ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Lydia Millet's novels have won awards. Her short story collection "Love In Infant Monkeys" was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Her newest book is another collection of interconnected stories. "Fight No More" is set in Los Angeles, and the stories take us into people's homes. We meet people buying and selling houses, moving in and moving out, and their homes provide a window into their internal lives. I spoke to Lydia Millet about these stories, which range from tragic to comic to absurdist fantasy.
Lydia Millet, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
LYDIA MILLET: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: Tell us how you built this world. What was your jumping-off point?
MILLET: Well, so I've always been sort of fascinated by the working lives of real estate agents. I've always sort of suspected that their job has a certain powerful kind of voyeuristic dimension...
MILLET: ...Because they have this permission given to them by the culture to enter people's homes, you know, to enter the private lives of people they don't know. And it seems to me it would be both exciting and bizarre to have that kind of access to the sort of intimate maps of strangers' lives.
SHAPIRO: So these stories are tied together by your main character, who is a realtor in Los Angeles. Did you begin by writing the first story, the one in which we first meet her? Or was she a fully conceived character who you then sprinkled throughout these other stories?
MILLET: No, I did begin - you know, I always write in a very plodding, linear way. So, yeah, (laughter) I started with the first story, and then I decided she was kind of interesting enough to me that I would do more stories about her. But, yeah, they were sort of written in exactly the order they appear in the book for the most part.
SHAPIRO: Well, the first story definitely feels comedic, which not all of the stories do. In this one, she imagines that the client she's showing around a house could be the dictator of an African country, and it quickly gets pretty absurd. Will you read from this section of the first story, which is called "Libertines"?
MILLET: I would be happy to. (Reading) He'd have to fall into the new rich category as a dictator, she thought, because a dictator didn't act like old money. She'd read about one recently who showed off on his birthday by eating a baby elephant. Old money - well, maybe they'd eat an aging elephant, maybe an elephant that was already sick if it was on offer at a dinner party. Maybe. They wouldn't care to be rude. Most often, though, fine dining-wise, they'd steer clear of an elephant.
SHAPIRO: This is just so absurdly racist. And she is so indulgent in her fantasies of who this person is. I literally was sitting in a cafe laughing aloud as I read this.
MILLET: (Laughter) Yeah. And she also just fantasizes sort of luxuriously about many of the people she does business with. Until she knows the facts, she kind of has this racing imagination that's, you know, pretty much informed by - what should I call them? - stereotype and archetype and cliche.
SHAPIRO: You play a lot with stereotype and archetype and cliche in this book. Many of the characters seem like very unsympathetic archetypes, whether that's the angry teenager or the vapid mistress. And by the end of the story, or at least by the end of the book, they've become sympathetic. Is that a challenge that you've set for yourself, or is it just the way these characters turn out as you write them?
MILLET: The latter. So I always think or at least I think that I have these - I have sort of instantaneous judgments that I make about people when I meet them in real life. And they can be sort of caricatured assessments of who people are. And they're not without truth. That's always the interesting thing about sort of your first response to someone. They're not without truth. But there's always something there that's obviously more complicated and nuanced and actually far more interesting than those first reductive glimpses that we get of people. I've always been drawn to characters who seem sort of radically irritating at first glance...
MILLET: ...But who actually of course, like all people, are sort of labyrinths, interior labyrinths. And there's much beauty within those mazes of people's characters. You're absolutely right that there's that angry teen who - this boy who is - he's very angry because his father's left his mother, and they have to sell their nice house. And he seems repugnant at first. But as the book goes on, we see how actually devoted he can be to people and how sort of loving he can be past all the anger and the hostility. And I quite like him by the end.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. There's one character who looks at a painting by Bosch on the wall. It's actually not authentic. But she wonders to herself, why do painters make ugly art? And while I don't think anybody would describe your writing as ugly, there is certainly ugliness in it. And we see ugly sides of people. And as this character who it's easy to be kind of contemptuous of asks this kind of obvious, naive question, I thought, well, actually, maybe it's not such an obvious, naive question. Maybe it is worth asking why people put ugliness into works of art, whether that's a book like this or a painting like that.
MILLET: And of course there's an immense realm of subjectivity about what - you know, what is ugly and what is beautiful. And her, this particular character, is - she's looking at homes for her older, richer boyfriend and discovers in the story that really the home's not meant for her to live in with him. And she's sort of reactionary. And she's judgmental. And she's very self-conscious about herself. And what she thinks is beautiful and ugly is quite constrained.
And I think, you know, part of why I like to write characters sometimes that are ugly on the face of it is that we need that to play against what's beautiful that we discover later within them. And also, the ugliness is very real and in itself intriguing and compelling. I can be kind of obsessive about ugliness at times. What we find ugly can be much more informative about who we are than sometimes what we find beautiful.
SHAPIRO: Now that you've put yourself in this world of somebody who gets into parts of people's lives that they're not typically allowed into, do you think differently when you walk into a stranger's home, when you get a glimpse into a person's inner physical life?
MILLET: You know, I wish that I got more chances right now in my life to enter strangers' homes.
MILLET: I just don't have that many such opportunities at the moment. I had many more. I don't know if this has happened to you, but in my 20s and 30s I feel I was constantly going into the homes of people I didn't know very well.
SHAPIRO: Oh, like, invited to the party of a friend of a friend, that sort of thing.
MILLET: Yeah. Now I enter homes that I am already familiar with. And you tend not to appraise them critically because they're like your own home. They're sort of - or like looking at your face in the mirror. They're just too familiar.
SHAPIRO: Well, I think we have an opportunity here. So, Lydia Millet, you're presumably about to go on book tour and visit cities you don't know where people you don't know will come to a book signing. I think we should let people know that you would like to be invited into their homes.
MILLET: (Laughter) Thank you. You've done me a real service.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Lydia Millet, thanks so much.
MILLET: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Her new collection of short stories is called "Fight No More."
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