Last week I had the pleasure of asking Lydia Millet a few questions about her work, her influences, and her writing process. Lydia Millet is an award-winning novelist, essayist, and a staff writer for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, where she lives. Millet’s novel “My Happy Life” was awarded the PEN-USA Award for Fiction and her short story collection, “Love in Infant Monkeys,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Millet’s novels and stories are darkly humorous, witty, and suffuse in an awareness of ecology and of her characters’ places within it. She also writes opinion pieces on conservation and wildlife for The New York Times. If you have not had the opportunity to read her work, you can change that today and also mark your calendars for this May, when her newest novel, “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” will be released.
I first discovered your writing, believe it or not, in a collection of essays called “State by State.” I really loved your essay, which poetically described life in Arizona, from its ecology to its people. Your novels and stories are well-known for having an awareness of place and nature and your opinion writing also argues for environmental concerns. How did you arrive at this interest?
Thank you. For a long time, particularly here in the U.S., there’s been a tendency for people to talk about “the environment” or “environmentalism” like it’s a marginal concern. A pet peeve. Maybe a hobby for bored hippies. When in fact it simply, directly refers to the need to maintain life-support systems. My feeling is, life support’s an interest we should all arrive at. At least, those of us who wish to be alive and, as much as possible, continue living. With climate change we’re starting to see that life-support respect come into play though, aren’t we? The “environment” is getting a status boost under the threat of climate apocalypse. Each year the “environment” gets a little more cred from the mainstream. Yesterday’s alarmists are today’s scientists, moving from the quaint peripheries to the shining center.
My feeling is, life support’s an interest we should all arrive at. At least, those of us who wish to be alive and, as much as possible, continue living.
Who are some writers you draw inspiration from? Do you have a go-to author when you’re trying to get the creative juices flowing?
Not a particular author so much. More, death. The author of us all. Yes: when feeling unmotivated, I like to think of death. That does encourage me, sometimes.
What is something about working as a writer that has surprised you?
You can get better and better at it and never be entirely satisfied with the product.
I consider myself to be a full-time nerd for politics and I was excited to see that your new novel, “Sweet Lamb of Heaven,” will delve into the darker side of this realm. I wondered how this look at politics compares with your other stories. What prompted you to write this story?
Recent novels of mine, like the trilogy that ended with “Magnificence,” have looked at politics less directly, extinction more directly. Although extinction and climate are manifestly primarily political problems as well as matters of science. “Sweet Lamb of Heaven,” which is being read as a psychological thriller, looks at the realm of politics through language a bit. Anyone who watches politics — as you do and I do — in this country, and very notably in this election season, gets a look at stale and false language and how words are abused, words become flags and symbols and code, all without much scrutiny. Political rhetoric, on the right especially, is remarkably devoid of policy. Its language is the language of crude instinct. Dangerous. This book touches on that danger.
I’m interested in reading your novel (when it comes out) and learning more about this voice that haunts the protagonist, Anna, who is also being stalked (or so it sounds) by her husband. While your writing often hints at a spirit world, this presence sounds more overt in “Sweet Lamb of Heaven.” Can you talk about that at all?
Partly this is a book about what God means, how God can be interpreted.
Political rhetoric, on the right especially, is remarkably devoid of policy. Its language is the language of crude instinct. Dangerous. This book touches on that danger.
How does your feminism inform your writing? Can you talk at all about sexism in the fields of writing and publishing?
Hey, feminism is like greatness. Some are born to it, some achieve it, and some have it thrust upon them. I didn’t start out wanting to be any –ist, that wasn’t a personal goal as such, but finally you have to cop to it: male is the perennial standard, female the outlier. Misogyny is pernicious and real. It’s powerful in all arenas of cultural production as well as, you know. Well. All arenas. It’s the regime we live under. Resistance is not futile.
If there was one woman writer you would require every American to read, who would that be?
Alive? Lydia Davis. Can I have two? Joy Williams. Her essay collection “Ill Nature” should be required reading.
I’m amazed at the breadth in your list of publications. How do you manage to balance your writing role with your role as a parent. Are there any organizational tricks or self-care tips you could share?
I sense you’re looking for wisdom from me here, but the real truth isn’t that I have wisdom. The truth is socioeconomic. I have a 30-hour-a-week day job, I have my own writing, and I have two young children and two dogs, one of whom is completely incontinent. And no spouse, incontinent or otherwise. So there’s not much balance, to be honest. I write when I can. I take care of my children when they want or need it; I outsource all activities where others can help with domestic obligations. Such outsourcing is clearly a product of middle-class privilege. Without middle-class privilege, I’d get far less done. My observation would be, for mothers and creativity, don’t be poor. Now, gross wealth is also bad for thought. But better to be rich than poor, since the first is an open field, the second a dirty cage. In my view, most useful to be somewhere in between.
You can find more of Mary’s profiles with women writers here.
Know of a great feminist writer for Mary to interview? Let us know!