Jeffrey Eugenides Calls Short Stories 'Maddening' — And Now He Has A Collection

Oct 1, 2017

Jeffrey Eugenides is well known for novels like The Virgin Suicides and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. But his latest work, a collection of short stories, marks a departure. "Short stories are difficult, maddening little puzzles," he says, "and I've been trying to learn how to write them since I first started to write."

Eugenides' new book, Fresh Complaint, is made up of 10 short stories that he wrote over a span of many years.


Interview Highlights

On how he chose which stories to include in Fresh Complaint

These are all the stories that I wrote and deemed worthy for consumption in my life. There [are] a lot of other ones that are in various boxes and desks, but this goes back to the first story I ever had published, which was in The Gettysburg Review. You know, it's almost like reading your diary from your 20s. When I read the story, I remember who I was and what I was reading and what I was thinking about in terms of literature at that time.

On what connects the stories

You know, the writer is the animal and the readers are the zoologists, so they have to decide what kind of connection there is between these different creatures. My editor did say that there is a kind of progression or arc in that the presentation of a male experience gets older; that some of the early stories, like "Air Mail," deal with a college student who's traveling the globe and searching for the truth about life, and then some of the other stories are about men who are married and have children and are confronting financial problems and the stalled careers and problems that you would encounter in middle age. So there's a kind of questing, aspirational but also thwarted quality to a lot of the men in these stories — a kind of sadness.

And then at the end, in the larger story "Fresh Complaint," a character coming out on the other end of a great mistake in his life and learning from it and moving on hopefully to better times. So in that way I think there's a full progression of a descent and hopefully a sort of ascent at the end.

On what inspired the short story "Complainers," about a female friendship

That story is based on my mother, who died just this last spring, suffering from dementia. I noticed a lot of people my age are dealing with that and writing stories about their parents suffering dementia, but I wanted to try to do it in a different way. And instead of writing about my mother's decline, I wanted to write about the part of her life that I knew the least about, and that had to do with a lifelong friendship she had with a woman who was much younger.

And so I investigated and imagined their friendship, and I tried to tell a story about these two women and how they had gone through difficulties in their marriages, difficulties with their children, but had kept together by reading this book about an Alaskan legend that becomes emblematic for their lives and then also about dementia. I was writing that story for a couple of years while my mother declined, and it was a way of keeping her present for myself and keeping her alive in a sense, keeping her intact.

On why it's so maddening to write short stories

There's no space. I mean, they're very short. That's the problem with a short story: You get it going and then you have to shut it down. And I am a novelist by inclination; I get an idea and then that suggests another idea or another character, or let's change the point of view, and let's have many points of view. And I've tried to do that in some of the stories — I've thought about them as novels that I've just compressed into a small space, but it's just a different kind of thing. You're trying to boil experience down into a very small precipitate, and there's something fun and maddening because it's difficult, but you can just keep playing with it and keep playing with it and trying to get it to work. And, oh, years and years can go by in this process.

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Jeffrey Eugenides is well-known for his novels. He won the Pulitzer for "Middlesex." But his latest work, a collection of short stories, is a departure.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: Short stories are difficult, maddening, little puzzles. And I've been trying to learn how to write them since I first started to write.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jeffrey Eugenides's new collection of stories is called "Fresh Complaint." And he joins us from Princeton University. Good morning.

EUGENIDES: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm curious - you know, did you pull them together thematically from a larger work, or are these just the short stories that you actually wrote, and you put them together in a book?

EUGENIDES: These are all the stories that I wrote and deemed worthy for consumption (laughter) in my life. There's a lot of other ones that are in various boxes and desks. But this goes back to the first story I ever had published, which was in the Gettysburg Review. It's almost like reading your diary from your 20s. When I read the story, I remember who I was and what I was reading and what I was thinking about, in terms of literature, at that time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you change anything? Did you update it? Or did you...

EUGENIDES: No, I didn't think that was - I didn't think that would be right or fair. I kept the stories the way they were when they were written. Much of the book - I didn't want the book just to be older stories. So quite a lot of the page count is new fiction that I've written in the last couple of years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about these stories. What links the protagonists in these tales? I'm thinking about the men in particular.

EUGENIDES: Well, I don't know. You know, the writer is the animal, and the readers are the zoologists. So they have to decide what kind of connection there is between these different creatures. My editor did say that there is a kind of progression or arc in that the presentation of a male experience gets older - that some of the early stories like "Airmail" deal with a college student who's traveling the globe and searching for the truth about life. And some of the other stories about - are about men who are married and have children and are confronting financial problems and stalled careers and problems that you would encounter in middle age.

So there's a kind of questing, aspirational but also thwarted quality to a lot of the men in these stories - a kind of sadness. And then at the end, in the largest story, "Fresh Complaint," a character coming out on the other end of a great mistake in his life and learning from it and moving on, hopefully, to better times. So in that way, I think there's a full progression of a descent and, hopefully, a sort of ascent at the end.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are - there's one story, the first one, which is a portrayal of sort of deep women's friendship. It's called "Complainers." It's very touching. Where did that story come from? And tell us about what it's about.

EUGENIDES: Well, that story is based on my mother, who died just this last spring suffering from dementia. I notice a lot of people my age are dealing with that and writing stories about their parents suffering dementia. But I wanted to try to do it in a different way. And instead of writing about my mother's decline, I wanted to write about the part of her life that I knew the least about. And that had to do with a lifelong friendship she had with a woman who was much younger. And so I investigated and imagined their friendship.

And I tried to tell a story about these two women and how they had gone through difficulties in their marriages, difficulties with their children but had kept together by reading this this book about an Alaskan legend that becomes emblematic for their lives and then also about dementia. I was writing that story for a couple of years while my mother declined. And it was a way of keeping her present for myself and keeping her alive in a sense, keeping her intact.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What makes short stories so maddening? You used the word maddening.

EUGENIDES: Oh, they're so - there's no space. I mean, they're very short. That's the problem with a short story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

EUGENIDES: You get it going. And then you have to shut it down. And I am a novelist by inclination. I get an idea. And then that suggests another idea or another character. Or let's change the point of view, and let's have many points of view. And I've tried to do that in some of these stories. I've thought about them as novels that I've just compressed into a small space. But it's just a different kind of thing. You're trying to boil experience down into a very small precipitant. And there's something fun and, yeah, maddening because it's difficult. But there's you can just keep playing with it and keep playing with it and trying to get it to work. Oh, years and years can go by in this process in a happy...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And have.

EUGENIDES: In a happy way. And have. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Jeffrey Eugenides's new collection of stories is called "Fresh Complaint." He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Thank you very much for joining us.

EUGENIDES: Thank you.

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