'Keeping the Unknowable Alive': A Conversation with Lydia Millet

by Katy Yocom



Lydia Millet has written more than a dozen books of literary fiction, most recently the novel A Children’s Bible (W.W. Norton, 2020), a National Book Award finalist. Her story collection Fight No More received an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019. Other titles include the novels Sweet Lamb of Heaven (2016) and Mermaids in Paradise (2014). Millet, who lives with her family in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona, has been a Guggenheim fellow and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Since 1999 she has also worked as a writer and editor at the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization dedicated to fighting species extinction and climate change.




Alternately funny and appalling—and sometimes both at once—A Children’s Bible is a hurricane of a book: a slim parable of climate disaster that begins when an epic storm descends upon the summer rental of a group of middle-aged friends and their children. The storm and its aftermath lay bare the lazy solipsism of the older generation, while the children, realizing they are on their own, take on a life-and-death fight of truly biblical proportions.





Katy Yocom: Given your work as an editor and staff writer at the Center for Biological Diversity and given the abundance of excellent nonfiction being written now about the environment, climate change, and the flora and fauna of our planet, one might assume your writing would fall somewhere on the vast continuum of nonfiction. Instead, fiction—in both its long and short forms—is your chosen genre. What draws you to fiction? What does it grant you as a writer that nonfiction doesn’t?


Lydia Millet: Whatever I might say about that could probably also be said about other forms of writing and art, right? I went to fiction because growing up I read it more than anything else, so I felt freest and most at home there. Never had to make painstaking measurements, like a scientist. Never had to pretend to be fair-minded, like a journalist. Never had to read long, dull texts, like an academic.


Still, I’m writing a book now that’s not fiction, and I’m happy doing that. I mean, like most people probably, I wish I had a string of lives, to live in differently. For me, it’d be lives of making different things. I prefer not to imagine a life where I didn’t make something. But that’s true of most of us, the dreaming of other lives—we read about the multiverse, or magic, or epics with bawdy wenches and men with good pecs, we watch the movies and play the videogames. Whenever we possibly can we immerse ourselves in made-up characters and worlds. Some call it escapism, but it’s far more. Sometimes we want to escape, and why not; other times, not at all. We like to inhabit others, insofar as we can. This is a good urge. Of communion, empathy, solidarity. And since we don’t seem to have infinite lives with which to actually be others, a good tactic is to imagine it.

KY: Given your subject matter, how do you keep your narratives from falling into didacticism? Are there particular issues of craft or technique that come into play in avoiding that territory, or conversely red flags that tell you you’re nearing the line?

LM: I used to think didacticism was the cardinal sin, but now I think the sin’s more like pedantry. Or tedium. In theory, you can say anything in any form if you say it with enough authority. And sometimes you don’t even need authority—look at recent politics. Sometimes all you need is a bullhorn and a massive ego. In fiction, finally I think the line between polemic and good prose is mostly an aesthetic instinct, though it doubtless has formal aspects rhetoricians parse out better than I could. For me, if there’s itchiness in the rereading, discomfort and embarrassment, that’s a tipoff.


KY: One of the things I admire in your fiction—your novels especially—is your fearlessness. A Children’s Bible tells a story of biblical scope and a cast of characters numbering in the dozens, yet at less than 250 pages, it’s quite a slim novel. For a fiction writer, attempting that feat seems like it would take nerves of steel. How did you fit such a big topic into so few pages while still writing something that feels like a novel? Did you have to make narrative sacrifices or trade-offs?

LM: In fact, I did trim some characters out of the book as I went. I had more at first, but it was too many. As I recall, my friend Jenny told me I had to kill some off, though it also may have been my agent, Maria. But whoever said it, I knew she was right. This was about as many people as I could fit on my little boat. And I think they only fit because I made them each so thin.

KY: Then there’s the relentless raising of stakes, which, again, feels fearless. What are you accessing in yourself in order to write like that? And do you have the whole arc in your head (or in outline) before you begin to write, or do you follow your nose?

LM: More the nose thing. There’s momentum, once you get going, and the goal is usually not to let the line get too slack . . . I’m not sure I completely succeeded there. It’s a tough one. Moments of slackness are hard to avoid, and some are even desirable, but you don’t want so much slack that the line gets muddy and frayed on the ground.

KY: As a person of science, you write narratives that contain enormous amounts of mystery and the unexplainable. A Children’s Bible isn’t the first book in which you’ve interwoven religious themes and imagery with science and technology. In this book, you have a biblical flood, an ark, crucifixion imagery, a savior who performs miraculous healing, sheep and goats, and much more. How does conversation between faith—or, if you prefer, religious mythology, or mystery—and science spark heat for you as a writer?

LM: I’m always interested in the different forms of the sublime, the ineffable, the mystical, or in scientific terms the unknown and maybe unknowable. Keeping the unknowable alive, respecting what can’t be known by us as well as what we know and the excitement of that discovery, seems like such a crucial part of the delight of living.


KY: There’s a sense of paucity that imbues the lives of your characters, despite their (for a time) ready access to all manner of consumer goods, up to and including mansions and yachts. That paucity seems to manifest around meaning, connection, and care for the world. I get the sense you think we’ve been bought off.

LM: Right! There you go. It doesn’t have to be a grand conspiracy—sometimes what looks like conspiracy is just coincidence or convenience or the accumulation of forces and materials—for it to be true that the dominant profiteers of our age have bribed us into submission with stuff. Lulled us to sleep through the satiation of gluttony. The companies that are running the world into the ground, in particular in the petrochemical sector, which includes fossil fuels and utilities and plastics, but also agribusiness and timber and so on, can get away with murder as long as they keep the troughs full.


KY: There’s a quote from The Great Gatsby circulating on social media that could be describing the parents in the book, and by extension, late capitalism as a whole: “They were careless people . . . they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” The parents in A Children’s Bible are more or less indistinguishable from one another in their utter disregard for anything beyond their own numbing mechanisms of drink, drugs, and sex. They’re constantly losing track of their own children. There’s the sense that they’ve never tried to make a difference in the world, that they were in thrall to their consumer culture and entitlement all along. And the contempt the children in the book feel for their parents is palpable. Do you think the current generation of children will grow up to be different from their parents? More committed to saving the planet and finding a way beyond consumerist culture? Or will they turn their eyes back to their screens at some point and numb out, as previous generations did?

LM: It may be our children, or it may be our grandchildren, but no, they won’t have the luxury of being the way we were. And are. Things will be crumbling and they’ll have to scrabble to hold on.


KY: Your work at the Center for Biological Diversity, dealing daily with the realities of global ecological disaster, must keep you constantly balancing on the knife edge between hope and despair. How do you keep moving forward, and how does your writing fit into that?


LM: Working on these things and writing about them are what keep me hopeful. That’s why I think engagement itself, action itself is the key to hope. As well as the key to change.


Katy Yocom is the author of Three Ways to Disappear, a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, winner of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, First Horizon Award, and other prizes. Her words have appeared in LitHub, Salon.com, Terrain.org, Necessary Fiction, American Way (the American Airlines in-flight magazine), and elsewhere. She serves as associate editor of Good River Review and associate director of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Find her online at katyyocom.com.


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