For some the 90s were all about sex, but in 1993 there were also five “virgin suicides” that seduced the world over. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel, the death-driven Lisbon sisters intoxicate the sleepy suburb of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, with their peachy pungent odour and unplaceable magnetism, before dramatically and ceremoniously topping themselves. Along with the wild university bacchanalia of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), The Virgin Suicides refigured the teen-focused novel for the paranoid post-Reagan era as something winkingly mythic and devastatingly romantic.
Six years later, a lyrical film adaptation launched the careers of director Sofia Coppola and actress Kirsten Dunst, who, in the role of Lux, limply allows local guys to lift her sack dress and screw her on the roof of the imprisoning family home. Eugenides is now a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, and has published two more books, the Pulitzer-winning Middlesex (2002) and The Marriage Plot (2011). A waistcoat he once wore on a Times Square billboard now has its own parody Twitter account; said garment can be reached at @EugenidesVest.
Dazed Digital: Did you develop a strong bond with the Lisbon sisters while writing The Virgin Suicides?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Well, they inhabit the imagination of the collective of boys who narrate the book, so they were a huge focus of my attention. I was hoping that there would be empathy with them. When I was writing the book I felt very connected to that (teenage) period of life, so I wasn’t creating a world, it was almost provoking a world that I was already quite familiar with.
DD: You grew up near to where the book is set. Was your suburb similar to the Lisbon sisters?
Jeffrey Eugenides: I grew up on a street called Middlesex Boulevard, which I used in my second novel, Middlesex, but (in this book) I don’t really name the suburb and I don’t name the city as Detroit. I was trying to universalise it a bit as a dying Roosevelt town in the American midwest.
DD: In The Virgin Suicides you wrote, ‘Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls.’ Were you anchoring that in the political situation of 1993?
Jeffrey Eugenides:I certainly was. I grew up in Detroit in the 60s, which was haemorrhaging population. There were race riots and a feeling of national decline which affected my mood growing up. I assumed that it would affect the moods and disposition of the Lisbon girls as well. I was living in Germany when the book came out in the 90s, and they were calling America a ‘hyper-power’ because of the resurgence of the economy during the Clinton years. I thought, ‘The prediction I made in The Virgin Suicides is not exactly right. I shouldn’t be too pessimistic in life.’ And then there was the crash in 2008! Basically, I was right, but I’m trying not to be too pessimistic. There’s still a lot of potential for any generation in any country.
The Virgin Suicides is about the unknowability of suicide. Why does someone decide to do it, and another person who's equally distraught does not?
DD: Is The Virgin Suicides a punk novel in that sense?
Jeffrey Eugenides: That would be great if it meant I had some coolness, but I was never very aware of underground trends like punk. The music in the book’s not very cool, it’s just popular stuff I grew up with, like The Best of Bread. One of the things that Sofia Coppola did in the movie was lift it out of the 70s by getting Air to do the soundtrack.
DD: Did the film adaptation feel like an odd experience Or a validating one?
Jeffrey Eugenides: It was both of those things. I went to the set for about three days when they were filming it in Toronto, and it was extremely, extremely hot. They were having a heatwave and it was kind of difficult conditions to act under. I mean, the apparatus of movie-making doesn’t resemble writing at all so I couldn’t even understand how they were doing it.
DD: Do you think Kirsten Dunst was too pretty to play Lux?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Well, I wanted the sisters to be quite alluring, so I didn’t have a problem with that. But with a book like this no one should really play the characters, because the girls are seen at such a distance. They’re created by the intention of the observer, and there are so many points of view that they don’t really exist as an exact entity. The way to do it would be to have different actresses playing the girls at different times, depending on who’s talking about them.
DD: That would be quite avant-garde.
Jeffrey Eugenides: That would be too avant-garde, but closer to the spirit of how I wrote the book. I tried to think of the girls as a shapeshifting entity with many different heads. Like a hydra, but not monstrous. A nice hydra.
DD: What made you want to explore teenage obsession and voyeurism through the male narrators?
Jeffrey Eugenides: I’m not sure that it was a conscious decision. But I met a young woman who was a babysitter for my nephew who told me that she and her sisters had all tried to commit suicide. That’s where the idea came from. I took that idea and cast it back into my own adolescence, and imagined, ‘What if there were some girls like that when I was growing up?’
When they were filming it in Toronto, it was extremely, extremely hot. The apparatus of movie-making doesn't resemble writing at all so I couldn't even understand how they were doing it.
DD: People think of teenage boys as lustful dogs with permanent boners, but the narrators are more tender than that, aren’t they?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Yes. My memory of being a teenage boy was as being romantic and poetic rather than a lustful dog, so I think there might be a misconception of what many teenage boys are like.
DD: Some of the funniest moments in the book come from Ms Perl, the journalist character who tries to sum up the ‘reason’ for the suicides.
Jeffrey Eugenides: Yeah, it’s satirical. The book is about the unknowability of suicide, the fact that you can never pinpoint the reason why someone commits suicide. Why does someone finally decide to, and another person who’s equally distraught does not? It’s hard to know, and newspapers and the societal trends of psychobabble will go for tidy answers.
DD: Is it a response to the romanticisation of youthful suicide in books like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Unconsciously, it’s probably that way. I guess it could be read as a satirical response to romanticism. The narrator is an overly romantic, poetic, dramatic soul, but isn’t ennobled by the love. It’s actually a more deluded kind of love.
DD: Love doesn’t conquer all in this.
Jeffrey Eugenides: Right, and it doesn’t bring wisdom.
DD: In the early 90s there was a lot of sex everywhere, so why write a novel about virgins?
Jeffrey Eugenides: The title is ambiguous in a way. It has to do with the Virgin Mary card that appears around the town and reinforces the Catholic nature of the Lisbon family. The virgin has lots to do with religious imagery and suffering, and it’s perhaps more to do with that than physical virginity. I was really thinking about what those suicides might have been called in a tabloid or magazine. Obviously not all the Lisbon girls are virgins.
DD: Have you ever seen someone having sex on a roof, like Lux does?
Jeffrey Eugenides: I’ve done it a few times myself.
DD: Isn’t it terribly painful?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Well, one can bring mattresses on to roofs, if they’re flat. I’ve never seen someone do it (on a slanted roof) like Lux.
DD: Lux would have a field day with dating sites, wouldn’t she?
Jeffrey Eugenides: It would be a different world! But the family wouldn’t let the internet into the house.
DD: No IPhones?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Absolutely not.
DD: What’s next for you?
Jeffrey Eugenides: I’m working on a film adaptation of The Marriage Plot. The director is Greg Mottola (Superbad) and the producer is Scott Rudin (The Social Network, The Truman Show).
DD: Would you ever return to any of the book’s characters?
Jeffrey Eugenides: I guess the going thing now is to have a series of novels like Twilight. But I wouldn’t want to go back to it. People sometimes ask if I’d like to write more of Middlesex and I always say that the story is
DD: Have you seen your Twitter parody account @EugenidesVest?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Hmm. It’s not very funny, it’s just some idiotic person. He parodied Jonathan Franzen as well. But the terrible thing is that I lost my vest! I left it in a hotel or something. Obviously I didn’t want to wear it too much after a while, but it was a perfectly fine article of clothing. I’ve been searching all over for it.
Follow Owen Myers on Twitter here @owen_myers