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Pulitzer prize finalist Lydia Millet publishes her first nonfiction book

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When Lydia Millet started writing her first nonfiction book, she was focused on animals, treating it like an encyclopedia. But as she continued, she shifted to capturing moments of understanding, exploring our connection to the natural world. In her new book, "We Loved It All: A Memory Of Life," which is out today, Millet takes us from vignettes about animals in the natural world to contemplating how to raise children and be a genuinely good citizen during multiple existential crises. I spoke with Lydia Millet about her writing journey.

LYDIA MILLET: When I read a book, I'm always most delighted when I come upon a moment that surprises me, that seems like a window opening onto something I didn't see before or recognize...

FADEL: Yeah.

MILLET: ...Or understand. And I really wanted to, in this particular book, try to make sort of a small tapestry of those moments, this sort of play of light on shadow. And so it was kind of natural, even more natural than it might be for me with fiction, to write it in, like, a stream of pieces that were, like, sort of stepping stones across a across a river or something.

FADEL: Across a life.

MILLET: Across a life, yeah.

FADEL: You have always written fiction. What was the biggest change about going to nonfiction for the first time?

MILLET: With fiction, you always have plausible deniability, right? You can say no.

FADEL: It wasn't me.

MILLET: Yeah, right. It wasn't me. That novel isn't really about me or my sainted mother or my terrible ex-boyfriend. And actually, often that denial is true. But with this, I wanted to write something unfiltered, where I played things as straight as I could and didn't pull my punches and wasn't afraid to be too earnest or too heartfelt. And so what had really preoccupied me in the background for decades was this question of how to raise children and just how to be a genuinely good citizen in this moment of multiple existential crises - you know, how all of us can stay hopeful enough to be forces for generosity and kindness in the world but not - you know, not Positive Pollyannas who tip over into passivity or denial.

FADEL: It's interesting 'cause you write about objectively depressing things - right? - the abuse of animals for human beings' needs, the strangeness of raising a human in the most intimate way, only to have them leave you because that's what the world is. But there is a love and a satire in the writing. How do you do that?

MILLET: Well, first of all, I've never been one to be able to read books that didn't have some tiny sliver of humor in them...

FADEL: Yeah.

MILLET: ...Or cheerfulness. I think I can't help but sometimes reach for, you know, that moment of maybe it's satire or maybe it's just trying to mimic the sort of quiet wit that my father had or - but I always want there to be something to make us stand back, and humor does that, I think.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, your books, and this book also, is so much about interconnectedness and community and our connections to nature. What happens when we sever our connections with nature?

MILLET: I think when we grow up, we're told by the culture and we even tell our own children, as we've been told by our parents, to put away childish things, and the love of animals has been seen as part of that realm of childhood. So very quickly as teenagers we go from being surrounded by animals - because, you know, animals are our songs. They're our clothing. They're our beds. We go really quickly from being surrounded by those other kinds of beings to putting up posters of celebrities on our walls. We go from identifying with other animals to idolizing and competing with other people. And I think if we reclaimed that love and fascination that we have for the others - not only animals, but also trees and plants and the landscapes they live in - what if we allowed ourselves to speak the love that we have for them and grieve for them when they're lost?

FADEL: So much about being a human is about being isolated, right? We're on our phones, and everything can be done without talking to anybody, without interacting with the world. I wonder how you think about that as you write this book that really does look at our interconnectedness and where we find community and the way we are with the world as human beings and what we've done to the world as human beings.

MILLET: Well, I think it's a kind of curious paradox, or at least a conundrum, because, I mean, technology clearly is so dangerous - right? - this Tower of Babel that proliferates seemingly infinitely and that alienates us from each other and from the rest of organic life, but at the same time can bring us so much closer. And it's also a curse. Like, having all this information is so overwhelming, and having all these stimuli and not knowing how to separate the real. So in a way, it can be paralyzing, and in another way, it gives us almost a form of omniscience.

FADEL: When you think about how to tell somebody what this book is about, because it's about so much, how would you describe it, and what are some passages and parts of the book that you look to and think, this is what I was trying to say?

MILLET: Well, first, it was about the animals, and then I understood that I wasn't really in a position to write an encyclopedia. It's more like a hymn or a prayer or some kind of sacred song. In a hymn or prayer, I mean, we have a presence within that, but it's not really about us. I want the book to be about those windows, the sort of moments of recognition and understanding that can suddenly crop up out of the background. I want it to be about maybe sometimes just being able to find, in the sentences, a glimpse of something you didn't see so clearly before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: That's Lydia Millet. She's the author of "We Loved It All: A Memory Of Life." Lydia, thanks so much.

MILLET: Oh, I was delighted to be here. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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