Appropriately for a novel titled The Marriage Plot, the book began as an instance of literary adultery. In the late nineties, while I was writing Middlesex, I hit a rough patch and put the manuscript aside. I hadn’t fallen out of love with the book, but I wasn’t sure where the relationship was headed. Predictably, I started flirting with another book, about a rich family throwing a debutante party. I thought this new book would be less demanding and easier to be with, but after a month or so I realized that I was dreaming. I missed Middlesex, too. I thought I knew why we hadn’t been getting along and so I returned to it, chastened but fervent.
After Middlesex came out, I went back to the debutante book and worked on it for another couple years. It was all right, but I had qualms about. It felt vaguely antique. Then one day I wrote a sentence that changed everything. It’s on page nineteen of The Marriage Plot now, and it goes like this, “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” This didn’t feel antique. It felt fresh, connected with personal memories of college. I became so interested in Madeleine and the two male figures who orbit around her that I kept writing about them all, greatly extending that section of the book.
One dark winter day in Chicago, I came to the conclusion that I had two novels on my hands. Over the course of the next weeks, I surgically separated them, leaving the debutante party behind, and followed Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard on an entirely different journey. I didn’t know, at that point, that the book would have anything to do with the marriage plot or that the marriage plot would provide me with a structure for the novel.
"I liked the muscular cerebration in Joyce, the high-priestly manner, the puns, the play of language. I liked the specificity of his Dublin portraits and the self-reflective nature of modernist texts themselves. But I liked the clarity of Tolstoy even more, and the vividness, the lifelikeness of his characters. His method didn’t seem worn-out to me. It was still conveying meaning to me, directly from Yasnaya Polyana to my third-floor apartment. My entire career so far has been an attempt to reconcile these two poles of literature, the experimentalism of the modernists and the narrative drive and centrality of character of the nineteenth-century realists."
"The Virgin Suicides is a book that exists purely in its voice. The plot is given away in the first paragraph, and the characterization is handled in an objective way. I never go into the heads of the Lisbon girls to tell the reader what they are thinking. That was the strategy—to make the girls mysterious and unknowable to the boys who are so obsessed by them. These self-imposed limitations were useful to me as a first-time novelist because, at that point, I didn’t have the skills needed to develop character directly, and so I managed to do it indirectly. Young writers should be advised not to try everything at once. Often, by limiting your options and maximizing one aspect of a book—in this case, narrative perspective—you can achieve much more than you expect."
"I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not “audience.” Not “readership.” Just the reader. That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for. I want my books to be worth the reader’s time, and that’s why I don’t publish the books I’ve written that don’t meet this criterion, and why I don’t publish the books I do until they’re ready. The novels I love are novels I live for. They make me feel smarter, more alive, more tender toward the world. I hope, with my own books, to transmit that same experience, to pass it on as best I can."
"I don’t start with an idea and outline it. I don’t see how you can know what’s going to happen in a book or what the book is about beforehand. So I plunge in headlong, and after a while I get worried that I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, so I begin to make a fuzzy outline, thinking about what might happen in the book or how I might structure it. And then that outline keeps getting revised. I’ll have it there, like a security blanket, to make me feel better about what I’m doing, but it’s provisional. Always you discover things and have ideas of how it might work out as you’re writing, and often the surprise of coming to these conclusions is what makes the book’s plot points surprising to the reader, too. If you can see on your first day what’s going to happen, the reader can likely guess as well. It’s the more complex ideas, the more difficult-to-foresee consequences of your story, that are more interesting to write about, and to read about as well."
"Barthes believed that realism wasn’t real—it was just a system of codes—and he mentions a passage from Flaubert where Flaubert describes a barometer hanging on the wall. Barthes said that Flaubert’s barometer was there only “to denote reality.” At the end of his life, however, Barthes came to believe that there were certain moment in novels—the death of Bolkonsky in War and Peace and the death of Marcel’s grandmother in Remembrance of Things Past—that weren’t mere reality effects. On the contrary, Barthes found such moments to be expressive of absolute truth. The truth isn’t about realistic details so much, or not entirely. It arises out of the dramatic sweep of a book. This great literary theorist, so distrustful of realism, began to believe in verisimilitude, in the capacity of the novel to convey meaning. And I agree. There are moments in novels that are absolutely true—and those are the kinds of novels I want to write"
"When I arrived at Brown, French theory was just washing up on American shores. Many of my English professors were distrustful of it. Another cohort in the English department was so smitten with Derrida and company that they finally decamped and created the Program in Semiotic Studies. To be an English major at the time was like being the child of divorcing parents. You loved both."
"I don’t think in terms of a male or female point of view. I think in terms of individual people. I never write about “women.” I write about one woman, or one man, or one intersex person. Fiction should be specific rather than general, because people are specific."
"My generation grew up backward. We were weaned on experimental writing before ever reading much of the nineteenth-century literature the modernists and postmodernists were reacting against. It was like studying art history by starting with Cubism before going to look at the Italian Renaissance."