Wednesday, October 26, 2011

LITQUAKE 2011: My Evening with Jeffrey Eugenides, or Some Days It Doesn’t Pay to Get Out of Bed

There have been several allusions on the blog to some recent health woes. I’m fine now, but two weeks ago, not so much. I’d been at home in bed for days, and Friday the 14th was my first day back at the office and back on my feet. I was weak. I should not have even been considering going out after work that evening. But it was Jeffrey Eugenides! The awesome Jeffrey Eugenides, out with his first novel in eight years! And I’d already read and loved The Marriage Plot. I wanted to be there.

I knew that the bookstore would be packed, not only because Mr. Eugenides is a major literary talent, but also because the signing was part of Litquake. That means it was on the radar of thousands more people than the average bookstore event. Just thinking about the potential mob scene made me want to pass out. So, this is what I did… I called the bookstore, explained that I was recovering from a medical procedure (true), that I was very weak (true), and was it possible to have a seat reserved for the reading? I said, “I know it’s a lot to ask.” I was pretty embarrassed to be asking for special consideration. And Corry at the Books, Inc. at Opera Plaza simply could not have been kinder. His response, “It’s nothing to ask.” He was so sweet. He made me want to be a customer for life. Really, such genuine kindness.

So, I got through the most unproductive work day of all time, and got over to Books, Inc. I grabbed a copy of the book and went to pay for it at the counter. (Because supporting our local independent booksellers is super-important!) As it happens, Corry was the very first person I saw at the counter. When I told him who I was, he smiled and told me there was a slip of paper with my name holding a seat in the front row. The store was already filling up, and I was so grateful for his intervention. I had arrived early, and just having a quiet place to sit until the event started made all the difference.

I was chilling out, reading a book, when I was approached by my friend Sue. What a happy surprise! We kibitzed until start time, and then went out for food and drinks next-door afterwards. By that time, there was plenty to postmortem. As expected, the store filled to a capacity crowd, and the event started right on time. Now, you know that whenever possible, I try to grab video for the blog. My excellent seat put me in a position to do just that. I was four feet away from the man, so for once, I had fantastic footage!

Mr. Eugenides started the evening with a few introductory remarks, including him telling the crowd that he spent his first several post-college years living in San Francisco, shopping in that very store. He then further ingratiated himself with the audience by explaining that it was the worst time of his life. He told a funny story about a psycho-roommate. I think we all have a story like that. He spoke for just about five minutes before he began reading from Madeleine’s narrative at the beginning of the book. He read well, and he read for a long time—nearly 25 minutes—in one long sequence. The novel is very funny, and he got a lot of laughs along the way.

After the reading, Mr. Eugenides spent about 15 minutes answering questions, many of which were unusually good questions. One that particularly impressed me came from a woman who noted that Mr. Eugenides had published a short story years earlier with a character with a name and story very similar to one of the three main characters in The Marriage Plot. She asked about the relationship, if any, between the earlier and more recent character. Mr. Eugenides did acknowledge that the earlier Mitch was a sort of prototype of the character in the current novel’s love triangle, and further acknowledged the relationship between that character and himself.

I think the most amusing answer came from a question regarding the audiobooks of his novels, and whether he would like to read them. (Yes, but it’s not going to happen.) He then told a story about a forthcoming film being made starring—of all people—Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen as mother and son. I guess it’s a road trip movie, and he was contacted because the screenplay had them listening to CD after CD of the audiobook of Middlesex. He was contacted for permission, and he said he wanted to see how much humor at his expense was written in to the screenplay. And this also is what forced him to listen to the audiobook for the first time. He was quite surprised by some of the choices made by actor and director. Anyway, it was an awesome story, and I wish you could hear it in its entirety, but the reason you can’t will soon be clear. (Oh, but you will hear the Middlesex audiobook in the Streisand movie.)

I do not habitually ask questions at literary events, but sometimes I do. I had a question, and I was not trying to ambush Mr. Eugenides in any way. I was certainly not trying to make him feel uncomfortable. And I did not have an agenda. I just had a question. I thought it was a legitimate question then, and I still think so now. Let me back up a moment. As noted earlier, it was likely that I was one of the few people in the room that had read the novel which had only been on sale for a few days. I had enjoyed it immensely! The Marriage Plot is beautifully written, but it bears some resemblance to (I hope you’ll forgive me for saying) literary chick lit. The rich, flawed characters are beautifully drawn, the writing is gorgeous, and the story has plenty of substance and its share of pathos. But still, at its heart, it is a comic novel about young 20-something’s in a love triangle. You see my point?

So, the trouble started before I even got my question out. I was holding the microphone in my right hand, as the left had been balancing my little FlipCam propped against my knee all evening. I opened with a comment about how much I’d loved the novel, to which Mr. Eugenides responded, “Are you filming me?” I said, “Yes. Is that a problem? I’m happy to turn it off.” The visibly uncomfortable author replied that it was fine. It was just that technology had really changed. That he’s arrived at his first book signing in a horse and buggy. (Laughter.) He noted that I was lucky that he wasn’t Stephen Sondheim, cause he’d seen the octogenarian almost “rip someone’s head off” recently for a similar offense. I admitted that I’d actually filmed him at BEA, too (laughter) and again offered to turn off the camera. Again he declined and urged me to ask my question.

This is what I asked: When Jonathan Franzen published Freedom last year, there was a brief buzz in the media about male novelists writing about traditionally female subject matter (i.e. families and relationships) getting more review attention, press, and general acclaim than their female counterparts. I said that as another acclaimed male author, did he have an opinion on this matter? I asked this question in a friendly and positive manner, not because I already knew the answer, or I was presuming that the very premise of the question was correct, but because I was genuinely curious to hear his thoughts on the subject—which, whether a true premise or not, seems to me to be a subject worthy of discussion.

At that point, Mr. Eugenides looked significantly more uncomfortable. I again offered to turn off the camera, and he again declined. He said, “That was Jodi Picoult, right?” And I answered that it was a broad-ranging public dialogue that went far beyond any comments made by Jodi Picoult. Mr. Eugenides then noted, though, that there had been one or two very best-selling female novelists that had been outspoken on the subject. (And his memory was correct. Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult were much quoted.) Mr. Eugenides continued that given the number of books they sold, he really didn’t know what they had to complain about. And besides, he has plenty of female writer friends (he named Lorrie Moore and Jumpha Lahiri) who get plenty of attention when they publish. He supposed it really just depended on the writer and the quality of the work. So, he answered the question, looking incredibly uncomfortable the entire time, and noted at the very end of the evening that Jodi Picoult “would hate him now.”

Now, had I had the opportunity to respond to Mr. Eugenides’ answer to my question, I would have pointed out that by necessity the most successful and best-selling among female authors must broach these questions, because for anyone less successful to do so looks like sour grapes. So, frankly, I find that part if his response to be somewhat naive. The second part of his answer is more legitimate, because he did name two highly acclaimed female literary novelists who do make a very large splash when they publish—although, two token women do not exactly prove parity. Nor do they disprove it. Like I said, I just think it’s a subject worthy of consideration and discussion. And finally, regarding his comment that it just depended on the quality of the work, it did come off as slightly condescending in my opinion.

Well, by the time this was all over, I felt completely terrible about making someone I admire greatly feel so uncomfortable in such a public way! As luck would have it, because of my excellent seat, I was also the first person in the signing line. Great. There was a short break while everything was organized, and during which time Mr. Eugenides left the room. Once he came back, I approached him and handed him my books to sign. I apologized for putting him on the spot, told him that had not been my intention. I explained that most authors were very happy for the publicity that came with film of their events. I explained that readers outside of major cities were always excited to be able to attend vicariously. I then offered to not post the video of the Q & A to the Internet. He agreed that would probably be best. I told him I understood. I then asked if he’d like me to at least post his reading. At first he said yes to this, but a few moments later changed his mind. So, for that reason, I’m not including links to any of the footage I shot that evening. And, no, you can’t find it online either, though there is plenty of other footage from other Eugenides events. He’s correct; the technology has changed. Now all you need is an iPhone, and I’m hardly the only blogger/fan making amateur films to share. So, it’s a shame, but of course I’m keeping my word.

I waited for quite a while for my friend Sue to make her way through the long signing line. While I was waiting, several people approached me and told me that it was a good question I’d asked, including a bookstore employee. It was nice of them because I was really quite bummed out. Writers always like me. I’m a serious, appreciative reader. I think that is possibly the first and only negative encounter I’ve ever had with a novelist on tour. Lovely Sue and I went out afterwards, and she did her best to make me feel better, and life moved on.

Now nearly two weeks have passed since my uncomfortable encounter with Mr. Eugenides. Having had some time to reflect on things, and quite frankly, having had time to review the taped interaction, I’m feeling a little less badly, and a little more irked about the whole incident. Simply put, at all times I tried to do the right thing. I wasn’t attempting to trip him up or push my own agenda. It was an awkward interaction, but no harm was intended. Jeffrey Eugenides let me walk away feeling like shit. I’m sure that my feelings weren’t his highest priority, but after all I did to apologize and make the situation right, he could have thrown me a bone in the form of a smile or a conciliatory word. But he really didn’t.

So, that’s what happened between Jeffrey Eugenides and me. I’m still a huge admirer of his work, and I don’t have significantly bad feelings about the man. Book tours are brutal. I think we were both having an off night. Probably I should just keep my big mouth shut. But you know what? This is my blog, and my life. I’m allowed to write about what happens to me, and so I get to tell my story. There you have it.


  1. I sympathize. Just reading this makes me uncomfortable. It is a legitimate question and great question. Too bad.

  2. Susan, you know most writers are socially awkward, and generally quite uncomfortable in front of a crowd. It sounds to me like he's just an awkward uncomfortable guy.


  3. What a shame that the encounter turned out so uncomfortable for both of you. I've only read The Virgin Suicides so far, but I was so impressed by it that I definitely plan to read more.

  4. I think you shouldn't feel guilty. If you did what you did with good intentions, that what could you have done differently? As you say, the author was a bit uncomfortable with it all, and that probably influenced the way he talked to you. It's not you, it's him! :-)

  5. Hey, thanks ladies for the nice, supportive comments. I don't think either Mr. Eugenides or myself were too permanently scarred by our encounter. Everyone meant well. It was just unfortunate. As I said, I have no lingering animosity towards the man.

  6. I asked Eugenides a question once (he came and spoke at Harvard when I was in college). he was incredibly rude and dismissive. ugh.