An Interview with Rebecca Miller
An eighteenth-century Jewish peddler reincarnated as a fly in present-day Long Island serves as the narrator of Rebecca Miller's new novel, Jacob's Folly -- but once the reader is immersed, Jacob's physical manifestation is hardly the most ambitious facet of the book. Three plotlines weave masterfully together, at once exploring questions of faith, guilt, and belonging.
Jacob's Folly is a patchwork of extraordinary language, fantastical concepts, and careful research that Miller spent years culling together through books and relationships cultivated expressly for the novel. At two a.m., when I closed the cover on the book, I knew the ideas evoked from the text weren't finished for me; the themes were too rich to let linger. I was just fortunate enough to have Miller as the partner on the other line with whom I got to continue the conversation.
Identity is a central tenant of this book, whether you're examining it in the context of the eighteenth century or present time. Did you learn most about the identities of your characters in trying to contextualize them with their religiousness or through other qualities about them?
I didn't consciously begin with religion, no. But it has to be said that there is some religious connection, however loose, with all of them. Leslie is the least overt about his position vis-à-vis the church, but there is a moment in a flashback where he meets his wife and he traces a cross on the roof of his mouth for producing a slender lie to her, and his father was a more religious person. There's a kind of shadow of the church on Leslie although he's not so dominated by religion -- he's more dominated by his own morality, by what he considers to be his own "good" behavior. What you can say is they're all in some sort of struggle in some way with a moral code. I see it more in retrospect, though.
I write in a very open way so that I started with Leslie Senzatimore having a pee on his front lawn on the cusp of dawn, and I had a sense that there was a creature looking down him... It's almost like I sniff around, and operate on hunches, and almost as the characters coalesce, I move toward being able to roll out a plot. But it takes a long time for the characters to kind of quicken.
Speaking on identity, as writers, I think each piece we write gives us something more of ourselves. Did writing Jacob's Folly build your sense of identity further?
Definitely. Definitely. I think each time you write a book or create something you're slightly different than when you started, but because in this case, I had to learn so much in the process of writing the book, I feel that I was forced to grow in a certain way. My understanding of things I was absolutely ignorant of, though never perfect, has expanded hugely. My sense of what I can do has changed because this is a different kind of book than I have written in the past and the structure was so hard and just having figured that out -- I was just quite happy that I got it!
Do you have an opportunity to learn more about yourself as a writer and a person through undertaking a novel of such complexity, rather than a strictly linear project?
Yes. It's like you're stretching; it's like an athletic event. You have to jump higher. You have to lift heavier weight. It's those muscles that are getting stronger, and you start to feel, Ah yes, now I can do that, and by doing it, you become the person who did it. That's how you cross that bridge.
But it was a very interesting process. There was a long time -- years -- I couldn't write this in a linear way because I didn't know enough to write this in a linear way, both enough about the characters, but also enough about the worlds. As I learned, I wrote almost, like, islands of texts that I could see in different parts of the book and then gradually they became bigger and started to connect, and then I was able to go through it in a more linear way then eventually come upon the structure.
In the acknowledgements, you list and thank several different people with whom you did research for the book. Was research for filling in holes in worlds that you'd already created, or did you begin research to help you construct from the ground up?
With Leslie Senzatimore I knew enough to start. Masha, the acting school part of Masha, I knew enough to start because I'd been there. But the moment I'd come face to face with my own ignorance, I'd have to take a few months off and start reading. And so what I did was I'd work up until the point where I'd have to stop -- one time I took six months and I just read, and then I would come back again.
For each of the worlds, I had different angels really helping me find my way. The family of observant Jews that I ultimately was able to stay with, the mother of whom ultimately became a correspondent and ultimately a kind of advisor, that was one wormhole I went down. Then this young scholar, Max McGuinness, who helped me out so much with the eighteenth century, with both the Enlightenment and the figures of the Enlightenment, the kind of thinking of the time, but he also helped me penetrate this sort of micro-history of Jews in Paris, which was a really difficult one because there's very little history left. They weren't being written about. They weren't writing about themselves. He found these police reports, which were hugely valuable to me, where the Jews were chronicled by a man, Inspector Buhot, who's in the novel, who was keeping track of the Jews. And then I also had a contact who was a volunteer firefighter, and they did training exercises where houses are actually burning or they're using smoke, so they can actually practice. Because the story is fabulous, so fantastical, I felt like everything really needed to be rooted in reality so that you would be able to make that leap.
Are there any stories that stand out from your research?
When I went to stay the first time with the Jewish family in Long Island and we had Shabbos, I remember I was so confused because there was this whole thing about somebody had brought asparagus, and they couldn't use the asparagus. It turned out that it was because the asparagus had too many bugs in them, and they couldn't wash them out. It was this wonderful detail that I ended up using -- that they weren't able to wash [vegetables] after sundown, but that they have to be very, very careful not to cook or eat bugs, because nothing can be killed in that moment. I remember being so struck by that.
There's a real tension in the text between abandonment, rescue, and escape, and the blurred lines between these. I'm curious about what you found so rich in these themes that you wanted to explore them in so many dimensions.
I think self-creation is something that I come back to always. In my novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I come back to that theme, as well. It's treated in a very different way, but the idea is that people are born in a certain set of circumstances, and really create themselves into something else. I think both Jacob and Masha -- and, to a degree, Leslie, in a different way -- have to do that. I always find that so touching and amazing to me when people don't just fulfill what people think they're going to do, but really take their fate into their own hands and go against what their whole community is telling them they're going to be. At the same time, there's also the sadness of that. Especially with regard to assimilation, I was surprised about how ambivalent I ended up feeling about assimilation for my characters in terms of leaving their community and their links to the past because I feel like it's such a dangerous, frightening world we have to live in. The secular world is so much lonelier than the world where there's so much surety about what things mean and how to live.
At a few points in the narrative, we're brought to a dark place of a loss of faith -- in God, in community, in self -- all things told with a very experiential, human element to them. Did you experience anything during the writing of the novel that moved you to write these moments so viscerally?
I'm definitely a kind of wanderer in terms of both the questions that are asked and about what God is -- what place faith has in our lives, what place choice has in our lives, are we alone, what are we to God, and how much of this is just a joke? It's the most terrifying thing to encounter! I suppose I was able to imbue the text with that. It there's any autobiographical nugget in this -- because obviously there isn't manifestly -- they're there in the heart of the book, they're questions that are very big for me, too.
Guilt is one of the most interesting human emotions to watch manifest, whether we're seeing it on the page or on the screen. Having your hands in both media, is one place more exciting for you to explore it?
In the novel form, partly because you can go very deep vertically, whereas in film you have to move laterally, and it's very behavior- and plot-dependent. That's one of the reasons I use narrative and voice-over a lot in film is to create another layer of experience because sometimes I'm not satisfied with what I can get. It's like the substitute for the discursive things you can do in books. But guilt is a huge part of this book. One of the most joyous things of writing Jacob for me is that he didn't really have guilt, and that was quite foreign to me and quite exciting.
Going into a character who doesn't feel guilt, where you momentarily absolved of any guilty feelings when you were writing him?
Yes! And I think that's one of the great attractions of speaking in the voice of a character who is different than you in such basic ways. I think that it's as different from me as his sex is different from me -- in some ways, it was easier for me to switch places in terms of gender, or more natural. It was a very liberating experience to write Jacob -- like undoing my spiritual corset.
Is your relationship to spirituality and history different now having dug so deep, and played with faith, and anti-Semitism, and looked at this period under the magnifying glass that you did?
I think it is. I hadn't thought about it. To religion, I think I remain the bemused outsider with the lust to be allowed inside some place, but I'll never find a place for myself. With regards to history, yes, I found a much more personal approach. I think it opened a door for me that I may go through again. I've never really been that interested in really writing or reading historical fiction -- I was always so interested in my own period, but I found a way in because I wrote the emotion into the history, and then I used the bits of detail to fill in the world... It was a big leap. In that sense, it changed a lot.
As you take on your next project, how does having experience with such an unconventional novel change or inform your process, and perhaps your ultimate result?
What I do every time that I start something is convince myself that I'm completely free and that no one's going to read it or judge it. I realize that people are ultimately going to read it, but the idea that I'm free is really important to me because otherwise you can never really try and you can't fail. And that's what I'm going to have to keep doing. I look back on this book, and I was almost crazy to try to do this, and when I described it to my editor, he was looking at me thinking, Oh my God, what is this going to be? I just hope I can keep being brave enough to keep trying stuff that might not work.