I met with Rebecca Miller on a recent chilly afternoon in New York to talk about her ambitious new novel, Jacob's Folly (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). Her previous books include a story collection, Personal Velocity, and a novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee; she also wrote and directed the films based on these books. While it may be for her films that she is best known (she is also the writer and director of "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" and "Angela"), Rebecca Miller is a novelist in her own right. We took refuge in the warmth of a West Village bistro, and over a long lunch discussed sources of inspiration, acts of sacrilege, and other topics sacred and profane.
Bookforum: Jacob's Folly spans three centuries and features as the protagonist a man who has been reincarnated as a fly. What specifically inspired this book?
Rebecca Miller: Well, I started with the image of a man peeing on his front lawn.
Rebecca Miller: Yes!
Bookforum: That's an arresting image.
Rebecca Miller: And I sensed a kind of sprite—not necessarily evil, but malicious in a slightly comical way—who was looking down at him and laughing. This became Jacob. The idea of him as a fly came from gilgul, which is the reincarnation of souls described in the Kabbalah.
Bookforum: The opening paragraph of Jacob's Folly announces you as a writer who is attuned to craft and the possibilities of language. There is such lyrical acuity in your description of Jacob in the limbo that preceded his reincarnation, "lost as a pomegranate pip in a lake of aspic." Can you talk about the experience of writing about Jacob? Was it liberating?
Rebecca Miller: Absolutely. He's male, he's from the 18th century, he's pre-analysis. I got rid of everything in one stroke, my sex, my time period, my guilt, it all went out the window.
Bookforum: One of the satisfactions of this novel, for me anyway, is that it succeeds at the level of prose but also as a compelling narrative. You really give full play to your imagination. You have these three wildly different characters whose lives overlap in surprising ways: Jacob in 18th century Paris, and two 21st century characters—Leslie Sentazimore, a volunteer fireman, and Masha, an Orthodox Jew.
Rebecca Miller: I think I've gotten successively freer with narrative, more confident, with each book I've written. Each time you make something you have to convince yourself that you don't care what people say, you're just going to do it. In this case I really took to heart something that Milan Kundura wrote about the novel—he said the truth is, the novel can be anything. It's just a longish piece of writing; there are no rules.
Bookforum: Your editor at FSG is the eminent Jonathan Galassi. What was it like working with him?
Rebecca Miller: Like any great director, Jonathan knows exactly how much to say and no more. He knows how to make you do what you need to do without telling you what to do. He knows how to get out of the way. I trust him completely, and I have enormous affection for him.
Bookforum: He also edited your first novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Was it easier the second time around, in the sense that you understood each other's sensibilities?
Rebecca Miller: I suppose so. Although when I came to see Jonathan about Jacob's Folly, I brought this rolley suitcase with all the versions of the book, and he said "What is that? Are you on your way to the airport?" I told him no, it's my book. And he said, "No, no! Don't open the suitcase! I just have three notes." I was really overly assiduous—I think I scared him.
Bookforum: In the first chapter Jacob awakens as a fly, and of course I'm wondering whether Gregor Samsa was on your mind at all when you wrote it.
Rebecca Miller: You'd think so but no, I was thinking more about Isaac Bashevis Singer—you know, his stories are so full of sprites who speak to people. But there are parallels with Kafka. It's almost like I went to the same root.
Bookforum: Certainly the theme of human alienation runs through Jacob's Folly. Jacob is a Jew living in 18th century France, a Catholic country. He's alienated from his wife, his family, his country—
Rebecca Miller: Yes, and in truth, all the characters in Jacob's Folly can be considered alienated to one degree or another. I think alienation is so central to the human condition; it's a theme I keep returning to in my work.
Bookforum: Religious crisis figures prominently, too. I'm thinking of Jacob's Folly but also The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which features a failed priest with an enormous Jesus tattoo on his chest, and even your first film, "Angela," which dramatizes these two little girls hallucinating the Virgin Mary and Lucifer—and there's this tantalizing suggestion that they may not be hallucinations.
Rebecca Miller: All my first questions when I was a little girl were religious questions. I was obsessed with the other world but that obsession was always balanced by this rather earthy, humorous way of looking at life. My father is Jewish and half my family is Jewish, but the Judaism I was given wasn't religious doctrine, it was what you'd call cultural Judaism. I actually got myself baptized when I was 13 and became Catholic for a while, though I was never confirmed. My father was appalled. I just had an intense, I don't know what you would call it, a religious capacity, an instinctive religious faith, but in the end I couldn't really sign up for the Catholic church because I could never believe in what the priests were saying. So I was always somebody who was sort of homeless, a wanderer all my life, dogged by these spiritual questions—I guess my work is always going to reflect this.
Bookforum: You started out as a painter, then progressed to writing and directing a film before publishing your first book. Would you say that your experience in visual mediums has informed your writing?
Rebecca Miller: Absolutely, they're all connected. Maybe I see particularly intensely because I make film, or perhaps I write in a visual way because I want people to envision the scene as intensely I do.
Bookforum: I was struck by passages in Jacob's Folly that reflected a painterly—or you could also call it a filmic—sensibility. "He sat down, her shadow traveling up his body again." I read this and I thought, another writer wouldn't have described a shadow moving that way, another writer wouldn't have seen it.
Rebecca Miller: People always want to figure out who you are—are you this or are you that? If they identify you as mostly as that, then surely you must be a dilettante in the other thing. Whereas it's really I think a natural thing in the arts to speak more than one language. I particularly like that passage you mentioned because it evokes the idea that he's almost drowning in her, like there's this moment he rises as a swimmer out of her shadow and then he sits down again and he's submerged. It works both visually and metaphorically. That's why writing fiction is so rewarding to me, because you can go vertically, so deep.
Bookforum: As a filmmaker, I would imagine you might feel constrained, in that there are expectations about how to tell the story and engage the audience.
Rebecca Miller: The truth is, movies have to move laterally, in a horizontal, progressive manner, whereas books are wonderfully discursive and you can digress and go vertically, really deep. One of the reasons I use a lot of voiceovers in my films is that I crave the layering and the depth. I wanted Jacob's Folly to be purely a book. I don't see it as a film, I don't know if it could ever be a film, but I don't care at this point. I just really wanted to have a pure experience of writing a book, the bookness of the book.
Bookforum: Do you make art to exorcise demons or to court them?
Rebecca Miller: I'm more of a courting demons kind of person. I like my demons inside of me. I don't want to get rid of them.
- - -
Rebecca Donner is the author of the novel Sunset Terrace and the graphic novel Burnout. Her reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The New York Times, and the Believer. Visit her online at rebeccadonner.com.