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An Interview With Author Lydia Millet: ‘LA’s Not an Intellectual City’

Author Lydia Millet is funny, just like her books. She has a frank way of corresponding that could be classified both as curt and charming. Blasé Pascal once said, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter,” and I would say that Millet seems to exemplify these words had I not seen with my own eyes how quickly she responds to questions with very few revisions.

Her website is unconventionally straightforward and features a large picture of a dead bird on top of an egg while at the bottom of the screen small quips like, “The British were long gone,” and, “Now and forever you are not forgiven,” appear and disappear only to be replaced by another silly line.  She seems to be brief by nature, a trait that is most likely responsible for how many funny moments there are to be found in even her most poignant novels.

Indeed, Millet is a woman of many talents. She has a BA in interdisciplinary studies with highest honors in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master’s degree from Duke University (clearly sports rivalries are of no importance!). Her third novel, My Happy Life, won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, and she has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

I chat with Millet about how her new satirical novel Mermaids In Paradise relates to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, her quirky character Chip – who has a strange obsession with the Midwest but never has been or even wants to go there – and sloths. Yes, as in the slow moving mammal that often brings actress Kristen Bell to tears.

Millet, Lydia © Ivory Orchid Photography

[Image: Ivory Orchid Photography]



Hi Lydia, thanks for taking the time! Have you always wanted to be a writer and when did you know for sure that you wanted to write novels?


In college. I quit singing opera then and needed a new career path — and I’d always read and written. It was always what I did.


Wow, opera – you always expect authors to have majored in English! I do remember my friend who studied opera had to take the beginner classes for French, Italian, and German, so I suppose opera is kind of like studying both language and the voice in one. Who is your favorite author then?


They’re as numerous as the stars!


Fair enough! Your books often focus on interesting and sometimes strange topics such as George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, a story about a woman who is obsessed with the former president. There’s no doubt they would make a unique and visually interesting movie! Which of your novels do you think would be best adapted to film?


Why, this one, of course. Or my books for children and teenagers. Pills and Starships, say. That just came out this summer.

Pills and Starships follows a young girl in a post-apocalyptic world where people buy vacation death packages induced by the dire reality of a planet ravaged by global warming. More | Buy



If you had to sum up your newest release, Mermaids in Paradise, in 3 phrases what would they be? 


Well of course, I write novels precisely to avoid such summations. But I’ll take a crack at it just for you. Newlyweds fly to tropical island, discover mermaids, and end up fighting soldiers and corporate profiteers to save them.


Right, and in Mermaids In Paradise, the newlyweds are named Chip and Deb. They make me think of newly engaged Brad and Janet from Rocky Horror Picture Show pre-transformation, except modern and very SoCal. Did you choose classic names on purpose?


Yes, I like plain, archetypal names. I don’t like names that are clever or made-up sounding. Names and other proper nouns shouldn’t distract from the language. And Brad and Janet are a perfect analog!

Barry Bostwick as Brad & Susan Sarandon as Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show


Tim Curry is sensational in it as well, I suppose his analog in your book are the mystical mermaids! When I read your character Deb, I immediately imagined her with the voice and demeanor of actress Kristen Bell. Do you have a vision of who would play each character if it were to become a feature film?


In general, I don’t have it cast. I don’t tend to picture my characters as actors and actresses. But Kristen Bell would be kind of great, I have to admit. Good idea. I’m for any woman who loves sloths. And Channing Tatum would be a hilarious Chip, though I can’t take credit for that notion — my editor Tom Mayer hit on Channing.



Ha! That’s fantastic! I’m thrilled you brought up the Kristen Bell sloth video — it has to be one of the greatest things to come out of the Ellen Degeneres Show! On a random note, have you been to Weeki Wachee State Park, where you can see “live mermaids” in Florida? I used to go when I would visit my grandparents and it seems like it would have been the ultimate research spot!


The closest I’ve come is the Okefenokee. I fear those Weeki Wachees aren’t my kind of mermaids.

[Image: Amusing Planet] Weeki Wachee Mermaids performing for the crowd


[laughs] To be fair, Weeki Wachee is a little cheesy – but cut me a break I was only 8 years old! You’ve written 13 books in total, some about very obscure topics. How do you think of the concept for each? Are they inspired from real life or more from imagination?


The latter. Think/concept: I usually make up a title first, and then the rest happens without too violent a struggle.


What about irony? Irony can be difficult to write. Do you have to meticulously plan moments of irony or do they happen naturally in your writing process?


I meticulously plan nothing. Irony is more a reflex than the result of careful scheming….


You’ve lived in a diverse set of places, from Toronto, to attending university in North Carolina, then to LA, and now Arizona. Does your place of residence come into play when you’re writing or are they extraneous?


I tend to set most of my books in Southern California, though I moved away decades ago. It’s an obsessive tic. And I still come to LA often — my brother and sister live there.


Interesting. You mentioned in your interview with the LA Times that a certain superficiality is meant to be present in “Mermaids In Paradise.” Since Deb and Chip are very engrossed in Southern California, from Chip’s obsession with the Midwest without actually wanting to go there, to both of their families being Cali based, the superficiality and California seem silently linked. Did the superficial nature of LA leave an impression on you or is that just a stereotype you played off of?


Well, most stereotypes have a backbone of truth, right? LA’s not an intellectual city when it comes to books, that’s for sure. It’s not an intellectual city, period. It has other things going for it. Great art. Movies. A better sense of humor than San Francisco.

[Image: Goodfon] Los Angeles at Night


[laughs] I hate to admit it, but I sort of whole heartedly agree with your take on SF’s sense of humor. Have you ever been to the Midwest? It seems like you’ve lived everywhere but there. When you went, did you meet any people who actually do embody Chip’s idea of a “Nebraskan man?”


Sure I’ve visited, but I’ve never lived there. What’s the expression — some of my best friends are Nebraskan? It’s actually very true, one of my oldest and best friends in the world grew up in Omaha. But honestly, I’ve met more men like Chip himself than like the Midwesterners he imagines.


I guess we’ll have to plan a hunt for the real “Nebraskan man,” maybe it can be a reality TV show! Now in my TV announcer voice: “it’s time for some rapid fire questions!”

Brussels sprouts or bean sprouts?


Dogs or Cats?


Harry Potter or Twilight?

At gunpoint only: Harry

Ha! Mindy Kaling or Chelsea Handler?


Chocolate or Peanut Butter?


New York or LA?


Tolstoy or Murakami?

Clarice Lispector

Math or Science?


Lydia Millet lives in Tuscon, Arizona with her two children. She is best known for her dark sense of humor, stylistic versatility, and political edge. You can buy her newest novel Mermaids In Paradise by clicking on the title. 


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