Lydia Millet: By the Book

Lydia Millet: By the Book


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 did not 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 are 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 were not 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 cannot 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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