Interview: Lydia Millet
By Matthew Cheney
16 January 2006
Lydia Millet's recent novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, is difficult to describe, because it accomplishes so much. It is an affecting character study and a satiric romp, a terrifying investigation of nuclear politics and an absurdist comedy of manners. The basic premise of the novel is that three scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb—Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, and J. Robert Oppenheimer—come unstuck in time and jump from the middle of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. The central story, though, is of an ordinary woman who discovers the scientists, helps them adjust to their new world, and finds herself wondering if they might be able to bring meaning and purpose to her life. Just when she thinks things are going well, the scientists are discovered by millionaire New Agers, apocalyptic fundamentalists, and the news media—and so begins an impromptu race to either save or destroy the world.
I interviewed Lydia Millet in September and October of 2005.
Matthew Cheney: I discovered Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by luck, having picked it up out of a pile of review copies of books that had recently been sent, so I'm not yet familiar with your other writings. Do you consider this book a typical one for you, or is it a departure?
Lydia Millet: Every book is a departure for me, for better or worse. I don't like to do the same thing twice. Of course there are certain consistent tendencies and tics from one to the other, but enough differences, I think, to make my fiction a difficult commodity to brand. So, for example, my second novel, George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, was an accessible political comedy; the third, called My Happy Life, had an emotionally stylized tone and was really about the pathos of solitude and longing. But what both those books had in common was irony; and this one, my fifth book, is a novel with little irony in the voice, a novel that tries to explore concepts in current American life, history, and morality through fairly straight narrative.
MC: What led you to want to write a novel about nuclear weapons? Had you been involved in activism at all?
LM: No, though I used to work in fund-raising for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has a program that works to stop nuclear proliferation. I wrote the novel because I'm interested in the nuclear sublime—the power of the mushroom cloud as an image and a threat—and also in how we think and dream about the apocalypse.
MC: Why did you choose to bring Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard into the story?
LM: When you're trying to write fiction about something as heavy and unapproachable as nuclear weapons you need a human handle. And all three of those scientists were fascinating characters in their own right.
MC: I've read a short essay you wrote about visiting Hiroshima. Did you have the novel in mind when you made this visit?
LM: I went there to research the book, and that's what allowed me to bring my fictional versions of the physicists to Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are so iconic and so untouchable, the history so unspeakable, I felt I had to make a pilgrimage if I was going to write about those places, even indirectly. And I wasn't able to assimilate what took place there in 1945; I never got a grasp on it. It's not possible.
MC: Did you have any particular audience in mind when you were working on Oh Pure and Radiant Heart?
LM: I wanted the book to cross genres and I wanted it to be read by those who might not already have an intimate knowledge of the problem of proliferation and of this country's persisting closeness to nuclear warfare.
MC: Why did you want to cross genres?
LM: I wanted the book to reach across literary fiction lines into the realm of the speculative; I wanted it to be read by people who wouldn't normally read my books, people usually more interested in politics and science and fiction that deals with the imaginary than in fiction that centers on play with language. I long for a diverse readership; I want to go new places and meet new people, and I want my books to do that too.
MC: Readers are likely to wonder how much of the material about the lives of the scientists and the material about nuclear proliferation and its effects is factual. Should we read the interspersed information as true and the narrative as fiction?
LM: Yes. Although there is, in the narrative, intruded factual truth. On the lives of the scientists in particular, personal habits and pre-1945 history were all pretty much from biographies.
MC: A lot of writers would have made the scientists' followers more sympathetic so they could try to convince readers that good people believe in world peace. The followers you created seemed to me occasionally sympathetic, but often annoying and deluded. And then there are the fundamentalists. Were you ever tempted to make the followers more likeable?
LM: Are there readers out there who don't already think good people believe in world peace? Peace activists, to me, are among the most obviously sweet and painfully earnest people there are. Take John Lennon. Any reader who doesn't have at least a major soft spot for peaceniks is probably going to throw my book into the nearest garbage can anyway.
But that is a good question, whether I considered an alternate profile for the followers, most of whom I wrote as caricatures—though I have to say, in my experience, California-style counterculture folks often are caricatures of themselves, which can be both endearing and repugnant. Any negative criticism the book has gotten has zeroed in on that, though—on the essentially comic shape of these characters, which not everyone finds humorous but which is meant to be. You have to recall, it wasn't really world peace they believed in: it was the risen ghosts, or the new messiahs, or whatever they believed the scientists were. It was their own confused vision of celebrity and redemption they were clinging to in the three physicists, not the abstract notion of peace.
And for the fundamentalists, those characters are very real to me as people. I number some among my relatives, in fact. And you can't write about the apocalypse in America without writing about the political far right, which has stolen so much of America's loving and tolerant Christianity and co-opted it for its own agenda and to serve its interests—possibly the central tragedy in our country today. The left ends up looking un-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian solely because it rejects the radical evangelical model, a model I think is based on self-defense, a core defensiveness and xenophobia that makes it mean-spirited, and I hate that and I lament it.
MC: Whether something reads as a caricature or not often depends on a reader's perspective—as you say, plenty of people are self-caricatures. How can political activists rise above self-caricature?
LM: I admire activists. I think writers and the social left in general desperately needs to be more activist; our culture and in fact our world are in crisis. Activists are the people who get hard things done while people like me sit around doing what pleases us. To me, their work is an uphill battle, incremental and struggling and often thankless. That said, it does require a narrowness of focus to be effective in politics, and a willingness to do a lot of boring day-to-day slogging. Personally, I'm constitutionally incapable of that kind of focus or that kind of slogging.
MC: There's a danger when writing about any political topic in a novel that the fiction could be overwhelmed by polemic and become shrill or preachy. Was this a concern for you?
LM: I can't lie to you. I wanted to allow moments of didacticism into this book because I don't like the way only nonfiction is allowed to educate on the facts. Why shouldn't fiction do so too, when it wants to? Don't readers like facts? I think they do. Shrill or preachy though, I hope I avoided that—but you're right, it's a difficult balancing act: you want to give information without manipulation.
MC: Writers and critics often argue back and forth about whether art has a responsibility to the world or only to the writing. Do you think writers have a responsibility to the world at large?
LM: If the debate is about morality, I think writers have the same responsibility as anyone else, truckers or plumbers or accountants or joint chiefs of staff, which is not to indulge the self to the detriment of other selves. If the debate is about how esoteric a writer is supposed or allowed to be—see the current Harper's [ed. note: refers to this article]—my philosophical sympathies lie with the Ben Marcus camp rather than the Franzen one, that's for sure, though I've enjoyed the writing of both men. I myself tend to write fiction with a direct interest in contemporary sociopolitics but I certainly don't think everyone has to. I do think more Americans should read and educate themselves, to say nothing of engage in politics, and I do believe that if they don't take a more trenchant interest soon, we're all doomed; but sadly, fiction is not going to save us from doom. (If anything, the way we tell stories about ourselves to make sense of history is leading us toward doom, not away from it. I refer here to mainstream narratives, not literary fiction.) Fiction writers are primarily onlookers whose job is to evoke the beautiful, the painful, the funny, and the sublime in a way that both embraces and transcends individual experience.
MC: Being lead toward our doom by the way we tell stories is quite a concept. What's the difference for you between mainstream narratives and literary fiction?
LM: By mainstream narratives I'm thinking not only of TV and movies and pop music and video games but also of holy texts that end in apocalypse. I'm talking about all the stories we tell that give us a linear view of history, a notion that human history has to have a beginning and an end instead of going along eternally in cycles, like the seasons or the tides.
MC: Should the Manhattan Project scientists have withheld knowledge and not pursued experiments that could lead to terrible developments later, or was their responsibility only to increase knowledge?
LM: It simply would not have been possible to withhold that knowledge. Sooner or later, the bomb was inevitable. And this is the sad thing about knowledge: it's a kind of living thing, and all living things die.
MC: Knowledge is a living thing that dies?
LM: When I say knowledge is a living thing, I mean knowledge is a function of human desire; we built the atom bomb, finally, because we had a desire to know the universe through physics, and that gave us the bomb, inevitably. What we do with the knowledge we've produced as the result of our desire to know is what will determine how long a tenure we have on this planet.
MC: What books would you recommend to someone who wanted to know more about nuclear proliferation or the history of the atomic bomb? What books proved particularly helpful to you?
LM: I like the new Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus; I like Dan O'Neill's The Firecracker Boys, about an Edward Teller project to detonate a 5-megaton nuke in Alaska, and Carole Gallagher's book of photos of people affected by nuclear testing in Nevada, American Ground Zero.
MC: What's next for you?
LM: I'm writing a new novel, the first of a trilogy that follows the same character through about forty years of his life. This one's about a young businessman who has an emotional crisis and starts breaking into zoos at night.