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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


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