Author's Chair | Home

Jeffrey Eugenides

Interview by Papermag

PAPER: Did you think your book made a good translation on screen?

Jeffrey Eugenides: I thought that Sofia was really faithful in what she did with the movie, and she didn't change anything, in terms of the plot. There were things she had to leave out, like the fish flies and elements like that, but nothing really fundamental.

P: Was there any temptation to write the screenplay yourself?

JE: When I finished the book I wanted to get on to something else, I didn't want to do that. I just couldn't imagine going through it again, and also I think it would have been difficult to change the book for producers and directors -- I didn't want to get involved with it.

P: Were you involved with the film at all?

JE: I wasn't that involved. She obviously wrote the script and sent it to me for my reactions and small edits, but I did none of the writing and we didn't discuss how to attack it, or anything like that.

P: What's missing from the movie is the Detroit angle. . . it's shot in Canada, right?

JE: It was shot in Toronto. And my wife, the first thing she said was that the streets were too beaten up to be Grosse Pointe, where the streets, you could probably eat off of them.

P: It seemed like an important part of the book, that decaying suburban feel.

JE: I feel that strongly. A lot of the things that are missing in the movie I think were a question of the money it would take to create them. The fish flies, for instance, were budgetary concerns.

P: Why is it so important that the story is set in the suburbs?

JE: I don't know. I mean, I never made a conscious decision "I'm setting this in the suburbs," it's just since that's where I grew up that's what I knew about. Everything I've written so far has been about childhood, mostly. So I just took that location as where my material was from. The interesting thing about it is I noticed that people in different countries all relate to it. You don't really have to be from the States; I know people from small towns in Holland or something that say "that's just what our town was like." I think it's a fairly universal location.

P: As a writer, how tough is it to watch something go on to the screen? Some people just feel that books are better as prose, as opposed to being cobbled into someone else's vision as a movie.

JE: I just knew it would be a separate entity; I never thought it would be a replication of the book. I do think books are best as books and movies are best as movies, and they're really just different animals. Especially a book like this, where so much depends on the narrative voice and not knowing who the voice is.

P: How did you feel about Giovanni Ribisi narrating the movie?

JE: I liked his voice. They wanted me to do it at first. I thought someone else's voice reading the book might bother me, but he did a good job.

P: Where there girls like the Lisbons in your childhood? Was there anything that particularly influenced you when you wrote the book?

JE: I got the idea from my nephew's babysitter. This was when I was older; I was probably 30. She said she and all her sisters had tried to commit suicide. They hadn't done it, but it just stuck in my mind, that idea of a group of sisters who were suicidal. Then I put it back into my own life in the 70s and used girls that I knew growing up. There definitely were girls like this that I drew on, and people who know me are always asking me which family of girls it was, because I knew three or four families that were all girls. I know which one it is but I never say. (laughs)

P: Why do you think you think your book has struck such a chord with people?

JE: Everyone seems to share some feeling of growing up with a lot of nosy neighbors getting in everyone's business, and I think what people tell me the most is that it reminds them about growing up. And the little details remind them of the kind of perception you have when you're young and you notice little things. People think, "oh, you must have grown up with sisters, because you know all about them," and the opposite is in fact true; I had no sisters and that's why I probably paid attention when I went into houses where there were girls, and had that sense of it being a different world.

P: Was there one scene in the movie that most evoked what you were after in the book?

JE: The part of the movie where I felt the translation was closest was the sequence with Trip Fontaine. (Josh Hartnett) That was so much like what I imagined and what my memory was of the character it's based on that I was sort of astonished. I would say that little section where he's getting all the things from the different girls, and he's getting a late pass by flirting. That section's probably closest to what I imagined.

P: Are you glad the movie went this way, with Sofia behind the camera and Kirsten as the lead, as opposed to Francis Coppola behind the camera and say, Matt Damon in Josh's role? Do you think it was done better on a smaller level?

JE: Probably. Although Josh Hartnett is going to be Matt Damon in about five weeks. (Eugenides alludes to Harnett's upcoming role in the new Jerry Bruckheimer movie.) I never saw it as a big-budget movie. Yeah, I'm glad it's a small thing, because that's the way the book is.

P: Wasn't Sofia initially motivated to make the film because she had heard about scripts that added sex and violence to the story?

JE: I think that's how she felt about the script before hers, which was a Nick Gomez script. I think she felt that it was more sexed-up, and he's obviously a different kind of director than she is. So a lot of his personality was in the script as well. But there were other scripts before that that I would say weren't overly sexed, but it was nice getting a woman to direct it, because she didn't concentrate so much on the overheated sexuality of the boys and brought out the girls a lot.

P: What did you think about the shift back to the boys' perspective at the end of the film?

JE: I'm aware of the movie having more of the girls in it than the book. In general, everything is filtered through the consciousness of the boys in the book, and any time you see the girls you know that it might not be true what you're being told. Because you actually see the girls in those scenes, I think as an audience member you have to believe, okay, this is the truth, this is really what was happening with those girls' lives. And then you try to decide what's going on that house and why they're upset and why are they killing themselves. So that was just a big difference. I guess when it came back to the boys that just seemed natural to me in the movie, since that's where it is in my mind all the time. I always wanted to remind the audience that it's seen through their eyes.

P: Why do you think the boys hang on to the memories of the girls long into middle-aged lives?

JE: Because they're pathetic. (laughs)

P: It seems like the girls represent youth -- they never reach adulthood, so they're lodged in this time period, this age. It's like the boys keep that period alive through their memories, but why do they hang on so tightly?

JE: I don't know. I think I have myself held on to my adolescent memories really strongly, and that just seems natural to me. In terms of the book, obviously being obsessed with these girls and having them kill themselves was a kind of shock to the boys that they haven't gotten over. But I just took the idea and sort of exaggerated it. But that's how I feel about my own life, I guess.

P: Why didn't Lux -- or any of the other girls -- run away? Especially after the mother cracked down, after the Homecoming Dance?

JE: I only know as much as the boys do in the book, and they don't really understand the girls very well. (laughs) I can't say. It's really a book about the survivors of suicide. I've known a few people that have committed suicide and you really never know why they do it. I didn't write the book to explain what those girls felt or what kind of agony they were under, I just wanted to suggest it. . . it's about what it feels like if someone kills herself or themselves and you know them and what you're left with. It's about the boys more than it's about figuring out the girls, either their motivations for suicide or any other motivation. Even the motivations of the parents -- why did they act the way they did? -- all of it has to be mysterious, because that's how I remember trying to understand the adult world when I was that age. I didn't really understand what people's motivations were, and I wanted to replicate that sense of not really knowing but also looking constantly to try to figure something out.

P: Has this experience left you feeling positive about having your books translated to film?

JE: Yeah, I would do it again. It seems fairly unreal to me that it's a movie. I'm living in Berlin now, which has increased it, but the movie is just in this other world. It's sort of faraway from me, so I don't feel it's stolen my soul or my book. (laughs) Maybe after it comes out and everyone talks about it in a different way it could annoy me, but so far that hasn't happened.


Interview by MovieMaker

Jeffrey Eugenides is no stranger to Hollywood. Though best known as the author of The Virgin Suicides, his frst brush with the movies came in 1986, when he was awarded a Nicholl Fellowship: "The terms of the Fellowship were that we were to write a full-length screenplay. I never really wanted to be a screenwriter, however, so when I finished the script and was told that it was a good First effort but not great, I put it into a drawer where it has stayed ever since... In the end I wrote a novel that was turned into a film, so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally got something to show for their money."

MM: As someone with a bit of experience in the film industry, you know that a film adaptation can never completely mirror the novel, but Sofia Coppola's treatment of The Virgin Suicides was pretty faithful.

Jeffrey Eugenides (JE): I wanted the film to be the best it could be and understood that this might entail deviating from the book. At the same time, I didn't want the divergences to be so great as to deform or misrepresent the book. I didn't want a happy ending, for instance. Happily, Sofia stayed true to the spirit of the book.

That said, the film and book are very different for reasons beyond Sofia's control. The book is told by a collective narrator of adolescent boys-an omnipresent, invis­ible and in some respects impossible, narrator. This narrator exists as a voice­over in the film which, though effectively done by Giovanni Ribisi, still comes across as a single person. The book is very much about the boys; the film is more about the girls. That's a big shift and, dramatically, possibly unavoidable. But I always feel that Sofia caught the mood, the time and the basic feelings that the book came out of.

MM: What do you think people glean from your work that makes it seem adaptable?

JE: I think film directors don't respond so much to formulae, actually. I think they want to find a story that possesses them. They're readers like anybody else, and when they pick up and book and can't put it down, they start thinking about making it into a film.

MM: As a writer, do you find it difficult to differentiate between the literal and visual?

JE: The novelist Edmund White says you should always leave your hero's physical appearance a little vague, so that the reader can fill it in. I never over-describe my characters' faces, so it's not hard for me to see a variety of actors portray them.

As far as the writing process goes, I'm always highly visual in my writing. This comes from growing up with movies, I'm sure, but also from the influence of writers like Nabokov or Bellow, who have incred­ibly sharp eyes. Some people have told me The Virgin Suicides is also the smelliest book they have ever read, so there's that, too.

MM: What was your experience like when you won the Nicholl Fellowship?

JE: In 1986, when I won the Nicholl Fellowship from AMPAS, we were all flown to LA to have lunch with Jack Lemmon. They took us into the back room where they kept the old Oscars. They had lots of old Oscar statuettes on hand, and we stood around holding Jack Nicholson's Oscar and Meryl Streep's Oscar and Billy Wilder's. The interesting thing was that many statuettes were showing their age, turning green. You could imagine the things sitting on the shelf of some seaside mansion, being eaten away by the salt air.