Books

An Interview With Lydia Millet and Jenny Offill 

Two close friends on bad writing habits, creative ambition, and which lines they’d steal from each other’s books.  

Jenny Offill and Lydia Millet.
Lydia Millet and Jenny Offill: fiction writers, best friends, heroes.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Emily Tobey and Jade Beall.

Last month I talked to the writer Lydia Millet about her novel Sweet Lamb of Heaven, which is a meditation on language, a Rosemary’s Baby–style horror story, a political thriller, and—as if that weren’t enough—one of the best explorations of motherhood I’ve ever read. I brought up another disturbingly good novel about language and motherhood, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Millet laughed and said, “You know that book is by my best friend, right?”

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I was immediately consumed by envy. I wanted to eavesdrop on their entire friendship. I wanted to know what it’s like to be a brilliant novelist hanging out with another brilliant novelist—even better, a brilliant novelist discussing her work with another brilliant novelist. I wanted to know how they became each other’s friends, editors, and readers, and what that friendship has meant to their careers. And so I asked.

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Tell me how you remember your friendship origin story: the first time you saw the other one, how you knew you were going to be friends, the first time you read each other’s work, and the first time you really edited each other’s work.

Lydia Millet: We went to college together but knew each other only in passing—we were in the same workshop once, and I submitted world-weary sonnets about marital decay to the college literary journal, which Jenny was editing at the time. I was 18, by the way. But I think she couldn’t find much better ones in the pile, so she reluctantly published them.

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Jenny Offill: I spotted her long before she spotted me. We were in a few classes together. And then she submitted to the literary magazine. I still remember that poem. It was about a middle-aged couple returning from a party and climbing the stairs to bed with great resignation. She sounded like she was 100 years old, and I both admired and made fun of how sophisticated she seemed. Already she could really write.

Millet: A couple of years later, in our early twenties, we were both living in California—I had a job at Hustler magazine in Beverly Hills and Jenny was at Stanford on a Stegner Fellowship—and our former teacher, Jill McCorkle, set us up on a friend date one time while Jenny was down in L.A. I thought: I like this one. She’s funny. Why hasn’t she always been my friend? Damn it! Now she will be.

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Offill: I wasn’t really friends with her in college. She seemed much too smart for me and too glamorous. She spoke a couple of languages and she dated this incredibly handsome guy who was Scottish and rumored to be a count. But I knew she was a really good writer and I was curious about her. I just worried she was not a slacker like me. But then when I learned she was working at Hustler, I thought, There’s more to this girl than meets the eye.

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At what point in your process do you tell the other one about what you’re working on? And when—and how often—do you ask for feedback?

Millet: I tell her when I’m starting a book, usually with great excitement. And once or twice, I think, a book has died at that moment. A quiet death. No pain. Mercy killing. But generally she humors me. She’s very encouraging. Then I’ll give her the almost-finished book before I send it to my agent Maria, who’s also an excellent reader.

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Offill: I tell her about what I’m working on, but mostly I just work in silence and self-loathing until I have something to show toward the end. But she always knows what it needs. And I usually take her advice before I show it to other people.

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How well do you know what the other one’s feedback will be? Lydia, can you read your work through Jenny’s eyes? Jenny, can you read yours through Lydia’s?

Millet: I know Jenny will catch me when I’ve said too much. She’ll rein me in. Lose the last sentence in this paragraph, she’ll say. And this one. And uh, maybe this one too, no offense meant. She’s almost always right.

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Offill: She will zoom in on missing pieces, logical things as well as moments when the tone is off. She knows if there’s a comma out of place.

When has your work been the most and least alike? When could you edit the other one best?

Millet: I depend on Jenny’s eye for my serious books more than my satirical ones. She’s a very funny writer, as well as funny in conversation, but funny’s a thing I tend to have to do by myself when it comes to books. And though we share a sense of humor in real life, our writing has more kinship when I’m not being broad. Jenny’s subtle and values subtlety, whereas I have a pratfall side. I laugh at videos of drunk people tripping. Or things like the episode of Chris Morris’ Brass Eye where a person wants to commit suicide by jumping off a ten-story building but can only find a balcony that’s one floor off the ground. So jumps off that. Ten times.

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Offill: I love Brass Eye, but it’s true that I’m not as good at helping with the satirical books. I have a minimalist side that misses the point of some broad humor. I’m best when things are deadpan on the page. But then when I hear her read the finished piece it’s hilarious, and I know I was wrong and am so happy she ignored me.

How do you think your friendship has changed you as a writer? As an editor? As a reader? 

Millet: Hard to say how things would have been without her. The experiment doesn’t have a control. I know I’m grateful to have had her, all my adult life, as a close ally in aesthetics. It’s made the world less lonely—not only my personal world but the great abstract world of thought and production and criticism. It’s a world that often seems to overvalue weak and hackneyed fiction, undervalue the sharp and the smart and the new.

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Offill: I think Lydia’s a brilliant person and a brilliant writer. I always feel a little smarter and funnier when I’m around her because I want to keep up. And her work ethic is insane! She has written almost a dozen novels in the time it has taken me to write two, all while having a full-time job at the kick-ass Center for Biological Diversity and raising two kids. It can be intimidating and frankly infuriating. I mean, how the hell does she do it? But I have noticed that she doesn’t spend a lot of time wallowing in self-doubt or indecision. Lydia forges ahead! Always! And I have learned from that.

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Also, we hate all the same writers and love all the same ones. We kind of hammered out an aesthetic together in our twenties. At first it was Against This and Against That, but now we’re more likely to talk about something we’ve read that we love. Though she did recently send me a book she’d read and she’d written SO STUPID across the cover in red marker. That made me laugh.

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When did you realize how ambitious you were, and how do you defend and take care of your ambitions? And how do you defend and take care of the brain space that you need for writing?

Millet: Career-wise, I defend them by trying not to measure my success against the success of others. That way lies abomination. Work-wise, I try not to repeat myself too often. And I have to love whatever I’m doing. At least, while I’m doing it. If I can’t find a way to love it, I let it go. Kind of the opposite of the popular homily. My motto is, if you love something, don’t set it free. No matter how hard it struggles. That would be stupid. Instead, hold onto it with a viselike grip. But if you don’t love it, there’s the trash. Be free, my little gull. Soar high! Because I don’t like you after all.

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Offill: Neither of us have ever been very careerist in terms of actively, strategically trying to figure out how to succeed or make a splash, etc. But we never doubted we were going to be writers either. I don’t have any other talents, but Lydia does. She could have done all sorts of other things. But over 25 years of friendship we never have had any of those “Should I quit and go into advertising?” conversations. And we both secretly want to shove some of those boy writers with their monster books off the stage sometimes. Time’s up, buddy. Move along. Move along.

I try not to have internet where I work. But other than that I’m terrible of taking care of my brain space. Lydia says I have to learn to be more selfish with my time. Who knows? I’m working on it.

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What’s the worst writing habit you’ve ever had?

Millet: See above—I throw things away a lot. Wait. That may be my best habit.

Offill: Not writing.

If you could steal one scene or sentence from the other one’s work, what would it be?

Millet: Dept. of Speculation contains numerous enviable lines. They’re best in context, of course, but one I particularly admire is this, the narrator’s ideas for sayings to be written in fortune cookies, if the cookies and the fortunes were American: Objects create happiness. The animals are pleased to be of use. Your cities will shine forever. Death will not touch you.

Offill: I wish I had written entire books of hers, but her endings in particular just kill me. I’m going to cheat and do a paragraph. At the end of How the Dead Dream an animal crawls into the narrator’s sleeping bag.

Back to the beginning and on to the end—home was flesh, was nearness. Poor animal. It thought he was its mother, but its mother was gone.

            As, after a while, all the mothers would be.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

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