way to work on someone’s writing — one-on-one like that.
GM: What advice do you have for students studying writing?
JE: My advice to young writers is to read as much as you can and to write as much as you can. Reading is extremely important. That’s where you understand what’s been done, and that’s where you get a sense of language and a sense of novelistic structure and narrative structure. … Even though it may seem difficult at first for some young writers, I always recommend that they get in the habit of writing every day, at least for a decent amount of time, and little by little it becomes easier to devote to that. The rewards of that are that your writing gets better, and you begin to re-write your work and move from the flimsiness of the first draft to something that is deeper and more intelligent and more polished.