Lydia Millet: Dreaming on Paper

In Fight No More, Lydia Millet’s second story collection—and her first since 2009’s Love in Infant Monkeys, a Pulitzer finalist—she assembles a cast of characters who’ve all been emotionally whipsawed by Los Angeles real estate. A Sid Vicious-loving teen resists his impending move by anti-staging his bedroom, making it actively repellent to house-hunters. A woman tagging along with her wealthy boyfriend on a home tour suddenly discovers that she won’t be a future cohabitant. A young woman desperately fakes her way into a nanny gig into a happy home, but can’t quite escape the attention of her sexually abusive stepfather.

Throughout the linked collection, Millet plays each of these characters’ stories and others as tragic, comic, or absurd. That range is her particular talent—few contemporary fiction writers have worked so successfully in such a wide variety of emotional registers. Across her career she’s delivered works of political satire (2000’s George Bush, Dark Prince of Love), madcap humor (2014’s Mermaids in Paradise), and dark suspense (2016’s Sweet Lamb of Heaven). But she started out almost defiantly unclassifiable: Her first novel, 1996’s Omnivores, which is reissued this month, is an arch study of parenting and marriage, capped by a study of a terrifyingly feral baby, William, who parrots headlines from the National Enquirer and resists every restraint. Not so different or less aggressive, Millet suggests, than a lot of grown-ups: “Natural selection was the name of the game and William was top of the food chain.”

Millet lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she works at an environmental nonprofit, the Center for Biological Diversity. In this conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, Millet discusses climate change and fiction, the peculiarities of real estate, and what the publishing world still neglects when it comes to women writers.—Mark Athitakis

The Barnes & Noble Review: You’ve lived in Arizona for years now, but it doesn’t show up much in your fiction.

Lydia Millet: There are scenes in Arizona in a couple of my books—there’s one in How the Dead Dream that has a Tucson cemetery in it. I love Tucson, and I love the Sonoran Desert. But LA and New York are both places I feel close to. LA is…I mean, it’s all the obvious things. I just find it kind of hideous and sublime. I often go with archetypes and stereotypes, and I don’t find Tucson to be easy to define. Whereas LA, there’s so many bold strokes that you can use.

BNR: Omnivores, your first novel, is being reissued. What do you recall about its creation?

LM: I wrote it when I was really young. I was 22, I think, or maybe 23, and I don’t think it came out till I was about 26. It took a while to be published because there was a really kind editor at the publishing company, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, who took me under his wing. It’s the only time I’ve been extensively edited, I think, in my life. It wasn’t that he dictated anything; there were just a lot of passages he wanted me to work on. So we took a long time to put that book out. I really haven’t read it since then. I have this with a lot of my old books—they seem like other people wrote them. I just leave books behind.

BNR: It has what strikes me as the angriest baby in American literature.

LM: There’s a very ravenous baby in there.

BNR: What were you thinking about there? Because it seems like there’s a little bit of a throughline from that book to the present day—the relationship between humanity and ferality.

LM: I wanted to write this kind of cartoon in words. I wanted it to be very sort of iconic and have these readily identifiable symbols and characters who obviously weren’t who they were. The baby is obviously has to stand in for something. It’s obviously a proxy for something. At the time I was young and rejecting whatever I construed to be realistic fiction at the time. Obviously that can mean a million things, but I guess I wanted there to be no ambiguity about the fact that I was not writing anything Raymond Carver-like.

BNR: Did you feel like you were in part of a continuum of writers at the time or were you feeling more isolated?

LM: I did feel isolated. I did not feel I was doing what other people were doing. Certainly not what people were doing in writing workshops at the time. I make no pretense to having broken ground particularly, but I didn’t feel part of any wave. There was no wave that I knew of. I was in my twenties, and in your twenties you sort of define yourself by what you don’t like more than what you’re do like, especially if you’re a snotty urban person of a certain demographic. I was very sure what I didn’t like.

My first two books [Omnivores and George Bush, Dark Prince of Love: A Presidential Romance] were really sort of broad-stroke books, obviously either parodic or satirical. I actually like watching broad humor myself. I laugh at watching pratfalls. I’ve grown out of certain things; if things are too obvious now I can’t laugh at them anymore. But still I like pratfalls. I was just watching the season premiere of Silicon Valley, and there’s a scene where several people trip on the same like receptacle outlet, things sticking out from the middle of this hideous fluorescent office space. I laughed not only the first time but the second time. I just can’t help it. But then I became more interested in emotional tone and subtlety more when I was around 30. I just switched and I didn’t want to do the fish-in-the-barrel kind of humor anymore. I’m still happy to stoop to it, but my focus shifted.

BNR: Was Fight No More intended as a linked story collection?

LM: I don’t know anything about linked story collections. When I write stories I don’t take myself too seriously. It just so happened with this book that I didn’t know if anyone would publish it. I just wanted to write some stories for my own joy and pleasure. They kept just—one followed from another. But I didn’t conceive of it as—even “story collection” sounds pretentious to me about my own work. They’re just a bunch of stories that I wanted to have some of the same characters in because it’s so interesting to be involved in one aspect of someone that you made up and then go into another aspect of that. You know, it’s fun.

BNR: When you say you weren’t sure whether it was going to be published, are you saying that you weren’t sure you wanted to publish it, or uncertain even now about whether the market wanted it?

LM: Yes. Both. I don’t really write anything to be published, exactly. I just write what I want to write because otherwise, I’d try to actually make money at something. As with my first story collection, this is the same sort of thing: I had an idea that I liked and then I thought I’d write a few more things sort of along those lines. It was things that I did while I wasn’t doing something else. And then finally it seemed like a group of things that’s sort of cohered in some way. People can call it “linked stories,” just the way they can call things psychological suspense or whatever.

BNR: What attracted you to LA real estate as a subject?

LM: I’ve had a couple times in my life where I got to go look at a lot of different houses. Once was when I moved to New York when I was young and had a realtor who took me around different apartments, most of which I couldn’t afford. But that was back in the days when you could afford a place even in Manhattan. The place that I ended up buying was like $110,000 in the West Village, which is insane now. A lot of people could buy that apartment. And I just loved looking. Especially when people still lived in the places. It’s an oddly commercially sentient act of voyeurism when you are shown around people’s homes. “Oh, you’re shopping? Here, see my child’s bedroom!” It’s really bizarre. I felt the strangeness of those moments where these are people you don’t know, and you’re being given these privileges just because you, perhaps, have money to spend. It was an odd position to be in. But I sort of loved it.

Homes are these curious portholes into the psyches of the people who live there. Rich people’s and upper-middle-class people’s homes actually show a lot more about them in some ways than homes of working folks because they can exercise choice in exactly how they construct these homes. There’s things you can always learn from going into someone’s house who’s fairly wealthy or comfortable or who’s not just finding stuff on the street. That’s what my mother used to do when we kids: A neighbor would be throwing out a couch and she’d go, “That looks fantastic!” But people who actually populate their homes with what they want to populate their homes with, there’s what they’re trying to show you about themselves and what they can’t help showing you, or what you can see beyond what they’re trying to show you. I’ve always been interested in people’s blind spots. So I think that the homes of the rich, which are mostly the homes that I visited, not uniformly, but in that book, they just are there like blind-spot central. And I like that. 

BNR: How much research did you do?

LM: I have been to a number of such houses, but I never really looked at them as a potential buyer. I don’t like to lie to people and waste a Realtor’s time, so I never looked at sumptuous palaces. But I have a lot of friends in LA whose friends live in such palaces, so I’ve been to a number of them. And it’s great, I love going to these houses, lived-in houses of people with absurd lives, nothing’s better than those. It’s much better than going to a club or a restaurant or some neutral space that’s been designed.

We’re sort of full-time voyeurs in the culture now, in the sense that we’re watching all the time. We’re all about images and all about absorbing visual content. It’s really how we spend our days. Watching television or whatever it might be, YouTube or Netflix or something on Amazon, all that stuff has been created for us to see. But when you’re in someone’s home, that’s not quite like that. A home is made to be seen, but it’s still not a product that’s made only for others. Maybe an anthropologist would say it’s some sort of liminal space between the private and the public.

BNR: Nina, the main character in many of the stories, is a real-estate agent who tries to keep her relationship with these places at arm’s length, but she can’t quite do it. You can’t just be a spectator in these places.

LM: In anything. You’re never just a spectator. I also liked the real-estate agent’s position because for a certain generation women who didn’t have educations, this was a job that was remunerative that they could do. It was an interesting class thing; moms could do this and really make money at it. And intelligence actually came into play in an significant way. It wasn’t just rote work. And churning through anyone’s mind who’s in this position, constantly, are personal responses to everything that’s around them.

BNR: A few years back you did an interview with Jenny Offill about how one blind spot that we still have culturally is not being interested in reading stories about how women are mistreated by men. Do you think the #MeToo movement has changed that in publishing?

LM: Publishing moves really slowly. I don’t know if it’s caught up with the #MeToo thing yet, but I would hope it would lead to some degree. I still feel like it’s not the most popular cause. Trauma and egregious events get a lot of attention. Criminal acts, or slightly subcriminal acts, or sort of just bad behavior, they get attention. But what doesn’t get as much attention are some of those subtle, nuanced ways in which people’s work just doesn’t gain traction or whatever because of gender politics or racial politics. I think that’s kind of a more interesting space, but also one that’s really difficult to quantify.

BNR: Can you think of an example?

LM: This has changed a little bit, but when I was first writing in the nineties, it was kind of not OK—and still kind of not OK despite people like Kathy Acker or whatever—for women to have protagonists in their fiction who are unlikable. I mean, that was totally grounds for your book getting rejected, no matter how well-written it was. It really was like, “How are we supposed to like this character?” You’re not, idiot. 

And now, of course, TV is full of unlikable characters who are sort of raised on high and godlike. A show like Entourage, I mean, it’s full of assholes. And that’s the whole point—it’s enjoyable to watch these assholes. But women in particular couldn’t really have asshole protagonists in the nineties. One book that I wrote in the nineties [2005’s Everyone’s Pretty] wasn’t published until 10 years later, precisely because nobody liked the fact that the character was an asshole.

BNR: Did that experience ever make you feel like you had to change how you wrote?

LM: Never. I never changed anything because of that, because, honestly, if I wanted to submit to market forces I really should just be in a different line of work. I should write for the movies.

BNR: You write about climate change both in your fiction and in your work at the Center for Biological Diversity. Do we still have time to right the ship?

LM: I’m pretty worried about climate change, and I think anyone who’s not worried is either uninformed or mad. I’m quite worried about that and worried about mass extinctions. I’m worried about these things very much. They sort of loom over everything. But I’m a cheerful person despite where my brain is. So I always think we can do better. We can do what we can. That’s why I have the day job that I have. There’s no point in being cynical or giving up. That’s a coward’s way. It is very unfortunate, the timing of this useful-idiots presidency. We don’t have a lot of time to do what we need to do.

BNR: The books you’ve written for younger readers address the issue more explicitly.

LM: They were summer projects. I thought my children might like to read stories that I wrote for them. So far no interest has been demonstrated. The stories are just more obviously out-there and clear. With the middle reader books [the three-book “Dissenters” series], I actually wanted someone to write fiction about ocean acidification, which sounds so incredibly wonky. But it’s a real thing, and I think a lot people are really passionate about about the oceans, actually, kids and just people in general. There’s two thirds of the earth that we don’t pay enough attention to and don’t know much about.

BNR: You’ve written a number of op-eds on environmental issues. Would you write a nonfiction book on it?

LM: I think other people do non-fiction better that I do. I can write a column, but I feel like there are people who are just really brilliant nonfiction writers, and for me it’s really hard to situate myself. People talk about creative nonfiction, but I don’t want to write about myself directly in any way. I have no interest in that. It’s fine to be me, but I don’t need to share that. I’d rather write made up stories. I could write a more straight, sort of like journalistic book probably, if I had proper journalistic ethics and a real commitment to detail, which I don’t.

BNR: What makes you say that?

LM: It’s just a lot of work. And I already have a lot of work, my day job at a place I love and adore, it’s already all facts, pretty much. We deal with science and the law and that’s 30 hours a week that I’ve done for a long time. I’m more comfortable in an advocacy position than I am in a position of neutrality or objectivity. It’s difficult for me to don that journalistic mantle. I don’t really believe in objectivity. I do believe in science, but I don’t believe that I could ever be an objective actor. I’m OK with being factually based, but when I go home I want to dream on paper.