INTERVIEWS May 3, 2024

A Conversation with Lydia Millet

American novelist Lydia Millet has published more than a dozen award-winning and bestselling novels and short story collections. She is the recipient of several awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. Her work often discusses the relationship between humans and animals, the crisis of extinction, and climate change. Her linked short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. A Children’s Bible, published in 2020, was a finalist for the National Book Award and was named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. Millet’s most recent novel, Dinosaurs, was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the top ten books of fiction published in 2022. In 1999, Millet joined the staff at the Center for Biological Diversity, where she still serves as a writer and editor. 

On November 28, 2023, Millet visited Butler University in Indianapolis as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. She sat down with Booth to discuss her work, her love for animals, and the power of stories.

Jonathan Mann (JM): You’ve been referred to as both a novelist and a climate novelist. When did you begin writing, and when did your concern for the environment come about, respectively? When did these two interests begin to intertwine?

Lydia Millet (LM): Well, really, I've always loved animals. I've always been fascinated by animals, as most children are, right? Animals are how I came to what they call conservation or the environment. I've never liked the word “environment.” It always sounds dry and clinical. So, I came to it through a fascination with animals and animal stories and talking animals and all that stuff in childhood. And then I did a graduate program in environmental economics at Duke University’s School of the Environment. So that's how I sort of formalized that interest. And I've always written—I came from a book family. We didn't have a TV until I was twelve, and my father took us to the library every Saturday. We’d have these huge piles of books, and it was kind of a slog because it was a fifteen-minute walk to the library. We just all read voraciously as kids, and my father told us what he called “talk” stories, which we would illustrate. I used to write stories about princesses and illustrate them. They had, like, those conical hats and triangular skirts. 

JM: (Laughs.) Yes, yes.

LM: I wrote a lot in high school. I went to a great high school with passionate teachers in Toronto called the University of Toronto Schools, which was kind of a hybrid private-public school. You tested into it, and I think tuition was, at that time, something like nine hundred dollars a year...

JM: Oh, wow.

LM: It was probably the hardest academic work I've ever had. We had great teachers, and they encouraged me to write. I wrote a lot in college at Chapel Hill, and I read all the time, though I didn't start reading diversely, really, like stuff that was beyond my comfort zone, until I was in my early twenties. I read some great things in college, but they were kind of canonical, generally. It wasn’t until after college that I started reading more diversely. It was still canonical but just a more European canon, like Beckett, Musil, Walser, and Bernhard.

JM: When did you write your first novel?

LM: I wrote my first novel in college, and it was my honors thesis. It was really—I'm sure—terrible. I think it was called The Stone Fountain. A copy still exists in the university library, where they keep a bound copy of everyone’s theses. My friend Jenny and I were on a trip to Chapel Hill a few years back and we went and asked for it at the library. It was there, but I was too horrified to look.

JM: So you didn't read it at all? 

LM: No. (Laughs.) I mean, I think I looked at a page or two.

JM: So you see this early work of yours, and you maybe glance at it a little bit...

LM:...I was deeply pained and glanced away.

JM: So then how do you think your work has evolved from that point?

LM: I hope it's gotten better. I mean, I have a condition—and maybe many writers have this—but I feel alienated from many of my old books. It always seems, if I go back and look at them, that someone else has written them. I’ve gone from being fairly mannered in my syntax and lexicon to simpler. Shorter sentences, less affectation. For a while, at the beginning of my career, I was writing more satirical books, and now I’m not doing so much satire and trying to pare down a bit. I write more in broken sentences as I get older. The positive spin would be, maybe it's an evolution toward greater economy and lucidity. I mean, that's what I would hope for. You always hope to write a great book one day. On the other hand, it could be mental decay. 

JM: On the subject of lucidity, I wanted to bring up A Children's Bible. You have your characters moving around in a world that they simultaneously know and don't know because of the ambiguity caused by external pressures. You give some privacy to the protagonist, and it’s interesting because typically we’re expecting to get everything—what the protagonist knows, the reader will know or figure out eventually. But you do give your protagonist privacy, and there’s some lucidity in that, right, with what you choose to reveal about the character and their world? Is there a reason for this approach or why you like this approach?

LM: That’s an interesting framing; no one has put it to me that way before. Privacy. I’m interested in creating characters by inference rather than direct description or exposition. Obviously, none of us wish for exposition, and I notice the more experience I have, the less I like to over-describe or, sometimes, even describe at all. (Laughs.) I'm also less and less interested in replicating things—or trying to replicate things—with prose that already exist in other media. For example, more and more I write dialogue with less and less physical description. But also, the diction of characters becomes the characters. Very rarely will you know, as a reader of something I’ve done, what a character looks like. It's not of interest to me.

JM: Would you say it's a part of trusting the reader or giving the reader some opportunity to create what they envision in their own mind’s eye?

LM: I'm not sure it's about trust. That implies I'm considering the reader when I'm writing, which I'm not. You know, if I were writing for TV, I would be considering my audience. But because I'm a fiction writer, I don't need to do that. So yes, I do also think that a book is more personal to the degree that we can imagine its landscape for ourselves, right?

JM: Yeah, that makes sense.

LM: The more I prescribe, or any writer prescribes, the physicality, for example, of the people—I think landscape is a little different—the more limited it becomes. The culture of the book becomes more self-limiting the more you define its terms. If you can get away with—as someone like Beckett does—with less specificity, you make space for others to exist on their own terms.

JM: No, that makes perfect sense.

LM: I like that as a reader…I have a new book coming out in April called We Loved It All, which is this odd hybrid thing, a memoir and not a memoir, but I kind of play a role in it. And in it I discuss the privacy of the mind and how, at once, necessary and astonishing it is.

JM: Yes, because oftentimes it feels like we don't have privacy, especially right now.

LM: The mind is the only refuge, and increasingly it may be being infiltrated. Of course, it’s always phenomenologically infiltrated…but the idea that others cannot actually steal our secrets from us, the idiosyncrasy and oddness of our personal thoughts that we get to keep and hoard...but that privacy also implies a great loneliness in our species, a great isolation where we want to be part of a community but are alone in our separate cognitive landscapes. 

JM: You mentioned that you don't necessarily think of your audience when you're working on something, right? It sounds like you write for yourself, and, looking through some of your publications, you are not afraid of taking elements of genre work. For example, you've written some eco-fantasy YA before, Sweet Lamb of Heaven has horror and thriller elements, and even Mermaids in Paradise—mermaids are central to the book.

LM: Yeah, yeah. There's absurd or, like, phantasmagorical stuff in there. I wouldn't say magical realism. 

JM: I'm curious. Is there a reason why you like to borrow from those elements, or is there an interest in them specifically? I know you mentioned that when you were younger, fairy tales were your first stories.

LM: I mean, I do love all that stuff. I still love children's literature today. Doctor Seuss is still one of my favorite writers. C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman. 

JM: Yeah, of course.

LM: I'm not worried by the violation of domestic realism or the narrow definition of domestic realism in the course of a book. I'm not sure if this is a particularly helpful description, but I like to introduce an element into a narrative that doesn't belong in it, that’s not organic to it. It seems almost like a rude interruption in the cosmology of the book, and I think sometimes that works with my books and maybe, historically, sometimes it hasn't. If the whole book is satirical to start out with, it's very easy to do that because you're not really asking, in my opinion, to truly suspend disbelief. You're just asking them to trust the authority of the narrator, which is not the same as suspending disbelief…I used to have this real division between my books where some were sort of, I’d say, satirical, and others were gentler or more solemn books and only had rare moments of levity. More recently, I've tried to kind of marry the two in books like A Children's Bible or Dinosaurs. The last really broad book I did, I think, was Mermaids in Paradise. It can be hard to pull off that introduction of an object that doesn’t belong, in a book. It's always a risk you take, and some readers don't like it.

JM: Of course. 

LM: Some don't like it, and even I, as a reader, don't like it when it doesn’t work! When I see it as a kind of gratuitous magic. Like in a TV show like Lost, say, where you’re of sort strung along, believing that there's some grand design when really there isn't, as it turns out. You feel like you’ve been played for a fool, trying to analyze what’s just silly. If you're hinting to me that there’s a Magnificent Oz behind the curtain, then I want you to show me something behind the curtain. 

JM: It sounds like you're saying, if you are trying to marry these two elements of the more realism with the more fantastical, maybe the writer needs to show some of that forethought, that planning, that went into it.

LM: Yeah, there needs to be a symbol system. Not an equation, exactly, but we need to sense that this wasn't just a random, episodic sequence of events. What held them together? I want there to be a ghost in the machine. A singular vision. So, I'm trying to marry humor, a bit of humor, at least a tiny bit of humor, with abstraction and serious intent. For example, in writing about matters of climate or extinction, maybe there’s a dimension of self-reflection or occasional lightness to make it less difficult to engage with them.

JM: A great transition to my next question: You write a lot about the climate, our relationship with animals, what we're doing to the earth—the negative effects of what humans do. How do you see your work engaging with the world or with a broader audience?

LM: Increasingly, I see my fiction as part of this sort of post-humanist project of trying to look beyond the human into the larger community of being and trying to understand, before it's too late, how crucial others of all kinds are to humanness and to the existence of human culture. What we define as beautiful, our aesthetics…to try to explore the magnificence beyond the human. Certainly, I'm not the only person interested in this, but as a culture, we’re still myopically humanist, even on the left, and even in our intellectual culture. In a way that, say, countries like England are not. England’s very culturally concerned with extinction, and we do have a lot going on here legally, in the conservation community, and in the scientific community, with extinction. But the way artists and writers engage is nascent in the US. Extinction is of prime importance to many writers in England and Europe, existential and metaphysical, and here we still, to some degree as creatives, see this as a boutique interest that doesn't concern our direct survival going forward. Yet it does. It concerns our direct survival and our quality of life on Earth. 

JM: Do you think that your work is more than just trying to get the reader to think about these issues? Do you hope it’s more of a call to action?

LM: It’s always unfashionable to admit to any advocacy as a fiction writer. Of course, I’m an advocate in my job. But I guess I don't really know what an effective call to action sounds like. I guess I can't really claim to know how to produce that. I mean, I think if I did, I might have no problem with it, with advocacy and art. Some of the most psychically powerful symbols have been created as propaganda. But I don’t want to write fiction that’s a polemic. Or advertising.

JM: That's a kind of slippery slope there, right? 

LM: Yeah. But I am interested in ideas and conveying ideas…

JM: ...but if your work does motivate someone?

LM: Maybe it could, in a roundabout way. I've become passionate about things because of books I read as a young person. It's rarely a direct translation of what the book was about, though.

JM: Books can inspire, but they don't necessarily . . . it's not just one book that motivates, it’s maybe several . . . 

LM: Empathy, in general, is something books can offer and most art forms can offer. But the interiority of novels or poetry is distinctive. . . novels, I think more than anything, because they have these prolonged interior monologues that, theoretically, really allow you to inhabit the sensibility of someone who, for example, is already dead. In a way that's fairly explicit or granular. Poetry also can do this, of course. But I’ve always loved that if you're a lonely and thoughtful person, books can save your life.

Jonathan Mann was born and raised in Michigan and is a graduate of Hope College. He is currently pursuing his MFA at Butler University, and his work has been featured in plain china, the Under Review, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and House of Zolo’s Journal of Speculative Literature. Currently, he teaches English and serves as the co-fiction editor for Booth. You can find him at