She has never cuddled with a bear in the wild. She once brought three nuclear physicists back from the dead. On one page she leads you to the brink of despair, and on the next she'll tickle the funny bone in your brain. She writes assholes with flair. And her dialogue simply kills.
"It's hard," Toronto's Globe and Mail wrote of Millet's new book, How the Dead Dream, hard "to convey how invigorating Millet's fiction is, how intelligent and thematically rich, how processes of thought are themselves made urgent and lively through the specificity of her observations and sentences that offer startlement, small and large."
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Millet's previous novel, secured a cult of in-the-know evangelists. The way fans of Murakami or DeLillo giddy up when Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or White Noise arise in conversation — like that, and still more enthusiastically for the odd fact that Millet's work has only just begun reaching the mainstream. A wider readership can be only a matter of time.
After emailing back and forth for a week about Powell's new Indiespensable program (How the Dead Dream is the subscription club's inaugural selection), we spoke about longing, Japanese cities, bears in the woods, connective tissue, and the songs she sings to her kids.
Dave: I wasn't aware that How the Dead Dream is the first volume of a trilogy until after I read it.
Lydia Millet: That's good.
Dave: How much of the series had you plotted when you were writing the first book?
Millet: I had just a vague notion of where I wanted to go with the second and no idea what I was going to do with the third.
The older I get, the more I like playing things by ear. I don't like to plan the way I did when I was younger; it's not as exciting for me. If I actually have a structure, it's not as joyful for me to sit down and write the book, so I sort of decided not to decide what was going to come in the second and third books.
I knew certain things; I had some parameters. It was going to be linearly chronological through time; it wasn't going to be skipping back and forth or anything funky like that. And each book would be from different points-of-view within the same group of characters. It's all third-person, but there's a different protagonist in the second and third books.
Dave: Thinking about your voice or, more specifically, your narrative position in How the Dead Dream, it struck me that T. is so emotionally removed that he's a witness to his own life.
Millet: That's fair.
Dave: At one point, his father tells him, "I never woke up once for all these years." Later, T. thinks, "People kept busy on the surface but underneath it they were sleeping, sleeping in the billions."
I just read a good book by David Shields called The Thing about Life Is that One Day You'll Be Dead, in which he quotes John Donne: "We sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave we are never thoroughly awake."
Millet: Beautiful. First of all, that tradition of being close to death in order to live more, I think, is something that we passed away from in the twentieth century, but it's genuine. Life is, in many ways, about the awareness of death. Or it should be, anyway. The acceptance of it instead of repudiation.
In terms of the distance, I vacillate in my fiction between extreme identification and extreme objectification. I like to move between one and the other because that's the way I experience life.
Most readers of fiction, and most writers of fiction, have a schizoid life, where they see themselves doing things, and they also feel themselves doing things. Lots of other people experience this, too, of course, but especially people as invested in narrative as readers and writers.
We are outside ourselves. That combination of having the perspective from far away and also being intensely and irrevocably subjective... that's what makes life into art, I would say. I don't think you can not be able to see yourself from the outside in some way and do any kind of narrative art with intensity.
Dave: In the new book, you write, "Cut loose from a certain idea of duty, it turned out, individuals did no great deeds but only drifted apart." Maybe it's too simplistic to say that what ails is a lack of community, but there's certainly a lack of engagement.
Millet: I don't think it's too simplistic. It's hard to know what people who lived before us have thought, or what people who live now in different societies feel, but you do sense that community has disappeared from American life. You can read in history books that it's the case. Where community used to be, there is a hole, an ache, that we fill with all kinds of things: self help, television, a whole panoply of spectacles. This intense aloneness happens in rural life, but also in megacities where people are essentially alone even though they're packed in like sardines.
Dave: T. admires cities. He worships "institutions."
Millet: He romanticizes for most of the book the idea of the city. Some reviewers have called him a capitalist cipher, but it's not just capitalism; it's also that he trusts government in the old-fashioned way, which is not at all the capitalist standard these days. He has a great reverence for patriarchy in many forms.
Dave: I was going to say "for great men."
Millet: Great men, but also their ideas of nobility and honor and posterity. And the city, of course, is the apogee of this to him.
Dave: T.'s mother tells him at one point, "Longing makes the soul." Does T. not long for the bulk of his life?
Millet: He does long in the beginning; he longs for abstractions, sort of an apotheosis of himself, in which he is enshrined in the temples of great men, and is one with that great city. Then the nature of that longing changes. He becomes increasingly less detached and more turned toward living things, turned away from built things and structures men have made.
Dave: Earlier, you mentioned that you had envisioned these books as being linear. In How the Dead Dream, you cover the first twenty or so years of T.'s life in about thirty pages. At that point, the narrative slows down.
A more conventional approach would have been to start at some significant moment — when T. meets Beth, for example, or when his car hits the coyote — and then backfill the information about his childhood. Why did you tell the story chronologically?
Millet: I think the answer to that is that it's not intellectual. When I start books, I write to get myself into the books, and the writing I first did was T.'s early life.
Something about his childhood, his fixations then, I was really attached to and couldn't part with, so I left it in there even though it made for this strange telescoping. It becomes less and less so as we go through his life at a more normal, or more measured pace. But it's top-heavy, I guess, where there's immense condensation, that condensed section.
It reminded me of my own brother. I think I was writing just a little bit about my own brother when he was a child.
Dave: You get to the core of T.'s character very quickly. Maybe that's easier with a child because they're less guarded in their behavior. T. raises money for charity but skims off the top and defends himself at confession by citing "the positive net effect." Those early scenes are priceless.
Millet: It allowed me to make certain things clear really fast, relatively efficiently. Then I could move on with this other arc that I was interested in exploring.
It is a bit nontraditional. The second book does not telescope like that. The whole book covers only a couple weeks. It's more day-to-day. It is chronological, but the trilogy doesn't move at a steady pace. Shorter and shorter spans of time are being described as we move through.
Dave: I wrote in the margin at one point: "intellectual rhythm — a propulsion of thought toward sense, toward recognition." Your sentences and paragraphs are very efficient, as you say; there's very little fat on the bone.
Millet: It's an odd character study, isn't it? Though its structure is like most of my books in that it moves from order to chaos; or, from a rigorous, orderly vision to a chaotic and more beautiful or mystical vision. That's how my more recent books have gone.
In that sense, it's of a piece with the others, but I've never done a book that's quite a meditation on character. It really was just starting with character and continuing.
I think I know what you mean by this rhythm. I tried for there not to be many lulls, to skip the filler, the description getting you from one scene to the next. I'm not interested in that; I'm not interested in writing it.
In the same way, sometimes I like to use cartoonish characters on the periphery because I find them to be extraordinarily efficient as conveyors of ideas. I'm not as interested in exploring every character. I've been accused of writing overly caricatured, or stereotyped or archetypal minor characters, but I enjoy and embrace them.
But that's really digressive. You'd started by asking about rhythm.
Dave: Rhythm and exposition.
Millet: Right: space. In retrospect, I was angry at myself for having too much connective tissue in the book that preceded this, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. I hate to bore myself, though it's inevitable that you bore yourself because you read your own books more times than they should be read. But I don't want to bore myself past a certain threshold, which is why I wanted to trim the fat, as you say, out of this.
I so admire writers who leave a lot of breathing space for the reader. Calvino, I feel, is that way. There's so much space to ideate and imagine between the lines in his prose. It's something I envy so much. Some of Nabokov. There are plenty of writers. I've always admired that space between the words, but I don't think you get it through self-indulgently lyricizing. You get it through genius or something. I don't know that I could ever do what those writers do, so I have to believe in efficiency.
I think if I found every sentence to be beautiful and brilliant, maybe I would allow myself to be more rambling or descriptive. Again, the older I get, the less patience I have for what's connective, for what holds the bones together. I just want the bones.
Dave: There's so much energy in the dialogue. You must enjoy writing it.
Millet: I love writing dialogue. And it never takes any time. It's very natural. It's a playful pastime for me.
Dave: T.'s mother gets a lot of the best lines in the book. The IHOP scene, in particular.
Millet: I love that mother.
Dave: You must have taken special pleasure in writing Fulton's bits.
Millet: Absolutely. I've always loved extreme and vicious characters. I can't seem to write a book without at least one Fulton in it.
Dave: Who are some of your favorite assholes in literature?
Millet: That's such a hard question! There are so many.
I used to like the assholes of Celine, but now I guess they're a little too asshole-y for me. Now, I really like the meditative, interior assholes of Thomas Bernhard. Assholes who hate themselves as much as they hate everyone else are the most interesting to me. Thomas Bernhard is one of my favorite writers. He's very self-loathing as well as intensely critical of all other humans. And he's hilarious.
The most flawed and egregious characters are often the funniest. We don't hold up those characters in contemporary American literature; they exist, but they're not considered mainstream in many cases. In the rest of media, they're everywhere: in movies and rock bands, everywhere, vile, ridiculous characters are beloved, but somehow in contemporary American literature they're considered marginal and people are frightened of them.
The second book I ever wrote, called Everyone's Pretty, which was just published a couple years ago, was rejected way back when on the basis that it contained simply too many unlikable characters. I love unlikable characters.
Dave: They open up the story for very funny satire. Which is to say that Fulton isn't laughing at himself.
Millet: We do make humor by objectifying. The sort of domestic realism that's so dominant now is a deeply identifying fiction in which you're supposed to feel yourself in every character, you're supposed to follow along with their emotions. That's not very funny, generally. Funny is extreme and absurd, and you don't get that through a gentle realism. You sort of have to step into the caricature for it.
Dave: Books or somewhere else, if you really need a laugh, where do you turn?
Millet: There's plenty of funny TV. I liked Arrested Development. I thought that was hilarious. I like Curb Your Enthusiasm, although it sort of wore on me after a while. Larry David obviously has some hilarious moments. There's some TV that's good, most of it not on the networks.
Books — there's so much. I grew up reading things like P.G. Wodehouse. I loved that as a kid. And of course Monty Python. British humorists more than American, I guess, growing up, but since then I'd say I'm more American in my taste.
As a teenager, it was very much Monty Python. At maybe nine and ten years old, I read every book P.G. Woodhouse had ever written. Until recently, I still had them on a shelf in my bedroom from when I was a child.
Dave: A month or two ago, you had your second child?
Millet: He turned eight weeks yesterday.
Dave: How has being a mother for the second time surprised you?
Millet: Well, I haven't finished a book since I had him, and I'd just gotten into a routine of reading. Normally, I'm a pretty voracious reader, and I'd been reading a lot again. My little girl turned four yesterday. I had achieved a routine over the past two or three years where I could actually read a lot. I find myself robbed of that.
I work about twenty-five hours a week for my husband's conservation organization, where I'm an editor and writer. And there's writing every day, my own work, not only novels but essays and book reviews and miscellanea. And then there's two kids. It's nothing new, but...
Dave: ...but something's got to go.
Millet: What goes are the showers. I realized at one stage last week that I hadn't showered in four days. That's not ideal, what with the sour milk all over you. It's unpleasant.
Time just sitting, where you're not doing something. That's what goes.
Dave: What do you sing to your kids?
Millet: Mostly made-up songs, which is what my daughter sings to me. Right now, she sings a song to the tune of "Clementine" that goes, "Calivarnia, Calivarnia..." I guess it's California, but not quite. She sings that to her baby brother, kind of loudly into his ear.
But me, you know I used to sing opera when I was younger? I was quite serious about it, from about age fourteen to the end of college. I trained classically, and I would sing an hour or two, at least, every day. But I don't sing opera to my kids, even though I'd like to; I wish I still sang anything that sounded good.
There's a Gillian Welch song, "Orphan Girl," that I sing to them. It's probably the wrong thing to sing to your child, all about the orphan girl with the dead family. I've actually changed the lyrics on that one, sanitized it a bit.
Millet: I don't sing about the dead family, just about how all the family members love each other. I'll sing anything really, except the Mickey Mouse Club. I revile the Mickey Mouse Club. Also Dora the Explorer. I avoid those themes.
Dave: You mentioned The Center for Biological Diversity. That's your husband's organization, right?
Millet: That's right.
Dave: Without giving away the novel's ending, what's the biggest animal you've ever cuddled with in the wild?
Millet: I don't think I've cuddled with anything, but my husband sort of has. The moment near the end of the book that you're referring to is based on an experience that he had.
Millet: Really. I don't remember where it was, but somewhere in the wilderness a wild animal lay down on his tent.
I have seen things up close. We went backpacking in Denali a few years ago. It was hideous, actually, completely hideous bushwhacking. I was weeping with anger. It had its moments. But we saw grizzlies up close. Beautiful, big. You don't realize how honey-colored they are when you see pictures. And moose, which are kind of scary, ten or eight feet away.
In Anchorage, itself, where I lived for a couple summers, there were black bears right in the city and in the parks. One of them came to a campfire of ours, and at a certain stage was about ten feet away.
I went hiking once by myself in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Foolishly, I packed out someone else's garbage, on my mountain bike down a hill. All this stinky garbage. All of a sudden, I looked up and a big bear was crossing five feet away. I tried to back my bike up the hill, back and back into the trees. He just kind of swung his head and looked at me. I was terrified. Terrified, terrified. Because I was all alone. And then he swung his head away and walked on. He didn't have time for me. But the garbage; it was the smell of the garbage that I feared would bring him closer.
Dave: I know you traveled to Japan when you were working on Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. What sticks with you from that experience, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Millet: The Peace Museum at Hiroshima is astounding. A lot of artifacts from the bombing that you'd think would be very affecting, like child's tricycles, where children were vaporized and this is the tricycle that remained, things like that were heart-wrenching, but the stuff that really affected us... Well, for example, there were all these letters on the wall, written by successive mayors of Hiroshima, which I think might have made it into my book...
Dave: It did.
Millet: Every mayor that came in would write these letters whenever a bomb test occurred anywhere in the world, very politely, formally begging the country in question to cease and desist. They were very affecting, and very simple, letters up on the wall in an unornamented way.
That museum was quite amazing. The one at Nagasaki wasn't as affecting to us, but the city is much prettier and seems, incredibly, to have survived. Of course, it wasn't as devastated as Hiroshima. I actually remember Kyoto a little better. It's so scenic and pretty, canals and little koi ponds all over the place.
What I remember from Tokyo is that there were no trees in most of the places. None. You get used to there being at least a certain number of trees in any American city. In parts of Tokyo, there's not a living thing but humans, and probably pigeons or rats but I didn't notice those either, for miles. Total concrete. That was really oppressive. They do have big parks, but I just remember the oppressiveness of Tokyo.
Dave: Cultural memory. National narratives. Story as identity. What I'm thinking of as you're talking is how much Oh Pure and Radiant Heart contains. The cast of characters, the depth of the conflict. Was there ever a point in the writing where you doubted you could make it work?
Millet: There was, in fact. And you know, between the hardback and the paperback I took out about 15,000 words. There's one scene in particular, in a peace camp outside the Nevada test site, which was really long; I cut it drastically down because I felt like reader fatigue would set in.
This is what I was talking about in terms of boring myself. The different editions actually reflect my chagrin as I struggled with keeping the shape of the book.
There was a large cast of characters, though compared to some writers it was puny. But for me, yes; I usually have just a handful of characters. Keeping them separate and describing what they were doing, in those large groups of Deadheads and new-agers, keeping hold of them spatially was basically impossible for me. I just gave up, I think.
Dave: Was the decision to write three self-contained books instead of one long one a reaction to your experience with Oh Pure and Radiant Heart?
Millet: Some of it was. I like the idea of staying with characters for a long time, but if you're writing one of those doorstop books it's a struggle to maintain a consistent tone, for me at least, or a consistent level of tension and pleasure. I decided to do shorter books that were more self-contained but also have a world that I could go back to more than once.
I loved trilogies growing up, mostly in the world of genre. There's something great about that serialized reading experience. Trilogies or series.
Dave: What comes to mind? Formative trilogies.
Millet: Did you ever read those Beverley Nichols books? They're for young kids. Sort of talking-animals kind of books: The Tree that Sat Down, The Stream that Stood Still, and The Mountain of Magic. They're just beautiful. Sort of in the Narnia tradition, without the Christianity. I also loved the Narnia books, though, so I can't say any of that tradition bothered me.
And then stuff like Lloyd Alexander — fantasy, magic stuff, that's what I loved when I was a kid. And of course there are also things like Durrell, whom I read in college: The Alexandria Quartet, which I actually don't remember as fondly as the magical books, but I still like that there's a continuous story and continuous group of characters moving from one book to the next.
I think you need breathing space, reading. The way there has to be white space on a page, it can be liberating to have time between books that are linked in the same world.
The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, the Kate Bernheimer book I recommended [in a previous exchange], that's out of a trilogy. She's doing a trilogy of fairy tale-inspired novellas. They're all about the same family, each told from the point-of-view of a different sister. There are literary examples of trilogies and serial books, but in my excitement about doing it I was thinking more of a genre tradition.
Dave: In some of your novels, dialogue is set off with em dashes. In others, quotation marks are used. Did you actually write the manuscripts one way and the other?
Millet: Yes. It's me. Of course, an em dash is kind of a European thing, high modernist. But I think I was in a phase when I wrote those books. You have to argue about these things with editors. It's not like you just get away with ignoring convention. I remember having to defend them.
There was a time when it felt less disruptive for me to read that way, and so I wrote that way. I've never really loved the quotation mark, but I've moved back toward them. Maybe I stopped reading as many things with em dashes? I don't know.
Also, I started having more dialogue, or feeling more dependent on my dialogue at a certain stage, and that I maybe had to shift. That I maybe had overused the em dash. It can be difficult to keep things straight with em dashes, for the reader, visually, even though it seems like a cooler device to me. But that's finally insufficient to carry that argument.
Dave: We know the protagonist of How the Dead Dream as T., but he's called by his full name twice: once Thomas; and once, in Spanish, Tomas. Probably there's no great story behind the fact that readers know him as T., but I was surprised to discover his name after so many pages of just the initial.
Millet: There's no great story behind it. I've known people who've gone by these nicknames. Most often, it's because as children they couldn't say their name right. So my friend Alexandra is Zandy. That's what she said when she was little. I have another friend named Marie Elizabeth who goes by Mimsy. All these short forms. And I've known kids who just go by their initials.
T. came more out of that. I do think of a European or existentialist tradition where these cipherous characters are referred to by their initials, but that wasn't where I was going. He's actually called a couple different things in the second book. The protagonist refuses to call him T.
I've finished the second book now and I've just begun writing the third.
Dave: What do we have to look forward to?
Millet: The second book is about Hal, Casey's father — Casey from How the Dead Dream. He's an IRS agent, and he discovers that his wife is having an affair. The book proceeds from there.
It's quite a different book. I'll stop there. I don't want to ruin the surprise.
I spoke to Lydia Millet on February 4, 2008.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State