The novelist Lydia Millet, whose new story collection is “Fight No More,” was impressed as a teenager by the Marquis de Sade. “Now he’s more boring, but we all fall prey to nostalgia.”
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Someone made me try to read my car’s manual after five years of ownership. I won’t name names except to say: It was my boyfriend, Aaron. I shy away from the mechanical and don’t read any manuals. Or contracts. Or fine print. When I’m going to read at length I want it to be for work or pleasure, not for practicality. But he thought I should know the basics. He sees it as an ethical flaw that I don’t change tires. Probably others agree. I learned I’m intractable and have the attention span of a 6-year-old faced with a differential equation. I was reminded that in a disaster scenario, an every-person-for-herself kind of challenge or even one involving minor electronic failure, I would be lost. That much like pediatric periodontists and professional closet organizers, writers like me, however uneconomic we may seem, can exist with a degree of tranquillity or efficiency only in economies like this one, of extreme specialization. Hothouse flowers.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Grief and longing. From an austere place, not one that ’s squishy with emotion. I like a backdrop of coldness, or at least neutrality. And I like fiction that doesn’t affirm, reinforce a reader’s fixed ideas or comfort him but casts the familiar in a strange light. Humor should always be present or ambient, even if sly or slight. I want to sense the presence of an author who can laugh at herself, who’s aware of her own design and also her fallibility. One who doesn’t think he’s above self-mockery. Also I love ecstatic moments, but they have to be delicate, with the right balance of restraint and indulgence. Hard to earn as a writer and to find as a reader.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I read literary fiction most, but also some charismatic and political nonfiction and cultural history. I loved “Cadillac Desert,” by Marc Reisner, for instance, and Barthes’s “A Lover’s Discourse.” I’ve loved the rare great memoir: say, “Darkness Visible,” by William Styron, or “Autobiography of a Face,” by Lucy Grealy. Children’s literature and poetry. Science fiction and fantasy, if the idiom isn’t lame. Ideally the fantasy shouldn’t feature fake Gaelic-sounding names, breastplates or women with long flowing hair, but even there my resolve has been known to fail. Maybe I can blame my late father, who raised me on a diet of the stuff. Out of a similar aversion to long flowing hair, the romance-fiction door is firmly closed to me. I did read Harlequin novels as a preteen, though, and formed the perfect mental image of a repressed, withholding, cruel yet devilishly handsome man. I do not seek out such men. Or the books that celebrate them. I also don’t tend to read books about middle-aged self-realization involving people who travel to exotic and impoverished countries to seek spiritual enlightenment after divorce, later to fall in love with a better guy and drink sauvignon blanc back at their renovated country farmhouses outside Darien, Conn. Or ones where Tom Hanks uncovers ancient religious conspiracies via outrageously infantile forms of symbol interpretation.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
Paper at home but electronic if traveling, because I am too lazy to carry heavy things. Night, because the rest of the day is for work and the children. Of course then there’s the hazard of falling asleep, which happens too often. Recently I’ve started a lot of books I don’t keep reading. Not proud of it. Some of those books are very good. There are piles. Unfinished business that stretches for years.
How do you organize your books?
Opportunistically. I only keep them if I love them. And there are few enough of those that I can generally find them again pretty easily. I love libraries, so I borrow a lot.
[Read the Book Review’s review of Lydia Millet’s “Fight No More”]
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“120 Days of Sodom”? Maybe they wouldn’t be surprised. It features in my new collection. As a teenager I was very impressed by the Marquis de Sade. Horrified but compelled. Now he’s more boring, but we all fall prey to nostalgia.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
“The Giant All-Color Book of Fairy Tales,” retold by Jane Carruth, Golden Press, 1971, from my parents. Stories with pictures by different artists. It was my staple as a child. I still have it, spine torn and taped up, pages soft and filthy with childish finger smears. Fifty retellings of Grimm and Andersen and Perrault, piercingly sad tales like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Little Match Girl,” as well as lighter tales about the foolishness of those darn peasants, like “The Golden Goose.” But I remember even the odd and mediocre tales, like “Ricky of the Tuft,” where a prince suffers from having bad hair until he finds a beautiful stupid princess he has the power to make smart. Luckily she has the power to fix his hair in return. Young royals should have to settle for nothing less than the total package.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Those that are hero and villain at once. Different ones dominated different times. Before I was 10 it was the Lorax and Aslan, then briefly Scarlett O’Hara, until I switched my loyalty to saintly Melanie. I too will suffer nobly in silence, I decided for a while. But then it turned out silence did not come easily to me. Ignatius J. Reilly and Beckett’s fictional proxies in my 20s, and Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote and the terrible guy in Elias Canetti’s “Auto-da-Fé.” Deeply flawed men with vast blind spots. Eventually I stopped remembering or noticing characters’ names and cared only about voices. In my 30s maybe the narrator of J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” the voices in Virginia Woolf’s books and Joy Williams’s and Lydia Davis’s, in funny books by Mary Ruefle and Julie Hecht. In my 40s, not sure. The heroes are in hiding.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Avid, obsessive and a binge reader, where the binges were constant. Prone to dramatic weeping and hysterical laughter. Extreme identification with characters both tragic and comic. We didn’t have a television until I was 12 or 13, so books were all. Stories with talking animals were my favorites, typically. I loved the genius Dr. Seuss. “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Edward Eager and Beverley Nichols, who wrote “The Tree That Sat Down” and “The Stream That Stood Still.” They’re tragically neglected. The “Swallows and Amazons” series, by Arthur Ransome; P. G. Wodehouse; Diana Wynne Jones, though I came to her late; and Nancy Farmer. I love Philip Pullman and Garth Nix, but they weren’t around when I was young. I read their books now instead.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
I want to say, anyone! But that would in fact be a lie. I would have to pick my friend Jenny Offill, author of “Last Things” and “Dept. of Speculation.” She’s strictly a fiction writer, which is actually a selling point. And she has a way of spinning the everyday into subtle gold. She could take the tawdry parts and make them seem almost tasteful, or at least forgivable, using nothing but her magic wand of words. Also, she actually knows the tawdry parts, and you can’t have a juicy biography without those. Plus she brings the funny. On the down side, she’s a busy woman and would never have time.
How do you decide what to read next? Is it reviews, word of mouth, books by friends, books for research? Does it depend on mood or do you plot in advance?
A bit of everything. I admit I use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon as a smell test. I don’t often browse at real bookstores, though I buy from them, because I don’t enjoy the standing-and-perusing model. I never did, even before the internet. I like to write socially at times, surrounded by people in public spaces, but not to read that way. As Amazon knows very well, “Look Inside” has a voyeuristic quality all its own. It’s like speed-dating, where the date is a book.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
This president? Yes. One book.
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