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I Told You So

Back in 2000, right before the presidential election, I sent out an unsolicited, not-well-received mass mailing to practically everybody I knew. It happened that I knew a lot of people who were planning to vote for Ralph Nader—remember him?—and I begged them to reconsider. I understood their desire to lodge a protest vote, but I didn’t think it was worth letting George W. Bush become president.

In my message, I raised three points. I said that Bush would be bad for the environment. As it turns out, he’s not just bad for the environment; he’s also bad for science. I predicted that John Ashcroft would turn out to be at least as scary as he seemed; anybody remember Operation TIPS? And I warned that the next president might have the chance to appoint one or even two Supreme Court justices, and that it would be frightening indeed if Bush was that president.

All I have to say now is, “I told you so.”

January 31, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

My Favorite Paragraph on the Frey Fracas

Oprah is Embarrassed. Don’t Fuck With Oprah. A Novel Is Something Different Than A Memoir. I Have A Headache. If I were to write a Memoir of my Drug Addiction, it would be called, I Smoked Pot And Sent A Silly Email To My Ex-Girlfriend, And Then I Watched Futurama For A While.

Bless You, Neal Pollack, Very Famous Author with Whom I Have Eaten Sandwiches.

January 27, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

From “Brutally Honest” to Just Plain Brutal: James Frey Gets a Spanking from Oprah

I wasn’t planning to write anything about James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, but watching his second appearance on Oprah has kind of encouraged me to organize my thoughts. It was a riveting piece of TV, mostly because we have so few opportunities in this day and age to view a public flogging. When Oprah said, “I regret that phone call”—referring, of course, to the call she made to Larry King defending Frey—it was kind of like watching Bill Clinton apologize for lying about Monica Lewinsky. It was almost that uncomfortable. My unease, of course, was nothing compared to Frey’s. These were among her first words to the disgraced author: “It’s difficult for me to talk to you.” I mean, the woman talks for a living. She’s talked to wife-beaters and teen sluts. She’s talked to Dr. Phil, for heaven’s sake. Ouch.

Frey might have been a little more discomfited had he not maintained a near-sublime state of disconnection. When Oprah asked him about The Smoking Gun, he replied, “I think most of what they wrote was pretty accurate.” It was like he was talking about something utterly unrelated to himself.

His cool, kind of stupid—turns out he’s quite the mouth-breather—detachment was an interesting contrast to the tough customer named “James Frey” he created for his memoir (I haven’t read it, but I’ve, you know, read about it). Of course, this may be because Frey is now a successful author rather than a recovering addict; during the show, he explained that he found self-aggrandizement to be a useful coping mechanism during his darker days. I think most of us can relate—Lord knows, I cherish my anecdotes of alcohol poisoning—but most of us don’t publish memoirs in which, say, a failure to take out the trash when mom asked turns into matricide.

Mostly, this episode of Oprah was a chance for her to say she was wrong, and then make Frey pay for it by sending him through a journalist spanking machine. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it, but the show really didn’t address the more interesting facets of the situation.

At one point, Oprah asked him whether or not his successfully suicidal girlfriend really existed, and Frey affirmed that she did—she cut her wrists rather than hanging herself, though. This turned into a brief conversation about whether or not other individuals in the book were fabricated or misrepresented, and Frey tried to make a distinction between characters and real people. Oprah wasn’t buying it, but he kind of had a point. Speaking as someone who has written some autobiography—I’ve got a little something in an anthology coming out later this year—I can say that, in order to craft an effective memoir, one has to turn one’s friends, relations, and self into characters, and one has to turn one’s experiences into story. This transformation is an aesthetic necessity. I’m not talking about making shit up—I’m talking about writing. I guess I’m saying that the people—the real people—in the memoirist’s life might be surprised by the way they are portrayed, and that the memoirist might be a little surprised by what the process of writing reveals, too.

As part of their insanely exhaustive coverage of the Frey scandal, The New York Times ran an essay by Mary Karr. Not only do I feel like the hard-luck memoir maybe could have been retired after her The Liar’s Club—she so totally nailed the form—but I also think that Karr’s response was one of the more illuminating to come out of this sad episode. Here’s my favorite part

...I rejected the strong suggestion of one publishing executive that I include a touching goodbye scene with my mother. “But I don’t remember it,” I told him, and readers were left without what I’m sure would have been a narratively comforting farewell. Sometimes to forget an event may be the most radiantly true way of representing it.
Mr. Frey seems to have started with his perceived truth, and then manufactured events to support his vision of himself as a criminal. But how could a memoirist even begin to unearth his life’s truths with fake events? At one point, I wrote a goodbye scene to show how my hard-drinking, cowboy daddy had bailed out on me when I hit puberty.
When I actually searched for the teenage reminiscences to prove this, the facts told a different story: my daddy had continued to pick me up on time and make me breakfast, to invite me on hunting and fishing trips. I was the one who said no. I left him for Mexico and California with a posse of drug dealers, and then for college.
This was far sadder than the cartoonish self-portrait I’d started out with. If I’d hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I’d never had to overcome—a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties—I wouldn’t have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth.

Nan A. Talese, Frey’s publisher, tried to make a distinction between truth and authenticity that reminded me of a friend’s description of her senior thesis on the difference between history and heritage: History is a good-faith attempt to describe the past; heritage is what you get at Colonial Williamsburg. However, Talese was right when she said that “People do not remember the same way.” Oprah wasn’t interested in exploring this idea, but it’s an important one, I think. Throughout the show, Oprah kept emphasizing the value of truth, but at no point did she acknowledge that it’s not always easy to find. One doesn’t have to deny the existence of objective reality to argue that the truth is sometimes inaccessible, and that memory is subjective.

In any case, I think Oprah’s concern for the sanctity of the truth is not something she shares with all or most of her viewers, or all or most Americans. Rather, I don’t think people are disappointed to learn that Frey is a big, fat liar simply because we all cherish the truth as an absolute good. I think people are pissed because we all love a freakshow. We love stories filled with degradation and debasement, and we not only want writers to tell us these stories—we want them to be the story. The JT Leroy saga is good illustration of this phenomenon: Leroy’s books were bought and sold as fiction, but would they have been as successful—as beloved by hipsters and the literati—if people didn’t believe that these novels of a transgendered teen hustler weren’t written by a transgendered teen hustler? And, as we all know by now, Frey actually tried to market his manuscript as a novel, but he was only able to sell it as a true story. I don’t know what this says about us as a culture, but it can’t be anything good. As for Mr. Frey, I guess he’s got one thing going for him: At least he didn’t pretend to be Native American.

January 26, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Blowjob Nation

I like Caitlin Flanagan. She’s a good writer, and I always find her choice of subject matter (housewifery manuals, parenting, Mary Poppins) compelling. She has a wry sense of humor, and—most importantly—she’s a skeptic. Flanagan is always just a little bit suspicious of received wisdom.

The latest issue of the The Atlantic contains the best piece I’ve read on the oral sex “epidemic” that has taken hold of our nation’s youth. Here’s my précis: With cool and convincing logic, Flanagan argues that the blowjob problem in America’s middle schools is probably not as bad as The Rainbow Party suggests. She does, however, acknowledge that girls today feel differently about fellatio than past generations of adolescent females. Flanagan makes the depressing but cogent suggestion that we have, as a society, abandoned our girls to a pornified culture and a woefully inadequate model of empowerment. She concludes by writing

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls. I think that girls are vulnerable to great damage through the kind of sex in which they are, as individuals, as valueless and unrecognizable as chattel. Society has let its girls down in every possible way. It has refused to assert—or even to acknowledge—that female sexuality is as intricately connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure. It’s in the nature of who we are.
But perhaps the girls themselves understand this essential truth.
As myriad forces were combining to reshape our notions of public decency and propriety, to ridicule the concept that privacy and dignity are valuable and allied qualities of character and that exhibitionism as an end in itself might not be beneficial for a young girl, at the exact moment when girls were encouraged to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy and to act on an imperative of default aggression—at this very time a significant number of young girls were beginning to form an entirely new code of sexual ethics and expectations. It was a code in which their own physical pleasure was of no consequence—was in fact so entirely beside the point that their preferred mode of sexual activity was performing unrequited oral sex. Deep Throat lingers in the popular imagination because it was one of the few porn movies to trade on an original and inspired premise: what a perfect world it would be if the clitoris were located in a woman’s throat. In a world like that a man wouldn’t have to cajole a woman to perform fellatio on him; she would be just as eager to get it on as he was. But this was a fantasy; a girl may derive a variety of consequences, intended and otherwise, from servicing boys in this manner, but her own sexual gratification is not one of them. The modern girl’s casual willingness to perform oral sex may—as some cool-headed observers of the phenomenon like to propose—be her way of maintaining a post-feminist power in her sexual dealings, by being fully in control of the sexual act and of the pleasure a boy receives from it. Or it may be her desperate attempt to do something that the culture refuses to encourage: to keep her own sexuality—the emotions and the desires, as well as the anatomical real estate itself—private, secret, unviolated. It may not be her technical virginity that she is trying to preserve; it may be her own sexual awakening—which is all she really has left to protect anymore.
We’ve made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream, in which Planned Parenthood’s response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy—which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America’s girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America’s girls: on their knees.

January 23, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Our Feminism, Ourselves

My husband doesn’t cook. I do. When feminists—particularly older feminists—learn these facts, they frequently give Ted shit. If I’m in earshot, I issue my standard defense: Ted doesn’t like to cook. He doesn’t know how to cook. I do know how, and I do like it. His kitchen contribution is doing the dishes. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly piqued, I add that, as the primary wage-earner in our family, Ted puts food on the table in the figurative sense. What I never say is, “Really, it’s none of your damn business,” although I often think it.

This, I believe, is the fundamental issue at the heart of the ongoing controversy over “choice” feminism: To what extent is the personal political? Even when I want nothing more than to be left in peace by my more doctrinaire sisters, I cannot deny the validity of this question. If I think about my own domestic arrangements, for example, I feel that Ted and I have pretty much worked things out to our own satisfaction. (Well, my own satisfaction: Ted is significantly more filth-averse than I am, so he ends up doing most of the cleaning; perhaps this state of affairs will look more equitable when we add childcare to the mix.) But am I being a bad feminist by assuming the traditionally feminine chore of cooking? Will I be setting a bad example for my child? I am not asking these questions facetiously; I really do feel that they are worthy of consideration. Is feminism fulfilled when a woman does whatever she wants to do—whether that’s become a stockbroker, an astronaut, or a housewife—or does it require that we organize our own lives in such a way that we help make such choices possible for all women? What do we owe to ourselves, and what do we owe to each other?

I ask these questions of myself a lot, and I’m asking them today because of a piece in yesterday’s New York Times. In it, Patricia Cohen discusses the ongoing debate sparked by Linda Hirshman’s American Prospect article, “Homeward Bound”. This piece is, of course, old news in the blogosphere, but the conversation it has generated is hardly over. The crux of the argument is whether or not participants in the “opt-out revolution” can call themselves feminists, or whether their decision to leave the public sphere in favor of private life is a sign of the end of feminism.

Underscoring this question is a more fundamental question about feminism itself: What, exactly, has it achieved. Cohen points out that women have made significant strides over the past 50 years, and that’s undeniable. But she also highlights the fact that feminists are still agitating over the same issues that got them exercised and mobilized half a century ago. This suggests a real lack of progress to me, and I think the anxiety that “choice” feminism generates is fear that, as long as a substantial number of women are happily opting out of the workplace, it’s harder for women who want a career—a more public life—to opt in. This is, certainly, something that I worry about while I’m staying at home.

My biggest issue with “choice” feminism, though, has nothing do with the decisions I’ve made in my own life. It is, rather, that “choice” feminism implies options that remain unrealistic for a large numbers of women. Very few single mothers can choose to stay at home with their kids—in fact, welfare reform has made that a near-impossibility. In an unfortunate little twist, many of these women forced into work are the same low-wage workers who make it possible for other, more fortunate women to pursue their careers. That is to say, feminism has hardly succeeded in changing our collective, cultural idea of women’s work. Women haven’t relinquished their domestic duties; at best, they’ve simply outsourced them.

It’s all very complicated. On the one hand, I want to be able to live my own life and to afford other women that same right. On the other hand I’m always a little shocked and disappointed when a woman of my age, education, and coolness-level takes her husband’s name. The reasons why my husband is the member of our family with a fulltime job have everything to do with geography and our differing vocations, but I still feel kind of weird about our seemingly traditional arrangement. I will soon be a stay-at-home mom, but I can’t imagine that I will ever think of myself as one. What does all this say about me, and what does it say about my commitment to feminism?

I don’t have any answers. I will offer this, for whatever it’s worth: While I was relaxing in the recliner, drinking tea and reading Cohen’s article, my husband was vacuuming cat hair off the sofa.

January 16, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

I’m blogging for two now.

The cutest little fetus ever

That’s right: I’m knocked up, up the duff, preggers, expecting, enceinte, in a delicate condition, in the family way. Choose your euphemism. The baby is due in late June or early July.

Like all parents, I find my child entirely fascinating. If you do, too, you may wish to visit my new blog, Pepita. It’s a pregnancy journal, with occasional entries on celebrity moms and other, related topics.

January 11, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2005

I can already tell you what two of my favorite books of 2006 are going to be: The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis (exquisite!) and The Accidental by Ali Smith (diabolical!). I can also tell you that I’m really looking forward to reading The People’s Act of Love by James Meek. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here you will find my favorite books of the year just passed. I’m not saying these are the best books published in 2005, as I don’t believe that I’ve read all the best books of 2005—I have yet to read The Year of Magical Thinking, for example. And I’m not saying I’m qualified to judge the best: These are just the books I liked the most.

I’ll Go to Bed at NoonI’ll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward

This Booker finalist is a story about a family of drunks. To call them “alcoholic” is a bit too genteel, a bit too clinical. The Jones family are prodigious in their consumption. They are roaring drunks. They are fall-down drunks. They are a spectacular wreck. Needless to say, this is a sad story, but it’s also quite funny and the quality of craft Woodward brings to this heartbreaking project is, itself, a kind of hopefulness. One reviewer has complained that Woodward ignored the reader’s expectations of redemption for his characters, but not every reader expects novels to be self-help manuals in narrative form—indeed, this reader is most grateful when they are not. Woodward did not consign his characters to their pitiful fates—they did that to themselves—and we shouldn’t ask an author to play the role of social worker. Woodward did for his characters what a writer can do; that is, he told their stories.

Beyond BlackBeyond Black by Hilary Mantel

In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel explains that, once, when she was little, she saw the devil in her back yard. I think that all her novels are, in one way or another, a reaction to or a reflection on this event. In the very excellent review of Beyond Black she wrote for The New Yorker, Joan Aocella described Hilary Mantel’s work as “eschatology crossed with comedy”. That about sums it up, I think. Many of her books—Every Day Is Mother’s Day, Vacant Possession, Fludd, even her memoir—take place in the same fictional universe, and it’s a universe in which the truly terrible coexists with the truly hilarious. Mantel believes in evil, but this doesn’t make her a Puritan or a scold; rather, it makes her sense of the absurd seem like a kind of existential wisdom, and it imbues her work with an almost saintly sympathy. Everything I’ve just written is even more true in her latest novel. Beyond Black is oozing with malevolent spirits and demonic trauma, and, from this witch’s brew, Mantel conjures a story that is not just alarming, but also very funny and even—ultimately—strangely uplifting. Reading this book was a singular pleasure.

 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Having been profoundly disappointed by the last book in the series, I was planning to give this one a miss. Then I read la Kakutani’s very favorable review, and that persuaded me to give the young wizard another try. I’m glad it did. Suspenseful, expertly paced, and emotionally compelling, this is a great story, and the escalating sense of danger and despair in Harry’s world is an eerie echo of the ever-growing darkness in our own.

The Coast of AkronThe Coast of Akron by Adrienne Miller

This novel is quite mad, and unlike anything I have ever read. Its weird power is fueled, I think, by its internal tensions. This story is comic and tragic, but not tragicomic—both the funny bits and the pathos are real and distinct and not at all ironic. It’s screwball and bitchy, campy and Gothic, excessive and honest, but—again—these elements do not mitigate each other. Although it’s quite playful and often hilarious, this is a profoundly anxious novel. Each narrator, each character, offers a significantly different interpretation of events, and the result is disturbing. By the end, this disharmonious chorus of voices creates an uncanny sense that nothing—even, or especially, our own memories—is at it seems, and that nothing—even our own selves—is real. I wrote a more complete review awhile ago, and you can read it here.

The Minister’s DaughterThe Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn

The Anglo-American witch craze of the 17th century is hardly a fresh fictional setting, but Hearn’s take on this well-trod subject is honestly original, and her debut novel is cleverly crafted and quite engaging. She creates vivid characters from a few telling details, and she moves her suspenseful story along at a brisk clip. She mixes elements of fantasy and historical fiction, but she writes with a playfulness that is not typical for either. While she clearly wants to show how the witch trials preyed on weak outsiders—mostly women—her primary aim is not didactic. Hearn clearly wants to tell a good story, and she does.

Magic for BeginnersMagic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Some of you may recall a generally unfavorable mention of this book in an earlier post. It reappears on this list not because I’ve changed my mind, but because one of the stories is so good that it makes me glad I picked up this collection. “Stone Animals” is an impeccable and bewitching piece of short fiction. Link has a tendency to turn the weird into the precious, but she restrains herself here. “Stone Animals” is about a family who moves from the city to a big old house in the country, and they soon find themselves haunted. It’s not just the house that is haunted, but everything in it—pieces of furniture, bars of soap, individual body parts. As a narrative exploration of the uncanny, it’s a tour de force, and the ending is an outrageous surprise, eerily beautiful and truly chilling.

Oh Pure and Radiant HeartOh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

This is my favorite book of 2005. It’s the story of a modern-day librarian and three physicists moved by mysterious means from their own time to ours. It’s a historical novel, in that Millet uses real figures—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi (who will break your heart)—as characters, but it’s not a historical novel because it takes place in a contemporary setting. It’s also science fiction, but Millet wisely and graciously spares us an explanation of the mechanism by which these scientists travel through time. It’s mesmerizing and gorgeous and tragic—everything changes, but everything stays terribly and reassuring the same—and it is, certainly, unlike anything else you have ever read. Not too long ago, Millet graciously agreed to a wee interview with me, and you can find it here.

January 9, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The Nuclear Sublime: Interview with Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet has become one of my favorite authors. She’s like Hilary Mantel in that I can’t think of anyone to compare her to. Millet’s books are singular, but I never get the sense that’s she’s trying hard to be weird. In fact, all the weirdness in her very weird books seems quite normal—or, at least, closely observed rather than willfully invented.

This is not to say that I don’t imagine that she works at her craft. Indeed, she has a prose style so free of ornament and affectation—so seemingly natural—that I can only imagine that it’s the product of intense devotion and effort.

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is my favorite book of 2005. It’s the story of a modern-day librarian and three physicists moved by mysterious means from their own time to ours. It’s a historical novel, in that Millet uses real figures—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi (who will break your heart)—as characters, but it’s not a historical novel because it takes place in a contemporary setting. It’s also science fiction, but Millet wisely and graciously spares us an explanation of the mechanism by which these scientists travel through time. It’s mesmerizing and gorgeous and tragic—everything changes, but everything stays terribly and reassuring the same—and it is, certainly, unlike anything else you have ever read.

Where did this very strange book come from?

Lydia Millet: The obnoxious answer is, my head. Really, it came out of a fascination with the nuclear sublime.

What do you mean by “nuclear sublime”?

LM: I mean the poetic and transcendent power of the mushroom cloud as an image and a phenomenon—its terrible beauty. What captivates me is how terrible can be beautiful, how it feels to be floored by something at once dreadful and lovely. Beyond the physical and artistic presence of the mushroom cloud, the idea of the split atom is also compelling—as is the idea that in science and technology discoveries can never be unmade.

Why Ann? Why does she dream of Oppenheimer? Why her and nobody else?

LM: She’s a librarian and I admire librarians. They’re keepers of the faith of books, keepers of cultural memory, which makes her a perfect host for the ghosts of the A-bomb scientists in an age that ignores much of its history even as it happens.

While a former President did have a supporting role in George Bush, the Dark Prince of Love, this novel represents the first time—I think you've—that you’ve worked with historical figures. You have, of course, lifted J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard out of their real histories and brought them into the present day. How much research did you do to write these characters? To what degree did you feel beholden to the recorded facts of their lives?

LM: I read everything I could about them, all the biographies out there, and then I ran amok with it. I liked having a starting point in actual character; all three of these guys were exceptional people, full of integrity and doubt and complex intelligence. I couldn't have asked for better skeletons.

How did writing Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard compare to working with purely invented characters (if there is such a thing)?

LM: Less freedom and more structure, of course; and as long as I don't get hate mail from their relatives, I will be happy. The truth is I felt a kind of love for the real men these people were, to the extent I could know them based on words on a page. I hope my fictional versions didn't do them a disservice.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was shocked dumb for a few days. It was pretty much how I felt after 9/11. But, before long, my life felt normal again, just like it did after 9/11. Reading Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, it occurred to me—as it has sometimes in the past—that it might be quite possible to live through an Apocalypse and not even notice it.

LM: I think the Apocalypse is happening all around us. We go on eating desserts and watching TV. I know I do. I wish we were more capable of sustained passion and sustained resistance. We should be screaming and what we do is gossip.

Archival Interview with Lydia Millet

January 4, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Archival Interview: Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is my favorite book of 2005, and I’ll be posting an interview with its author tomorrow. First, though, I’d like to resurrect this vintage interview, conducted in 2001, when her My Happy Life was published. The latter book is, sadly, out of print, but used copies are occasionally available.

My Happy Life begins in a mental hospital. An unnamed narrator describes her realization that she has been abandoned, left behind when the institution closed. She is locked inside her room, inside an empty building, delaying starvation with toothpaste and plaster dug from the walls.

The narrator reacts to her situation with neither terror nor resignation, but with grace. While her body is trapped, her mind is free to roam. As the woman remembers scenes from her past, the reader sees a grotesque pageant of abuse, neglect, and deprivation. What the narrator sees is life: an ecstasy of love and abundance that fills her with wonder and gratitude.

With My Happy Life, Millet has crafted a strange, paradoxically uplifting parable of what it means to be human and the ways in which we construct our own experience.

How did you decide to tell this story?

Lydia Millet: In the past, I’ve tried to design my novels: I tended to get an idea and follow through on it deliberately, building a structure to support a kind of symbolic intent. And my characters are often obviously troubled or obviously untrustworthy; I like to lampoon people, and to tell the truth, the person I lampoon most often is myself.

But My Happy Life is different. It’s full of references to life as a dream, and I wrote it in a kind of waking dream, a dream of a self that is both quintessential victim and perfect hero, a self without the kind of ego that most of us have. I wanted to write a kind of semiconscious song of words in the voice of a person I could love completely, with none of my own flaws.

Your protagonist’s speech combines the awkwardness and unselfconscious poetry of someone speaking a language not her own. How did you create—or find—this voice?

LM: I wanted to achieve a voice that hovered on the margin of social conventions of expression but didn't step too far outside them. Language of course is a social animal, however inherent to the brain the structures of language may be, and the main character in My Happy Life hovers on the margins of society. So it makes sense that her way of writing is strange. Of course, she’s an avid reader—she finds comfort in books—so she has some sophistication to her syntax and vocabulary. But she's also alone most of her life. Because she's alone almost all the time, her language has a naive quality to it, and her perceptions of things aren't particularly normal perceptions. She hasn’t tested her perceptions against the perceptions of other people.

How I found the voice I can’t really explain. So much of writing is just a leap into an unknown place.

Like your last book, in My Happy Life the primary conceit is a kind of classical irony: The reader sees a very different reality than the narrator. But, in George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, this irony is often quite funny. Here, it’ heartbreaking. Did you ever want to enlighten your character, strip her of her delusions even though that would also destroy her happiness? Or do you feel that her vision of reality is just as valid as any reader's?

LM: None of us have visions of reality that are valid or invalid; we just have visions. How well we do in the world depends partly on how well our vision matches the prevailing cultural vision. In her case there’s really no match, and as a result she doesn’t fare too well in the world by conventional standards. But her vision is so strong that it sustains her through terrible adversity. And that’s what I cherish about her, and why I never considered stripping her of her delusions. Where would we be without our delusions? I’d fight anyone who tried to take mine away from me.

Was this a difficult book to write?

LM: Not at all. It was a joy.

Interview with Lydia Millet © 2001 Borders, Inc. All rights reserved.

January 3, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack