Omens and prose: Prolific author speaks to packed crowd at Rackham

BY CAITLIN COWAN

Published November 3, 2006

It's been a long time since a writer caused such a clamor in Ann Arbor. The Rackham Amphitheatre, where a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist gave his lecture yesterday, was filled to capacity well before the event's 5 p.m. starting time. Crowds of people filled the foyer and crushed themselves close to the entry doors where they were sadly turned away. Still others were led into a neighboring conference room to watch the lecture on an unfriendly television screen.

Ann Arbor evidently has a lot of love for Jeffrey Eugenides.

His lecture, "On Obstacles and Omens: The Writing of 'Middlesex,'" was quite a draw. He's gained a solid following since writing "Middlesex, " "The Virgin Suicides" and many works of short fiction.

Despite his successes, Eugenides has no qualms about the hard work that goes into writing a novel. He claims that often people who approach him express their desire to have written a novel themselves, though they haven't been able to find the time. "That's like saying 'I've always wanted to play center court at Wimbledon, but I haven't gotten around to it,'" he said jokingly.

The Detroit-born author said that the initial spark of inspiration for "Middlesex" came after he read Michel Foucault's "Memoirs of a 19th Century French Hermpahrodite." While he was intrigued by the story, he felt that the main character didn't disclose the kind of information or emotions that he was desperate to learn about. "I wanted to tell the story that I wasn't getting from Foucault."

Eugenides had very specific ideas about his protagonist. "I wanted to write about a real person with a real biological condition," he said, "Someone who lived on both sides of the great gender divide." After searching the medical library at Columbia University, Eugenides found an intersex condition that he found to be particularly dramatic. He then considered the idea that would ultimately lead him to the "roller coaster ride of a single gene trough time" that begins "Middlesex" and shapes its story.

The question of gender interests Eugenides.

"We are all an 'I' before we are 'he' or 'she,' " he said.

In "Middlesex" he sought to "champion identities that are hybridized and mixed. And to do that, often you have to go to places where they are not." The places he speaks of are cities like Berlin and Detroit, both divided and reunited cities that figure prominently in the novel.

Eugenides also spoke of number of "omens" that he experienced while writing "Middlesex." For example, in writing the description of Cal Stephanides's grandparents, Eugenides drew from a memory of his own grandparents who he had seen in a rolled-up old photograph years ago. The day he wrote this description, a package arrived by mail from his mother. Inside was the very photograph he had been remembering, smoothed and pressed into a frame. After every portentous moment he revealed, the audience "oohed," whispered and hushed themselves in nervous adulation.

Jeffrey Eugenides had an inkling that he might be destined for literary greatness years ago, where he and his wife looked up their astrological compatibility in a love guide. He said that their combined horoscope indicated that his Scorpio wife would "bring out his creative side," and help him win a Pulitzer. Whether he has received any premonitions regarding his future or not, it's safe to say that his tour as a literary giant is far from over.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Thursday
At Rackham Ampitheater