Lydia Millet is lovely to look at and hugely pregnant, but she's driven more than an hour from her home west of Tucson in the Avra Valley to eat enchiladas and hang out at the Circle Z, a dude ranch 20 miles from the Mexican border.
She's come to talk about her writing career, which includes many books for one so young (38), how she ended up in the desert married to Kieran Suckling, founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, where she works when she's not writing or taking care of her three-year-old daughter, Nola, and most importantly, to talk about her new book, How the Dead Dream (Counterpoint).
Every book Millet writes is different from the last, which may be why she's had so many different publishers. The Washington Post has said that she's staked her novelistic reputation on taking chances, but Millet just says that she'd be bored to death if she had to repeat herself. Her books are satirical and political (she calls herself “left of liberal”), but never predictable.
How the Dead Dream is about the evolution of a young boy, T., obsessed with money—“His first idol was Andrew Jackson”—who becomes a wealthy real estate developer as an adult while ruminating on the big questions of identity, religion, death and nature. T. also experiences them: his father abandons the family to embrace his homosexuality and to work as a bartender in a transvestite bar in Key West, Fla., while his devoutly Catholic mother has a near-death experience and returns to tell T. that there's an IHOP on the other side with fluorescent lights and patrons “fat, pasty-faced, and dressed in loud prints,” not to mention that none of them were Catholics. T. takes to breaking into zoos, spending the night with the animals in their cages, finally setting out on a Conradian journey into the rain forest. The novel is pure Millet, dark, funny, brilliant, and a departure from all the others. “Domestic realism has dominated the American marketplace for decades now,” she says. “It leeches into literary fiction, and I don't think it's that rich a vein.”
Born in Boston, raised in Canada, educated in the U.S., Millet wrote novels and short stories and “bad poems” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then attended the writing program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Not long after, she took off for L.A. with the idea of writing screenplays. “No one bought my screenplays,” she says, self-effacingly, charmingly, “which continues to this day.” She did, however, land a copyediting job in Larry Flynt's magazine empire. “I started out working for a magazine called Fighting Knives, edited by a mercenary in South America, so when they offered me a slot at Hustler, I jumped to the porn side happily.” She sold her first book, Omnivores (Algonquin, 1996) during the two years at Hustler and says she learned a lot from the philosophy of the prisoners who made up a large part of the subscription base. And then there was her gun-running managing editor, a dwarf whose dominatrix visited once a month and destroyed the furniture in his office.
A fellowship landed her at Duke and a graduate degree in environmental science. “I wanted to go into the tropics and save animals, and write, of course. I love writing more than anything, but it was a crazy idea because I still had to make a living.” Omnivores came out (“I have 300 copies being eaten by termites in my garage”), and she came back to Tucson, bought a house three days later, found a job at the Center for Biological Diversity as “the slave of activists” who save endangered species, and turned in her second book, Everyone's Pretty. Her editor at Algonquin was gone and his replacement called the book terrible, rude, inappropriate, filled with obscenities and without likable characters, notably the pornographer protagonist.
For the record, Millet loves reprehensible characters. “I can't get enough of them,” she says. “They're so interesting.” The misogynist animal torturer Fulton in How the Dead Dream is especially vile... and especially Millet.
In 2000, Scribner brought out George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, in paper. The story of Rosemary, 300 pounds and living in a single-wide, who stalks our 41st president, garnered attention and reviews. The Tucson Weekly called it “A tongue-in-cheek primer of the '90's, both absurdist and eloquent.” Millet was invited to write another one just like it, about another president or maybe a celebrity, but that idea, she says, was really absurd.
Millet's favorite book, My Happy Life (Holt, 2002), narrated by a woman in a mental institution, won the Pen USA Literary Award for fiction. For Millet's next book, Richard Nash was finally able to persuade Millet's agent Maria Massie to bring her over to Soft Skull. In 2005, Nash published Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, a complex novel about the atomic bomb scientists, resurrected after 9/11, who set out on a quest for world peace. Nash claims to have harassed Massie for Everyone's Pretty, after he had read it in manuscript and “love love loved” it. He got to publish Everyone's Pretty, also in 2005. About Nash, Millet says, “I just want Richard to live forever and keep editing my books.”
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart was reviewed everywhere, from the Chicago Tribune to the New York Times, and made best book and must-read lists for 2005. Millet was compared to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Haruki Murakami. She thinks it's great to get good reviews, but doesn't feel that reviews are “the verdict of the culture.” She thinks “you're lucky if people like your book, and the more people that like it, the luckier I feel.”
Looking back, however, she muses that the book was maybe too long and less than perfect “because it's difficult to maintain the tone for 500 pages and when you do manage it, it's boring.” That's why How the Dead Dream is the first book of a trilogy. She wanted to write about the same people, but not within a long book.
The second installment is finished. “I'm not deliberative. I just churn them out,” she says. She'll start on the third after the baby is born in December. And then, who knows?