“I Was Brought Up On Books About Magic”: An Interview With Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet © Jade Beall
Though the specifics vary from novel to novel, Lydia Millet‘s fiction is consistently wide-ranging in its scope and thought-provoking in its details. She’s critiqued the foibles of American society, explored the psychology of unconventional characters, and charted the unexpected ways that history can influence the present. Her latest novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, evades easy categorization: it’s about Anna, a young woman fleeing Ned, her amoral politician husband, along with their child; it’s about the group of fellow outsiders with which she finds a bond; it’s about the uncanny properties of language; and it’s about the power that different worldviews can have to reshape the world around us, sometimes literally. I talked with Millet about the creation of the novel, her feelings on thrillers and genre, the current American political scene, and much more.

There are a number of elements to your new novel: aspects of a thriller, with the protagonist on the run from her husband; there’s discussion of American politics; there are fantastical and surreal parts as well. Did they all come to you at once, or did one come before the others?

I didn’t set out to write a thriller, although I knew I wanted to have some sort of suspenseful propulsion to the book. And I knew there was going to be an element of domestic unease. But really, I wanted to write about God and language. I wanted to write something with some narrative momentum that touched on ideas about science and language and God. Human beings are preoccupied with the schism between those things in this country. Large groups of people feel that religion and science are opposed to each other, and therefore these groups are opposed to each other. This is politically highly problematic for tackling things like climate change and mass extinction. I wanted to look at the idea of, what if God is science, and what if language and science are a form of God? I wanted to do that in a somewhat accessible context.

This came from wanting to write about language in a certain way. When I first thought of the idea of the book, I said to a friend, “I have the worst idea for a book! It’s the worst idea I’ve ever thought of! There’s a baby, and God speaks through it.” It’s like that terrible Bruce Willis movie from the 80s, Look Who’s Talking. Only Bruce Willis isn’t God in the movie. I was really excited to write it. It seemed like an exciting, challenging conceit to tackle.

Was there a point where questions over the meaning of language began to interest you?

I’ve written about language in different ways for a long time. I wanted to look at the idea of a deeper language and what sorts of language we might share with other animals. The idea of human exceptionalism in language, and having that be increasingly disproved… I don’t really tackle that scientifically, but I do look at the sensibility of other animals a bit in the book, and how we might define language more broadly than just as human speech. But I don’t think I go, theoretically, too deep into that. I just wanted to play with the idea that it might relate to how we see ourselves in a broader realm, with other critters.

Over the course of the novel, Anna is researching this phenomena herself. Did that mirror your own experiences as you were getting ready to write the book?

It’s a parallel exploration. I haven’t done this in every book, but in a number of my books, I’ve brought in snippets of nonfiction, information from an external world and tried to balance those against the internal world of the book. So it was natural to do that here. I didn’t want them to be too intrusive, but I did like the counterpoints, injecting pieces of reporting or science or argumentation. Her Wikipedia discoveries were things that I unearthed in my travels around the subject matter of the book. It’s a fairly linear progression of ideas, I think.

The novel’s plot originates in Alaska, the narrator originally hails from the Eastern Seaboard, and there’s a vision of a cliff that recurs throughout the book. Did you know from the outset that you wanted there to be an abundance of geographic edges in the book?

So many of my books have been set in southern California and LA, and this wasn’t a book that was about southern California culture, really. It was more about the culture of the rest of America. I’ve lived in Alaska for a couple of summers. I spent less time in Maine, but I’ve been there a few times. They’re both beautiful spaces that I love, but they also are in the part of America that is involved in this schismatic culture war around God versus science. It seemed like a natural place to set the book, in these peripheral zones. Not that folks who live in Alaska or Maine necessarily view it that way, but there is this urban/rural divide in the country that’s pretty clear-cut, and this wasn’t a book that could really have a full-on urban setting. There are a few scenes in New York, but really, it isn’t a book about city culture or urban life. It needed to be in these far-flung parts of America. And it was nice to set the book in those places, because I could be there again, in a certain way.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven is constructed as a novel that Anna is writing, so you’re getting her summation of recent events as they’re happening. Sometimes the gaps between sections can be a day; sometimes they can be much longer. What was the appeal for you of using that as a way of telling this story–having a narrator who’s reliable, but is still telling this story in a subjective way?

I really did have to have a straight narrator for this. Oftentimes, my bailiwick is an unreliable narrator, especially with the first person. It’s where I’m comfortable. I thought for this, because I was dealing with this somewhat supernatural, almost magical conceit, I had to have someone who was pretty straight. I didn’t want to fall back on the “am I insane?” trope of horror or ghost stories. I wanted someone who we could, more or less, believe.

It felt more immediate to not have it told in the somewhat distant past. I didn’t want to tell the story of the voice in a present tense. I felt it would be sort of tedious, and wouldn’t work with the structure of the book. In the early chapters, she travels back in time to tell about this infestation of her child, and then you move into the present. And at the end of the last chapter, I skipped forward a few months. So I wanted there to be a certain immediacy to it. But I find that when you write in the present tense–“I am doing,” “This is happening”–it’s harder to read, and can be sort of disruptive. So I wanted it to be in the slight past, at least, for most of it. So to play with time in that way seemed like the correct way to make the book.

It is, I think, passively confusing, what role this journal is playing in her life. I wanted it to be a bit murky at times. There’s a sort of murkiness that has to come up with suspense in general. To be too specific and too rigidly realistic will undermine what you’re doing, most times. At least in this sense, where there was this horror aspect to it that came up in the last part of the book. It couldn’t be too firmly grounded in detail.

Where do your own tastes in suspense fall?

I read a lot of different genres. I don’t read that many thriller-type books, though I’ve enjoyed mysteries that are smart. I’ve enjoyed Tana French, for instance, who I think is a good writer. Of course, you could argue that literary is its own genre, but when I’m not reading literary fiction, general fiction, or whatever, I’m reading more science fiction or fantasy or Young Adult stuff. I read a lot of dystopian fiction, along with my daughter. There’s a lot of that. I was brought up on books about magic. I love C.S. Lewis. Philip Pullman. I am, arguably, too old to be reading YA books and speaking about it proudly, but I do read a lot of dystopian speculative fiction. But not a lot of great thrillers. I don’t have a lot of reading experience there. I’m just starting to get recommendations from people about that.

Really, for me, this book, when I was writing it, had more of a filmic horror cast to it. I associate thrillers with something international or intrigue-based, which obviously, this isn’t. This was more, for me, something like Rosemary’s Baby or cheesy yet in their own way excellent movies like The Omen. Or even something more recent, like Fallen, the Denzel Washington movie. Stuff that dichotomizes angels and demons and Christianity and Satan–that’s what I was thinking of when I was writing this, genre-wise.

As the novel heads into more supernatural or paranormal territory, did you set any ground rules in terms of how people were able to, for lack of a better phrase, manipulate reality?

Of course, you’re always supposed to have rules and properties with magic. I allowed myself some latitude there. I felt like a book like this isn’t going to be an equation, no matter how hard you want to work to make it one. So I wasn’t going to enter any kind of precise calculus around what people’s aptitudes were, or what the laws of this universe were. I wasn’t particularly interested in that. It was more of a gesture towards horror and an indication of both conventions.

Do you see this novel as a horror novel, ultimately, or something more in between styles?

It is in between. It’s some sort of hybrid monster. I would say that it’s more towards horror than thriller. Horror is suspenseful, by nature. I didn’t consciously place it anywhere. But it was more informed by things that were ghostly–the idea of malevolent forces, and how that interacts with digital information sharing, slightly. Obviously, I’m interested in character, and this certain idea of the invasion of the privacy of the mind, which I think is fairly germane to this technological-personal revolution that we’re experiencing.

We’re becoming cyborgs more every year. To look at the idea a little bit of how our selves are being shaped by an influx of digital information that does infringe upon the self, because the inputs you’re getting from the world are tailored to outputs that you’ve already designated. The algorithms being used to manipulate your consumer practices are based on what you’ve shared in the past. So in a sense, you’re being sold your self over and over again by the external world. It creates a kind of prison: you like that kind of coffee, and you like that kind of internet porn, or whatever it is, and you’re served your own preferences over and over again. It has alarming implications, not only for mental privacy, which is a pretty obvious one, but also for the development of self and the process of learning. How do we change, moving forward through time, when everything we’re being shown on the screen or on the device is actually pre-selected for the version of ourselves that we’ve already expressed. The idea that we’re being captured by previous versions of ourselves, of technology.

It interests me, and I wanted to touch on that in some way. There’s so much you could write and say about that, and much of it is being written and said. But, I think, not that much about how Amazon or Google or whatever are promoting this status quo of the self and people based on their buying practices. That alarms me. The feed that you’re getting is incredibly tailored to what you’ve already gotten. There’s something disturbing about that to me.

One of the strands of the novel is that Ned, although he’s running as a conservative candidate, doesn’t seem to be much of a true believer in those principles or politics. Do you see a parallel between that and the idea of tech companies serving people what they think they want to be served?

Absolutely. I thought of it more in terms of how he turned out to reflect political candidates in this election cycle. The opportunistic appeal to whatever base values exist out there. This moral expediency–which has always existed; there’s nothing new under the sun–but is particularly stark right now, with people just seeming to embrace whatever position or brand of hatred or whatever seems to suit the day or meet some underlying anger in the populace. (Of course, I’m referring to Donald Trump, partly.) Ned’s this profiteering figure. He’s not a true believer in any sense. And there’s an exploitative and somewhat abusive relationship between the opportunistic powermongers on the Right and the core demographic of faithful and pious folks. I’m tickled that the book’s publication happened to coincide with this stark representation of that in public life. It was certainly not intended. And obviously, those things have been ambient for a while. We’re just seeing such an extreme version of that projected all around us right now.

One of the things I liked most about the book was the sense of the group dynamic among the people who have arrived at the motel, and their shared experiences. How did you fit that shifting balance of eccentric perspectives in there?

It came from the characters that I invented, and what their inclinations might be. They arose organically as I was making the scene of this motel. I really like motels. I like hotels. I’m always happy to be in one. They’re like little citadels of life, and they seem like mini-societies or something–except that they’re completely artificial. You’re being served something. I wanted to play with the idea of the motel as community. I’m always fascinated to be in them. You can convince yourself that you’re this bee in a big hive and imagine everything that’s going on in the rooms around you, but not ever know it. It could be anything. It’s not that different from, say, living in an apartment building, except that it’s temporary and you’re not established there. You don’t have an allegiance to it. It becomes a place of imagination, at least for me.

When I was a kid, I used to find it so exciting to be in one. Even a Super 8 or whatever. It didn’t have to be any brand. Just to be in this odd place with these people you don’t know living right next to you–strangers all around you, and what it might look like if those strangers actually weren’t perfect strangers. What that might feel like, to all of a sudden realize that the people around you had pre-existing relationships in one of these motels. I think it could be quite alarming. I wanted to play with that. The characters who appeared there seemed naturally to have their own different versions of access to this voice.

Was there anything that you discovered as you researched questions of language that you found interesting, but couldn’t quite work into this novel?

It’s mostly things that I’ve heard since that I wish I could put into the book. You hear snippets all the time on the radio, you see them on the BBC or The Guardian, about animal intelligence. New things are cropping up all the time, and some of them are really quite stunning. Parrot intelligence and crow intelligence and tool use in birds. And cephalopods, who are so intriguing and have these different personalities. There’s new research on orcas. There’s interesting stuff out there about all these different animals–very different kinds of animals–that’s pointing to a certain new understanding that we’re beginning to get about animal creativity. There’s a lot of stuff now that I’ve encountered that I wish I could’ve embedded in the book, but it seems to be too late. That kind of stuff goes on and on.

There are a lot of really interesting books out lately, too. The Frans de Waal book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? that just came out from Norton. There’s a lot of stuff that’s fairly new research. It seems like the pace of it has accelerated.

Photo: Jade Beall

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