Climate change takes center stage in Lydia Millet’s 2020 novel, A Children’s Bible, as a freak storm sweeps the east coast, triggering a societal collapse and forcing a group of youth – if not their elders – on vacation to act.
Millet returns this month with a new novel, Dinosaurs. The restless ecosystem hovers in the desert background while the title conjures up the haunting idea of extinction, a running theme in much of her work.
In more than a dozen fiction books, Tucson-based Millet has won critical acclaim in 25 years for black humor that touches on a wide range of subjects from grief to California real estate to the construction of the atomic bomb. In recent years she has emerged as a major Western voice on the environment, a subject she covers in both fiction and non-fiction and other writing.
Millet will be joining the LA Times Book Club on October 26 to discuss “dinosaurs” with Times reporter and novelist Jeffrey Fleishman at the Autry Museum of the American West.
Since 1999, Millet has balanced her literary endeavors with her work as a writer and editor at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to “save life on earth” by preserving the diversity of plant and animal species in the world world preserved. And despite her growing success as a novelist, she doesn’t want to step down from her role at the center, which is run and co-founded by her ex-husband Kierán Suckling.
“I think most writers have a day job,” she says, before pausing with a laugh to “exclude writers whose work is really lucrative.”
“Literary authors of my type, most of them are actually active in science,” she says.
“I didn’t want to do that because I just get so much satisfaction from the job I have. Academics are subject to all sorts of processes that I don’t want to be subject to. So purely selfish. I love, love my job.”
Her role as the center’s editor-in-chief means that she is “bombarded” with news about the state of the planet every day. “I can’t get enough of reading, writing and editing materials about extinction and climate change,” she says.
That long immersion paved the way for A Children’s Bible, a parable that marked something of a breakthrough for Millet – a National Book Award finalist recognized by many critics as one of the year’s best. The novel received critical acclaim for its creative exploration of the issue of climate change and our inaction in the face of it. But Millet balks at the idea that her writing should be placed in a new “cli-fi” genre.
“Writing about climate and extinction is a difficult realism of clearly existential order,” Millet wrote in an essay in The Times last year. “Labeling it a genre is a patronizing act of containment.”
Compared to the dystopia depicted in her previous novel, Dinosaurs is set in a less dramatic setting, a subdivision of Phoenix. Gil, an eccentric middle-aged loner recovering from a bad breakup, has fled New York and walked the entire 2,500 miles to his new home.
Shortly after Gil settles into his “castle” in the desert, a family moves into a house next door whose walls are almost entirely made of glass. This allows Gil a voyeuristic view of the family – the blonde wife, the “chiseled” husband and two children who are miniature replicas of their parents. It’s also a situation that forces Gil to lower his drawbridge while becoming enmeshed in the lives of his neighbors and dealing with his own grief.
On the surface, Dinosaurs is a tale of Gil’s rebirth in the desert, a fast-moving tale told in 230 pages of spare, understated prose. Millet writes with a light and often humorous touch, but dark ideas are never far below the surface. (Millet’s Twitter bio describes her as an “American writer interested in apocalyptic thinking, extinction, climate change, and other light-hearted things”).
In Dinosaurs, apocalyptic memories literally fall from the sky in the form of birds turning up dead in the desert, shot dead at night by an unknown poacher whom Gil determinedly catches in the act.
“It was one thing to hunt and then eat what you killed. Another to use the birds for target practice,” Millet writes, channeling Gil’s perspective.
“Many game hunters preferred private game preserves where they could pay for canned hunts,” Gil says. “On these reserves, pigeons and pheasants would be raised to be hunted and then flushed out for customers as they pulled their trigger hooks. Some of them constantly: fingers got tired. Muscle cramps occurred. Automatic counters counted kills on a leaderboard.”
These birds are the dinosaurs of the title, as Millet likes to embrace the idea that birds are the living descendants of the ancient creatures that fascinate us so much. Almost every chapter is named after a species of bird, and Millet says she originally titled the book Men of Birds when it was “even more bird-centric than it is today.”
“The older I get, the more fascinated I am [birds],” she says. “They’re just evolutionarily perfect beings with their strength and lightness and how they can travel those long distances — they just seem so well engineered.”
Birds in their diversity also represent biodiversity, a topic of great interest to Millet.
“Extinction is always what scares me the most about the world,” says Millet, 53, who has a master’s degree in environmental policy from Duke University. “And of course it’s closely related to climate – you can’t really separate them. To me, this is the stuff nightmares are made of. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing about extinction.”
Though Millet’s scientific background informs her work, human connections drive the narrative in Dinosaurs, which the author describes as “a book of thinly veiled metaphors,” beginning with this glass house.
Millet says she was partially inspired by a Southern California home she and her family once stayed in, which not only had glass walls but also a glass floor through which they could see the creek below.
“It’s a beautiful house – I was impressed by it,” says Millet. “I like the idea of this kind of set that you can look into as if it were my own dollhouse that I could play with in this book.”
As for Gil’s walk – that five-month odyssey kaleidoscopically reduced to a single page in the novel – the author says she paid tribute to her partner Aaron, who hiked the Appalachian Trail before leaving New York to join Millet in Tucson . But otherwise Gil has little in common with Aaron, she says, except maybe a self-deprecating joke.
With Gil, Millet has created a sympathetic portrait of a wealthy man trying to do the right thing. The portrait of Gil, she says, is based on “people I know and love” who are wealthy, privileged, but sometimes rambling. “Even from a privileged position, you can lose yourself in the world,” says Millet. “Sometimes stupid wealth — not normal, everyday wealth that you earn simply by doing a good job — but stupid wealth really can be extremely debilitating.”
Gil, an orphan who inherited family money, is sometimes plagued by privileged guilt and looks for ways he can contribute by not only donating money but also by volunteering his time for causes close to his heart, including a women’s shelter for abused women. Even more important are the contributions he makes to life around him, including his two New York friends, Vic and Van Alsten, and the family next door. Gil becomes especially close with the family’s young son, Tom, teaching him to cook and helping him take down a bully.
“We tend to have a very narrow concept of what parenting is in our culture,” says Millet. “I think parenting needs to go well beyond the confines of our own children.
“Parenthood should be a far-reaching and forward-looking gesture of care.”
Wolk is a Seattle-area journalist who was a correspondent for Reuters and MSNBC.com.
Book Club: When you go
What: author Lydia Millet Joins the LA Times Book Club to discuss “dinosaurs” with Times reporter and novelist Jeffrey Fleishman.
When: 7 p.m. Pacific 26 Oct. The doors open at 6 p.m
Where: Enjoy an evening of words, wine and browsing the galleries at the Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. get tickets.
Book Club Newsletter: Sign up for the latest news and events: latimes.com/bookclub
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-10-10/lydia-millet-dinosaurs Why Lydia Millet writes about what frightens her most