Author Jeffrey Eugenides was born and raised in Detroit and the city often becomes a central character in his writings. (He lives in Princeton, New Jersey, these days.) He’s based both of his novels, Pulitzer Prize-winning "Middlesex," and "The Virgin Suicides," in the Motor City. He says as a native Detroiter it's still easy for him to love his home town: more so, perhaps, than the average outsider.
We’ve heard about how the media struggles to accurately portray the city, and how recovery is perhaps becoming more possible after the Great Recession. As part of our focus on Detroit and its status as a symbol of both decline and resilience, we talk to the author about his home town.
Read a full transcript of our interview with Jeffrey Eugenideshere.
HEADLEE: We've been talking this week about Detroit as a symbol of American resilience and also American decline. We've heard about how the media struggles to accurately portray the city, how recovery is perhaps becoming more possible after the great recession, today we wanted to talk to author Jeffrey Eugenidies, he was born and raised in Detroit, but Detroit becomes a central character in his writings often, he's based both of his novels, Pulitzer Prize-winning "Middlesex" and "The virgin Suicides," in the Motor City. Jeffrey Eugenides welcome to the program.
EUGENIDES: Good Morning.
HEADLEE: You know one of the things that I loved about "Middlesex," and it came out about the same time that I moved to Detroit, and I read it as I was a new resident there, was the complicated picture that you paint of Detroit. The city really becomes a main character, the nuanced portrait of the city with all of its scars and glories and its deep history, is something that forms an amazing backdrop, this amazing tapestry, in front of which your characters are playing out their lives.
EUGENIDES: Well, that's true, and some of that history I knew from hearing stories form my parents and grandparents, and much of it I had to read about myself. But the more I looked at the history of Detroit in the 20th century, the more I saw that everywhere I looked something was central not just to Detroit history but to American history. You could either do the automotive industry and the rise of American industrial might, or you could look at the rise of the nation of Islam, and the racial tensions that are connected with that. So everywhere I looked I found something that was intrinsic to American history but also to the things I was already writing about with my characters.
HEADLEE: What you've said is something I’ve said to people for a long time when they ask me why I love Detroit, which is that this is a city that has been important...
EUGENIDES: (Laughing) I'll bet they ask.
HEADLEE: I bet they ask you all the time too.
EUGENIDES: Yeah, I’m the poster boy now. I’m sorry but, I know that look and I know that question. And if I tried to get my wife to move back to Detroit, which I did, shortly after we were married and I took her on a tour there. You know it's like trying to get someone to move to Kirkuk or Baghdad at the moment, it's not that easy a sell.
HEADLEE: Well especially since there has been kind of a rough portrayal of Detroit, they kinda get a rough shake in the media. But let me ask you about that, because I mean, people probably aren't as surprised with you because you're a native to there as they are with me, who is a transplant, so what do you say to people when they question you about it?
EUGENIDES: Well, I have a better excuse than you have because I was born here so I think you just naturally build attachments to a place and all of your earliest memories and your warmest feelings have to do with where you're from. Now, if you're a transplant, then that means you just like it for some oddity in your own personality.
HEADLEE: (Laughing) Are you calling me odd?
EUGENIDES: I love it in you; I think it might be harder to explain.
HEADLEE: Well, as I was saying before this is one of the things that I say when I explain it, was that this is a city that has been important to history, to the world in all the phases of its development. I mean it’s not like many other cities, there's very few cities other than New York in the United States that can say this, this has been an important city at all times. And often the struggles of Detroit reflect the broader cultural and societal issues going on in the rest of the country, they're just seen more starkly in this city; do you think that's true?
EUGENIDES: I completely agree with that, and that's why I always felt fortunate to be from Detroit as a writer, because I think all of those things are true. I didn't start out writing about Detroit because I thought if I wrote about Detroit I’d be able to write about all these major issues, because I don't even think about issues when I write, but the fact that I do write about Detroit, I realized very quickly the incredibly rich material, for all the reasons you just listed.
HEADLEE: Well explain to me if... do you have any thoughts, and this isn't a rhetorical question, I’m really wondering, do you have any thoughts about why outside people like to portray Detroit in kind of a harsh light?
EUGENIDES: I think once something becomes known, you know, gets a reputation, it's sometimes hard to shake it, so once Detroit became the murder capital in the late 70's and was losing population and had a terrible crime rate, it became the symbol of the dying American city and it's been hard to shake that. There's a lot of other competitors, you can think about Newark and Cleveland and other cities, but Detroit was the greatest of those cities so when it went down it became the greatest spectacle of urban decay.
HEADLEE: And maybe that was the essential issue, that at one time Detroit was so rich, so glowing, so fantastic in its opulence that maybe that's really what captures people really is the contrast.
EUGENIDES: Well it is, it's like the Shelly poem "Ozymandias," y'know when they're going across the desert and they see the crumbling statue it's the former opulence and greatness of Ozymandias that is, that gives the impression of its power, its not that Ozymandias fell from a low height but from a great height, I do think that's operative in Detroit as well.
HEADLEE: You're going back next week; tell me about what you see in the city and what might inspire you as Detroit comes out of perhaps one of its most difficult times, in recent memory at least.
EUGENIDES: If you're from Detroit you're always hopeful and looking for the next sign of life, and of course everyone's encouraged by Ford making two billion dollars in the last quarter, things like that. The automotive industry coming back to life and the American automotive industry perhaps, having a turnaround, so people will look at that. I noticed my last time in Detroit, I was staying directly downtown, it was quite a strong contrast to when I was growing up, when downtown Detroit really was unpopulated at night, no one was there at all. And now, people are returning to the city, it's still a kind of, y'know almost bombed-out Berlin atmosphere, Berlin after the war atmosphere about it, but I did find, I guess, being a Detroiter, a certain sign of hope in that. There was a little... there was quite a spirit of people coming back downtown...
HEADLEE: Still a pulse there.
EUGENIDES: Yeah, I worry that I might exaggerate it, because I’m so hopeful for the city to come back. But I did think it was better than when I had been there in the 80s, for sure.
HEADLEE: Jeffrey Eugenides, author of "The Virgin Suicides" and Pulitzer Prize-winning "Middlesex," if you haven't read those books, believe me, you should. He joined us from his home in Princeton, New Jersey.
HOCKENBERRY: He's in love with you man.
HEADLEE: Well, I think he just appreciates the fact that I love his hometown. (Laughter) More Detroit... though he did call me "odd," I’m not sure what kind of love that is. More Detroit on our site, I took a closer look at the neighborhood known as Mexicantown, you can read my posts, there's a little mini-tour for you if you're ever a visitor to the city, also watch a video it's at The Takeaway blog. I'm Celeste Headlee.