Lydia Millet, DINOSAURS: A Novel

Lydia Millet, DINOSAURS: A Novel

Zibby interviews Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist Lydia Millet about Dinosaurs, a witty new novel about a heartbroken man who walks from New York to Arizona and finds himself living next to a glass-walled house through which he can closely observe his neighbors. Lydia talks about her protagonist Gil’s voyeurism, loneliness, wry sense of humor, and unique friendships. She also discusses the inspiration behind this story, her journey to becoming a writer (from short-lived dreams of opera singing to numerous writing accolades), and the challenges of writing a memoir (which she wrote but hasn’t published just yet!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lydia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Dinosaurs: A Novel.

Lydia Millet: I am happy to be here.

Zibby: Of course, Dinosaurs is referring to the fact that when we were growing up, people thought dinosaurs were gone, extinct. Now since then, we’ve realized that birds are a form of dinosaur, which I learned in science class with my kids, which you obviously weave in through the book as well. Interesting way to package.

Lydia: I feel I learned it pretty late in life.

Zibby: You know what? That’s okay. We can always learn.

Lydia: Right, we should never stop. We should never calcify.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. Can you please tell listeners what Dinosaurs is about?

Lydia: It’s a pretty simple story. It’s about a man who’s quite lonely and heartbroken and moves across the country and then finds himself living next to a house with a big glass wall through which he can see his next-door neighbors. His life becomes enmeshed in their lives. That’s it. That’s basically it.

Zibby: That is not it. There’s so much more that happens. Okay, we can leave it at that. First of all, he doesn’t just move to the West Coast. He walks to the West Coast. Is this something you’ve always wondered what that would be like? How did you start it off like that?

Lydia: First of all, it was sort of a theft from my boyfriend’s life because he did this before he moved west to live with me from Brooklyn. He walked the whole Appalachian Trail. I stole that fragment of his life and made it a little different, fictionalized it a little bit. Of course, Gil, who’s the protagonist in this novel, doesn’t walk an actual trail. He just walks across the country adjacent to freeways and other large roads. I don’t spend a lot of pages on that, but I wanted to use it. He’s a person for whom there was no cost, really, to anything because he’s rich. He, in this situation, wanted to sort of pay for this change in his life. The only way he could pay was with his time and his body.

Zibby: It’s always one of those things where my kids are like, “Could you walk across here? How long would it take?” I liked that as just a device to get us into this book. Then of course, Gil ends up in a house that he has only seen online and doesn’t realize that he’s looking into somebody else’s house. I also loved how you had the neighbors come over and say — to call it out. I’ve been looking into, in my mom’s apartment, the same house for forty-plus years. You never say anything to those neighbors. The fact that she’s like, “I understand that you can’t help but look at me. That’s okay. I’m aware that you’re looking,” it throws that whole thing that you’re not supposed to say up into conversation. Tell me about that and starting it off that way.

Lydia: The people that he’s next to happen to be this lovely family. There’s a very outgoing woman at the core of the family. She just sort of embraces him and, in a way, lures him into their sphere very early on, which is highly fortunate for him, as it turns out. I was trying to play with the idea that we’re all voyeurs now in our lives. There’s so much voyeurism in the culture now. There’s so much spectatorship of each other and display of ourselves that it’s almost as though voyeurism has disappeared as a taboo. It’s barely considered criminal or an infringement to stare at other people because we do it all day long with these little screens we have, and big screens too. We’re always looking and being looked at. There’s this very literal translation of that universal act of cultural voyeurism that we’re engaged in now in this story.

Zibby: Very true. Maybe this is a reach, but I feel like you are also trying to say something with Gil attempting to give back and being sort of stopped at every turn when he’s looking for a meaningful way to engage with people who he can help in some way. Even from potentially being too good-looking to help in a women’s shelter, he keeps getting rebuffed when he tries so hard. You think it would be so easy. Let me help. Tell me about even that, how sometimes wanting to help and actually helping, there are a lot of obstacles you have to overcome.

Lydia: I think it’s really hard to insert yourself into a community and know how to contribute for all of us, really, not just for people in Gil’s privileged position. It can be strangely hard to “do something.” There’s this kind of membrane that exists between us and our personal lives and the fast world outside them. It’s really hard to push against it and not be able to cross over into that community. It’s such a lonely place sometimes, the postmodern world. It’s just a hard place to penetrate at times. Gil isn’t satisfied by giving to charities. He needs to feel that he’s doing something more real and more tactile, almost, more tangible.

Zibby: You do it all with this great witty sense of humor. They’re like, okay, now you’re going to be a male escort. Gil quietly looks around. Does nobody find this funny? You wrote it much better than that. I love it. It’s all the winks to the reader. We’re just chuckling along with you. It’s great.

Lydia: Oh, good. That wryness of him was part of why I wrote the book. It’s kind of a character study of this person I wanted to live with for a while, this kind and sometimes ineffectual man.

Zibby: Interesting. You also do such a nice job of developing a male friendship. I feel like it does not get written about hardly ever. Certainly, not enough. Men have their own really beloved bonds. They can be formed in funnier ways by Gil and his good friend . Is that how you pronounce it, you think?

Lydia: Oh, god, now I’m forgetting his name.

Zibby: Anyway, how he sees all these signs of him as a man and how he curses all the time when he’s playing basketball and yet around his wife is as sweet as an angel. What ends up happening with them over time is really impactful and emotional. That was great. Can you talk a little bit about friendship and how that plays out in later life?

Lydia: I’ve noticed that so many men over a certain age have these truncated social lives that are entirely dependent on their partners. Especially, I’m going to say heterosexual men of a certain age seem to really be isolated and lonely for friendship. Gil is sort of a counterexample to that where he has just a couple of close friendships. There have been times in my adult life where I’ve felt quite bad for men because their social circles can be so constrained, can be so determined by their jobs, as all of ours are to some degree, but really constrained by their wives or girlfriends or other partners and their social circles and then their jobs. If they lose those things, they’re often quite marooned. Gil actually has neither of those things in the beginning. He doesn’t have a partner. He doesn’t have a job. How do you find friendship? is really a basic question of his story.

Zibby: And how he relates to the kids, too, what it means to have found family and the big influence he ends up having on the next-door neighbors’ kids and the bonds he makes with them, which is really wonderful. Lydia, I know you said you were interested in exploring Gil as a man. You’ve written many books at this point in your life. How did you start this? What little germ of an idea got you started on this book? What kept you going? What was propelling you? Tell me more of the backstory of the book.

Lydia: I’d just written this other book that was quite different, A Children’s Bible, that was about anger, sort of a righteous anger, but also featured this large group of young people and a large, for me, cast of characters. I started out this book wanting, as I usually do between books, to do something entirely different from that and just have a very small cast of characters for one thing that I could get a handle on and where I could really differentiate the characters well. In A Children’s Bible, there’s this amorphous mass of parents that is undifferentiated, almost like a mob of parents. I wanted to write from the other side of that looking at people my age and how they might actually sometimes be more benevolent than the parents who are in A Children’s Bible. That was part of it. I just was entranced by the idea of a simple story that kind of opened up like a dollhouse does so that you can see the rooms and the — what do you call it when it’s — you know when you have those dollhouses, and they open? Then you’ve got this —

Zibby: — A diorama?

Lydia: Yeah. I love dioramas too. It’s sort of like a diorama as well. What would it be like to have a dollhouse that was sort of living to engage with?

Zibby: I love that. How did you get started writing? How do you go from not writing to Pulitzer Prize, all these things, nominations and accolades and new books and a whole lifetime of — how did you get started? What’s the secret to navigating life as a working author?

Lydia: I think I just came to it from reading. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and so it was a natural thing for me to end up doing. As many writers have said, you write the stories that you want to read or that you haven’t quite found and want to inhabit for a while. Also, I have to admit that I, at a certain juncture in my life in college, discovered that I did not wish to be an opera singer, which I had been trying to be. I discovered that that was not a pursuit for which I was fit. I love the solitude of writing. I love the fact that, at least in book writing, no one really interferes with you or your process until you’ve already made something, unlike, say, the collaborative world of making movies or TV or maybe other sorts of books, to some degree, that aren’t fiction. You’re just allowed to have perfect mental freedom. I love that and value that, that refuge of privacy of making things up. It’s always where I’m happiest. I’m happiest when I’m writing sentences that no one else gets to weigh in on.

Zibby: It’s the ultimate control.

Lydia: I can’t write infinitely in a day, so I have a day job. It’s about thirty hours a week and keeps me busy from eight thirty to two thirty every day. Then I write for an hour before that in the morning. I write for an hour and a half at night after it’s done. That’s all I want. I don’t think I could write for longer than that in a day. That is pretty much my quota. I’m lucky now that I’ve been able to fix up a schedule where I have these discrete pieces of time to write in.

Zibby: What is your day job? Can I ask?

Lydia: My day job is as an editor and writer at a nonprofit called the Center for Biological Diversity. We do lots of work on climate change and lots of work on endangered species trying to stop critters and plants and trees from going extinct.

Zibby: You subtly mention climate change a few times in Dinosaurs. I feel like now I understand. Not that it’s unique to you, obviously. We’re all concerned with climate change, but how it sneaks in. I’m sure your work sort of bleeds over.

Lydia: It’s sort of in the background. It was more foregrounded in the book before this. You can’t always obsess over these looming threats. Sometimes you have to just step back into a more meditative space around them.

Zibby: What do you like to do when you’re not working and writing?

Lydia: That’s a good question. I mostly am working and writing. I like to walk. I live in the desert. I like to hike. I don’t always get enough time for it. My house is in this little enclave in a national park with lots of cacti and those tall saguaros that you see on Looney Tunes. I can actually walk right out of my house and just walk into the national park. I love that. I love, as Gil does in the book, watching the birds in my yard, and the critters. I used to be quite bored of birds when I was young. Now I’m not bored of them at all. Partly, the pandemic also really made me appreciate the position of just watching wildlife outside in this stillness. I still like to do that, just look at the critters through my window. That’s something. I don’t know. I like to drink wine with friends. I read all the time. Recently, I read a lot of nonfiction because I’ve all of a sudden started to feel, two or three years ago, or four maybe, that I just would never know enough. I would never know even a small fraction of what there is to know, and so I’ve started reading much more nonfiction than I used to just in an attempt to improve myself. I do that.

Zibby: Awesome. When I interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson, the acclaimed scientist and everything, he was like, I figured out how much time it would take for me to read all these books, to learn all these things. I realized I could never do that, so I had to focus on this. He took it apart, how much learning, how much nonfiction. How much could he take in given the time he had? He made it into a whole equation, which I just thought was awesome, literally with input versus output. How much more can we learn versus putting out into the world ourselves?

Lydia: You do have to stop and actually make your own thing if you’re a writer. You can’t just endlessly read. Also, there’s an exhaustion sometimes with reading nonfiction, at least for me, even if it’s really brilliant and good. It’s like when you walk through a museum, like an art museum or something, and have this overload. You just can’t see any more after a while. You just have to wander back outside. I have that a bit with nonfiction.

Zibby: Have you ever gotten to a point in a novel, halfway, a third of the way, or any, and just been like, this is not working, I have to abandon this project, or starting over from scratch? How far have you gotten where you’ve abandoned?

Lydia: I think I’ve done whole books that I’ve virtually abandoned. Certainly when I was young, I did that. There were many books that I wrote before my first one was published that are, thankfully, no longer in existence in any form. Now it’s more like I just start again if something is failing. Recently, I had a book — a manuscript, I guess I should say, because it’s not published — that I had written a few years ago and no one really liked. I didn’t understand why. I put it aside for a few years. Then I went back to it. I didn’t like it either. I was like, oh, yeah. I decided to do this crazy thing where I would just write it again from scratch without looking at the original draft and see if I could write something sort of inspired similarly and with some similar benchmarks but really without even looking at the previous draft. I was able to come up with something that I liked a lot better. It still hasn’t seen the light of day, by the way. Sometimes it’s just a question of reconceiving.

Zibby: Interesting. Are there topics that you’re excited still to address that you haven’t somehow managed to in your work so far or something that’s glimmering to you from afar?

Lydia: That’s a really good question. I don’t know if there are topics as such. It’s more that there are new ways of approaching old things that I think are lurking out there that I hope to touch upon one day. It’s new ways. It’s more new ways and new tones and new forms than new content, if you know what I mean.

Zibby: I think it would be interesting to turn Dinosaurs into a play. Have you thought about that?

Lydia: Wow. Better you than me.

Zibby: No, I can’t do that. I think it would be interesting to watch.

Lydia: You could see it on a stage because there is a stage in the book. It’s pretty paired down in terms of, there wouldn’t have to be CGI.

Zibby: No special effects required, so that’s good. When people hear your name, what do you want them to think? What type of writer? What do you want them to say about you?

Lydia: Oh, my god, I’ve never — this is like a job interview where you have to describe yourself in one word.

Zibby: I’m really sorry. Maybe it’s my lack of sleep where I’m asking all these random questions. I’m sorry. I apologize.

Lydia: No, it’s not random. Actually, it’s a good question. I just don’t know the answer. I don’t think in terms of what people should or could think about me. I just always think of it in terms of books, and books of mine being read, or read a certain way. Ideally, I wouldn’t really be present at all. Recently, I wrote a nonfiction book that’s sort of a hybrid of memoir and meditation and maybe prayer around having children in this time, in the age of extinction and climate and all that. I found it incredibly hard because I had to be a character in it. I’m not used to writing that way. Much harder than fiction where I get to disappear. The great thing about writing fiction is that you get to disappear without disappearing. It is you. It is of you, but you don’t have to parade yourself through it because it’s just intrinsically other. I love that about fiction.

Zibby: I love that. You mentioned your boyfriend earlier. This is totally none of my business. Before I married my second husband, I was in my forties saying, this is my boyfriend. I felt so funny saying that. Is it still a boyfriend when you’re a grown-up?

Lydia: I know. I struggle with that all the time. Sometimes I say partner, but that always sounds kind of corporate to me also. There’s no good word, I feel. It’s a problem. It’s kind of a problem of language. Now you can say husband, which is easier.

Zibby: It is. That’s why I did it. I just didn’t want to keep calling him my boyfriend, so I said, we just should get married.

Lydia: Sometimes if I’m talking to someone in a service transaction or something like that, I’ll just say husband because I feel then they will give me more credit, or him. I won’t have to qualify the boyfriend thing or the partner thing or whatever word I choose to use. Sometimes it’s just easier to say husband, for sure, even if it’s a lie. Who cares? I don’t care. They’ll never see me again.

Zibby: I agree. When you come up with the right word, let me know.

Lydia: Likewise. Please, I’m the one who needs it. You don’t need it anymore.

Zibby: Still, it’ll be nice to throw it out to the universe. What’s the next book that’s going to come out from you? Are you going to publish the memoir?

Lydia: Yeah, I hope so. I’m not quite sure because I have a book of short stories that’s almost done as well. I’m not sure which will come out first. That’s, to some degree, up to my publisher, Norton. I love writing stories. I always do it to entertain myself between longer projects. I have that. Then I have this nonfiction thing. Then I have a novel, too, that I’m working on. I always have that because I love novels so much. We’ll see. That is not yet known to me.

Zibby: Still, a lot of exciting things. What is your advice for aspiring authors?

Lydia: First, this is boring, but it’s always just to read. It’s to read a lot. Read beyond your comfort zone. Read things that you haven’t read before. I think that really helped me. In my early twenties after I finished college and stuff, I started reading books that weren’t canonical or that were, but they were outside my range of experience or whatever. They could be tough to start with, but when I just soldiered on, they gave me a lot. They expanded my conception of what good writing was and what I wanted to do with writing and all that. I would always say read. I would just say make sure you love what you’re doing when you write. Never do something because you think you should. Always do what you love.

Zibby: Excellent advice. That’s for life in general.

Lydia: Yes, if possible. Exactly.

Zibby: If possible. Lydia, thank you so much. It was so nice to chat with you today. Thanks for chatting early in the morning about Dinosaurs. It was really nice to get to know you.

Lydia: You too. It was truly a pleasure. I hope we get to raise a glass one day.

Zibby: That would be nice. My mom actually lives in Arizona, so I’m there quite a bit.

Lydia: Really? Where?

Zibby: She lives outside Scottsdale.

Lydia: It’s probably an hour and a half from where I am, something like that.

Zibby: I will be there in May. I’m speaking at the Mom 2.0 conference. Do you know about that?

Lydia: Oh, cool. No. Tell me about it a bit.

Zibby: You should speak. It’s so close.

Lydia: Really?

Zibby: Yes. I’m going to put you in touch with — well, before I offer you up…

Lydia: That sounds great.

Zibby: I was going to say I’ll put you in touch with the organizers.

Lydia: That sounds really fun, actually.

Zibby: It’s May 8th through 10th.

Lydia: I’ll be around then. That’s before we go to Maine for the summer. I’ll totally be around, so do.

Zibby: I’m going to put you in touch.

Lydia: That’d be cool.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Lydia: Bye. You too.

Zibby: Bye.

DINOSAURS: A Novel by Lydia Millet

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