February 2008

John Zuarino


An Interview with Lydia Millet

Several years ago I had the opportunity to intern at Soft Skull Press. I was a young, surprisingly not-cynical undergraduate who sort of unwittingly fell into the world of small press literature. While I was there, I noticed this rather large book with a big red cover depicting a nuclear blast. That was Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. The story of three temporally displaced scientists’ crusade for nuclear non-proliferation still sticks with me today, almost four years later.

Millet recently released her new novel, How the Dead Dream. While it certainly doesn’t physically weigh as much as the previous tome, the interaction between character and plot still feels just as weighty: the powerful presence and gradual decline of the mother figure, the nights spent in zoos next to countless rare creatures, literal and figurative abandonments abound. Bitingly funny and deeply thought-provoking, How the Dead Dream holds up to its predecessor despite being of a completely different genre, if one really must try to classify here.

Just as with Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, How the Dead Dream is something that will stick out in readers’ minds for years to come.

I spoke to Millet via e-mail over the course of several weeks as she started caring for a new child, where we spoke about getting close to endangered species, the idea of motherhood, and her stint at Hustler.

Your last book dealt with nuclear nonproliferation and its insinuated apocalyptic effects. Your newest deals directly with extinction. What made you decide on the new subject?

My life is all taken up with animals. Endangered species in particular, because on and off for the past decade or so I’ve worked for an organization aimed at protecting them called the Center for Biological Diversity. Every week seems to bring a new critter or a new crisis into my field of view, so this couldn’t have been a more natural fictional landscape.

What kind of work do you handle at the Center?

I edit and write public materials, from press releases and annual reports to direct-mail letters and web pages on the species and places we work to conserve. My husband Kieran founded the Center with his friends Peter and Robin back in 1989; I first came out to the desert ten years later to work for the Center as a volunteer, because I loved how aggressive and powerful the place was, despite its small size and budget, in litigating on behalf of rare plants and animals.

How the Dead Dream is supposedly part of a trilogy. What are you planning for the next installments? Will it follow the same characters, or is it going to be more or less a thematic trilogy?

It does follow the same characters, with each book written from a different point of view within a small circle. The second book in the series, Ghost Lights, is finished and should come out a year from now. It tells the story of an IRS agent who’s the father of one of the characters in How the Dead Dream.

The mother figure is extremely important here, especially as the novel reaches its end. You also recently had a baby. Was the experience at all related to the act of writing How the Dead Dream?

There’s a kind of urgency and passion you can’t help but feel about that relationship, the parent-child one, after you’ve had a baby, and that played into the book. The sadness of it, in a way -- the sadness and power of the kind of painful, consuming love you feel for your child. The strange unrequitedness of it, too, because no love is the same as that love, not even the love a child gives you back. Nothing can equal it.
What kind of research went into your novel? The acknowledgments in the back of the book mentioned several zookeepers in Arizona. Were you able to get close to several endangered species? What was that like?

I was able to get behind the scene at a couple of zoos, but that still doesn’t put you close enough to know anything. Still, it was only by getting as close as I did that I realized how far away I was.

Is there any particular author/novel that you’ve found especially influential over the years?

I adore Thomas Bernhard, especially Woodcutters, but really all the prose he wrote.

How do you feel your approach to writing has changed since Oh Pure and Radiant Heart?

My approach hasn’t changed since that book, but it has changed since my earlier, harder-edged books. George Bush, Dark Prince of Love and Everyone’s Pretty are books that are encased in a kind of protective seal of cynicism. Both of them were quite planned, structurally. But since I wrote those I’ve moved from writing in a hard way to writing in a soft way. I don’t plan and I allow myself to move in and out of satire, to play with stereotypes and also delve more deeply into character, to try to contain both humor and more serious abstract thought in a single volume. In a nutshell, when I was in my twenties I didn’t allow emotion to shape my novels, but now I do.

You once acted as copy editor at Larry Flint Publications, and this eventually made its way into Everyone’s Pretty. What was it like working there?

I was the copy editor of Hustler for about two years. It was funny, ugly, and educational -- more so than either of the master’s programs I attended. Also I met some people there who became central to my life -- especially my ex-boyfriend, Randolph, whom I was with for seven years and who’s still one of my closest friends in the world. What can I say -- sometimes you have to go work in porn to meet the good guys.