'The Virgin Suicides': Inspired By Detroit's Woes? Jeffrey Eugenides published The Virgin Suicides in 1993 — a mesmerizing tale of five sisters who take their lives all in the same year in Grosse Pointe, Mich. The novel has just been re-released in paperback, and its author tells Guy Raz that he's recently realized the deterioration of Michigan's auto industry actually inspired the novel in the first place.

'The Virgin Suicides': Inspired By Detroit's Woes?

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

There's a line right near the beginning of the film, "The Virgin Suicides," when the narrator captures the eventual trajectory of metro Detroit.

(Soundbite of film, "The Virgin Suicides")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Everyone dates the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls. People saw their clairvoyance in the wiped-out elms, the harsh sunlight, and the continuing decline of our auto industry. Even then, as teenagers, we tried to put the pieces together. We still can't.

RAZ: The dialogue and language in Sofia Coppola's film came directly from the novel on which it's based. When Jeffrey Eugenides wrote that novel, he set out to capture the weird and repressed world of 1970s suburbia. That it took place in suburban Detroit and tracks the decline of a family and then a neighborhood might be seen as an allegory.

"The Virgin Suicides" came out in 1993, and it's just been re-released in paperback. Since the original release, Eugenides has managed to win critical acclaim and sell a lot of books. And in 2003, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his second novel, "Middlesex."

Jeffrey Eugenides is in Princeton, New Jersey, where he now teaches. Mr. Eugenides, welcome.

Mr. JEFFREY EUGENIDES (Author, "The Virgin Suicides"): Hello.

RAZ: Where were you in life when you wrote "The Virgin Suicides"? What was going on?

Mr. EUGENIDES: I was working at the Academy of American Poets as an executive secretary and earning a very small salary and living out in distant Brooklyn. And I, you know, I decided to become a writer when I was fairly young, 16, 17 years old. And by this time, I was almost 30 with only one publication to my name. So, I was in a state of increasing anxiety as I began to get older with nothing to show for myself and began writing "The Virgin Suicides" some time in that period. And I had started other novels before, but for some reason, this one was the one I was able to finish.

RAZ: How long did it take you to write?

Mr. EUGENIDES: It took about three years. And I used to - I had a nine-to-five job, so I worked at night, two hours every night and four hours on the weekends in a pretty regimented way, and about three years. I was also - I got fired in the midst of writing it. So, I had to publish it because I was collecting unemployment. Otherwise, I probably would still be working on it.

RAZ: And of course, it's about 10 years since the film of your book by Sofia Coppola came out, a film that really - it's really loyal to the book. It's almost as if you wrote that book in a way where it could very easily be translated onto film.

Mr. EUGENIDES: I certainly didn't think about that. I did pick up on the line you quoted from the book and from the voiceover in the film about the auto industry. There was a time in the '90s when the U.S. auto industry seemed to be booming where I thought I had written that line, and it was now out of date. And of course, now it seems even more pertinent than ever. But that whole feeling of growing up in Detroit, in a city losing population, and in perpetual crisis really was the mood that made me write "The Virgin Suicides" in the first place.

I was unaware when I was writing the book that that's really the impetus for the entire book. This idea of a family and a collection of girls being suicidal actually came out of the experience of growing up in Detroit.

RAZ: You know, we all know what's going to happen to the Lisbon girls in this book because of the title, just like all of us have sort of been watching the city of Detroit decline for so long. Both of your novels obviously have a Metro Detroit flavor. What do you make of your city today? I mean, Detroit is at the top of the headlines, and…

Mr. EUGENIDES: If I can inject a note of optimism, which is what Detroiters always do in the midst of gloom, the flag of Detroit -Detroit burned down in the 1800s, and the motto on the flag says it will rise again from the ashes. We will see better days. And I was recently back in Detroit on the day that Chrysler went into bankruptcy, and of course, things are terrible there, everyone knows about that. But I was surprised downtown to see how much life there was at night.

A lot of the abandoned buildings, and I'm talking about skyscrapers, sometimes 16-floor buildings are empty. They're being rented out, the lobbies, and techno parties are being thrown in them. And these parties move around from place to place, and it reminded me of Berlin in the early '90s. So, there is some kind of life pulsating in Detroit still, and I was gratified to see that.

RAZ: And Berlin had the benefit of once again becoming the capital of Germany and receiving federal subsidies. And Detroit's in a very different position. Do you think Detroit will be a major city in 20, 30, 40 years?

Mr. EUGENIDES: I think, actually, they should make Detroit the new capital of the nation. NPR could move the offices there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It's difficult to say. The Renaissance Center was built when I was in high school. It opened 1975 or '76. And of course, that was supposed to bring back the city. So, most of my life, and any Detroiter of my age, we've been waiting for the Renaissance of this city that has not arrived. We remain hopeful about it. But as the years pass, there are periods where I begin to despair about the city coming back.

RAZ: In "The Virgin Suicides," the story of a group of boys, which is observing these angelic, beautiful, blonde sisters, the Lisbon girls, from the house across the street, there's a moment in the book where these boys call up the girls, and they're just playing records to them over the telephone. Today, it would be different. I mean, they would be Skyping or text messaging or…

Mr. EUGENIDES: It's true, it's true. And a lot of people are talking about how new technologies will change fiction and movies. What do you do? How is it going to affect dramatic plots when you can constantly contact the different people?

If you watch television, sitcoms and things, people are always coming over to someone's house to tell them something because they need the next scene, like in "Seinfeld," Kramer - you know, Kramer wouldn't have to do that. He could just send an e-mail now. So, there's a kind of artificiality embedded in dramatic scene-making now. I still can avoid it by setting my novels in the '70s or '80s, but I will have to deal with it at some point.

RAZ: Why does this story - almost 16 years after it was originally published and 10 years since the film was released - why do you think it's still interesting to people? I mean, people are buying this book.

Mr. EUGENIDES: There's a book by Cyril Connolly called "Enemies of Promise," which in fact I was reading while I wrote "The Virgin Suicides." And in that book, he has an idea. He calls it the theory of permanent adolescence. His idea was that the experience of adolescence is so indelible that people in adulthood remain essentially adolescents, especially he was talking about British political figures. But I think it applies to all of us. I think when you read "The Virgin Suicides," it appeals to teenagers because it's actually their own experience. But the rest of us remember that time, and I think we are, in many ways, an adolescent nation.

RAZ: Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of "Middlesex" and the recently re-issued "The Virgin Suicides." He joined us from Princeton, New Jersey. And Mr. Eugenides, thanks so much.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song, "Playground Love")

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