Interview by Nathan Leslie
Pulitzer Prize finalist and Guggenheim fellow Lydia Millet’s third novel, My Happy Life, was winner of the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. Laura Miller of Salon described Millet’s writing as “…always flawlessly beautiful, reaching for an experience that precedes language itself.” Millet’s books and stories range from the philosophical to the satirical, delving into territories such as political culture, the discovery of mermaids in a coral reef, the inventors of the atom bomb, and the crises of extinction and climate change. A conservationist, she lives outside Tucson, Arizona with her two children and works for the Center for Biological Diversity.
First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to chat. As a fan of your work, I’m so impressed by your productivity. How are you able to stay so prolific? Your ability to continue to produce excellent novels so steadily—it’s impressive.
Kind of you to say, but I always feel I should be getting more done.
When you’re beginning a new novel, what comes first for you? The concept? The protagonist? A certain image or scene?
Just a first page of language, typically. And then a sense of destination, of a last page—not in character or plot but in tone. Emotion.
Anna in Sweet Lamb of Heaven hears voices and she is simultaneously a quite likable protagonist—we root for her throughout the novel. I love the way you offer the reader a multitude of shifting possibilities regarding the cause of the voices—and yet it is ambiguous. What inspired your exploration of the voices she hears?
I wanted to draw a Venn diagram of science and the sacred, how we interpret incoming information through those filters. Also, what we define as language, who we see as having the capability for, maybe even the “right” to, language. The voice was an opening into some of that.
In Lamb of Heaven Ned is a horrific figure, though perhaps not as horrible as Bill from Omnivores. You don’t pull punches in your work. Where do you think your literary ferocity comes from?
Ferocity! Thanks. I like extreme characters because they’re real. And also vigorous and charismatic. People who lack self-awareness can be a curse for the rest of us, but they’re entertaining. In fiction, anyway, they sustain my interest. In life, only for five minutes.
I did love Dean. But honestly I’ve been fond of all my unlikable characters. They often make me laugh, and they’re tweaked versions of familiar flaws. And it’s clarifying to see features in caricature. Light floods in.
I really admire your use of satire—which has been remarked upon elsewhere. I was thinking about how underutilized satire is these days in fiction. Is satire a lost art?
In books, you’re right. But it’s all over television and movies. It’s just moved to the visual media, mostly.
Speaking of satire—how do you feel about the various labels—“feminist,” “satirist,” etc.—that are sometimes attached to you and your work?
I welcome them.
Animals appear in your work frequently—for instance, they appear in key roles in Ghost Lights, Omnivores, and most obviously in Love in Infant Monkeys. You clearly express a lot of compassion for animals in your work. Can you talk a bit about this?
There’s compassion but there’s also love. I want to write about a kind of desperate love I feel, which I believe many of us feel, for a world that’s disappearing.
There is quite a bit of travel involved in many of your novels, thematically speaking. Is this, in your view, tapping into something essential to your work? Travel seems to bring out something elemental in your characters.
Travel’s a form of otherness that’s fairly accessible to us as a transformation. I’m always interested in otherness.
I’m glad you like it. I was so young when I wrote it—22, 23—I have trouble seeing it clearly.
Have you been writing any new short stories recently? Love in Infant Monkeys is such a wonderful collection.
I have! I just finished a new series of them.
You have been publishing books for twenty years now and you have worked with a number of different publishers. Do you have any thoughts regarding how the publishing industry has changed (from where you sit)?
I think it’s diversified in some ways, gotten more monolithic in others.
If you had the chance to chat with one living author, who would it be?
Not sure talking would give me much. Usually the writing speaks better for us than we do.
How about a deceased author?
Well, if you put a gun to my head. Probably, yawn yawn, Shakespeare. He was smart.
What’s coming up next for you? What are you working on?
A novel. Climate change, children.
Thank you again for chatting. It’s a real honor!
The pleasure was mine.
Read more about Lydia Millet at http://www.lydiamillet.net/