An author and a passionate environmentalist who has written more than a dozen novels and story collections. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Credit: Nola Millet
The Interview : Lydia Millet
(Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl, in conversation with Lydia Millet)
The Wise Owl talks to Lydia Millet, an author and a passionate environmentalist who lives in the desert outside Tucson with her family. Lydia has written more than a dozen novels and story collections. Her novel A Children's Bible was included in New York Times ‘Best 10 Books of 2020’ selection and shortlisted for the National Book Award. In 2019 her story collection Fight No More received an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and her collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. She also writes essays, opinion pieces, book reviews, and other ephemera and has worked as an editor and staff writer at the Centre for Biological Diversity since 1999.
Thanks, Lydia, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We are delighted to talk to you especially as your books weave fiction with contemporary issues of concern like preservation of environment and climate change.
RS: Our readers would be eager to know a little about your journey as a novelist. When did you start writing? Why did you pick the novel as your preferred genre?
LM: I’ve been writing seriously since I was at university, where I had wonderful teachers. This was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the late ’80s. We were asked to write short stories, in the writing classes I took back then, but I was always drawn to novels, as a reader, despite the fact that I was almost surely too young to write a good one. I tried anyway, and wrote several failures before my first book, a satirical novel called Omnivores, was published in 1996.
RS: Please tell our readers a little about your creative process, right from the time the germ of a story idea takes root to the time you send it to a publisher.
LM: My process is so simple it doesn’t make for a good story in itself. I don’t plan books in advance — just write sentences until I have a page that feels right, and then another page. I write in a linear way and revise by reading the text over and over as I go. I love not knowing where I’m going when I start. That’s what keeps writing exciting.
RS: You have authored more than a dozen books and most of your books focus on the theme of apocalyptic extinction, climate change and man’s complete disregard of these changes. For the benefit of the readers could you tell us what or who sensitized you to these issues?
LM: I mean…who or what didn’t? Animals and plants are being killed off at a breakneck pace, and everywhere we look we see evidence of our alienation from the natural world. We see the products of our abuse of the life-support systems that sustain us and the havoc their exploitation is wreaking on all the other creatures who live, as well as on us. And climate change — if you read the news, and you respect science as a way of knowing the world, there’s no way to escape the reality of that. The longer I live the more deeply I come to understand that human history is a history of the subjugation and destruction of others. Within our own species, for sure, but also far, far beyond it. Into all corners of the earth. And the more I long for us to renounce that history and care for those others instead.
RS: You have said in an interview that the extinction of species is the thing that frightens you the most in the world which is why you can’t stop writing about it. As in ‘The Children’s Bible’ do you think inaction of man (with regard to climate change) will be the cause of the ultimate extinction of mankind?
LM: It’s possible, but I’m more concerned that we’ll drive everything else extinct and leave our children and everyone else who comes after us with an impoverished, barren world.
RS: A number of initiatives have been taken by international organisations and governments to halt climate change and its negative fallout. Do you believe that these initiatives will halt climate changes like global warming?
LM: Halt, no. Slow down, yes. Avert the worst possible scenarios. If we’re lucky and fight as hard as we can to force our governments to do the right thing. But we need private industry to get behind the transformation to clean energy in a hurry, as well as governments. The fossil fuel giants, first and foremost. Electric utilities. Big agriculture. Shipping and air transport, car companies, financial institutions.
RS: Describing your writing, a critic said that you forgo ‘the novel’s traditional shape, in which tensions build to a climax. Her method is to churn up themes, generating a kind of mental weather, as if a book were less a trajectory than an atmosphere: something happens, and then something else happens.” We would like to hear from you how the structure of your novel evolves and whether it was a conscious framework you adopted to reflect your concerns.
LM: I don’t always forgo the traditional shape. Some of my books have that structure and some don’t. I work toward a certain feeling, a certain rapture toward the end of a book, which is for sure a structural constant. But some of my books are full of plot, others not; some are loud, and others are quiet.
RS: Our readers would be eager to know if you are working on any novel now. Please tell us something about it. When will it be available in bookstores?
LM: I’m working on three books at the moment. The first is a kind of personal, nonfiction book, likely to be called a memoir, about having children in the age of extinction; the second is a collection of short stories with a Game of Thrones throughline; and the third is a novel.
RS: Is there any advice you would like to give upcoming novelists?
LM: Read all you can and read what’s difficult as well as what’s easy. Read across genres—read poetry and nonfiction as well as fiction, read science fiction and fantasy and murder books, and read old as well as new. Listen to the dead writers as well as the living ones.
RS: The main reason for climate change is man’ intervention in the natural scheme of things. Is there any advice you would like to give mankind on how to maintain the climate status quo and halt environmental decline.
LM: What we need to do on climate is well known—you can check out websites like this one, which belongs to the organization where I work. On the extinction crisis, what we need to do is fairly clear, too: stop extinctions. Value each kind of life.
Thanks a lot Lydia for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl. We wish you success in all your creative endeavours and also hope and pray your work to make our planet a safer place for mankind bears fruit.
Thank you, and the same to you.