Books·My Life In Books

The books that 'cursed' Jeffrey Eugenides to become a writer

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and author of Fresh Complaint shares his biggest literary influences.
Jeffrey Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and author of the short story collection Fresh Complaint. (Associated Press/Mel Evans)

Jeffrey Eugenides is known for his novels The Virgin Suicides, The Marriage Plot and Middlesex. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex in 2003. The bestselling author's latest book is Fresh Complainta collection of short stories that brings together previously published work with brand new material.

We asked Jeffrey Eugenides about the books and authors that helped shape his literary identity.     

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce 

Jeffrey Eugenides says that James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the book that inspired him to become a writer. (Wikimedia CC/Penguin Random House)

"This was the book that blessed or cursed me (depending on your point of view) with the fate of becoming a writer. The story of young Stephen Dedalus's discovery of his artistic vocation, which I read at an age every bit as impressionable and idealistic as that depicted by Joyce in creating his hero, convinced me that a literary life could be a priestly calling, a vow of obedience and poverty, if need be, minus the celibacy. I was always looking for mentors and models when I was a teenager, and Joyce — polymathic, rebellious and Irish — seemed in his groundbreaking and ultimately victorious literary project to be the ideal. By the time I read Ulysses to discover that, 10 years on, Dedalus had little to show for his efforts, it was too late for me. I had already signed up."

J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth

Literary heavyweights J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow have all been very influential to the life and career of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides. (Canadian Press)

"These writers showed me the way to remain faithful to the tradition of English and American literature from Shakespeare to Henry James while inhabiting and describing an experience informed by being an immigrant or an outsider. These writers sought to bend American literature to fit their own experience without in any way wanting to destroy the source. They all managed to sound like regular American guys and not be 'literary' at the same time as they upheld the most exacting literary standards." 

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James 

William James' The Varieties of Religious Experiences is an examination of direct religious experiences and theology, as well as the organizational aspects of religion. (Wikimedia CC/Penguin Random House)

"I often think of this book because of its unbiased and acute analysis of psychological states of mind. Intensified states of mind that range from euphoria and illumination to depression and despair. In examining his human subjects, James was able to convey the particular features of moments that were at once inexplicable to the people who experienced them and yet the most precious events of their lives. The kind of moments that any novelist tries to build toward in a book, and to set ablaze in the reader's mind."


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