Indi Maverick

Nonfiction as a Choice: An Interview with Lydia Millet

On the writer's new memoir 'We Loved It All' and storytelling without the artifice of filters

The writer Lydia Millet is often described in reviews as “funny,” her wit “devastating.” Both are true, and I’ll add that like a lot of funny people, her humor is born of inconvenient truths. With more than a dozen novels, she’s covered a lot of ground and attracted a bunch of accolades. But aside from a handful of book reviews and incisive op-eds in the New York Times, she hasn’t published nonfiction. These op-eds, by the way, are worth a read. Devoted to exposing the hypocrisy and depravity of politicians who, for example, would sell off sacred land through midnight budget-riders, or claim to be fighting the climate crisis while permitting domestic oil production to reach an all-time high. These articles (and her recent novels) are informed by her work at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, where she’s held a day job writing copy for twenty-five years, a lunch pail activist in the fight against extinction. Her nonfiction debut, We Loved It All, goes at the threat of extinction directly. It is described as both an “anti-memoir,” and a memoir of life—of her life, and the lives of many imperiled species with whom we share the planet. As I prepared to talk to Lydia about her newest book, my foremost question was why? Why risk venturing into a new genre, and one that requires such nakedness? Why bother in the era of autofiction, where so much revenge gets done these days in the handy guise of invention? Her response: She was courting exposure, risk, in order to “sort things through without the artifice of filters.” An answer I found at once satisfying and unsurprising from this consistently no-bullshit artist.

– Lisa Wells


Lisa Wells: To start, how did you end up writing a book of nonfiction? I’ve read your nonfiction criticism, but what prompted you to write We Loved it All in the vein of memoir? 

Lydia Millet: Writing fiction, you always have plausible deniability. In fiction you can worm out of any kind of prescriptive message that seems to hover behind the text just as you can distance yourself from the characters and events: No, that character’s not my terrible ex-boyfriend! He’s completely made up! 

I wanted to write something straight and, frankly, earnest. And try to make lucid, for myself, certain opinions about desires and problems I have. Which are also some other people’s desires and problems. Including the choice to have children and the quandary of how to not rob them of hope while also not failing to communicate to them the desperateness of our global position.

There’s an “I” in this book but there’s also a “we” that was a deliberate choice, because first, I think our culture needs to tell more stories about “us” and fewer stories about “me,” and while it’s always a risk to write about a collective—because “we” can never be everyone or pretend to be everyone, and some readers may mistake the “we” in a book for a presumptuous monolith—I think it’s a risk that needs to be taken. In this book the “we” is a demographic I belong to in the country I live in. 

I barely feel capable of thinking without writing. And I was partly just wishing to think through matters of extinction and climate change and storytelling and see how I might lace them together. To sort things through without the artifice of filters.

Lisa: It’s not a straight memoir in any sense. There’s a layer about your life, then these intergenerational layers about your kids and your family of origin. And then, of course, all of these wonderful and terrible vignettes about the other species you’ve encountered in your work. It all compiles and coheres in a way that resembles life, if not linearly. So I wonder how you approached the construction?

Lydia: Originally it was much longer, sort of a sprawling bestiary. I had to weed out—and I felt really guilty doing it—but I had to weed out so many critters. And plants: the book has too few plants in it and I regret that. But I had to be the mercenary as I was cutting it down because it had started to feel like the homemade encyclopedia of animals my brother made when we were kids. It got whittled down so it wouldn’t overwhelm.

I also cut out a lot of my own life. Because the original structure was to tell of personal encounters, and every time I mentioned an animal or plant in my scene-setting—even a common household plant like a Ficus or the lilac bush in our yard or the maples on our street—I’d go into a disquisition on its natural history. So it became a bit of a junk pile of anecdotes. I had to find some way to try to distill it. I read your book Believers when I’d been writing this for a couple of years and was so delighted to find a sensibility I was really at home with. It can be hard to find things in the culture that combine a rigorous aesthetics of language with the concerns that we’re articulating. A lot of times when I read about animals those accounts are written with either a sort of generic journalistic tone or National Geographic tone. And neither of those are bad, but it does feel like American culture, in particular, has lagged in connecting mass extinction with human identity. In places like the United Kingdom, for example, there’s a more mainstream understanding that extinction threatens everything that’s best about Homo sapiens as well as the complex of nature itself.

Read Lisa’s essay “Promised Lands” here.

Lisa: I know you don’t want to frame it in ethical terms, but personally, I think it’s kind of a dodge if you don’t have any skin in the game. But when you do you let your subjectivity in, you risk getting spanked for it. 

Lydia: That’s a clean way to put it.

Lisa: It’s interesting to learn that you had to cull so many plants and animals from the final draft. I think the reader will probably feel those missing pages in the book, not as absence, but as a kind of ghostly subtext. There are so many wonderful creatures present in the book. Like the worms who learn a task, have their heads cut off, then regrow their heads, but can still remember how to do the task. 

Lydia: Planarian flatworms, yes. Those guys!

Lisa: And the courtly male octopuses that hand their packet of a sperm to the females willing to accept it! That was so wonderful. I think Adam Phillips said art should increase the available store of reality, and I feel like that’s what this book does. Are the creatures in the book favorites of yours through your work at the Center for Biological Diversity, or just from being a lover of the greater-than-human world, or was this novel research for the book?

Lydia: Well, you go down rabbit holes. And some of this animal knowledge is just ambient. Everywhere, in media, you can find charismatic vignettes about animal life. Since, I don’t know, the seventies or maybe even the sixties and nature shows…but back in those days you had to be a hoarder or constant library-goer to have access to the kind of nature footage. Now we can bring up in a second.

Some of the splendor of the internet of animals is illusion, of course. For that same internet of animals is destructive and exploitative, enabling much of the wildlife trade, for example. Still, a vast bestiary exists that we can touch on. And then there are the scientists who love a single species, a single subspecies, a single population of a critter, and they’re so delightful too, these biologist-geeks dedicated to one organism. I love them so much. In the book, I mentioned an anglerfish guy. Dr. Theodore Pietsch.

There has to be an unknown world out there. There have to be unknown woods that are beyond our grasp. Creatures we haven’t yet met.

Lisa: I think your comment was: you don’t love anglerfish, but you love the man’s love of anglerfish. 

Lydia: And it’s not that I don’t love them, but let’s face it, they’re on the homely side. It’s worth a google. There’s a male anglerfish who’s a parasite on the female, so tiny he’s like a pimple on her comparatively giant body. And his tiny body is composed of mostly testes. The world is full of poignancy.

Lisa: I’m suspicious of writers overvaluing their impact, but it does seem like one of the possibilities of following your own kind of idiosyncratic delight, in this way, is that you’re communicating the beauty but also the strangeness and fundamental otherness of those creatures. It bears the potential to penetrate the callus and excite an otherwise numb reader who maybe wouldn’t normally give a shit. Was that part of your hope?

Lydia: Yeah, I hold it to be self-evident that we need our own ignorance to be alive. I don’t mean willful ignorance, just that we have a deep need for these huge lacunae in our knowledge, to have a reason to get up in the morning. There has to be an unknown world out there. There have to be unknown woods that are beyond our grasp. Creatures we haven’t yet met. Obviously, empirically, it seems impossible that we would ever live in an entirely described universe. But I also think that as we erase diversity, we shrink. We shrink that intact universe more and more and limit our options for unknowability. 

Our curiosity is crucial to who we are. I think where our curiosity meets what it does not yet know, what it has not yet encountered, that’s where life is really vivid and where we are ourselves are splendid—in that position of wanting to know and not yet knowing. And with a denuded natural world, we foreclose those possible future moments of love and glory for ourselves as sentient creatures. The existence of otherness gives us a will to live, whether or not we know it.

Delve into this exploration of memory, existence, and meaning today!
 

Lisa: I’ve wondered if the renewed obsession with extraterrestrials, and even psilocybin, is an attempt to recuperate mystery somehow. It feels to me like a hunt for…I don’t mean novelty in the cheap sense, but—

Lydia: In the most capacious way. I think that’s right. There are so many forms into which we can project that desire for neural novelty. And some of them are purely fantastic. Some are about consciousness alteration, and some are just about what exists in the world. I have nothing against consciousness-altering, but I think self-manipulation shouldn’t always be where we have to go. We should be able to explore beyond ourselves and find beings that exist on their own terms. Fully outside our brains. 

It’s a hellscape, the idea that all we might have for adventure could be the alteration of our own minds and selves. The version of the future where all we have for richness and life is what we create with technology is a grim picture, not only for the other creatures, but for us.

Lisa: It strikes me that you would have to have experienced a kind of transcendent encounter with the greater-than-human world to even know what the counterpoint is. I sometimes wonder, and I don’t mean this in a “kids these days” way, even amongst my cohort, even the pre-iPhone people—I don’t know how many people have had the opportunity. I was lucky, and it seems like you were too. 

Lydia: I think you can find it in such small things when you’re a kid. Tell me if you think I’m wrong, but my observation has been, kids are not that impressed by epic landscapes. They’re much more impressed by the face of a cat. That has to do partly with how their brains are working and growing and with the fact that you need time to be able to experience the sublime.

In a show I was watching recently, one of the many interstellar-type scenarios that abound right now, the world had sadly exploded or whatever, and there was a spaceship out there containing the human multitudes. Then they get thrown off course and will never reach their destination, so all they have is the ship. Which contains a VR theater that everyone goes into in where beautiful landscapes of Earth are evoked. And of course, they’re set to music, and people are experiencing these as though they still exist, these beautiful mossy woods when really there are none left. 

But how would that even register with them as meaningful? If they’d never been in the woods in their bodies? You have to live through those moments so that the sight or smell or sound of something establishes a kind of interior deep time you can return to. 

Lisa: There’s a continuity of recollection. 

Lydia: Right. For us to feel a sense of timelessness or awe, I think we have to have walked in those woods before. It’s in the relationship to memory. 

Lisa: It’s funny because it’s sci-fi, but it’s actually a decent description of our current moment. It’s like the mossy woods still exist, but many people only encounter them on a screen.

Lydia: Say we’re urban people and we don’t leave the city very much—still, the idea that there are forests out there that might be roadless, with unexplored reaches…this is another subject, maybe, but the existence of wildness is important to many of us. Just the existence of it, even if we don’t identify as nature people. The notion that not every square foot is penetrated by humans is crucial to a healthy psyche.

The existence of wildness is important to many of us. Just the existence of it, even if we don’t identify as nature people. The notion that not every square foot is penetrated by humans is crucial to a healthy psyche.

Lisa: I don’t know that I’ve thought about the problem in terms of imaginative loss, in quite that way. It makes me want to ask, what else do you think is missing from the conversation around climate change and species loss?

Lydia: There’s a reference in the book to a bestselling climate author who rightly stresses the urgency of fighting climate change but in the same breath decries attempts to grant personhood rights to other lifeforms as ridiculous. And I think he’s very wrong on that point and in fact quite typical of the kind of paternalistic human exceptionalism that got us into this mess in the first place. 

Granting the right to life to other animals and to plants, along with rivers and forests, is a brilliant idea. It’s still just emerging in national and international law, but it comports with the religions and cultures of many Indigenous peoples. And believing in the inherent superiority of humankind over other forms of life is on a direct continuum with colonialism and white supremacy. It doesn’t compete with social justice, as this writer implied in his book—it’s part of social justice.

Lisa: Granting is a legal term, but it seems to me that what you’re doing in that case is simply acknowledging reality. Acknowledging that other species have their own wills and designs beyond being subordinated to our “uses” for them. 

On another note, I don’t know that it occurred to me as I was reading, but now that I hear you talk about this—it’s like that quality of mystery and adventure persisting in the world feels apiece with your eccentric family of origin. I don’t want to trivialize your family, but there’s something of the rambling, storybook, Wes Anderson-vibe in your description of childhood. Your parents have all these languages and pets and obscure interests and skill sets. 

Lydia: That’s true.

Lisa: I wondered if that whetted your appetite for, or even established an expectation of, a kind of heterogeneity of expression. Peacocking for pleasure rather than the teleological view. You know what I’m saying? There’s a love of creaturely expression that is non-utilitarian and exists for its own sake.

Lydia: My mother has that love of creatures and my father had it too. He was such a 19th-century person…you might say Renaissance man, but for some reason that sounds pretentious to me. He just had such an odd diversity of tastes. They were unified in him somehow, but at the same time all over the place. I feel like this should be a time when all of us should be—at least in terms of the data streaming into us—diverse in our interests. But somehow, we’re not. Instead, we’re constantly reproducing our already-established selves in the content we receive.

Lisa: Through algorithms.

Lydia: Yeah, that feedback loop function. Instead of seeing the new, we see iterations of the same thing we preferred two years ago, whether we’re ten years old or forty. And it’s the ten-year-old part that’s more alarming. It’s more alarming to think that kids might be, without ever recognizing it, constraining their own interests.

The version of the future where all we have for richness and life is what we create with technology is a grim picture, not only for the other creatures, but for us.

Lisa: You write some about your kids in this book. I wonder how much species loss and climate change were on your radar when you decided to have kids? And if so, what was that calculation?

Lydia: Yeah, it certainly was. I think that I just overrode rationality. I have deep gratitude to those who choose not to reproduce. And yet I’m not among them. Of course, I adore my children, as we tend to, and wouldn’t wish them undone. But I think it’s a supremely irrational act to have children now. Yes, we often have a primal urge to reproduce, but there’s also a way in which it’s maladaptive to have children. It makes you easy prey. We see that in the natural world: you’re never more vulnerable as, say, a mother bird than when you’re feigning injury to draw a predator away from your nest. And all of us as parents are in that position of vulnerability. Certain demographics much more so than others. 

People talk quite obliviously about the selflessness of having children, when really, that’s the land of opposites. It’s selfish at the beginning, in an arguably perverse way, because as soon as you commit that selfish act of having a kid you’re also forced into a position of daily self-abnegation. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t selfish in the first place. 

Lisa: One of the ways in which I think my own decision to have a child was selfish, and maybe this is true for a lot of people, and touches on what you’re saying about how you’re rewarded by the culture—a child solves the problem of meaning. Or at least part of the problem of meaning.

Lydia: Exactly. Yeah.

Lisa: So maybe meaning is where the emphasis should be, rather than putting it all on the child and the question of whether or not you have one.

It reminds me of a line that comes early in the book. You say, “What we actually need may be something less vague and more attainable; an embrace of the real over a constantly deferred ideal, an engagement with the precious and finite time given us.” 

You’re talking there in contrast to “happiness.” It reminded me of something the analyst James Hollis said, and I’m paraphrasing, but he said people are always showing up in therapy asking, What do I have to do to be happy? And he tells them: Happiness might not be the point. Meaning is more to the point.

Lydia: Right.

Lisa: But yours is also good advice for activists. This is my long-winded way of saying that when we get so crushed and overwhelmed by objectively overwhelming problems, I think some of it has to do with our attachment to the feeling that the ideal is constantly deferred, by an onslaught of powers that prevent action from happening.

Lydia: Yeah, yeah. Thinking of things in terms of meaning is great. I think some people also get bogged down by really limiting, restricted notions of what meaning means. What meaning implies—does it have to imply God, does it have to imply a grand design or some linear purpose or something? No, is the answer to that. 

If you can conceive of meaning in a way that is alive and vigorous and splendid… part of it is, we have these mainstream, tacitly accepted things to long for, happiness or love or freedom, that we never bother to define. It’s shocking how common it is, not to have had that recognition, that happiness isn’t really a thing. Contentedness might be a thing, but that version of happiness that also signals some kind of linear completion? That’s a chimera.

Lisa: I love how you phrased it. Meaning as vigorous aliveness.

It’s a privilege to feel and sense the world at all. The fact that we have these senses is just fucking awesome.

Lydia: It’s not an equivalency type of meaning. It’s not a definition type of meaning. It’s something else. I think that’s a good thing to say to people who ask about activism and hope.

It has to do with whether you’re able to feel fully where you are at this time and attach yourself to that with excitement. You get to be here. It’s a privilege to feel and sense the world at all. The fact that we have these senses is just fucking awesome. 

Lisa: The senses, man. They fucking rule.

Lydia: They rule.

Lisa: Oh, speaking of, I wanted to ask about coldness. Early in the book, you say, after having children, you no longer found it possible to be cold. Can you tell me about the coldness? The ways that it did or did not serve your writing?

Lydia: When I was a young adult, say in my twenties, I had a certain kind of hard, dismissive skepticism of certain people. It was all about defining what I wasn’t, and who I wasn’t, say what books or music I didn’t like. You’re sort of defining yourself against what you reject when you’re younger, right? It’s normal. In writing, for me, that took the shape of writing satirical novels with a broad kind of humor and a shooting fish-in-a-barrel aspect. Where things are easy targets because your empathy is limited and it’s easy to be cruel in order to laugh. You’re usually taking aim at someone or something and objectifying them. 

But also in my life, socially—it’s going to sound hokey or sentimental, but especially when my kids were really little, I would look at adults I would glancingly meet, that maybe I instinctively didn’t like, and think of them as a former child. With someone out there desperately wanting to protect that creature for their whole life. We’re all so vulnerable. Just former children. So I saw everything, for a while, through that maternal prism. 

Lisa: You didn’t lose your skepticism entirely. I think this is the beauty of the balance you’ve arrived in. You still turn the knife of some terrible fact, but with love. You never lecture or pull your punches. I imagine it was a hard-won balance. 

Lydia: Thank you for thinking that. Ultimately, I want my friends to be funny and I want to amuse myself to some degree. And if you completely lose the power to objectify, then you’re not going to be funny, and you’re not going to have funny friends. And people being funny is ultimately their redemption, isn’t it?

Lisa: I’m not sure, but I’m charmed by the suggestion… Okay, last question: Do you think writers have a place in the fight to stop the annihilation and if so, what is it?

Lydia: Probably to make the imagined manifest. To perform acts of language that extend our imaginations into a vaster time and space. And allow us to see beyond our own personal worlds into the lives and worlds of others.


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Lydia Millets new book, We Loved It All,is her first work of nonfiction. She is the author of over a dozen novels and short story collections, including Dinosaurs and A Children’s Bible, many of which are concerned with the relationships between people and other animals. Millet is also a columnist, essayist, and book reviewer and since 1999 has worked as a writer and editor at the Center for Biological Diversity. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.

 

 

Lisa Wells is a poet and nonfiction writer. She’s the author of Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, a finalist for the 2022 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Her collection of poetry, The Fix, won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and a new collection, The Fire Passage, won the Levis Prize in Poetry and will be published by Four Way Books in early 2025. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.