Jeffrey Eugenides a hit at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Jeffrey Eugenides read from his latest novel 'The Marriage Plot' at the Sydney Writers' Festival.
Image (c) David Shankbone.

Last week I confessed I have never read any of Jeffrey Eugenides’ books, but that I was planning to fix this soon. Having seen him speak on Thursday (May 17) at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival I now absolutely cannot wait to read some of his work.

If he writes half as well as he speaks (his Pulitzer would indicates he does!) then I’m in for a real treat.

For those who saw him too, you know what I mean. Journo Caroline Baum did a brilliant job, keeping the interview lively and well-paced, but the event’s success was due in large part to the man himself. Eugenides was so relaxed – and funny! – it really did feel more like a “conversation” than an interview.

For the unfortunates who missed it, some highlights… Some of these things are not new, but it was great to hear them from the horse’s mouth. So to speak.

We learned that:

  • Eugenides’ parents wanted him to be a girl named Michelle. When pressed for a reason, he explained this was because he already had two brothers, but that his parents mercifully gave up the idea when he was born.
  • His middle name is Kent because it went with the surname Eugenides. He said his mum used to go to the movies and use the credits as inspiration for names that might suit her new surname, so “Kent must have been the makeup artist in some movie with Jack Lemmon in 1960″.
  • He got his “start in the business of writing” as an assistant editor of San Francisco-based magazines Yachtsman and Californian Traveller (the latter centred on recreational vehicles). Oh, and later he was fired from his job as an executive secretary at the Academy of American Poets for… wait for it… writing on the job. Turns out he was hired to write letters to poets. Instead he was writing the letter header, then under the pretence of writing the body he was churning out “two or three pages of fiction on the sly”. Nice work if you can get it!
  • If he ever wants to give up his pen he has a fallback: his Greek grandparents came from a silk farming background in Asia Minor. He drew a big laugh when he pointed out: “I still know how to do it myself. If writing doesn’t work out, at least I can still have silk pyjamas.”
  • If he could be a Greek god, he’d probably choose Hermaphroditos (a boy who was transformed into an androgynous being by a union with a water nymph) or Tiresias (a blind prophet who was transformed into a woman for seven years), in light of the themes in his Pulitzer-winning novel, Middlesex. (No, he’s not intrasex himself.)
  • There was a time when he was “obsessed with monks”, and even kinda wanted to be one, which he suspects might have had something to do with a “fear of not being published”. Sadly, monasteries of the world, you may as well give up hope of Eugenides taking the cloth. I doubt that’s a valid fear for him anymore!
Eugenides regaled the SWF crowd, telling them if writing didn't work out he could always turn to silk farming.
Image (c) Darcy Moore.

He also let slip that he (apparently) lost his virginity in the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit, although he said of a recent-ish visit there, that it had been renovated, “so I didn’t have to go back there and see how long ago that was”.

And while we’re on revelations of this nature, he also confirmed that the scene in Middlesex where two second cousins are conceived on the same night was drawn from real life. Apparently he discovered he and his wife had conceived their child on the exact same night as his brother-in-law/brother-in-law’s wife had conceived theirs.

Stranger still, it was under the same roof. (Different rooms, obviously, I hasten to add.)

Perhaps strangest of all, it was after they’d all been to see the David Cronenberg film Crash. Said Eugenides jokingly, “Yeah, it was one hell of a night. I don’t know what the odds are [of two couples conceiving on the same night] but I think after a Cronenberg movie they’re greatly reduced”.

There was also a hilarious moment when Baum asked Eugenides whether he saw as his “team” other famed Greek American writers such as Arianna Huffington (Prez and Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post), George Pelecanos (author and film and TV producer known for his work on  Baltimore drama The Wire) and Tina Fey (actress, comedian and writer known among other things for comedy series 30 Rock). Eugenides replied, in what I gleaned was his typical self-deprecatory way:

“Just imagine me at a party with Huffington*, Pelecanos and Fey. Just imagine if that’s going well or not.”

Cue big laugh from the audience. Eugenides said he didn’t really see himself as on some Greek American writer “team” per se. “I’m just an American mongrel and I’m happy with other mongrels,” he said.

[* There was another name in this example, I didn’t quite catch it. If you know, tell me and I’ll update the quote!]

There were so many great moments it’s impossible to jot them all down here. Not to mention, for some of them you just had to be there! I was expecting Eugenides to be witty and insightful. On this point I was not disappointed. More pleasant still, though, was the fact that he was also humble, lively, inspiring, a terrific reader (he read out this great section from his new book The Marriage Plot – beautifully crafted prose), and very very funny. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of his sold out talk at the festival. Thank you so much to everyone who made it possible – not least my sister-in-law for organising the tickets!

More delicious fictitiousness anon.

~ DF

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