‘Quiet heroism’ reigns in Pulitzer winner Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story collection

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Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel “Middlesex” as well as books “The Virgin Suicides” and “The Marriage Plot,” has published a new collection of short stories that he wrote over his writing career. The collection, titled “Fresh Complaint,” is a fascinating survey of a well-known writer’s journey in a form he’s not particularly known for.

Mr. Eugenides’ three novels are regarded for their sweeping narrative voices and intertwined character perspectives. His penchants for perspective shifts and ethically discomforting topics translate well into the short stories, though the stories do often seem restrained by page length.

Any of the stories could easily spin into a novel, and as a reader, one can’t help but sense that each one is a distillation of larger questions begging to be unwound in more space. What one sees in this collection is an author’s head jam-packed full of characters — an author who itches to place them in scenarios that readers may be hesitant to explore or accept.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Eugenides discussed his process in compiling the collection and writing its newer stories, a number of which he wrote this year. He also spoke about how he pushes himself as a writer and his approach to teaching creative writing students at Princeton.

The Daily Californian: Were you writing (the newer short stories) in specific conversation with the older stories?

Jeffrey Eugenides: I wrote the new stories to the extent that I knew I wanted more stories to complete the volume, but it is not the kind of book where I was consciously writing around a single event or single idea. The stories have some resemblance to each other — they echo each other, just by virtue of having been written by the same person. But it wasn’t a situation where, say, I was writing love stories out of one central concern.

DC: After three novels, why a short story collection?

JE: I’ve been writing short stories my whole career as well as novels. The short story form is difficult to do well or master, so I’ve always been intrigued by getting better at it. My more recent stories have a slightly novelistic cast to them — they comprise in the case of “Complainers” almost the entirety of a woman’s life, and in the case of “Fresh Complaint,” it’s told from multiple points of view and deals with family matters that are outside of the action of the story. So I did take what I’ve learned from writing novels over the past 20 years, and it certainly helped me move back into writing short stories that have the density of the novel but are, of course, shorter.

DC: The “point-of-view” shift is a common characteristic of many stories in this collection. It’s also not a very common technique in short stories. Were you inspired by other authors who do so?

JE: I’m teaching at Princeton, so we spend a lot of time in workshop discussing point of view. Certain short story writers — I guess I could mention Alice Munro as a writer who’s sometimes able to shift point of view multiple times in a work, but she’s alone. I tend to write very long short stories — my short stories are not that short — so I generate drama and generate interest often by using a multiplicity of viewpoints. It seems more interesting and more capsulating to try to describe something from many people’s points of view, in a kaleidoscoping vision of an event.

DC: So how do you teach your students about writing? Is teaching craft important, in your opinion?

JE: Teaching craft is closer to a known quantity. You can talk about point of view, you can talk about narrative arc, you can talk about traditional methods of narrative. When you’re trying to discuss more experimental work, there are no rules. So I try to do both, I teach craft — and attention to the essentials of craft are very useful no matter what story you write — but the imperative within any kind of work is to break new ground, to reach material that is meaningful to you but perhaps no one else knows about and to experiment with form and language to the extent that it increases the energy and interestingness of your writing.

DC: How was your writing process influenced by winning the Pulitzer for “Middlesex?”

JE: There’s always pressure to write the best thing you can — to write something different. The internal pressure outweighs the external. I’m a writer who writes all different kinds of stories, all different kinds of novels, so I’m usually responding to my own inclinations. After the success of “Middlesex,” I didn’t write another novel that resembled “Middlesex;” I tried to do something quite different. That’s generally how I operate — I try to do something new and have pressure on myself to do it with the best of my abilities.

DC: What responses have you been getting from readers so far on “Complainers” and the rest of the collection?

JE: I haven’t been reading the reviews, but bits of information get back to me and I had the sense that some reviewers were reading the book as a book about depressed white males or people who were desperately sad. While that’s true in some of the stores and some of the comic ones, I found that the recent stories, and especially “Complainers,” had a kind of — I don’t know what the word is — a quiet heroism to each of them. And a cheerfulness despite the situation of them. They weren’t just a dark portrait of life. So I was wondering if some of the reviewers were maybe concentrating on some aspects or over emphasizing the dark satire of some of the stories, which I don’t think is primary to what the book is about.

Jeffrey Eugenides will be reading from his new book at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco on Thursday, Nov. 9 as guest of the City Arts & Lectures series.

Contact Sarah Goldwasser at [email protected].