An Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides
Words By Dani Hedlund
You’re exceptionally well-known for your novels, but you’ve been a really prolific short story writer for decades now. Talk to me a little bit about why you decided to put these old stories and brand new stories into a collection.
Well it’s nice of you to say that I’ve been prolific! I think I’ve been slow and steady with the writing of the short stories. The earliest story in the collection was written when I was in graduate school and came out in the late ‘80s, and about a third of the book is brand new material that has never been published before. The reason I’ve collected them is that I’ve finally accrued enough material to fit in a book, and I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction, studying and teaching the form in my classes at Princeton over the last few years. So, that re-dedicated me to the short story form, and I’ve been trying to expand my powers in that realm. I decided it was time to publish a collection and to publish some new, longer works that are indicative of what I’m trying to do now.
Talk to me about the differences in the writing process between a novel and a short story. Do you still feel like you have to have the same elements in there? The same sort of emotional resonance? The same sort of conclusion? Or, do you cut yourself a little more slack with short stories?
It’s impossible to cut yourself slack with short stories, because they’re so difficult. They’re very fragile, and they can fall apart at any moment. So, I think—of the two forms—the novel is probably more forgiving. You can certainly go on, in ten or twenty pages, some sort of digression on an interesting aspect of the novel, and if it’s well-written and interesting, the reader will follow you. But, you don’t have the liberty to meander in a short story. Everything has to be there for a reason, and it’s that economy that makes the form so difficult. You have to do a lot of the same things that you do with a novel—introduce characters, get a story told, create emotional resonance, action, climax, resolution—in a very short space. It’s probably true that the more you write, and the better you become, the more able you are to say something economically and quickly, and to use language to express quite a bit in just a few words. It’s a difficult thing to do.
One of the things I found really moving about your works—both as a reader and as a publisher—is how you decide to end the story. Sometimes, your stories leave me with a cliff hanger, and sometimes your stories just leap off the page and punch me in the gut. But, I never feel like I’m left wanting in a negative way. How do you do that as a writer? How do you decide how to wrap up something?
Well, I think endings are obviously very important in both novels and short stories. It tends to be the thing that lingers in the reader’s mind more than anything else, and all I can say is that I work on the stories long enough to find a way to resolve their tensions and their concerns. It’s not easy to find an ending, and you have to usually try out many different ideas, write many drafts, and sometimes combine them and mush them together until you find the right structure for a story.
A short story should try to tell a much larger experience than it does. You’re trying to suggest everything that hasn’t been told by the ending of a story. You have to telegraph, in a reader’s mind, where things are going, even though the story may be ending. You don’t want to leave a sense of confusion about why the story was written. The story was written in order to address a concern or a problem, and if that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed, then you haven’t found the ending.
One of the things that is often pointed out about your style—and it’s certainly one of the things I love most about it—is your willingness to experiment with prose in a ninja-like way. It’s not the kind of abrasiveness we see in modern experimentation, but there are little ways in which you let the words drip off the page, or you change narrative, or you change point of view that really keep me on my toes as a reader. How do you decide what is too much toying around with form and what is too little?
The short answer would be that any time form or experimentation is there just to call attention to itself—and not to increase the reader’s investment with the story—then it’s excessive. You’re not just showing off for the pleasure of it. Anytime that you do something experimental or unusual with point of view or language, it has to arise out of the story and what the story is trying to do. It has to be there for a reason, almost in the same way an engineer would put in certain struts or cables or designs to hold up a bridge. The things you do experimentally in a story have to be intrinsic and important so that, were you to remove them, the whole thing would fall apart. They are not an icing over the story. They have to be part of its sinews and skeleton. That’s how I think about it. I come upon the things I do in my stories that could be called experimental because the story is calling for that, or needs it, and it’s the best way for me to express what I’m trying to say.
You’ve described this book as a mixed bag of stories, but is there any theme that you think unites them? How do you feel about the cohesiveness of the book?
Since it was written over many years, I certainly didn’t have a guiding principal, or a theme, or even material that I knew unified the stories. But I think, by virtue of the fact I wrote them—and that anybody tends to display his or her preoccupations in anything he or she writes—there are concerns that reoccur in these stories. Economic anxiety seems to come up in a lot of the stories: people worried about making money or losing money; people losing their fortunes; people pursuing artistic careers and facing the financial difficulties that go along with that. There are certain moments of religious investigation or questions about the nature of being and death. A lot of the stories end with a kind of transcendence or almost evaporation of the characters, and I’ve noticed, in rereading them, that there was a repeating motif of… I’m not sure what to call it. A kind of transcendence? A kind of tuning from flesh to spirit that happens in a number of the stories.
There are certainly a lot of pages spent on the stresses of marriage and raising children, on what becoming a parent does to a marriage and the kinds of conflict it brings, the kind of conflict that attends two people trying to have careers while raising children—a lot of the things people deal with nowadays in the modern marriage. We’ve had lots of portraits of marriages over the years, but we’re in a new stage now where you have two free individuals both trying to fulfill themselves within a structure that, traditionally, is not built for that. So you can see, in a lot of the stories, people trying to deal with that. I see things coming up again and again in the stories, but it’s not as if all the stories are about money problems or marital problems or more spiritual ones, but I think those three categories are probably the main ones.
You never shy away from showing us a character’s flaws, whether it’s something simple like pettiness or traits that border on villainy. Everybody sort of just walks around wearing the grey hat, which is a really beautiful reading experience. But how do you manage to keep us in that perfect balance where we still love the characters—we’re still invested in their outcome—but you’re also showing us their flaws?
I’m not really sure. I’m never making decisions moment to moment about a character’s goodness or badness or likability. I tend to have a fair amount of affection and tolerance for my characters, as I do for myself and my friends. I have a warmhearted feeling toward people at the same time I have an awareness and a suspicion of people’s motives, and I think these things go together. They certainly go together when I examine my own behavior and the behavior of those people I know best.
To get an accurate portrait of human nature, you’re going to come up with that kind of complexity, so it’s not really a question of trying to load my characters with flaws. I think most people are flawed and have moments of terrible selfishness, and often they’re guilty about these things and they try to fix them. I usually think my characters are trying to be good but have a lot of things keeping them from being good, so there’s a struggle right in that which is inherently dramatic, and which I think is at the heart of fiction writing in the first place. You can go all the way back to the Greeks to find tragic flaws. There’s heroic behavior, but there’s always some kind of tragic flaw, and without that, you don’t really have a story to tell. A story about someone without a flaw would be a dull, dull thing. And worse than that, it wouldn’t be an accurate portrait of life.
You mentioned earlier in the interview that teaching has really galvanized your love of short stories again. Do you think that being a short story professor has made you a better writer?
I hope it has helped me become a better short story writer. I’ve started to think of short stories as novels that are boiled down to their essential ingredients. The two most recent stories in the collection are pretty long, and I thought of those as novels. I could have written a couple hundred pages about those characters, but I decided just to tell a certain portion of the story, just the spine of their lives, to try to suggest their entire lives. So, writing novels has taught me how to write short stories, because it’s made me think about entire lives, and writing short stories—I hope—will help me in my next novel, because it does give you the kind of precision and attention to detail, chapter to chapter, that you need to make a novel really compelling.
If you can make a novel work like an extended series of short stories where you have a lot of compressed action and revelation, you’re likely to write a better novel than if you write a baggy, meandering one. Everything you write teaches you how to write the next thing you’re going to write, and I’m hopeful that my foray these past two years in short stories will bear fruit when I go back to writing novels.
Can you tell me a little bit about your process for short story writing? How long does it take? Do you have one idea and then, five years later, you remember it and scribble it down? What does it look like?
It looks pretty ugly. Some of these stories came out fairly quickly, but an extreme minority. A lot of the other stories, I’ll write them in vastly different styles. I’ll start in different parts. I’ll try to find the beginning, and I’ll try to write draft after draft, throw them out, and go back to it again. I’ll go off to another short story for a while, get tired of that, come back to the one I abandoned and read it again to see how I can bring it along. So, it’s a chaotic process of many different attempts with many different voices, styles, and points of view, until finally it seems to be working and has some life to it and has some cohesion. It’s a kind of “walking in the dark,” is what it feels like.
I’m just finishing a story now for The New Yorker, and I’ve been working on it for a number of years, putting it aside and working on it again, and now it’s almost finished but I’m having to do a final attack, and it’s difficult and dangerous because sometimes you go in again and everything unravels. It almost feels like you’re trying to disarm a time bomb, and you want to cut the right wires or the whole thing will explode in your face.
What’s next for you? Are you going to keep this love affair with short stories past this story you have for The New Yorker, or are we right back into a novel?
I had a number [of short stories] that I couldn’t finish for the collection which are in a slightly different mode, and they’re lying around, waiting to be finished. So, I may finish those up, but they’re not enough for another collection and they’re a little long for magazines. I have a novel that I’ve also started, and that’ll be my main occupation for the next couple of years, and I’ll just keep writing short stories, as I always have, just at other times, and build up enough for another collection at some point.
Is there a short story in this collection you’re most proud of?
For some reason, the one that I’m attached to is the opening story “Complainers.” It could be because it’s about my mother and her life. My mother had dementia at the end of her life, and instead of telling a story merely about that, I tried to write a story about the part of her life I knew least well, the part she lived outside of the family that had to do with a friendship she had with a younger woman, which she sustained largely through the reading and sharing of books. The story is quiet; it’s not my normal way of operating. It really tries not to call attention to itself and to proceed with slow, emotional logic, and it was difficult for me because it made me worry that it was too quiet and too dull, and I had to persevere through a fair amount of doubts. But having finally finished it, I feel like I accomplished what I wanted to with it, and that’s the one that seems to me the one I’m happiest with.
The other story I wrote a while ago, “Airmail,” is a story that I just think is a nicely shaped story. It was probably the first short story I wrote that I thought was successful, and it seems pretty solid to me when I read it. So, those are the two that are probably the closest to my heart.