Lydia Millet on the lack of empathetic characters in fiction ‹ Literary Hub

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This week on The Maris magazineLydia Millet joins Maris Kreizman to discuss her new novel, Dinosaursreleased now from WW Norton.

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On her fascination with dollhouses:

Maris Kreizman: Gil’s next door neighbors live in a real glass house.

Lydia Millet: There’s something so fascinating about dollhouses and the way they open. The miniaturization of anything is kind of its own wonder. I think I wanted to do that with this book, where it’s this dollhouse that opens up, and you’re in the cross section and you watch. I didn’t take that to its literal extreme in the book. There is only one suggestion on this. Because [Gil] does not fix after the start. There’s a common thread where he sees things he’s not sure he should, but it’s not a constant delight with dolls. It gets a little more real after that first period of realization that he’s looking in that terrarium next door… he goes from kind of objectivating to, I guess he could also be considered one of the objects himself. same. As soon as you stop being outside of something, you can’t really objectify it.

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Trying to match your profile:

Gil is someone who feels lost in his life and that his availability as a kind of servant to others is all he has to offer. So he tries to stick to the profile. This particular [women’s] shelter is in the minority for actually having male volunteers. I actually wanted to volunteer at a shelter as a researcher for this book, but the pandemic intervened. So it’s quite imaginary, but I know that these programs exist under different names. He failed to volunteer, so he is very grateful to be invited into the lives of the women in this house. The only other man there is Jason, who isn’t particularly like Gil but shares a similar abandonment and isolation… Gil ends up caring for Jason more than women.

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On the lack of empathetic characters in fiction:

Maris Kreizman: If I had to name Gil’s biggest flaw, I’d say it’s that he’s too empathetic. We don’t see a lot of that, especially in fiction. He’s so open. And we also know that Gil had the experience of being taken advantage of and realizing that his interactions with everyone won’t always be sincere if they know he has wealth.

Lydia Millet: I’ve always been mostly into people as characters that aren’t as open or have a lot of blind spots. Because characters with lots of blind spots are fun to write. And we all have them, so even if they’re extreme, they’re still realistic because our blind spots are so ubiquitous and we never know what they are. That’s the nature of a blind spot! So I wrote a lot of characters that can be open to some degree, or they can be closed. They can be social and outgoing or they can be withdrawn and protective. But anyway, they have all these blind spots. And Gil has it too, some kind of innocence or whatever. You can’t be human without forms of not seeing yourself, but he’s not someone who is satirical in his lack of self-awareness.

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Recommended reading:

wild new world by Dan Flores • Kick the latch by Kathryn Scanlan

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Lydia Millet is the author of A bible for childrenNational Book Award finalist and a New York Times Top 10 books of 2020, among other works of fiction. His collection of stories Love in Baby Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. His latest novel is called Dinosaurs.

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