BROOKLYN – Author Jeffrey Eugenides was the featured speaker of the February 26 edition of “Eat Drink & Be Literary” the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) popular series of literary evenings where participants can “raise a glass and share a meal with some of today’s most renowned authors” and listen to live music, in this case, jazz.
After the dinner, “the featured author gives a reading and discusses his/her creative process.”
The guests who filled the BAMCafe, with its noble norman windows and arches of lights beneath the ceiling hung with piñatas of the signs of the zodiac, were welcomed by BAM’s president, Karen Brookes Hopkins.
She announced that the evening’s presentation is the inaugural event of the Hellenic Humanities Programs at BAM co-presented by BAM and the Onassis Cultural Center NY, explaining that after a number of successful events in recent years they have expanded their partnership through a two-year grant from the Onassis Foundation (USA) “supporting a new initiative to further Hellenic ideals and culture in the 21st century.”
Hopkins acknowledged the Foundation’s Executive Director, Ambassador Lucas Tsillas and its Director of Cultural Affairs, Amalia Cosmetatou. Tsillas kept his promise to offer only a few words, including “appreciation, admiration, gratitude and friendship,” for BAM.
After noting the basis of the evening’s combination of food, wine and intellectual fare in the symposia of ancient Greece, Tsillas invited the guests not only to the re-opening of the Onassis Cultural Center in Manhattan, which is undergoing renovation, but to the events Onassis Cultural Center in Athens.
The moderator, Ben Greenman, a contributing writer at the New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed works of fiction, introduced Eugenides, who is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and teaches creative writing at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and child.
Eugenides also enjoyed the symposium setting. “It’s great to be back in Brooklyn, where I used to live, eating, drinking and…being literary. I drink a lot but I’m often not literary,’” he said to lusty laugher across the crowded room.
Eugenides presented an excerpt from “Find the Bad Guy” which is part of his upcoming collection of short stories. He said “I’m just going to read at the beginning and leave you all truly unsatisfied,” a Platonic tease apropos of the symposium setting.
In other words he hoped to leave them desiring more so they would buy his book, which is a simple trick for the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex.
The Detroit-born and raised author delighted with the Texas-drawl and German accents he adopted for his two characters, Charlie Daniels – not the musician – and Johanna, who married him for a green card.
Eugenides learned the German intonation during his five years of living in Berlin, but it was not clear how he picked up red-neck, other than the fact of his remarkable ear for the way people talk.
The program limited him to 15 minutes but the guests did not want him to stop plying them with reasons to laugh and they were left wondering if all authors were actors at heart.
Charlie is undergoing a period of self-examination – intensified by sessions with marriage counsellors and steam baths – after his ex-wife got a judge to slap him with a temporary restraining order that made him unable to see his daughter.
Eugenides said the way the story is supposed to work is that “it seems at first a very broad comedy but it becomes much more serious.” Charlie, who speaks with a Texas accent but is really from Michigan, decided he “had to talk the talk” in order to be a country music radio station consultant.
“He seems quite sincere in trying to figure himself out… and he actually tries to connect with his wife through the counselling.”
Charlie wants to “move beyond the errors of his past,” Eugenides said, and he confesses about taking out his marriage anger on the family dog.
He feels terrible about beating the dog but the story moves beyond that incident to something deep in human nature. “We all have those moments,” uncharacteristic acts of violence, or mendacity. “They shock us, but they happen,” he said, and the challenge is “What do you do with that [knowledge]?”
During the Q&A Eugenides said his path to being a writer was a fairly uninterrupted journey. A trip he took to India in his 20s shook him up, though.
He was exposed to tuberculosis and had to take pills and see a doctor regularly for six months. “I realized for the first time what a precarious career in writing is – You can call it a career but you can’t. I thought ‘what am I going to do? I need something to fall back on.’”
He reasoned, “I really like my doctor. Why don’t I go to medical school,” but when he told his mother she burst out laughing.
“I thought it was a very bad sign because she always supported all my ambitions,” he said.
Greenman – whose mother did the same thing – said that there are connections: “A writer is a good diagnostician,” of the human condition.
When Greenman asked what other paths Eugenides might have taken, some in the audience laughed when he said “I would like to be Cole Porter,” but others were intrigued about that given the musicality of Eugenides’ prose – which he just vividly illustrated with his reading.
He shared a bit of what happens to a writer who achieves fame. First of all, it ruins that once beautiful experience of going to a bookstore. “You walk in and you say ‘where’s my book?’”
Eugenides confided in his guests about the difficulties of his craft. “It’s hard to write a novel.” But he concluded with a piece of general advice he just received about self-doubt. “When you have all those fears at two in the morning… They seem like the truth… but your brain is just in a state when it’s not thinking clearly.” He said those ideas are “are absolutely, completely full of crapola,” delighting his guests with a pseudo-hard science ending to a delicious soft humanities evening.