When you’re writing a long book, it’s nice to have encouragement. I’m not talking about the giddy editor; or the eye-strained, proofreading spouse; or the steadfast mother. I’m talking about the gods. It’s good to have them on your side.
I should stress that I don’t know what to think about the omens that appeared to me while I was writing Middlesex. I don’t know whether to believe in them or not. It might be a case of coincidence, or the more fashionable “synchronicity,” or the still more fashionable “morphic resonance.” I don’t know what these omens meant, or whether they arrived by orders of unseen powers or by sheer accident. I can only tell you how they helped me. I can describe them and let you be the judge.
One day in the spring of 1994, I was in my apartment, writing the early pages of Middlesex. I was thinking about an old photograph of my grandparents, a photograph I’d glimpsed only once ten years earlier. My mother had found the photograph in a trunk. Brittle with age, it had curled up like a scroll. We couldn’t unscroll it for fear that it would crack. We could only open it halfway and peek in from the hole at either end. Nevertheless, it was that brief viewing that I drew on, giving my fictional characters the young features of my grandparents as they appeared in that old photograph. As I was writing, the doorbell rang. It was package for me. Inside was the photograph I had been trying to describe. Without telling me, my mother had had it professionally mounted and framed. Since seeing it ten years earlier, we had never spoken of it.
Summer 1995. I was at an artists’ colony in the woods. For weeks, I had been trying to write about the burning of Smyrna in 1922 and getting nowhere. Stupidly, I thought I could manage the thing by imagination alone. Rather than doing research, I sat down at my desk day after day and tried to summon up a bygone Asia Minor from what little I knew or could make up. One day, I fell into despair. I was ready to give up the novel. I left my studio and wandered the mansion. As I came up the formal staircase, I passed the reading table where the colony keeps literary magazines and books by former guests. My eye alighted on a book. It was called Smyrna 1922. A historical account.
The narrator of Middlesex has a genetic condition called “5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome.” Much of what I knew about this condition came from a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1975.
In the summer of 1996, my wife had to see an endocrinologist for complications related to pregnancy. I went with her. As we discussed my wife’s condition with the doctor, my command of medical vocabulary led him to ask if I was a physician. I told him that I was working on a novel narrated by a hermaphrodite. I mentioned the medical study I was using in my book. The endocrinologist’s eyes widened. He swivelled around in his chair and pulled out a yellowed copy of the twenty-year-old study to which I had just referred. He was one of its authors.
While writing a chapter in which a character works at the River Rouge automobile plant, I called a friend in Detroit to check some facts. For some reason, my phone call was misdirected. Instead of getting my friend, I got an unknown woman. She shouted, “There’s been an explosion!”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“This is the Rouge! There’s been an explosion!” she shouted again.
I hung up in some confusion, called my friend again, and this time got him.
In the papers the next day, I saw that there had been an explosion at the River Rouge plant, killing a man. I had called Detroit at the very instant of the explosion, while writing about the factory.
Winter 2001. The love interest in Middlesex is called the Obscure Object. I borrowed this nickname from a girl I had known in college. She was alluring and mysterious. On the day I finished Middlesex, I went to dinner at the American Academy in Berlin. There was a woman there I faintly recognized. I had a feeling I knew her from somewhere, and it turned out that we had gone to the same college. As I was talking to her, I realized that she was the original Obscure Object. I hadn’t seen her for twenty years.
And there are others. But space doesn’t permit me to describe them all. Just this: shortly after I met my wife, we went into a bookstore and, for fun, looked in Linda Goodman’sLove Signs to see if we were astrologically compatible. The news was good. A Scorpio woman could do wonders for a Piscean man. She could bolster his creativity—and here I quote—“and may even help him win the Pulitzer Prize.”
Jeffrey Eugenides grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and attended Brown University. He is the author of two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. He lives in Berlin, Germany, with his wife.