When I read Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet I was immediately smitten. Millet's compassion and empathy are guiding forces in her writing. She's an illuminating, courageous voice and she's not afraid to push the boundaries of our readerly world. Millet challenges us to step outside our comfort zone and to move beyond what we know into the unknown territory of her character's lives and circumstances. In short, she's one of the best writer's to ever grace the page. Below is a Q & A that Millet patiently conducted with me via email.
I’ll start at the literal beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Honestly, I think I knew it when I realized I wouldn’t be an opera singer. This happened during college, when I noticed I was happiest singing not in front of crowds but in the shower.
When writer’s “sing in the shower” of their novels, short stories etc. what should these songs sound like?
I think contemporary fiction needs to move beyond the interpersonal sphere more often and into the metaphysical and the moral. We have to live our fictions not only for instant pleasure but for enlightenment and compassion.
What do you find most difficult about being a writer?
There’s a certain lack of power, riches and fame attendant upon the profession, at least as I practice it. Then again, I don’t know that any of those would sit well with me in real life. People who have those things tend to abuse them. Also they require attention, which I prefer to give simply to writing itself. On a practical level, I don’t like how long it takes for manuscripts to be turned into books. I’d love to be able to promote a book as soon as I finished writing it, so that I’d have the force and vigor of new love in the act of promotion as well as in the act of writing. For me it’s a shame to have to promote one thing while I’m already immersed in the next, or even two books later or three.
What writers have influenced your work?
The list of what I've read and loved is a long one. I can name a handful of writers who had a particular effect on me—C.S. Lewis and Dr. Seuss when I was a kid, and still today, for idealism and the quality of their imaginations; Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer, for meditative space and the play between self-awareness and self-blindness; William Gaddis, for controlled chaos and good dialogue; Virginia Woolf, for beauty and the play of light; a whole raft of European novelists. For humor, Karel Capek's allegory War With the Newts. The past few years, I read my contemporaries pretty voraciously, to know what's being said and how.
On the level of craft, what are you most concerned about?
How does voice rule?
Simply. It determines everything else.
In Love and Infant Monkeys you wrote about celebrities and their relationships to the animal world. What drove you to write about Madonna in Sexing the Pheasant, or any other number of celebrities in this collection?
The Love in Infant Monkeys book sprang out of that first story, the one you mention, which I wrote for a McSweeney's project. I so enjoyed using biographical material to spin out a fiction that I decided to do it again, and again, and then there was a collection of them. I hope the stories also work without a context of celebrity, but fame gave me bits and pieces of information to play with. I've written about famous people before -- George Bush Sr. in my second novel George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, and Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard in my atomic book Oh Pure and Radiant Heart -- so I clearly enjoy it, but part of me also feels it's an addiction from which I will have to abstain in the future. Pleasurable and probably unhealthy.
Do you think obsession for a writer is a necessary evil?
Necessary but not evil. Really if you're not obsessive, there's no need at all for you to be a writer. Or any kind of art-making machine.
And what are your obsessions?
Empathy and objectification, aloneness and communion, the ludicrous and the sublime.
You mention that you read contemporary writers "to know what's being said and how.” Flannery O'Connor has this great passage in Mystery and Manners where she talks about how there's no new story only a new way to tell it. Do you find this to be the case within your own writing? Do you think writers recycle emotions, characters, and settings and mold these recyclables into something original yet eerily the same?
I like that reduction of O'Connor's and I also like similar reductions that there are only four great stories, or three, or whatever the number is, told in different forms. My own reductive formulation (and no doubt many others'), would be more that the story is the telling of it. Style is substance, particular language is substance. Story is just the skeleton we hang a body on. If we're writing well. I mean you can say, this or that book is about this or that, a man who gets religion after his hamster dies, a woman who eats only red fruit, and that's how we pitch things, even to literary readers. But what books are really about is the quality of their language and the subjective experience evoked and created by that language.
That’s so true. It’s how we arrange the body of words around the idea, not the idea itself. Can you elaborate on this a bit more?
I think I see the idea first, but it only gathers form as the flesh comes in. Our metaphor may have become tortured here, but if plot is a skeleton and the idea is say a heart, then I flesh around practically any old skeleton to get to the heart. And the flesh is the words, and the idea is — at least partly — ineffable. But, er, heart-shaped. Pumping blood through the veins in the flesh. Or something.
Has your creative process always functioned on such an intuitive level?
I used to plan books, and then I stopped enjoying that, so I took more of a shot-in-the-dark approach. It’s kept me joyful in my work. Writing is more exciting for me when I find out where I’m going along the way.
One of your obsessions is the idea of "aloneness and communion." How do you think technology plays into this dichotomy?
I think there’s greater access of readers to writers, and vice versa, but I’m not convinced that improves the reading experience or increases the intimacy of the reading encounter. It may even have the opposite effect, at times. Fictions are how we make meaning out of life, but we have to be careful not to let them persuade us that escape and refuge are the same thing. Life may be a multiplayer game, but only if we play it actively and with passion.
What do we have to look forward to from you next?
Me, next? Next I have two novels coming out from W.W. Norton that are the sequels to How the Dead Dream, the first this fall and the last in fall 2012. The one coming out this year is called Ghost Lights, next year's is called Magnificence. I also have my first book for young readers this year -- May -- which is set on Cape Cod and named The Fires Beneath the Sea. And there are books I've already written that will come out after that, I hope. But I'm between books now and have no idea what the next one will be. The delight for me is always finding out. Which I do when I write the first page.