Lydia Millet is the author of Ghost Lights, a novel recently released from Norton, as well as Love In Infant Monkeys, How the Dead Dream, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Everyone’s Pretty, and My Happy Life, which won the 2003 PEN/USA Award for Fiction.
“Millet is a gifted writer, often dropping droll and sardonic throw-away lines of surprisingly smart humor.”
“Millet . . . skillfully interweaves the personal and the political, making Hal’s journey both specific and universal.”
"If literature can under the best circumstances transport, then Millet's extraordinary vision brings us in on the float.”
"Millet is seldom compared to J.M. Coetzee, who seems an obvious and fruitful influence on . . . Ghost Lights. Their prose has a similar, lovely stillness, and both portray characters nudged beyond typical human navel-gazing.”
I met Lydia Millet in 2009, in a writing workshop at the University of Alabama. I remember grabbing a beer and talking about graphic novels and Friday Night Lights at our local pub, about having children and a job and still finding time to write, and about how nice it was to get away for a weekend. I didn’t even know she liked animals — until I picked up the first book of a trilogy she’s currently working on.
Lydia Millet is the author of many novels as well as a story collection called Love in Infant Monkeys (2009), which was one of three fiction finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. 2011 saw the publication by W.W. Norton of a novel called Ghost Lights, named a New York Times Notable Book, as well as Millet’s first book for middle readers, called The Fires Beneath the Sea. Millet works as an editor and writer at a nonprofit in Tucson, Arizona, where she lives with her two small children.
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Megan Paonessa: First off, how do you like being compared to Kurt Vonnegut on the cover of How the Dead Dream? I like Vonnegut, don’t get me wrong (he’s a Hoosier!), but that sort of blurb obviously colors expectations — and one can’t help but judge a book by its cover.
Lydia Millet: I’m always a bit perplexed by that comparison, owing to the fact that I haven’t read Vonnegut since my teens. Clearly I need some reeducation. In general though, comparisons to other writers are simultaneously flattering and insulting. I don’t know why it’s so necessary to go the Hollywood pitch route to describe literary books. “It’s Writer Brand X crossed with Writer Brand Y.” If I’m doing my job it’s not X crossed with Y at all.
MP: How do you feel about stereotypes? The IRS man. The real estate man. The office affair. The gay Air Force man. The breast-obsessed business types. These are all stereotypical character traits found in your novels, but as I found myself identifying them, I still thought these characters were uniquely interesting.
LM: I love stereotypes — types in general. I’m guessing that’s pretty clear. They are fascinating. Hey, stereotypes don’t kill people. Bad writing kills people.
MP: True! I guess what I’m trying to ask is, do you use stereotypes in order to say something . . . broader (?) . . . about life, the world, people? You mentioned in an interview with Willow Springs that one of the things you react against is the preoccupation with the personal in contemporary literary fiction.
LM: Well stereotypes are mostly just obvious objectifications of people, right? Partly I want to objectify fictional people because it’s funny; partly I want to objectify them because I like to play with distance — the distance between the reader and the characters, the narrator and the characters, the author and the characters.
MP: Many of your reviewers describe your writing as deeply satirical. How important to you is the insertion of a political / ecological / moral / social stance?
LM: All this talk of insertion! It sounds rude. I don’t think of inserting things.
Not all my writing has a satirical tone. The trilogy of novels doesn’t, for example. But I can never leave the comic aside for too long.
MP: What do you mean by the comic?
LM: The comedic. I always end up returning to what’s funny to me, whether it’s marginal in a book or central. So while I don’t know that my most recently published books are particularly satirical, I do have a book I’m working on that’s more so, if only because I need to get away from the heavy sometimes.
MP: Writing drama carries the hazard of falling into melodrama — as Hal points out at the end of Ghost Lights. From what I’ve read about your work, Hal’s sort of soul pouring wasn’t always common in your characters. Was this trait specific to Hal, or has your writing been influenced in a new direction?
LM: Well, I don’t know that it’s not common — I’ve always been a sucker for internal monologue and so I think there’s a fair amount of soul pouring throughout my books. Ghost Lights is less a new direction than How the Dead Dream was.
MP: Do you think there’s a move in contemporary literary fiction to steer clear of emotional narratives?
LM: I think the pretense that writing without emotion can exist is funny. You don’t want to go the direction of maudlin, you don’t want to overwrite, but underwriting emotion is a bore too, finally — safe and easy.
MP: So there has to be a balance.
LM: I wouldn’t say balance. Balance implies equilibrium, and I’m not sure how helpful that is in fiction. But I’d say emotion and cerebration are both important and compelling, and either without the other is a bit dull to me.
MP: Lastly, can you give us a glimpse into the last book of the trilogy? Perhaps (!!) which character’s point of view the narration will come through?
LM: My pleasure! The last book will come out next fall from Norton, it’s called Magnificence, and it’s written from the perspective of Susan, Hal’s wife. She inherits a house full of taxidermy in Pasadena.
MP: Taxidermy? Fantastic. I wonder how T. will react to that. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks, Lydia.