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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


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