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After graduating, Mr. Eugenides went to San Francisco, wrote for the sailing magazine Yachtsman and studied at Stanford University, his experimental side encouraged by author and faculty member Gilbert Sorrentino. Dumped by his then-girlfriend and running out of money, Mr. Eugenides moved to New York and worked as executive secretary for the Academy of American Poets. His boss at the time, Bill Wadsworth, remains a close friend despite having to fire Mr. Eugenides for caring more about the novel he was writing than the job he was paid to do.

“It became apparent that Jeff was typing ‘The Virgin Suicides’ on the academy’s letterhead when he was supposed to be doing my correspondence,” Mr. Wadsworth says with a laugh.

Mr. Eugenides did some stage work at Brown and compares writing to an actor inflating a small part of himself into a full person. He relates no more to Mitchell, a fellow Greek-American from Michigan, than he does to Madeleine.

“I do it by basically assuming a woman’s experience is not that completely different from a man’s,” he says. “The core of her feelings, core of her personality, is maybe 60 percent my own and 40 percent women I have known and having some idea of their lives and their interior situations.”

“The Marriage Plot” is not a historical novel, but enough time has passed for the author and others to notice changes between his college years and the present. The 1960s were long over, but “finding yourself” was still more important than choosing a career. Screenwriter Steven Katz (“Shadow of the Vampire”), a former roommate of the author’s, calls the novel “so perfectly evocative of Brown in the early ‘80s that every time I put it down, I was floored by a wave of sadness and nostalgia at the thought that, in that instant, it was 30 years later.”

Mr. Eugenides teaches creative writing at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, working with students hardly born when “Virgin Suicides” was published. The kids seem just as bright now, he says, but a bit more businesslike, unlikely to emulate the young Jeffrey Eugenides who walked with a cane in homage to James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus.

“The students now are very mature and are not acting out in all the ways we did. … They’re not going through an obvious phase where they’re wearing a Mohawk or dressing in tin foil,” he says.

At Brown, “we wanted to be artists, and we wanted to be writers and had affectations that expressed those desires. I don’t see that in my students. They’re more uniform in their behavior. They might want to be artists, but maybe they’re calmer about it.”