The Book Show #1665 - Lydia Millet | WAMC

The Book Show #1665 - Lydia Millet

Jun 16, 2020

Joe Donahue:  In an isolated estate on the Atlantic coast storms are brewing, waters are rising, and the world as we know it is inexorably shifting. This is the reality of Lydia Millet’s new novel, “A Children's Bible”, where a pack of kids and their middle aged parents are coexisting at this summer estate. The novel turns steadily darker as climate collapse and societal breakdown encroach. Millet is a senior editor at the Center for Biological Diversity, who regularly tackles environmental issues in her op-eds for the “New York Times”. She has long foregrounded the costs of climate change in her fiction, and “A Children's Bible” with scenes of quarantine and societal breakdown is no different. She has written 12 works of fiction including “Sweet Lamb of Heaven”, “Mermaids in Paradise” and “Love in Infant Monkeys”. 

Again, her latest is “A Children's Bible” and it's a pleasure to welcome Lydia Millet to this week's Book Show. Thank you very much for being with us. What an honor to have you on the program.

Lydia Millet: I am happy to be here.

What brought you to this particular subject? And I guess I'm interested most in the idea of these two camps, the kids, the parents?

Well, you know, I think there's this I've been observing in sort of public life in my own life with my own kids in the past couple of years, that there's a real generational schism around climate change and extinction, around those emergencies and our responses to them socially, as generations. And what I see more and more is this kind of righteous anger of young people at those of us who are older and who have sort of failed to safeguard their future on a on a planetary scale. And I've always felt that there should be more anger and more sort of rage and fear and the culture about these kind of threats to our life support. And finally, I'm starting to see that in young people, young people in their 20s, 30s, and teenagers. Greta Thunberg, made this more visible but even before she got so famous, you know, it was it was really out there this sort of palpable anger and disappointment of the young. And so I wanted to write a book about that, because there hasn't really been much literary fiction that touched on that. And I think it's a real force to be reckoned with.

Give us a sense of these parents. They come together, they are college friends, and they come together to this estate somewhere on the Atlantic coast. What is their relationship to one another?

Well, they're sort of the kind of people that I know and the kind of parent that I am, although I hope I'm slightly better than some of the parent characters in this book, slightly less self-indulgent in visible ways, but they really are kind of a certain level of elite, sort of arty elite from the urban, generally from the coasts, and they're not super rich but they're well-off enough to be able to afford this kind of robber baron mansion for the summer. They're liberals. They're not climate change deniers, but they are complacent and they wish to go along as they have been going.

I just want to touch on this idea of them being well off. And what's so interesting in this book is that you have the kids meet up with other kids who are coming off of a yacht, and they're like a super wealthy and there's really that class divide between the well-off and the really super rich.

I think they're sort of the 1% and then the nano fraction of the 1% of the 1% right, who are the super-rich and who really are siloed and really might be protected at least initially physical sense in a chaos scenario, because they command so much wealth and so many resources that they're insulated. But then there are just those who are sort of upper middle class and extremely privileged compared to most people in the world, but still living properly in society within a social whole that they're dependent on. And I think that's where most people, even the privileged fall so that we don't realize, I think, or at least haven’t until this pandemic, how dependent we are on each other. We've sort of cherished this myth of independence, particularly here in the United States, really the myth of individual autonomy. But it turns out that we're intricately linked to everyone around us and really, I think we, some of us anyway, have really come to see the truth of that over the past couple of months. Just how dependent we are, just how vulnerable we are. And so you know that even those of us who live sort of in the middle class and don't have to worry about where our next meal is coming from are profoundly interlinked to the rest of what is.

Our narrator for this novel is Eve. Do you give a specific age for her? We know she has a learner's permit so I had her around 16.

I think that's about right.

Tell us a little bit about her.

Well, she's clearly precocious and preternaturally adult and mature for a 16 year old, although I have met some very mature 16 year olds, so I don't think she's a fantastic construction. I think she's essentially realistic. But she is highly articulate and highly perceptive. And really in this book, it's the teenagers and the children, because there's younger children like her little brother, Jack as well in this kind of gang of kids. It's really they who have the wisdom and the parents who are blind.

You write early on in the novel, Eve tells us. “Yes, it was known that we couldn't stay young. But it was hard to believe somehow. Say what you like about us, our legs and arms were strong and streamlined. I realized that now, our stomachs were taught and unwrinkled our foreheads similar when we ran, if we chose to, we ran like flashes of silk. We had the vigor of those freshly born, relatively speaking. And no we wouldn't be like this forever. We knew it on a rational level. But the idea that those garbage like figures that tottered around the great house were a vision of what lay in store, Hell no. Had they had goals once a simple sense of self-respect? They shamed us they were a cautionary tale.” That does take a very mature mind to kind of figure that out.

And I remember when I was her age, just seeing anyone who was not my own age really, who was older than I was as somehow compromised and in a different category, seeing older people somehow as objects. And when I and those my own age were the subjects you know, we were the subjects of the story. And those who were older, were sort of, you know, I understood they had authority, and that they were part of this immense machine that I wasn't part of, but I also I think, dismiss them in a way dismiss those who were older as, as somehow damaged and less than vigorous. I was sort of remembering that when I wrote this, I think there's a quality of super humanness. You can have at a certain moment in adolescence, and that was what I wanted to capture there.

Lydia Millet is our guest on this week's Book Show. The new novel is “A Children's Bible”. It is published by Norton. I found the relationship interesting because the kids get along and understand each other and respect each other's peculiarities more than the adults do. We don't learn a tremendous amount about the relationship with the adults. But they just seem to I think you say early on. You say that one of the adults non-joked after this, we'll see each other next at someone's funeral. So they don't get together a lot. They were friends in college, as I mentioned, but there isn't the depth that these kids really adapt. Yes, in extreme circumstances, but even before that starts to unfold.

I think kids and adolescents have these really close, almost pathologically intimate relationships sometimes. And I don't really mean that in a negative way, you know the term pathological because they're really alive and vital and real. And for some of us, I think the quality of that friendship is never recaptured. When we grow older, the depth of the connections I remember my friends in high school and of course, this was before email and texting and all that stuff. But we used to write each other these ridiculously long letters all the time. And this was more something that the girls did and less something that the boys did. But we would write even though we saw each other all day, every day, we would still write each other these pages and pages of single spaced letters. We had to, we just had to express ourselves to each other and I've talked to men, many men actually who feel that they fail to ever have the kind of intimate, like relationships with other men, just friendship relationships with other men, as adults that they had when they were teenage boys, or young boys that they've never been able to return to the strength of that connection. And I think, even for those of us who have who are fortunate to have really close friendships, as adults, lasting friendships, there's something magical that can be had when we're younger in the nature of that bond that we draw away from, as we create our own households and families. You know, I think we pull away from the outside in certain ways from what's outside the domestic for us, and there's sadness there in that loss for me.

When you speak of that loss, it reminds me of there's a running joke or a running theme in the book where the kids are having this game as to whose parent is whose and not wanting to, you know, who will be the last, the last standing as to not know who their parent is among this group because nobody really wants to, to identify too much with any of these people.

Right, exactly. They don't want to be linked with their parents. They don't want to be seen as sort of a part of their actual families. Yeah, they want to, you know, I remember for a moment and really just a moment, because I had a pretty happy teenage hood, teenager hood, I don't know what the word is. But I do remember this one moment where I just looked at my mother in a public place and did not want to be associated with her. It was just so you know, that moment when you're sort of detaching and leaving that identification behind right. And in the book, there's an extreme version of that where the kids are just so repulsed by their parents that the game they play is an exaggeration of that repulsion. But finally, also, you know, the thing is their devices have been taken away from them. So they don't have that sort of screen to absorb their interest in. So they think up these structures, these games they can play, that have an edge to them that hold their attention until events sort of take over and are foregrounded, and the game becomes more of a background.

I found that to be interesting, because you would think these are parents who would be basically like, okay, well, there's the screen, go sit in front of it and leave us alone.

Right. And I think the parents are, it's actually evidence of their effort at some form of social cohesion that they want their children to know each other. And I think the assumption is here that if that they won't know each other over the course of the summer if they still have their devices because they'll just gravitate back toward the digital world that each of them has separately. And so the parents are in their own way, a way that doesn't work for them, but does actually kind of work for the children, in their own way trying to force their kids back into an analog world where there's actual immediate social contact, where they can form bonds. And so in effect, in fact that you know, the parents here have done the kids a service.

Again Lydia Millet is our guest. The name of the new novel is “A Children's Bible”. Let's talk about that Children's Bible aspect. The book in question here is part of Jack's library and as you mentioned earlier is Eve's brother. And tell us a little bit about Jack because he's really the, the moral center of this, isn't he? If we aspire to be anyone in this novel, it would seem that we would aspire to be Jack

Right, yeah, Jack is a really innocent little boy who has been brought up in a secular home. But is quite open minded and when one of the mothers in the group of parents gives him a child's Bible, which is Bible stories illustrated for children, he interprets it in terms of his own framework of understanding the world which has to do with nature and biology and science and becomes really fond of this Bible which he sees a certain way, sort of an ecumenical way, he sees it as a story like all the other stories he loves, like “Frog and Toad” and “George and Martha”.

Which I love because those were favorites of mine as well.

They’re so great.

Great books. You have Jack saying to the kids, “’they say God in the book but me and Shell’” and Shell is his friend and who is deaf and is signing, “’but me and Shell figured it out. God's a code word we figured it out. ‘Do tell’, said Jen. ‘They say God, but they mean nature.’” And that's fully explored in the novel as well. That’s something that you play with that a lot in your fiction, don't you?

Yeah, I'm more and more interested in the way that this artificial divide has been created in the ideology of our country between believing in God and believing in science. And so I looked at that in my novel, “Sweet Lamb of Heaven”. And I'm looking at it in a nonfiction book that I'm writing now, which is about animals and the way we love them and mistreat them. You know, I think I think it's very unfortunate that there are such powerful forces in our culture that wish to divide Christianity and science into separate compartments and to vilify science from the side of Christianity and to vilify Christianity from the side of science. So, yeah, more and more interested in looking at how these things are a piece, how religion, faith, and knowledge, and science are of a piece rather than separate or antithetical to each other.

There is some resistance from the children and even eventually the adults but then there's also a giving in. There seems to be though this this moment that as Jack is forwarding this, and interpreting this children's Bible, that there but at very least, there's a respect from the kids in understanding what he's talking about.

Yeah, exactly. Initially, they're sort of dismissive and contemptuous, at least a couple of them of Jack’s little efforts to understand the Bible or even pay attention to it. But then over the course of things, they, especially Evie, you know, become more, yeah, just more interested and more sort of tolerant and of jack and his ideas, and there's a way in which those ideas become part of the landscape that they're living in, in a sort of tacit way, I think.

Let us talk about the specifics for a moment, because you don't tell us directly what happened or what is happening outside of where the kids are, where the parents are. We know it's something, we know it's big. We know that things are closed down and life is not as it was. And there was maybe some idea that this was coming but not a direct idea that this was coming. Give me an idea of why you wanted a certain vagueness to it?

Well, I think that we can interpolate the aftermath of things like floods, like Sandy or natural disasters quite effectively from our long experience of say, apocalyptic movies. I don't think readers need to be filled in on all the details of a landscape of chaos. I think we readily imagine those landscapes now, because we've kind of been raised on a diet of them and perhaps in smaller measure than is implied in this book, or than it's implied in blockbuster apocalyptic movies. But we know enough, even just from TV news of large events, we know to a degree, what that can look like in the world. We just don't know what it's like to experience it day to day, arguably until a little bit until now when we have in the pandemic seen sort of the extremes of a chaos situation with people dying and other people trying to save them on the frontlines, and then on the other hand, the strange paralysis and less directly affected are experiencing job loss and worry anxiety about the future and being confined to our homes. All of this even though it's alien, has at the same time, an odd familiarity I think because of Apocalypse, culture and, and how Ascendant that has been in culture and media over the past, I don't know almost half century I would say

So it's not too it's not too far for us to think about what could happen. And I assume that frees you a bit to focus on the characters as opposed to what's going on in the ravages that are happening outside of that immediate environment.

Right and I think characters is the thing that fiction has to offer us, character and voice are what are so unique to fiction, to good fiction, fiction that I like to read. That's what I read it for. I don't read it for physical description, because if I want the physical, there are other forms of art and media I can go to so for me, you know, the sort of physical details of a scenario are not, not really the mandate of the kind of fiction is there sort of fiction I write. They’re sort of for the reader to imagine and but I want to, what I want to offer is these made-up people and their voices, and that's where my interest is, in the immediacy of people's interactions with each other in this book and sort of the philosophical aspects of that rather than what does disaster look like in the outside world.

You also don't make these kids out to be too angelic. I mean, they do drugs, they have sex, they swear, not all of them, because there is an age range, but they go through a lot of the things that that people go through and adolescents, kids go through. And I assume that was important for you to yes, they're dealing with all of these issues that were sort of thrown on them because the parents have not been dealing with them. And yet they still fall into a lot of the same traps, if you will.

A young people are resilient, but they have powerful blind spots just as we who are older do, you know they may be different blind spots, but we all have them. And yeah I certainly didn't want to paint a picture of angel children, they have foibles just like just like anyone else and they definitely have potty mouths in this book. My mother did not appreciate their foul language.

What is it like to bring your book to your mother?

Well, actually, she's a faithful reader in general. She's, she's a voracious reader and she always kindly reads my books that there have been, there have been a lot of them now, you know, she's patient. This particular one, she said she had to cast aside because she was just so disturbed by the children's, what did she say? I think she said, I just hate listening to teenagers talk or something. And I said, you know, ma they're not actually real teenagers. It's actually just kind of me talking there. But um, but anyway, I kind of moved on to the next subject. But generally she's very a kind and patient reader.

The book is so gorgeously told and just has so much to offer and I'm curious as to how you decide to create this world in the sense of, I want to go beyond I guess the outlining question but more in the creation of it, if set out to achieve a goal in the telling of a story.

That's a good question. I usually I do right toward an end, but not an end that I could write down for, for anyone on an outline. It's more toward a certain affect or a certain emotional moment that I write toward. And so that's the most compelling goal for me rather than anything sort of rational or calculated. I did, with this book in particular, want to write about serious matters in a way that had some humor So, so a goal here was actually for me to try to marry those two things seriousness and humor, so not to write a broad satirical book as some of mine have been, and not to on the other hand, write a pensive, you know, meditative book, although I think it has, you know, passages that are toward that, I hope but, but not to write an entirely earnest book either. So I wanted something, something that was a sort of hybrid that where there was some funny but also some thoughtfulness and the depth of subject.

Not that there is anything easy about achieving that. But is it a little bit easier when you're writing about children? A group of children?

Oh, that is a good question. I'd say if anything, it's harder. Because, yeah, why is it harder? I mean, I would say that I chose here the way mostly humor is constructed, is through objectification, right. And here, I really didn't want to objectify the children. And so, as you no doubt noticed, I chose the parents, to objectify. So they're a sort of collective that is not treated kindly where the children are individuated and sort of, even though they're occasionally funny, they're sort of straight talkers in a way. You know, humor always has to do with some form of objectification, some form of reduction, a surprise element in that reduction, right? It often, at least in my case can be can be cruel, although the targets of that cruelty or are fictional so I hope it's a victimless crime. But yeah, so I wanted here, I still needed to have someone to objectify because I wanted to make myself laugh while I was writing, otherwise, I get bored. And so, so, yeah, and so the parents were those people, but I in general, feel less confident writing about children when I think of them as children. I just have to think of them as any other characters, you know, and because I am no longer one, I have to invent them with the same carelessness and freedom that I invent other kinds of creatures.

Again Lydia Millet’s new novel is A Children's Bible. It is published by Norton. We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at