Author Q&A: Lydia Millet

  • November 1, 2011

Ashleigh Andrews Rich speaks with the author of Ghost Lights

The Independent‘s review of Ghost Lights is here.

“In Ghost Lights, Lydia Millet combines her characteristic wit and a sharp eye for the weirdness that governs human (and nonhuman) interactions. With the scathing satire and tender honesty of Sam Lipsyte and a dark, quirky, absurdist style reminiscent of Joy Williams, Millet has created a comic, startling, and surprisingly philosophical story about idealism and disillusionment, home and not home, and the singular, heartbreaking devotion of parenthood.”

Ashleigh Rich Q&A’s with Lydia Millet…

Ghost Lights is set in the early-mid 1990s, and although in many ways it reads like “present day,” there are reminders of the date throughout—dinner party discussion of Kurt Cobain, a reference to Baywatch, etc. There are also notable absences—for example, no cell phones or email. What is the significance of the time period? How would the characters’ perspectives and experiences be different if the novel was set in the present?

To be honest, I locked myself into the time frame with the first book, How the Dead Dream, because originally I’d planned the narrative spacing of the three books to be wider than it ended up being, so that the third and last installment would fall in contemporary time, thus the first had to be set back in the early ‘90s. But I changed my mind about that after the first book was written and as a result Ghost Lights got stuck in 1994.

Much of the novel takes place in Belize, and Hal’s experiences in Belize help trigger his personal, cultural, and political awakenings. Why did you choose Belize? Do you have a personal connection?

I went there with my family the Christmas after my father died. It’s an odd, sometimes placeless-feeling place with an interesting, heterogeneous identity. I found it tropical and romantic and quietly desolate at once.

The novel opens in a pet kennel, with the main character Hal reflecting on what makes a “committed pet lover.” The concept of “pet lover” is used several times throughout the novel as a distinguishing characteristic. At the end, Hal realizes that, “What a dog wants was simple: the ambient love of the world.” Does this represent your own view on pets? Do you have any pets? Do you consider yourself a “committed pet lover”?

I have pug dog and a number of belligerent-looking freshwater fish. Also two snails. I’m a pet lover, yes. And dogs are the ambient love of the world. Yes.

Hal’s daughter Casey was paralyzed in an accident. Although Hal’s thoughts repeatedly touch on “the accident” throughout the story, the references are vague and the reader doesn’t learn the full details until rather late. I know I became quite curious. Why did you withhold the details for so long?

The details aren’t crucial to the book. All that needs to be known is that Hal’s daughter is in a wheelchair and this is the shadow over his life. It’s Hal’s sense of loss that’s crucial.

You garnered a lot of recognition for your short story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. What are the main differences in your approach to planning short stories versus novels? Are you ever tempted to spin a short story into something longer? Which do you prefer to write?

I don’t plan either of them, but I prefer novels because there’s more room in them for bloviation and abstraction. Short stories have to be more efficient and are also, in my opinion, usually more superficial.

T. Stern, an important side character in Ghost Lights, played a starring role in your previous novel, How the Dead Dream. Was it difficult to write about a character that has previously been so richly developed, while restraining yourself to Hal’s limited point of view? Do you expect to re-use T. or any of the other characters in Ghost Lights in future work?

It wasn’t difficult to write from Hal’s point of view — it was pleasing. I did miss T. But there’s a third book, Magnificence, coming out next year that’s told from the point of view of Hal’s wife and Casey’s mother, Susan, and T. plays a part in that.

Ashleigh Andrews Rich is a writer living in Fairfax, Virginia. She studied English at Cornell University with a focus on the history of the novel, and works for an environmental organization in Washington, DC.

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