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'Middlesex' Author Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitizer Prize-winning novel Middlesex has been on the bestseller list since its publication; it's now available in paperback.

Eugenides is also the author of The Virgin Suicides, which was adapted into a feature film.

This interview first aired on Sept. 24, 2002.

12:31

Other segments from the episode on August 3, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 3, 2007: Interview with Khaled Hosseini; Review of Fred Katz's album "Folk Songs for Far Out Folk"; Interview with Geoffrey Eugenides; Review of the television show…

Transcript

DATE August 3, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Khaled Hosseini discusses his life and book titled
"The Kite Runner"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

It's pretty rare that The New York Times best-seller lists have two titles
from the same author. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is the second novel by our
guest, Khaled Hosseini. It's the Times number one best-seller in fiction this
week. His debut novel, "The Kite Runner," is still on the list in paperback.
Both stories were inspired by Hosseini's own experiences. He grew up in
Afghanistan just before the Soviet invasion of 1979. His father was a
diplomat. In fact, at the time of the Soviet invasion, Hosseini's father was
working at the Afghan embassy in Paris. The family requested and received
political asylum in the United States. They moved to San Jose, California, in
1980, where Hosseini still lives. Hosseini is a physician, but with the
success of his novels, he's chosen to set his practice aside and concentrate
on writing.

Terry Gross spoke to Khaled Hosseini in 2005 after his first novel, "The Kite
Runner," was published. She asked him if he ever encountered people reading
the novel.

Mr. KHALED HOSSEINI: I was on a flight, and I was sitting next to a lady who
was reading the book and kind of surreptitiously crying. And she would like
dab at her eyes with a napkin now and then. And I was somewhat tempted to
tell her who I was, but then I figured there would be this whole--she was
reading the paperback, and there was no author photo, and she would ask, `How
do I know it's you?' And I would have to quote some line or, God forbid, show
an ID. Yeah, I mean, the embarrassing logistics of it almost kind of
overshadows the romanticism of it for me.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Well, the main character in "The Kite Runner" is the son of a wealthy
businessman in Kabul, and he grows up best friends with the son of one of the
family's servants. Now, they're of different ethnic groups, and one is Sunni
and one is Shia Muslim. Who is--I assume the main character is very loosely
based on your life. What about his friend? Who was that based on?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, you know, I had a similar socioeconomic kind of
background and upbringing to the main character, Amir. And like him, there
were--like in his household, there were always people working in and around my
house. And I had a friendship with one of them, a man much older than myself.
He was probably in his 30s, and he was an ethnic Hazara, like the character of
Hassan. And he was a cook. And I struck up a friendship with him and became
close. And he was kind of my partner in flying kites, and he would take me
out to the movies and play in the park with me and so on. And I remember him
as a very affable, kind, gentle man and almost angelic in a certain way, which
I'm sure influenced the writing of this character of Hassan, who in his own
way is very kind of angelic. So I loosely based Hassan on this man that I
knew from my own childhood.

GROSS: And I believe you taught him how to read?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah, he was illiterate. And, in fact, his whole--he told me
no one in his family had ever gone to school. He was from a very rugged,
mountainous area in central Afghanistan, where there really wasn't much in way
of institutions. And so he was illiterate. And at the time I was in about
third grade. And in the course of our friendship, one thing led to another,
and I kind of became his impromptu teacher and taught him the alphabet, and he
took it from there. And I would assign him homework, and he would practice
reading and writing. And by the time he left the household, he was reading
children's books and beginning to read the newspaper very slowly. And that's
something that sort of made its way into the novel as well.

GROSS: You grew up in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion and, of course,
before the Taliban came to power. What did you want to capture in your novel
about what life was like in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, you know, for so long--and maybe justifiably
so--Afghanistan's been totally synonymous with the Soviet war or, you know,
the opium trade or the Taliban or bin Laden. But the fact was, there was an
Afghanistan before all of those things. And, in fact, that's the only
Afghanistan I know, that I remember from my childhood, having grown up in the
1970s before the anti-communist coup. So I kind of wanted to re-create that
lost time and era in at least the first third of this book and to kind of
bring life--a sweeter, more innocent Kabul that I remember from my childhood
and to remind the reader that Afghanistan wasn't always about the caves of
Tora Bora and bombings and land mines and so on; that there was a better time
in that country's history and not that long ago. It just seems a very long
time ago. So I wanted to re-create the Afghanistan of my own childhood, which
I remember with--you know, with a great deal of fondness.

GROSS: What's one of your fondest memories about your neighborhood?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, I mean, you say Kabul to me, and I think kites, and it's
not surprising. Before any of the characters, the kites came first when I
wrote this book. And so maybe my fondest memories revolve around the winters
in Kabul, when schools were out and we had these three months of freedom to
run around and cause trouble with my cousins and my brothers. And,
inevitably, a kite tournament would break out, and we would build our kites
and buy our glass strings and fly kites all day. So that's, almost by word
association, what I think of when I think of those years.

GROSS: My guest is Khaled Hosseini, and he is the author of the best seller
"The Kite Runner."

You left Kabul when you were 11. Your father was a diplomat, and he was sent
to the Afghanistan embassy in France. What was his position in the embassy?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, he was two positions below the ambassador. There were
three secretaries working at the embassy, and he was secretary number two. So
he was working as basically an attache, a diplomat, in the embassy.

GROSS: So you were in Paris when you heard that the Soviets had invaded
Afghanistan?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah, I--we were home having dinner, and there was a news
break, and there were--I saw on the television--you know, we saw pictures of
these Soviet tanks kind of rolling in. And I remember thinking, with a very
sinking feeling, that we would never see Afghanistan again. And it was
shortly after that that my father began kind of covertly making preparations
to move the family to the States.

GROSS: This may be obvious, but what were some of the reasons why your
parents would not consider bringing the family back to Afghanistan?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, there were mass executions going on at the time, and
anybody affiliated with previous regime was in danger. I said my father was a
second secretary. The third secretary, who had become friends with the
family, he ended up going back during the communist years, and he took his
family back to Kabul. And, unfortunately, shortly after that, we heard that
he'd been executed. So that was a very loud and clear message.

GROSS: At what point did it register on you that you really couldn't go home
again?

Mr. HOSSEINI: When my father revealed to us, shortly before we came to the
States, that he had applied for political asylum and that we were going to go
to a place called San Jose in California--he said it was on the West Coast of
the US--and that we weren't to tell anybody about this; that it would have to
be a secret within the family. And within days we were gone. And it felt
like a very--it felt permanent. It felt like we weren't just moving but,
rather relocating and really planning on starting a new life.

GROSS: So your father got asylum in the United States for your family, but
when you moved here your family went from privilege--your father had been a
diplomat from Afghanistan. Your family went from privilege, basically, to
welfare. How did your parents handle that change in status?

Mr. HOSSEINI: I think, in retrospect, very gracefully. There wasn't much in
the way of woebegone expressions and lamenting and that sort of thing. I
think they were blessed with a really good sense of perspective; that, as far
as Afghans went, they were in a pretty good situation in California and safe.
The being on welfare part of it was very hard on them, particularly on my dad.
Both of my parents had always been sort of on the giving end of charity, and
for them to live with the notion of being on the receiving end of it was a
very hard blow to their pride. And so we didn't stay on welfare very long,
just a couple of months, and my father volunteered us out and began working a
number of jobs, as did my mother.

GROSS: Didn't he eventually end up working for welfare?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. He first became a driving instructor, and so to this
day he is the most reliable direction-giver that I know. But it's sort of
a--in kind of an ironic twist. He eventually found a job as a social worker
with the city of Santa Clara, and now he's actually dispensing welfare to
immigrant families.

DAVIES: Author Khaled Hosseini speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2005 interview with author Khaled Hosseini.

GROSS: We talked a little bit about what it was like for your family when the
Soviets invaded Afghanistan. What about when the Taliban came to power? Did
you realize at first what an extremist regime it would be?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, not at first. You know, I think initially everybody was
relieved that the war was over; and by the war, I mean the horrible, horrible
in-fighting between the various mujahideen factions between '92 and '96, which
did what the Soviets didn't do--that is, destroy Kabul completely. And so
there was a sense of relief that finally there was stability. But it was very
short-lived because stories began to leak out, and people began to talk about
what the Taliban were doing in Afghanistan. And so what relief there was to
be enjoyed from the end of the war was quickly overshadowed by the knowledge
of what the Taliban were imposing on the people.

GROSS: Do you have any old friends who actually became members of the
Taliban?

Mr. HOSSEINI: No. God, no. You know what? Most of the Taliban--I mean,
I'm 40 now, and most of the Taliban were young boys during the Soviet war.
And they were often boys who were fatherless and had to kind of languish in
refugee camps in Pakistan and were put in these madrassas and were taught this
very harsh brand of Islam. So it's a different generation. I think most of
them tend to be--were younger men.

GROSS: I imagine that when you came to the United States that your friends
who weren't Afghans knew very little about Afghanistan. But that probably
changed after September 11th, and certainly after the United States started
bombing Afghanistan in an attempt to drive out the Taliban and capture bin
Laden. What was it like for you when suddenly your country was in the news,
and people who wouldn't be able to find it on the map suddenly had a position
on your country?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah, it was bizarre. Suddenly everybody was interested in
Afghanistan, and they were talking about Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz and these
towns that, of course, I knew about. But suddenly they were headlines on
newspapers and television. It was very, very disorienting. And I experienced
September 11th and the aftermath of it in two distinct ways: one as somebody
who had lived in America for more than 20 years, so the sense of outrage and
shock at the atrocity of it was--registered with me as with any other
American; but I also experienced it as an Afghan, especially when it became
evident that the regime in Afghanistan had had a hand in protecting the folks
who had caused this problem.

And so I felt, you know, very ambivalent about what was going to happen in
Afghanistan. On the one hand, here was an opportunity for this very brutal
regime to end, but it also meant more bombing and more killing and the loss of
more innocent lives. So it was very difficult and kind of a tumultuous time
for us.

GROSS: Another thing about your novel, a lot of the story is really propelled
by guilt. And I won't give away what it is that makes this character so
guilty throughout his life, but was there a counterpart for you that made you
think about the weight of carrying around one action that you regret forever
and that you try eventually to compensate for?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Not so much that, but I think when you talk to people who--the
diaspora--people who live in exile, where their native country is being
demolished--there's always this--at least for me there always has been this
undercurrent of guilt about my own good fortunes and my own life. And I have
thought from time to time about people that I knew in Afghanistan who were
poor, who worked as cooks and gardeners, and I wonder what has happened to
them. I've thought about Hussein Khan--this man who I was friends with, who
was a cook in my household--many times and wonder, you know, if he's even
alive or what has happened to him. And there's this--always this kind of
sense of guilt and unease, like an undercurrent.

And so when I was writing this character of Amir, that was something that was
always there, his guilt. It was pervasive. And so it became kind of this
theme in the book, but I think a lot of it stems just from the way that I view
my own life.

GROSS: Are there traditions from Afghanistan that you still keep?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, in my household, I think everything begins with
language, so I speak Farsi to my children. My son, who's four, is completely
bilingual. My daughter's learning both languages. I think it starts with
that. But there are, you know, wedding traditions, of course, that are kept
in our community. I observe Ramadan. I'm not a stringent Muslim, but I do
observe it almost in a cultural kind of way. And then at the end of Ramadan,
there are three days of feasts, where you go and visit family and relatives,
and we invariably do that. So there are Afghan traditions that we try to
keep, but inevitably it kind of becomes diluted by the ambient environment and
the culture around us, which is so overpowering.

GROSS: You mentioned the traditions of weddings, and in your novel "The Kite
Runner" the father spends $35,000, nearly the balance of his life's savings,
on his son's wedding ceremony. Did your father do that for your wedding?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah, God bless him. He dug deep in his pockets and threw a
wonderful wedding. We had over, I think, 600 people show up to the wedding;
about 500 of them were invited. And so it was this big affair, and my dad
paid for it.

GROSS: You know a lot of people.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Well, you know, Afghans are very social creatures, you know,
and this goes back to the way of life in Afghanistan, where, you know, in the
'60s and '70s there wasn't much to do. And I--there's a wonderful line from a
friend of mine who's a writer, Tamim Ansary, who wrote in his book "West of
Kabul, East of New York"--he said, `In the West, you have television. In
Afghanistan, we had genealogy.' And so people sat around--you know, people sat
around and they talked about who's related to who and this very complex
network of how people are connected. And so those connections and those
relations stayed with you, and so when your eldest son is getting married, it
seems almost unthinkable to omit people. So, yeah, there was a lot of people.

GROSS: You know, you grew up in Kabul, and I grew up in Brooklyn. One of the
cultural things we have in common is that we both loved "The Magnificent
Seven" when we were growing up.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Ah.

GROSS: And I assume you did anyways because your main character does, so I
assume...

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...he's speaking for you on that account.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah.

GROSS: And your character sees it 13 times and also learns the hard way that
you're not supposed to reveal the ending of movies to friends in the United
States...

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...friends who haven't seen the movie. And you say the opposite is
true in Afghanistan; that people always want to know...

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah, the first thing...

GROSS: ...`Do they find happiness at the ending?' Yeah.

Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. I remember we'd go see a film, and they'd say, `Well,
is it a happy ending or a sad ending? Did they die at the end?' And that's,
like, the first thing they want to know. So you tell them, `No, it has a
happy ending,' and then people would go with some sense of, I guess, security
to see the film. But I learned, as you say, kind of the hard way that there's
a word for that in the States, and it's called spoiling it. And so
it's--you're not supposed to do that.

GROSS: So what did you love about "The Magnificent Seven"?

Mr. HOSSEINI: Oh, God, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson. Seven
guys against a whole gang, what's there not to like? It was mythical. I
loved it.

GROSS: So you loved an American Western when you were growing up. When you
found out you were going to be moving to the western part of the United
States, did you expect to find guys on horses there?

Mr. HOSSEINI: You know, up until the time when we moved to Paris, I actually
did. And I thought there were really two kinds of Americans: cowboys and
hippies. And so I was convinced that that's what I would find if I ever went
to the States. This was in the '70s, and there was this influx of the hippie
culture in Kabul.

GROSS: Oh, sure. Oh, sure.

Mr. HOSSEINI: And--yeah.

GROSS: Oh, right. Mm-hmm. Uh-huh.

Mr. HOSSEINI: There were opium houses and hashish everywhere, very cheap,
and everybody was friendly. And so most of my contact with Westerners at that
time was with hippies and then the cowboys from the movies. Then I moved to
France, and I gradually realized that, `Well, not all Westerners are hippies,
and there really aren't that many cowboys,' you know, judging by what I was
seeing on television from the US. And so by the time I came here, I was 15,
and, sadly, all those childhood ideas were gone.

DAVIES: Writer Khaled Hosseini speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. His debut
novel "The Kite Runner" is still on the paperback best-seller list. His
latest best seller is "A Thousand Splendid Suns."

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead on a reissue of Fred Katz
conducting global folk tunes
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

In the mid-1950s Fred Katz was a pioneer of jazz cello in drummer Chico
Hamilton's quartet. Katz also played piano behind singers like Lena Horne and
arranged albums by Carmen McRae and word jazz artist Ken Nordine. In 1958,
Katz made an album of his own where he didn't play, but conducted his versions
of global folk tunes. It's just been reissued. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead
said the record was way ahead of its time.

(Soundbite of "Foggy, Foggy, Day")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

The traditional ballad "Foggy, Foggy Day" in an arrangement more spooky than
foggy, mysterious but with an anvil edge. Fred Katz uses a familiar-sounding
melody to take you to an unfamiliar place and then keeps displacing you. You
drift like you're in a dream, the terrain shifts under your feet.

(Soundbite of "Foggy, Foggy Day")

WHITEHEAD: John Williams on piano, showing you he knew something about drama
before writing the theme to "Jaws." "Foggy, Foggy Day" reminds me of some
superhip 1990s Dutch music, but Fred Katz often sounds prophetic on 1958's
"Folk Songs for Far Out Folk," just reissued on Reboot Stereophonic.

The first part of "Mate'ka" sounds like minimal or post-minimal music by Terry
Reilly or Steve Reich, except years too early. Like Katz, they'd apply West
African-ish interlocking rhythm patterns to European instruments. Katz would
work from a musicologist's transcriptions but no longer remembers whose or
what country the music came from. Anyway, after that opening, drums take over
and "Mate'ka" sounds like Max Roach's '70s percussion band, M'Boom.

(Soundbite of "Mate'ka"

WHITEHEAD: Fred Katz conducts three groups on his globe-trotting album. The
pan-African pieces are for six brass and five percussion. The quintet that
plays Americana from "Foggy, Foggy Day" to "Motherless Child" is a pile up of
jazz rhythm instruments: piano, guitar, vibes, base and drums. Two very old
Hebrew songs are set for a sextet of woodwinds and upright bass, lots of
clarinet but no Klezmer licks.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Paul Horn and Buddy Collette on flutes behind Justin Gordon's bass
clarinet. You could say that number looks ahead as well, to New York's Jewish
improvisers digging into their roots in the 1990s. Fred Katz was so far up
front he studied the Kaballah in the '50s. Still, in some ways, his music is
of its time, with echoes of Afro-Cuban bands, West Coast cool, the modern jazz
quartet and George Russell's Jazz Workshop records. Some of it also recalls
the kind of Hollywood exotica associated with movies set in the jungle but
shot at the LA Zoo. Even so, "Folk Songs for Far Out Folk" is a gem. Without
meaning to, Fred Katz forecast the music's future by looking to its past.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the
University of Kansas and he's a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed
"Folk Songs for Far Out Folk" by Fred Katz on the Reboot Stereophonic label.

Next, a coming of age story about a hermaphrodite. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Geoffrey Eugenides discusses his new novel, "Middlesex"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

You may know Geoffrey Eugenides as the author of the novel "The Virgin
Suicides," which was adapted into a film. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003
for his second novel, "Middlesex." It's now the book to read in Oprah's Book
Club.

The narrator of the story was born in 1960 and starts life as a girl named
Callie, but as she approaches puberty, she realizes she isn't like other
girls. She eventually discovers she was born a hermaphrodite, and she's
becoming more physically masculine with age. In her early teens, she abandons
her identity as a woman, changes her name from Callie to Cal, and begins to
live as a man.

The story also covers the two preceding generations of the narrator's family,
starting with his Greek immigrant grandparents. When the book was released,
The New York Times said, `The novel turns the story of Cal's coming of age
into an uproarious epic, at once funny and sad, about misplaced identities and
family secrets. Eugenides has delivered a deeply affecting portrait of one
family's tumultuous engagement with the American 20th century.'

Terry spoke with Geoffrey Eugenides in 2002. Let's start with the author
reading a passage from "Middlesex."

Mr. GEOFFREY EUGENIDES: "I was born twice, first as a baby girl on the
remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960, and then again as a
teenage boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study `Gender
Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites,' published in the Journal
of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you've seen my photograph in
chapter 16 of the now sadly-outdated `Genetics and Heredity.' That's me on
page 578 standing naked beside a height chart, with a black box covering my
eyes.

"My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most
recent driver's license, from the Federal Republic of Germany, records my
first name simply as Cal. I'm a former field hockey goalie, long-standing
member of the Save the Manatee Foundation, rare attendant at the Greek
Orthodox liturgy and, for most of my adult life, an employee of the US State
Department. Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I've
been ridiculed by classmates, guinea pigged by doctors, palpated by
specialists and researched by the March of Dimes. A red-headed girl from
Grosse Point fell in love with me, not knowing what I was; her brother liked
me, too. An Army tank led me into urban battle once. A swimming pool turned
me into myth. I've left my body in order to occupy others, and all this
happened before I turned 16."

TERRY GROSS, host:

That's Geoffrey Eugenides reading the beginning of his new novel "Middlesex."

Geoffrey, why did you want to write about a contemporary hermaphrodite?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, the first kernel of the idea came to me when I read an
actual memoir of a 19th century hermaphrodite that Michel Foucault found in
the archives of the French Public Department of Hygiene. And I thought this
would be a very interesting book, and went and read it and was filled with
frustration, because the hermaphrodite in question, Herculine Barbin, was a
convent schoolgirl, or at least in her early years, and when she came to write
the story of her life, she wrote very much like a convent schoolgirl. I
actually brought the diary with me in case you wanted to hear some of it. But
she...

GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah. You bet.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Oh, OK.

GROSS: Why don't you read a few lines from it?

Mr. EUGENIDES: I will. This is midway through her memoirs when she has
fallen in love with her best friend at the convent school, and this is the
first night they spend together.

"Happy about this pretext, which was only too true, one evening I asked my
friend to share my bed. She accepted with pleasure. It would be impossible
to express the happiness I felt from her presence at my side. I was wild with
joy. We talked for a long time before going to sleep, I with my arms
encircling her waist, she with her face resting near my own. My God, was I
guilty? And must I accuse myself here of a crime? No, no, that fault was not
mine. It was the fault of an unexampled fatality which I could not
resist"--three exclamation points--"henceforth, Sarah belonged to me"--two
exclamation points--"she was mine," three exclamation points.

It sort of goes on in that fashion, and I was just terribly frustrated because
she was evasive about her story, and all of the things I wanted to know about
a hermaphrodite's life she was unable to tell me. And I got the idea of
writing my own story and, in contrast with the way most hermaphrodites in
literature have been handled, usually as mythical creatures or as fanciful
creations like Orlando in Virginia Woolf, I wanted to write a story about a
real-life hermaphrodite and be as accurate as possible, as I could about the
medical facts and the biological circumstances.

GROSS: What's the medical explanation for your main character's condition?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, it's a very rare genetic mutation, and the condition is
called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. And it occurs in very isolated
communities. What it basically is, if you inherit this mutation, your body is
unable to respond to certain androgens, or male hormones, for a long time, and
as you're formed in the womb, if you would have an XY chromosome, you would be
male, and you would be born looking very, very much like a girl, almost
undetectably so. And at puberty, as testosterone gets stronger in your blood,
you would then virilize and become quite masculine in appearance. So it's one
of the most dramatic hermaphroditic conditions that exists, and that's one of
the reasons it appealed to me. But in that it was usually occurring only in
inbred communities and isolated communities, I then saw a chance to broaden
this story from a fictional memoir of a hermaphrodite to a story about an
entire family, a Greek-American family in this case, and the transmission of
this gene down through the generations until it finally is inherited by the
narrator and flowers in her body, and later, as a man, she tells the story.

GROSS: And since this genetic condition happens in inbred populations, you
have this character's grandparents being not only husband and wife, but also
brother and sister, and the characters' parents are not only husband and wife,
but also second cousins. Why did you want to explore that kind of familial
marital relationship?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, the inbreeding was demanded by the genetic condition I
was using, and to bring in mythology again, of course, Zeus and Hera, I
believe, are brother and sister in Greek mythology, and so I was playing with
some of these ancient ideas in literature. I needed to dramatize inbreeding,
and inbreeding is actually quite boring. It takes generations and generations
and centuries, and so in order to dramatize that, it required me to speed up
the process and to actually have grandparents be siblings. It seemed to me to
be the best way to dramatize, you know, what was going on at a cellular level.

GROSS: Now, in the beginning of your book "Middlesex," the narrator explains
that he was born as a girl and reborn as a teenage boy in an emergency room at
the age of 14. What happens in the emergency room?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, in the emergency room is the first time when someone
other than Callie sees her anatomy in bright light. At that point, Callie is
14, she still looks like a girl, though a flat-chested one, but after an
accident, she's taken to the emergency room and in undressing her to see if
she has any broken bones, the doctor does see her genitals which, at that
point, would be not characteristic, or entirely characteristic, of a girl of
her age.

GROSS: And why does your character decide to be a boy?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, it's a long process and a difficult one for her. The
condition that she has, of course, is so virilizing that after she goes
through puberty, she would basically have musculature, facial hair and deep
voice and would appear to be male. So it would be easier at least to operate
in society as a male. And Cal, as he talks about his life in Berlin as an
adult, he's careful to say that he operates in society as a male. It's not
clear whether he considers himself a regular man or a regular guy, but it is
the way that he most easily can get along.

GROSS: He seems to have a consciousness of what he is, which is something
that's strictly neither 100 percent male nor 100 percent female.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Right. But I think in terms of the book itself, because
Callie falls in love with her best friend, that that did provide a certain
impetus for her decision to be a boy. But then, of course, when she goes to
the sexual gender identity clinic, she does find out about her chromosomal
status being XY, and that is another reason why she finally decides to adopt a
male gender identity.

GROSS: When she decides to adopt a male gender identity, she has to learn the
outward characteristics of men. I want you read a paragraph--this is on page
449--in which your main character describes that kind of transformation of
learning to walk and talk like a male.

Mr. EUGENIDES: "Like a convert to a new religion, I overdid it at first.
Somewhere near Gary, Indiana, I adopted a swagger. I rarely smiled. My
expression throughout Illinois was the Clint Eastwood squint. It was all
bluff, but so was it on most men. We were all walking around squinting at
each other. My swagger wasn't that different from what lots of adolescent
boys put on trying to be manly. For that reason, it was convincing. Its very
falseness made it credible. Now and then I fell out of character. Feeling
something stuck to the bottom of my shoe, I kicked up my heel and looked back
over my shoulder to see what it was, rather than crossing my leg in front of
me and twisting up my shoe. I picked correct change from my open palm instead
of my trouser pocket. Such slips made me panic, but needlessly. No one
noticed. I was aided by that. As a rule, people don't notice much."

GROSS: I'm wondering if, when you wrote that, you thought back to your own
puberty and when you were going through the process of turning into a man from
having been a boy, and if you felt that you were acting in a way, acting the
role of man.

Mr. EUGENIDES: This continues to be something that I feel like I do. In
order to get those characteristics that I thought were more common amongst
females than males, I didn't think back to my early years, I actually walked
around my room trying to imagine how do girls usually look at things when
they're stuck to their shoe? How do they count change? And it actually took
me a long time to come up with just those few examples that seemed to me
evidently female or male.

GROSS: Well, Geoffrey Eugenides, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

DAVIES: Author Geoffrey Eugenides speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. His
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is "Middlesex."

Coming up, "Masters of Science Fiction." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Bianculli looks at the ABC anthology series
"Masters of Science Fiction"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Saturday night at 10, ABC presents a new four-week anthology series called
"Masters of Science Fiction." TV critic David Bianculli is thrilled by the
series, but not by its scheduling.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

I think I love anthology series for the same reasons the networks generally
hate them. Each week is different. Every installment starts from scratch,
with new sets, new stories, and an entirely new cast. And you don't have any
idea what's going to happen. Unlike weekly series with continuing characters,
you don't even know who's going to live.

If you're in network, that's tough to swallow and tougher to promote. But in
the early days of television, the anthology gave us such fantastic dramas,
performed live no less, as Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" and Rod Serling's
"Patterns." Serling went on to create and host "The Twilight Zone," which,
like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "The Outer Limits" and "Thriller,"
expanded imaginations and the boundaries of TV in the '50s and '60s.

But now what? Steven Spielberg tried to bring back the spirit of those
ambitious anthology series with his "Amazing Stories" on NBC, but even his
clout and passion couldn't make a go of it.

That was more than 20 years ago. On broadcast TV, there are been very few
tries since. That's why ABC's development of "Masters of Science Fiction" is
so exciting. This show doesn't just attempt to recapture the best anthology
series of old; it succeeds. It's a modern-day "Outer Limits," with stories so
inventive and so excitingly intelligent, Rod Serling would have presented them
with pride. Who does present them? No less than Stephen Hawking. Here's how
he introduces the show's first installment, "A Clean Escape," based on the
short story by John Kessel.

(Soundbite of "Masters of Science Fiction")

Mr. STEPHEN HAWKING: Are there events so impossible to forget that they
become too painful to remember?

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Adapted by Sam Egan and directed by Mark Rydell, "A Clean Escape"
is a brilliant duel of wits between an army psychiatrist and a forgetful
patient set 24 years in the future. The patient is played by Sam Waterston.
He seems to have no idea why he's being examined and questioned and very
little memory of certain subjects. The psychiatrist is played by Judy Davis,
and she thinks he's faking. When he visits her office, one of her
seemingly-simple tests involves covering a paperweight with a handkerchief.

(Soundbite of "Masters of Science Fiction")

Mr. SAM WATERSTON: (In character) I'm not sure I'm in the right place.

Ms. JUDY DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) You are. Please, sit down.

(Soundbite of rumbling)

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) Want some water?

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) No, I'm...

(Soundbite of pouring water)

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) Did I have an appointment?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) You're right on time.

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) I pride myself on that. Being punctual.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) It's a lost art.

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) I've always said so.

(Soundbite of laugh)

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) And you are?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) Dr. Evans.

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) This is a hospital?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) May I ask you some questions?

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) The nurses' station, they directed me.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) I'd like to start with a little game.

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) Game? What sort of game?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) I want you to watch what I'm doing.

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) Are you going to make that disappear?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) What's under the handkerchief?

Mr. WATERSTON: Can we place a bet on it?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) Not this time.

Mr. WATERSTON: (In character) Let's see. A paperweight?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Dr. Evans) Wonderful.

(Soundbite of laugh)

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: What's so wonderful about that? Well, before too long, he can't
identify what's hidden under the handkerchief. And the next time he visits
the doctor's office, he doesn't seem to remember her, either. What's going on
here and who is he really? Watch, and I promise you'll be surprised and
impressed.

Waterston and Davis are astoundingly good in what amounts to an intense,
hour-long, two-character stage play.

Other shows on "Masters of Science Fiction" are impressive, too. Next week,
an adaptation of the Howard Fast story "The Awakening" stars Terry O'Quinn
from "Lost" as a man investigating one of several emotional close encounters
of the third kind.

The week after that, Malcolm McDowell and Ann Heche star in a funny, yet
pointed, adaptation of a Robert A. Heinlein story about humanoid robots.

And wrapping up the series is the best installment of all, "The Discarded,"
starring Brian Dennehy and John Hurt as mutant outcasts on a marooned space
ship. The story, impeccably acted, is adapted from a short story by Harlan
Ellison and it's adapted by Ellison himself, working with "History of
Violence" screenwriter Josh Olson.

"The Discarded" may seem like an obvious allegory about the AIDS epidemic,
except that Ellison wrote his short story way back in 1959. That's the year,
by the way, that "The Twilight Zone" was launched. And all these years later,
both the story and the anthology series seem just as fresh and daring.

So why am I so angry about how ABC is scheduling this series by executive
producer Keith Addis and company? Because "Masters of Science Fiction" has
been sitting on ABC's shelf for a while now. It wasn't broadcast at midseason
or even at the end of the season. But mind-numbing junk like "National Bingo
Night"--that made the cut, no problem. Broadcast networks almost never put on
a first-run TV series on Saturday nights anymore. The viewership is too low
to bother. Saturday nights at 10, that's even worse. And Saturday nights in
August--let's just say ABC Entertainment president Steven McPherson couldn't
bury this series any deeper if he used a backhoe.

But "Masters of Science Fiction" is a buried treasure, and it's absolutely
worth the effort to find it. Imagine, if you will, a fresh-scripted show
featuring real actors and real ideas in the middle of summer. It's almost
like you're in the twilight zone. And in the best way possible, you are.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News. "Masters
of Science Fiction" begins Saturday night on ABC.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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