WRITERS TELL ALL
Lydia Millet Has Stopped by to Talk About Her Career as One of America's Most Important and Diverse (and INTERESTING) Writers--Here We Go:
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lydia, I am so happy to finally get the chance to interview you for Writers Tell All. I really do love your work, and would love to start with a fairly simple question before getting into anything too heavy. I don’t know if you’d consider yourself prolific, but you certainly have written your fair share of diverse, incredibly unique and profound and critically acclaimed novels, and I’m wondering: how do you manage to keep up the steady output? What drives you to be a novelist, how did you come to be a novelist, what was your journey like to publishing your first work, and how did you come to be as successful as you are today?
Lydia Millet: Stop, I’m blushing. I don’t think I can offer you a captivating origin story. I love reading, I love making things up, I love being caught up in a piece of writing that feels ecstatic. So when I get to do those things I’m satisfied. I’m fortunate to have a day job I love too, in conservation, and I wouldn’t want to give it up, so I have to thread those lines of work through each other. I find myself complaining about getting enough time for my books occasionally, and it’s true I don’t get enough time, but — actually this just struck me — what’s probably more true is that I don’t mind the combination. I like that act of threading.
MT: Your novels are described as often comic or heartbreaking or comic and heartbreaking, approaching many different genre tropes while remaining veryLydia Millet, each in their own right. When you’re writing a novel, do you think in terms of genre, and how do you go about plotting a novel and writing and executing any work, as well as editing and polishing this work as well?
LM: You know, I just ease into a voice and keep going. Most often without malice aforethought. I don’t think of my novels ahead of time too often, except in vague daydreams.
MT: Your novels in general are shorter, and I admire you and your novels largely because it takes a lot of talent to take a novel half as length as a similar work and pack twice the punch. What are your opinions on being concise and to the point, or whatever you believe enables you to shorten your novels in length in order to deliver an amazing experience — emotionally, mentally — to the reader?
LM: Truncated attention span, probably. It’s important, in a conversation like this, to be honest. As a reader, I can’t stand the self-indulgence of overlong books. Some writers seem to treat their novels like a drunken party where they alone get to hold forth. Which, technically, sure. A novel iskind of like that. But you have to know when to leave for the night. People suffer from windbaggery. Bloviation. They sufferfrom this. They’re not self-aware. Their big, dull books are like a fast, sparkly car purchased during some me-time that should actually stay private. I don’t want to ride in those sparkly me-cars.
MT: What are the books that initially inspired you to write, and what are the novels you continue to read today that keep your writing, new or old? For your contemporaries, who are authors in a variety of genres — literary, mystery, whatever have you — that inspire you and keep you motivated? Is there any book you come back to again and again, a favorite or more influential book?
LM: I got a lot out of Karel Capek’s War With the Newts. I still think of it, though I first read it a quarter-century ago. Its end-time, apocalyptic direness paired with the humor of the upright, humanoid, and quizzical salamanders. Also Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe, because of the deeply detestable protagonist. For style I love Virginia Woolf and Lydia Davis, for moral rigor I like Coetzee, and even though other people say it too, I’ll never get over Thomas Bernhard.
MT: While I’ve read a good bit of your work, both novels and shorter fiction, I try to go into an interview blind as to other interviews with the authors I’m working with and what authors have already said. One question I have is: do you feel your work is considered “feminist,” and if so how do you relate this, or any other ideas or agendas you may have in your work, other than the fantastic stories you relate? What do you think — from the million possible answers — is the most important role of the writer in writing?
LM: I hope my work’s considered feminist, among other ists, but I’d be surprised if that’s the first adjective that springs to mind for most readers. I often like to look over the heads of people, into the crowd. Beyond the crowd, into the trees. Up into the atmosphere. You know? All the oppressed should be lifted up, in a world that was full of grace. Women are clearly oppressed. After the poor, the largest oppressed group in the world. Of course, those groups do tend to overlap. So lifted up would be good for allof the oppressed. But not lifted abovethe rest, and I fear aspects of liberal culture have a tendency to do that at the moment, make fetish objects of historical and contemporary victims in what’s also a tidy act of self-legitimation and self-glorification. The moral heroism of the powerful yet oh so empathic! And those self-glorifying and identity-based tendencies are boomeranging on us painfully now. Those rains are raising crops of Trumps and Ailes and Bannons out of the dead land. It’s allof us we should be worried about. It’s the structures that keep the many down and elevate the few.
And to the “most important role of the writer” — that’s a genuinely hard question. Maybe I can say interiority, the act of speaking from one private mind to another. Speaking abstractly rather than only narratively, and cerebrally as well as emotionally. Speaking of the many as well as the self, the all as well as the individual.
MT: Each of your books carry with them both your own unique voice as well as the very unique and different voices of your characters. How do you go about developing, in addition to your own individual voice, each voice of the characters you write from? How hard is it to find a character’s voice, and do you have any tricks or methods to find a way to slip into the role of a character you’re writing?
LM: I think there’s slippage between self and narrative self and character self, and though they’re distinct there are also Venn diagrams among them. I think it’s disingenuous to claim that literary voices and characters are somehow perfectly differentiable. Language slides you down a slide, and maybe there are different slides for different characters, and maybe there are whole different playgrounds…OK. That may be my most belabored metaphor yet. If I have tricks or methods, they’d consist mostly of making sure that sentences follow naturally from other sentences, and that the paragraphs that result feel like coherent gestures with consistent tones. Let sound carry you along but be careful it doesn’t seduce you completely, I think. That’s how you build a voice.
MT: Your last novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, mixes a lot of elements from different genres, including thriller to a certain extent. In thriller novels especially, although really in all genres, it’s incredibly important to keep the reader hooked. What are your tricks to keep a reader glued to the page section after section, chapter after chapter, in any work of fiction, no matter what elements of any genre it may take on?
LM: All I can do is try to keep myself intrigued and try not to waste words. Not that I haven’t wasted them in the past — there’s been some wastage for sure — but I get stingier and stingier as time goes on. That might be the best advice I could give young writers if I were asked, just, don’t bore yourself. If you’re bored by a passage you write, it’s a safe bet everyone else is even more bored.
MT: Your newest work of fiction is an absolutely brilliant collection of stories, Fight No More, which shows a vast and wide array of talent for numerous forms of storytelling — stories about different characters, different people, and all so intensely real and consuming in their own way. I’m a writer too and have always found that my biggest weakness is writing short fiction. I know the “rules,” I love a good short story myself, but I can never seem to concretely produce a solid short story myself. What are your secrets to writing great short fiction, and what do you think are some of the biggest differences in approaching the writing of short and long form fiction?
LM: Well for me short stories are a playful form. There can be heavy stuff behind them or in the margins, but I think if you approach them as moments, fragments, or even paintings or snapshots, that may be a good way to end up with something you like.
MT: I am curious — of all the stories in Fight No More, which of these stories is your favorite? I also had never thought of how complicated it was that, in addition to actually writing an amazing series of short stories, one must carefully put the stories together in a unique and important order in an effort to create the greatest collection possible. What are your secrets to writing these great stories and, in turn, organizing the stories and arranging a book so that it really works? Have you ever found yourself compiling a collection of stories and come across a favorite, amazing story that simply just won’t fit in with the collection you’re working with? If so, how do you handle this situation?
LM: Um. I don’t mind the one called “The Fall of Berlin.” And in fact I don’t mind “I Can’t Go On,” the one about the pedophile, either. I have a weakness for the sad and the sick. For this collection I was asked to write an extra story, actually, rather than get rid of one, because my agent felt one of the characters needed more time. But I have to admit in my only previous collection, Love in Infant Monkeys, I included a story that really didn’t follow from the others as a kind of P.S. Not because it was so brilliant it couldn’t be omitted, sadly, but because I like intrusions and odd men out. I like to pull in an item that doesn’t belong.
MT: Our country is certainly something of a mess currently. The leader of our country, as well as the leader of many nations around the world, is something of a train wreck. This is a popular question of many publications and has been for years, and I really think that it’s my responsibility to ask this nation’s greatest writers again and again, especially in times like these: first, what work of yours — short fiction or long — would you give the president, and what (if he did read it, if he knows how to read) would you expect or hope he would take from it? Second, if you could give him any book by any other author, what would it be, and likewise what would you hope he’d take away from it?
LM: I’m so sorry — I can’t answer that! No matter what books they were, it’d be a thankless gesture. Like giving high-heeled shoes to a goat.
MT: Piggybacking off my last question, in our nation’s time of crisis, in the place our world is currently in politically, socially, etc., what do you think is the most important role of the writer in affecting the world (if at all)? What do you hope to be the long-lasting effect of your work, other than simply fine entertainment for innumerable readers?
LM: Right now we should all be writing about extinction. Climate change and mass extinction. We should take a deep breath and just walk away from identity politics for a while, despite the many prestigious and financial inducements to push our particularist agendas. See the answer re: feminism, above. We should write about the collective. We should write about what’s disappearing and can’t ever be gotten back. What’s being destroyed. We should write about how to stop it.
MT: Do you believe, like so many other authors, that a writer does continue to get better book after book, work after work, and either way what do you feel is your best work, and what do you feel is your favorite? Which work would you like to be remembered for ten, twenty, one hundred years from now? What do you feel this work says about your career and also about you, both as a writer and a person?
LM: Depends on the writer! Some have one book in them and at best repeat it. None of us wants to be one of those, of course. For me, I’d go back and edit the sh*t out of some of my books if I could. Does that mean I’m improving? As for favorite, or whatever — I’m still attached to an early one called My Happy Life. And I also like one called Ghost Lights, the second in the trilogy that ended with Magnificence. Though critics didn’t necessarily agree.
MT: Lydia, our staff as well as, I’m sure, many of our readers and fans, are huge fans of yours as well. We would love to know: what is next for you? Do you have a work in progress, or do you avoid sticking to strict deadlines and goals as opposed to delivering a novel or collection every year or two? We would love to know anything about your next work in progress, if there is one already in the works.
LM: I just finished a book called A Children’s Bible, a novel about a group of children and teenagers in a vast summerhouse who can’t stand their parents. And then a storm comes in. A big storm comes in off the ocean.
MT: Lydia, thank you for allowing me to pick your brain for Writers Tell All. Our whole staff is very appreciative of your agreeing to be interviewed, as we all love your writing so immensely, and think it is not important on just a literary level, but on a personal and national level as well. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, remarks, suggestions, or questions that have been nagging you throughout the interview. Again, thank you for allowing us to interview you, Lydia, and we really appreciate the chance to get to know more about your and your work.
LM: Well. Thank you for your kindness and your lovely and thorough questions.