The Climate Novelist Who Transcends Despair
Lydia Millet believes the natural world can help us become more human.
Lydia Millet at her home outside Tucson, Ariz., where she has lived for more than 20 years.Credit…Lucas Foglia for The New York Times
By Christine Smallwood, Oct. 6, 2022
When the writer Lydia Millet was in grade school, she went on a trip to visit her cousins and stepped on a toad. I don’t mean she tripped and the toad was underfoot. This was no accident. Millet was out in the yard at her cousins’ house, spied a toad, raised her sandaled foot and squished it to death. It was a Fowler’s toad, Anaxyrus fowleri, one of those humpy little spotted guys who live up and down the East Coast. Looking back now, she can’t explain why she did it. She loved animals! But facts are facts. The toad had been alive, and then it was dead. Because of her.
“I sometimes feel much of my life was determined in that moment,” Millet said when we met this summer in Tucson, Ariz., where she has lived for more than 20 years. She was speaking in that ironic tone that suggests extreme earnestness. “It’s the thing for which I’ve been atoning all these years.” She called it her “original frog sin.”
It’s an incident that would fit right into one of her novels or short stories, which, despite being wildly various in tone, often involve some absurd and/or tragic meeting of the animal and the human. This fall, Millet will publish her 12th novel, “Dinosaurs,” a quiet, penetrating character study of a middle-aged New Yorker named Gil who, devastated by a breakup, buys a house in Phoenix, sight unseen; walks across the country to get there; and becomes enmeshed with the family who lives next door. (One side of their house is glass, so Gil can see right inside.) He becomes especially involved with their son, whom he tries to protect from a neighborhood bully. When dead quail and raptors start appearing on Gil’s property, he buys SWAT gear and night-vision goggles to catch the person gunning them down. In the confrontation that ensues, the shooter scoffs, “They’re not your birds.”
“Well,” Gil says, “in a way, they are.”
How we treat animals always reveals something about our capacities for cruelty and compassion, and one arc of “Dinosaurs” concerns how Gil takes responsibility for the creatures — human and nonhuman — around him. But for Millet, animals are more than props in a human drama; she’s interested in them for their own sake. In some novels, sex or desire is the key to all meaning. Millet says those impulses inevitably lead back to the quagmires of self-projection, narcissism, fantasies of ego. Animals are something else, entirely other. Protecting them, in life and art, is a way of protecting our connection to the most mysterious cosmic forces — of getting closer to (or at least becoming aware of) what lies outside the self. “The animal that is nature, and that whole world of plant and fungi, that’s deep time, that’s evolution,” Millet said. “You can call it God, you can call it nature, you can call it whatever, but nature through time, that is as close as you can ever come to God.”
An hour after I arrived at my hotel, which was hidden among the cactuses on the edge of Saguaro National Park, Millet drove over with two bottles of red wine. (She wasn’t sure whether I would prefer Pinot or Malbec.) Technically the hotel did not allow outside visitors, but she is not one to be deterred by a rule as silly as that. While moths divebombed into our cups and monsoon lightning sparked over the Tucson Mountains, she reminisced about the years before the hotel was purchased by its current owners, when she used to break in and explore the grounds. This was when the buildings were in their “entropic state.” Once she saw a bobcat and her kittens.
Millet, who is 53, is tall, with snow white hair (dyed black at the tips), a commanding voice and a habit of continuously reapplying lipstick. She speaks in paragraphs and can seem charmingly old-fashioned — pronouncing “forehead” as “forrid” and “been” as “bean” — but with an edge of deadpan humor, like some kind of Gen X duchess. She describes animals as “magnetic” and is also a magnet for them. There was the time she was walking through the West Village and a “river of rats” came out of nowhere, swelled around her and then just disappeared. (“I like rats. I wasn’t bothered.”) Or the time she put her hand under her pillow and a scorpion stung her — twice. (She texted a doctor friend to ask what to do, a decision that may sound like pure common sense but which she derides as “really insecure.”) Earlier in the summer, when I visited her in Maine, where she has a second home, she greeted me with the words, “I want to show you a dead chipmunk.” When no living or dead creature is immediately present, she has facts at the ready about the mating habits of tarantulas, the episodic memory of hummingbirds, the strange history of excommunicating animals for their crimes and how beavers are transforming the Alaskan tundra.
‘It’s really important to live in a world where not everything is known. It’s not enough to have sameness. It’s not enough to have just each other.’
Despite her critical success — she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her story collection “Love in Infant Monkeys” and for the National Book Award in 2020 for her novel “A Children’s Bible” — Millet has not, like so many of her peers, pursued a life in academia. Instead, she works 30 hours a week writing and editing news releases and other communications at the Center for Biological Diversity, an activist group devoted to protecting endangered species. She likes the health insurance, but that’s not the reason she keeps the job. Millet is “deeply devoted” to the center and its staff. “Writing and conservation are both aspects of vocation for me,” she said. She wouldn’t feel like herself if she didn’t write novels and stories, but “it feels self-indulgent to do only that. It’s not the same as action.”
“Self-indulgent” is on a list of things Millet has no time for. “Navel-gazing” and “myopic,” too. (I think this is why she can’t explain the killing of the Fowler’s toad: She’s not interested enough in herself to identify a motive.) She likes fiction that goes deep into consciousness or interiority — interiority, after all, is one of the things fiction does best — but she needs it to have some connection to a bigger context or world. Her books blend a sense of vertiginous wonder, what her best friend, the writer Jenny Offill, calls a “sensitivity to the sublime,” with an oddball, screwball, sometimes manic comic sensibility. (The critic Christian Lorentzen told me that he considers Millet one of the 10 funniest living American writers.) Her early novels were satirical and outrageous. She wrote characters such as an insect-collecting sadist who sells his daughter in marriage (“Omnivores”), a delusional pornographer (“Everyone’s Pretty”) and a woman who, recently out of prison, becomes obsessed with George H.W. Bush (“George Bush: Dark Prince of Love”). She has also written a thriller; a novel about the inventors of the atom bomb coming back to life; a trilogy involving real estate development, zoos and taxidermy; and a few novels for children and young adults. Millet’s penchant for experimentation is such that if she gets bored, she’ll throw a strange or improbable twist into a plot just to keep things interesting for herself. Take, for example, “Mermaids in Paradise,” in which a tropical honeymoon is disrupted by the discovery of, yes, literally, mermaids.
“Dinosaurs” solidifies a new phase of Millet’s career. It’s written, like her last novel, the furious and gorgeous climate-crisis allegory “A Children’s Bible,” in sparer, less busy prose. The spaciousness of the style makes the sense of loss richer and the questions posed — what constitutes moral action, how best can we help one another — at once simpler and more profound. If you’ve been feeling crazy reading about ice caps and oceans and habitat loss, or unsure how to metabolize the ecological crisis that is both looming and long since arrived, that’s because, in Millet’s words, you are witnessing “the greatest tragedy ever to unspool in human history.” But rather than turning to the distraction of self to numb or evade, “Dinosaurs” puts its characters into a wider frame. Millet’s great insight — why her writing matters so much right now — is that looking outside the human is what gives human life its meaning. “It’s really important to live in a world where not everything is known,” she said. “It’s not enough to have sameness. It’s not enough to have just each other.”
Millet was raised in Toronto, the eldest of three children. Her parents were American. Her father, Nicholas, was an Egyptologist who went on digs to the Sahara; her mother, Saralaine, taught English in Turkey after graduating from Wellesley, then ran the home and volunteered as an editor for La Leche League. Millet and her siblings spent many summers in Georgia, where Saralaine’s family operated a peach farm. Family life was intellectual — both parents loved to read — and somewhat freewheeling. When Nicholas and Saralaine wanted more light in the kitchen, they knocked out part of the ceiling, which was directly under the second-floor playroom, and replaced it with a spider web of ropes for the children to climb across.
The Millets weren’t an especially outdoorsy bunch. They didn’t camp or hike, but according to family lore, the first complete sentence Millet ever spoke was a warning issued to a bird in danger from a predator: “[Expletive] off, little bird!” As a grade-schooler, she cherished her “dead-pet collection,” a plexiglass case of dearly departed cicadas, beetles and butterflies. (One is tempted to see this act of curation as a working-through of the toad’s death — a memorial of sorts.) At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she studied Romance languages and sang opera. (She’s a mezzo soprano.) She considered pursuing a career but hated performing and didn’t like the culture of opera. “It was a world of a lot of rules and mimicry,” she said.
After dropping out of an M.F.A. program at the University of Arizona (Joy Williams was her teacher), Millet moved to Los Angeles, where she got a job at Larry Flynt Publications, working as a very-low-paid copy editor for Hustler; SWAT: For the Prepared American; and Fighting Knives: America’s Most Incisive Cutlery Publication, among other titles. When she was ready for more permanent employment, she decided she would look for a job in conservation because “it was the thing I was most passionate about outside the act of writing.” All she had on her résumé was “porn and guns,” so she went to Duke University for a master’s degree in environmental management. “It was boring,” she says. “I made this error of doing economics and policy, instead of what I was really interested in, which was the animals. I could have done conservation biology, but I was too intimidated by the ‘ology.’”
Her first novel was published in 1996, when she was living in New York, working by day at the Natural Resources Defense Council and, at night, standing around with Offill at parties, smoking and projecting, as her friend Jonathan Lethem describes it, her “Algonquin Table-style brittle arch-an-eyebrow exterior.” In 1999, she returned to Arizona to do an internship at the Center for Biological Diversity. A few years later she married the center’s founder, Kierán Suckling; the two split up in 2010 but continue to work together. They have two children: Nola, who started college this fall, and Silas, who started high school.
When Millet first bought her house in Tucson, she was not intending to move there permanently; it just seemed like a good place to spend winters and write. But the spiky, strange landscape pulled on her. It had, as Gil puts it in “Dinosaurs,” “an alien beauty that seemed as different as you could get, within the lower forty-eight.” It felt like home and not home at the same time. Many people might admire beauty, but few of us uproot our lives for it. Suckling described Millet as keeping the staff of the center focused on that sense of awe and wonder. “The lawyers are talking about the legal requirements of protecting endangered species and the scientists are talking about how many kilograms they weigh,” he said. “She’s so often the one who’s like, ‘Yeah, but we’re here because we love them, and they matter because they’re beautiful.’”
Millet’s literary writing isn’t polemical or guilt-ridden in the way of so much contemporary ecofiction. This may be because she is, as Offill says, “the least neurotic person I’ve ever met,” or it may be that her job frees her up to approach fiction in a spirit of joy and invention. She doesn’t have to justify it. She likes to write twice a day: for an hour in the morning before her work at the center begins, and then again for an hour and a half in the evening. She often writes outdoors. (In Maine, she used to sit right on the ground hunched over her laptop, but lately she has been working in a lawn chair that her boyfriend, Aaron Young, bought for her.) She has, by many reports, an unusually unanguished relationship to putting words on the page, so long as she gets the time to do it. (“It’s good for everyone around her if she writes,” Young remarked dryly.) The words come fast, and she doesn’t plan things ahead of time. “I love not knowing and then doing,” she said. “It’s like constantly jumping off the diving board.”
One thing that rankles Millet is when people feast on their hopelessness about the future. “If nothing matters, then nothing matters and you can just sit around,” she said. “Where really what is hopeful is always to act.” Her work at the center connects her to the enormousness of the crisis but also to the victories of the movement. She won’t let herself sink into nihilism.
That isn’t to say that she’s bullish on what’s coming. The 22-year “megadrought” in the West is the worst in 1,200 years; the rains that do come are so heavy that the water can’t be absorbed into the ground. Millet wants to grow old and die in the desert, but as she wrote in a recent essay, she won’t stay if the land “begins to die too visibly — if I see its native life turn brown, as the drier, hotter seasons pass, and vanish around me.” The guilt of abandoning the place she loves would be bad, but it would be better than helplessly watching it turn to dust.
The next morning at 7:15 sharp Millet rolled into the hotel parking lot in a Lexus hybrid that was custom painted a shade she identified as “forest-service green.” (This isn’t the first car she has had painted this color.) Millet had proposed she forgo her usual morning writing time and meet at this “hideous” hour so we could arrive at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum right when it opened, thus avoiding the worst of the day’s August heat. She was clad in her usual “paramilitary light” uniform of Prana pants with cargo pockets and combat-style boots; a heart tattoo that says “MOM” was peeking out of her shirtsleeve. (Offill has one, too. They got them together, on a late-night whim, 20 years ago.) We drove through scrubby, shrubby land receding forever on either side of the road, Millet blasting MGMT from the car stereo and shouting answers to my questions about Tucson’s water sources. At the museum gate, a friendly docent greeted us with a bird on his gloved fist that Millet immediately identified as a kestrel. She did not interrupt the docent as he told us facts about kestrels that it was clear she already knew.
The museum’s unshaded paths wound through prickly pear, chaparral, agave and, of course, saguaros — the Sonoran Desert is the only place they grow. Before seeing them in person, I had always imagined the saguaro as an isolate: a green anthropoid giant, looming off in the sunset alone. But in fact, the saguaros are sociable. They cluster together like a herd, hailing one another with their twisted, thorny arms. Millet, I thought, fit in well with the saguaros: They’re inviting but imposing, fuzzy but sharp enough to cut yourself on.
“Hello,” she said to some Gambel’s quails who we came across in the aviary. (She greeted all the animals directly: birds, lizards, ocelots, what have you.) Then, to me: “They’re some of my favorite birds. They’re just goofballs.”
Each chapter of “Dinosaurs” makes mention of a different bird: hummingbirds, screech owls, cuckoos, the common New York City pigeon. When Gil first sees the Gambel’s quails by his pond, he doesn’t know what they’re called. He notices that they are “round-bodied and high strung” and that their plumes hang down over their faces when they run, which gives them the appearance of “foolish dandies.” Later he looks them up, and learns that while Gambel’s quails usually make nests on the ground, sometimes they get “flustered” and choose a poor location. He reads “accounts of the quail building their nests high up on balconies, where their clutches of 10 to 12 eggs would hatch and then the chicks, evolved to be late fliers, plummeted to their deaths.” It’s a metaphor for the bad relationship that Gil has left behind him in New York, but the facts are also enlightening on their own.
As time passes, Gil becomes more attuned to the desert’s birds. The thing about animals, according to Millet, is that all children love them. But as we grow up, we become alienated from that part of ourselves. “We live in an exploitation paradigm,” she says. But “beneath that always stretches a deep love that only needs to be called forth.” The power of that love is that it can allow people to experience empathy. That’s what she wants fiction to do: “I wish for people always to be able to project themselves into otherness, whether that’s human or not.”
Millet looks back at her early work with some regret. Her first two novels are too “glib,” too “snarky.” She approached her third novel, “My Happy Life,” in a different spirit: The idea was to write a novel about a character who was not judgmental or opinionated enough, who has “no reflexes of self-protection.” The result is meticulously crafted and deeply upsetting. In angular, transparent prose, “My Happy Life” heaps misfortune and abuse on a guileless narrator who never becomes mean or cynical, who, even as her meager existence grows more terrifying and constricted, remains grateful just to be alive. It was a breakthrough for Millet. “Writing that book changed how I felt about all books,” she said. “I felt how much better it is to love than to hate, if you can manage it. There’s a lot more air in that gesture.”
Millet’s way of loving is not without teeth. As Lethem put it, remarking on her novel “How the Dead Dream,” “the psyche of the character was being opened up for both total ridicule and total sympathy at the same time.” That ability to both forgive and condemn is especially vivid in “A Children’s Bible,” which heaps scorn on the useless parents who stupefy themselves with Ecstasy and alcohol when a dangerous storm strikes. But the narrator, a child named Evie, softens when she has a vision of the parents’ shadows. “They should always be thought of as invalids,” she thinks. She sees that they go through life accompanied by their failures, their unrealized ideal selves. “What people wanted to be, but never could, traveled along beside them.”
“Dinosaurs” has compassion without excoriation. The novel opens shortly after the Trump election and ends on the night of the 2018 midterms. Millet does not, as her younger self might have, gleefully inhabit the florid mind of a MAGA voter. The protagonists are well-meaning and dismayed liberals. Gil is a rich white man with something of a savior complex. His closest friend is another 1-percenter, a foul-mouthed veteran with a heart of gold who donates a kidney to his wife. It says a lot about the toughness of Millet’s voice that these choices don’t tip into sentimentality. The characters in “Dinosaurs,” like many people who will read the novel, are confounded by how much they know about the world’s ills and how little power they have to remedy them. And yet the novel is not anxious in the way of Offill’s “Weather” and does not seek to displace the human with nature, in the way of Joy Williams. Gil looks for small ways to make a difference. The point is not that his actions will save the world but that they might save him. That Millet deems him worth saving in the first place is a testament to how her capacious humanism exists in tandem with her deep love for the nonhuman.
Later that afternoon, a taxi dropped me at Millet’s house. As she and Nola gave me a tour of the major sights — the outdoor trampoline, the solar array, the pile of junk that Si shoots his BB gun into — they issued repeated warnings to be careful of the cholla. There’s a ton of it growing on Millet’s land, and it’s fierce: Known as “jumping” cholla, the stems easily detach from the cactus, blow about in the wind and hook with little barbs into whatever they find, be it soil or shoes or skin. (A fall Si had when he was 3 was so bad that the barbs had to be removed with pliers, an event that is echoed in “Dinosaurs.”) Most people have their cholla dug up and removed, but Millet won’t do that. She says, “It’s really beautiful when it’s backlit by the sun.”
Over near the guesthouse, a dead saguaro was lying horizontal on the ground. Before coming to the Sonoran Desert, I hadn’t realized that inside the saguaro are long strips of very hard wood called “ribs.” There’s a frame inside the cactus, holding it up. After it dies and decays, when the skeleton is dry, you can build with it.
Soon the huge Western sky would turn pink with the setting sun. We went into the house for dinner. Millet doesn’t like to cook — she doesn’t even like to eat in front of other people — but was worried I wouldn’t have a proper meal otherwise, so she had ordered takeout sushi. All day I had been thinking about a passage in “A Children’s Bible” in which a little boy proposes a new interpretation of the trinity. Maybe God is nature, he says; Jesus is the miracle of science, or knowing stuff; and the Holy Ghost is art, or making stuff. Earlier that morning, we stopped at one of Millet’s favorite sites at the Desert Museum, an exhibit that maps the history of the landscape here over deep time. The life span of a saguaro is impressive, compared with ours: They grow their first arm after turning 50 and can live 150 years or more. They first evolved with the desert itself, 8 million to 15 million years ago. But then they died out, replaced by woodland trees and shrubs, before mounting a comeback 10,000 years ago — right around the time that nearly two-thirds of large North American mammals went extinct.ooks
The fact that species have died out before doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to protect the ones that are here now. Of course we should. Millet has dedicated much of her life to just that. But it’s worth remembering that a novel called “Dinosaurs” might easily have been a work of despair, an account of everything that was and will never be again. Millet’s point is that birds came from dinosaurs. That life comes from life. “You were made of two people only at the very last instant,” Gil thinks. “Before that, of a multiplication so large it couldn’t be fathomed.” We are neither the beginning nor the end.
Christine Smallwood is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of the novel “The Life of the Mind.” She last wrote about the filmmaker Caveh Zahedi.