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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’

By posted at 6:01 am on October 17, 2011 24

coverAppropriately, The Marriage Plot arose from an act of literary adultery. In the late 90s, during an impasse in the writing of Middlesex, I put the manuscript aside. (I hadn’t fallen out of love, exactly, but I wasn’t sure where the relationship was headed.) Over the following weeks I began flirting with another novel, not a comic epic like Middlesex but a more traditional story about a wealthy family throwing a debutante party. At first, the new novel seemed to be everything I was looking for. It was less demanding, easy to be with, and rather nicely proportioned. Before I knew it I’d written a hundred pages – at which point the novelty wore off. It dawned on me that this new affair was going to be every bit as demanding as the book I was trying to escape. I missed Middlesex, too. I had an idea why we hadn’t been getting along. And so, with a renewed sense of commitment, almost giddy with joy, I went back to it.

coverAfter Middlesex was published, I returned to the debutante novel. Its hundred pages were just as I’d left them. They seemed O.K. However, as I resumed work on the book, something kept bothering me. The novel felt old-fashioned. The writing was perfectly acceptable, even good in spots, but in others it felt lifeless, second-hand. The story was told from multiple points of view, in short sections of a few pages apiece. One of the characters was named Madeleine. As I wrote her section, I began to wander once again. Instead of placing her in my debutante-party plot, I began imagining her boyfriend troubles and the books she was reading, and soon I was straying off into memories of my own college days, when the craze for semiotics was at its height in American universities. Something changed in the prose I was writing as well. I can pinpoint when this shift occurred. It came with the line: “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” The tone of this sentence differed from the tone of the rest of the book. It was more intimate, more colloquial, and more knowing. All at once, the fustiness of the book that had so displeased me dropped away. The debutante novel had felt like an actual 19th-century novel. It smelled like an old couch brought back from the flea market. In contrast, Madeleine’s section felt fresher, more energetic and alive. It sprung directly from concerns and details in my own life. When the narrative ceased to be a pallid replica of a 19th-century novel and became a novel about a young woman obsessed with the 19th-centry novel, and about what such an obsession does to her romantic expectations, the book jumped forward a century. It became contemporary and sounded contemporary and allowed me to write about all kinds of things I hadn’t been able to write about before, religion and Mother Teresa, manic depression, the class system as it operated at an Eastern university in the 1980s, Roland Barthes, J.D. Salinger, the Jesus Prayer, and Talking Heads. Pretty soon, I had over a hundred pages of this new section.

The irony was clear: here I was, cheating on a novel that had once been my mistress! Madeleine’s section just kept getting longer. The longer it got, the more I liked it. Over the course of a painful two weeks, I surgically separated the two manuscripts, taking out three of the characters – Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard – and giving them their own book.

I didn’t know, at that point, that the book would be called The Marriage Plot, or that it would have anything to do with marriage. But gradually, as I pushed forward with the book, other things I’d been thinking about began to make their way in. In 2004, for the online magazine Slate, I had discussed the legacy of Joyce with the novelist Jim Lewis. During that exchange, I lamented the fact that the marriage plot, which had given rise to the novel, was no longer available to the modern novelist. In my book The Marriage Plot, I put these slightly reactionary thoughts into the mouth of Madeleine’s elderly thesis director, Professor Saunders:

In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter who Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean anything anymore, and neither did the novel.

It didn’t happen right away. But as I wrote about my three undergraduates, describing the end of their time at university and the beginning of their adult lives, such academic thoughts as these attached themselves to my story and provided me with a solid structure for the book. Instead of writing a marriage plot, I could deconstruct one and then put it back together, consistent with the religious, social, and sexual conventions prevailing today. I could write a novel that wasn’t a marriage plot but that, in a certain way, was; a novel that drew strongly from tradition without being at all averse to modernity.

That’s the intellectual background of The Marriage Plot. But you don’t write a novel from an idea, or at least I don’t. You write a novel out of the emotional and psychological stuff that you can’t shake off, or don’t want to. For me, this had to do with memories with being young, bookish, concupiscent, and confused. Safely in my 40s, married and a father, I could look back on the terrifying ecstasy of college love, and try to re-live it, at a safe distance. It was deep winter in Chicago when all this happened. Every day I looked out my office window at snow swirling over Lake Michigan. After separating the two books, I put one in a drawer and kept the other on my desk. I ran off with The Marriage Plot and didn’t look back. I changed completely, became a different person, a different writer; I started a new life with a new love, and all without ever leaving home.

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24 Responses to “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’”

  1. Chase
    at 9:41 am on October 17, 2011

    This made me smile. I can’t wait to read “The Marriage Plot”!

  2. elle
    at 11:10 am on October 17, 2011

    @Chase: I feel exactly the same! I am waiting (impatiently) for my copy to arrive.

  3. Matt
    at 12:01 pm on October 17, 2011

    The worst part about “The Marriage Plot” is that it will be another decade or so before we get to see the next Eugenides book.

    Otherwise, it was a great read. It’s interesting that Eugenides is looking back on his college life and the college lives of all his characters and try to understand that fear and unease about being a college graduate. (Hey, I can relate: that whole idea of taking the first job that comes your way because you have no idea what to do next…yeah, insert this writer here.) With that, you have the characters in the novel trying to shape and form their relationships and the wider world around them in the books they’ve read, the stories they’ve encountered.

  4. TJ
    at 12:04 pm on October 17, 2011

    I’m reading the Marriage Plot right now — and I grew up in Rhode Island and eventually moved away. I’m a fair bit younger than the characters in the book, but your descriptions of Rhode Island and the mention of Narragansett Beer (the beer of choice for all Rhode Island college students!) made me laugh out loud.

    You are one of the few writers where I just pick up the book and ignore the jacket, I cannot wait to finish the book, but the other part of me does not want the novel to end!

  5. Sharanya
    at 12:34 pm on October 17, 2011

    What a wonderful bit of insight into a writer’s process! Loved how Mr. E, without at all forcing the metaphor, conveyed the tenderness one feels toward their art, a tenderness that is always complicated by boredom and doubt…

  6. Monday Snax « Little Stories
    at 1:35 pm on October 17, 2011

    […] How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides reflects on writing his long-awaited second novel, which appears this month, nearly nine years after Middlesex. (The Millions) […]

  7. My Daily Tweets 10.17.11 « memoirs on a rainy day
    at 10:03 pm on October 17, 2011

    […] “act of literary adultery” that created The Marriage Plot. Fascinating! 14 hours […]

  8. Foster Wallace, Franzen, Eugenides: mitologia di un’amicizia « Davide Orecchio
    at 9:49 am on October 18, 2011

    […] a Eugenides: su Themillions racconta come, quando e perché ha scritto The Marriage Plot. Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterDiggLike […]

  9. Melissa Chadburn
    at 10:41 am on October 18, 2011

    I’ve found this is one of those novels that I have to honor by reading it all aloud. I’m cheating on all my other literary journals and the stack of novels by my bed and the untouched digital collection in my kindle. It’s fun to cheat with The Marriage Plot.

  10. Shelley
    at 12:13 pm on October 18, 2011

    When I was in college reading Anna Karenina etc. I had the impression that if only divorce and careers for women existed, humanity would have no more problems.

    Turns out I was wrong.

  11. Links da semana « Blog da Companhia das Letras
    at 9:52 pm on October 19, 2011

    […] Jeffrey Eugenides sobre seu novo romance, The marriage plot, que a Companhia lança no 1° semestre do ano que vem: “Quando a narrativa deixou de ser puramente uma réplica de um romance do século 19 e tornou-se um romance sobre uma jovem obcecada com romances do século 19, e sobre o que tal obsessão faz com suas expectativas amorosas, o livro avançou um século. Tornou-se contemporâneo, passou a soar contemporâneo, e me permitiu escrever sobre várias coisas que eu não tinha conseguido abordar antes, como religião e Madre Teresa, maníaco-depressivos, o sistema de classes das universidades do leste americano na década de 1980, Roland Barthes, J.D. Salinger, a Oração de Jesus, e Talking Heads.” (The Millions) […]

  12. An Act of Literary Adultery | Grierson Huffman
    at 7:24 am on October 20, 2011

    […] The Millions Jeffrey Eugenides offers “the intellectual background of The Marriage Plot.” This entry was posted in Writing […]

  13. 6. READ. LOOK. THINK. | Jessica Stanley.
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    at 2:47 pm on October 20, 2011

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  15. Hanna
    at 4:56 pm on October 24, 2011

    I just finished the Marriage Plot and I cried the ending was so amazing. I’m not going to say any more than that. There are so many clever things about this book and the way it’s structured. I turned so many corners of the pages where I loved a paragraph, or sentence. The middle section is a bit harder going but if you keep going, it’s a revelation. Loved it.

  16. Zola
    at 10:06 am on October 31, 2011

    Great essay, good to be reminded that even the heavyweights feel uncertain sometimes in the process of writing their works.

  17. Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot” « DBC|READS
    at 8:41 am on November 4, 2011

    […] I guess they’re there because they interest Eugenides. His essay at The Millions about his writing process shows just how much fun this novel was for him, and how important those academic references were […]

  18. Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » Is literary monogamy overrated?
    at 8:03 am on November 10, 2011

    […] Millions has a wonderful essay by Jeffrey Eugenides on his process of writing his latest novel, The Marriage Plot. It began with what he called […]

  19. Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides | Between the Covers
    at 8:04 am on November 17, 2011

    […] seen as the ultimate goal in life as it was commonly treated in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this article that Jeffrey Eugenides wrote for The Millions back in October, he talks about how the traditional marriage plot is “no longer available to […]

  20. Short Reads: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides « Books Worth Reading
    at 9:29 am on December 14, 2011

    […] Jeffrey Eugenides provides some insight into how his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, came to be on The Millions : How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’. […]

  21. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides « Problem Chylde
    at 10:27 pm on December 18, 2011

    […] you read my review, look at this article from Eugenides about what spawned the novel and why he decided to go through with writing it.  (And yes, the Dr. […]

  22. Reading material for 02/06/12: « Robins AFB Library Blog
    at 8:30 pm on February 5, 2012

    […] “How I learned to stop worrying and write The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides. […]

  23. Escrevendo “A trama do casamento” « Blog da Companhia das Letras
    at 2:37 pm on May 31, 2012

    […] escrito originalmente para o site The Millions e reproduzido aqui com autorização. Leia um trecho de A trama do […]

  24. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – One of the Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2011? | "Schoolsville:" Academic/Campus/College/University Fiction
    at 7:22 am on March 8, 2014

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