Ubud encounters: Jeffrey Eugenides ‘Greeks it up’

It’s not all Greek to award-winner American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides. At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Eugenides explained that he’s not as Hellenic as his name, Greek characters and sometimes Homeric writings might suggest.

“My father’s family was from Asia Minor, but my mother is a Kentucky hillbilly,” Eugenides, who teaches writing at Princeton, said. “On Sundays, the house would fill with Greek immigrants, the men debating in the living room, the women cooking in the kitchen in this strange language I didn’t understand.”

For the plot of his Pulitzer Prize novel Middlesex, Eugenides needed to depict his characters in the Aegean in the 1920s, which opened the door for him to learn about his Greek heritage.

“I had to Greek it up, become more Greek to write the book,” he said.

Noting that sometimes it’s easier to write about completely imagined characters than those based on people he knows, Eugenides “tried to write about Smyrna in Asia Minor in the 1920s from my imagination, and I was stuck.” In his interview with Singapore writer Deepika Shetty, Eugenides recalled he was at the renowned writers colony Yaddo, going to his quarters there, when “at the top of the stairs, on a table was a book called Smyrna 1922. I read that and from it learned that to write about Asia Minor at that time, I had to do more research to understand the place.”
In addition to Middlesex, Eugenides is the author of the novels The Virgin Suicides, which became a movie starring Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner and James Woods; and The Marriage Plot, for which Eugenides is currently writing the screenplay.

“I want to change the material, I don’t want to be completely loyal to book,” he said. Acknowledging that authors are chronically disappointed with films made of their works, Eugenides added, “I’m ready to disappoint myself.”

During the five years Eugenides lived in Berlin, “I came home one night around 3am, not necessarily sober, and The Virgin Suicides was on TV, dubbed in German,” he said. “That’s the right way to watch movies of your books.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.