The writer filmmaker talks to Anita Sethi about the roles of magic, humor, and research in her new novel, Jacob's Folly.
Rebecca Miller, photo by Ronan Day-Lewis
Rebecca Miller is the author of the short story collection Personal Velocity, her film adaptation of which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. She is the writer-director of Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and the novel and film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which was published in over 30 countries. Her ambitious new novel Jacob’s Folly (Canongate) skillfully straddles time and geography, exploring morality, faith, sexuality, and the possibilities of self-creation through the interwoven stories of an 18th-century Parisian Jewish peddler who wakes up to find himself reincarnated as a fly in 21st-century America, able to influence the lives of a fireman, Lewis, and a young Orthodox Jewish woman, Masha. Daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, Rebecca lives with her husband the actor Daniel Day-Lewis and their children, in Ireland and New York, and has also worked as a painter and actress.
—Anita Sethi for Guernica
Guernica: Jacob’s Folly is narrated by a reincarnated fly, “a compulsive observer”—what made you choose that playful ‘fly on the wall’ device?
Rebecca Miller: In my voracious reading about Jewish folklore I came across a fascinating book by a Satmar Jew who had ten children—one of her grown daughters is being followed by a fly all day and says, maybe it’s a soul doing penance—‘gilgul’ is the reincarnation of Jewish souls.
As if there’s a world that exists that you’re semi-privy to yet can’t quite penetrate—that’s how it feels when you’re starting a book.
Guernica: The fly also seems to have the omniscient powers of an author?
Rebecca Miller: My best friend, the novelist Barbara Browning read the novel and said—the fly’s the writer isn’t he? In a way he is and I hadn’t thought that, which shows how unconscious I am when I write. The fly has the same problems of a writer—he’s frustrated as he can get right into the heads of Masha and Leslie but he can only get dim echoes of the ancillary characters. How to get in: as if there’s a world that exists that you’re semi-privy to yet can’t quite penetrate—that’s how it feels when you’re starting a book.
Guernica: You interweave folklore, reincarnation, magic and superstition. How did you research the book?
Rebecca Miller: It was a huge process. Given how much of a fantasy this was, I had to be very concrete. The idea of animals that have those powers is a tradition that Isaac Bashevis Singer and even Kafka are coming out of. A lot of my research was of that tradition. Part of my field research was staying in the home of an observant Jewish family. My research assistant Max McGuinness helped with the Enlightenment thought. This book led me through so many rabbit holes. I became very interested in the history of anti-semitism in France, which the book traces. One of the trickiest things was stylistic shifts, going from the lush figurative language of Jacob to the compacted language of Leslie and lilt of Masha.
Writing is acting in the sense that you’re imagining and inhabiting another. In the book I was trying to get at the root of what true acting is.
Guernica: At one point, all protagonists—including the fly—feel suicidal as their lives unravel, yet it’s also a very funny novel—how did you strike that balance?
Rebecca Miller: I felt it was like a soufflé—I was trying to get it to puff up and then quickly take it out of the oven before it imploded. Jacob’s voice that carries over the ages is very buoyant—finding his voice helped—I would write until I was hooked into that frequency and he would get me through. It’s also a decision about how to see life—the whole book is a way of looking at the dark side but seeing the humor. Also: I was interested in the mystical element of humor—was humor part of creation? Is God laughing at us, or with us?
We learn how to be people from other people. Then you think—what’s personal freedom? Is self-creation possible?
Guernica: Acting is a pervasive theme—Masha yearns to be an actress—and you explore personality as a performance. Does being immersed in the acting world—having directed plays yourself, and being daughter of a playwright and married to an actor—affect your writing?
Rebecca Miller: I’m sure that it does in the sense that I have an ear for how people speak which is a big component of how I work. I’m really interested in the minutiae of different tones and what that explains—how people’s backgrounds are reflected in minute details of how they interact. It’s true that I’m hypersensitive to all that. Writing is acting in the sense that you’re imagining and inhabiting another. In the book I was trying to get at the root of what true acting is.
I’m fascinated by what makes up a self, how one becomes a self, how much is it an answer to others and how much is it an essence of self. We learn how to be people from other people. Then you think—what’s personal freedom? Is self-creation possible? This book is dedicated to a friend of mine who really did re-create herself. I didn’t do that—I stayed in the circus and am a circus performer like my parents were. I did what I was raised to do—I’m glad I did but I’m fascinated by the people who managed to do something else. I was always very curious about other people. I would always stare and my mother would say—just please close your mouth!
Writing is still a bit of a miracle—the whole process: I see the world, filter the world, write down abstract squiggles on a page which somebody is then able to connect with. I’m still amazed by it and think I always will be.
Guernica: Does being a painter by training affected your approach to writing?
Rebecca Miller: It’s definitely deep in my bones seeing things in that way. I was trained to look at colour, edges, to see negative space. I honestly think my greatest influence as a writer is from Cubism—the idea of a multi-faceted, multi-perspective way of looking at things. Looking at paintings was a huge part of finding my way into the lush world of the 18th century.
Guernica: You’ve described learning about dialogue through listening to your father reading aloud. Do you like reading aloud?
Rebecca Miller: I’ve enjoyed reading this book aloud more than any other. I kept reading the book aloud the whole time partly because it’s meant to be—Jacob’s talking to you, telling you a story. Also, performance is part of your life as a writer.
Deirdre Maddon has an extraordinary, almost celestial way of telling a story. There are so many great writers now—although I also want to go back and read all of Dickens again.
Guernica: Do you have any writing routines?
Rebecca Miller: Get to the desk as fast as possible—and start typing!
Guernica: Who is the first person to read your work?
Rebecca Miller: My friend Barbara Browning, then my agent and editor. I had a draft I let Barbara read and she was really helpful—it was almost like opening up the engine.
Guernica: Did you always want to be a novelist as well as a film-maker?
Rebecca Miller: I evolved in this very unplanned way. I was 100 percent sure when I left university that I was going to be a painter. Then I had a crisis, a revelation. I saw Dolce Vita and my mind was blown by it, by the synthesis. I realised I wanted to be a filmmaker and started making films. I was writing screenplays and couldn’t get money because my work was so uncommercial. I got married, had a child and started writing fiction. What was wonderful is that it gave me my freedom because no-one can tell me I can’t work. Novels have become equally important to me as films. I consider myself a storyteller and passionately engaged in both of those disciplines. I got wonderful advice from a friend about bridging the gap between the two disciplines, slowing down, engaging your senses. I have a great drive to make things and sometimes I forget to slow down a little.
I do think it is a kind of illness in the sense that it sets you apart, it injects you with an endless, unslakable thirst to keep making the thing. The artist has to voluntarily use themselves endlessly.
Guernica: What books did you read as a child?
Rebecca Miller: I read the entire Nancy Drew series. When I was 11, I was assigned to read Little Women for the third time, because the girls had to read Little Women. I remember saying to my teacher, could I please read another book? He presented me with Moby Dick—it was a life-changer. I loved it, realizing that something could be complex, but a really good story. That became the ideal.
Guernica: And which writers do you most admire now?
Rebecca Miller: Deirdre Maddon has an extraordinary, almost celestial way of telling a story. There are so many great writers now—although I also want to go back and read all of Dickens again.
Guernica: “Being an artist is a malady, a kind of illness, a kind of self-loss, a possession”, you’ve said—what did you mean by that?
Rebecca Miller: Masha has pericarditis and ghost pains. She’s also sick with art, sick because she’s full of art. I don’t know if one day they’re going to discover the virus. I do think it is a kind of illness in the sense that it sets you apart, it injects you with an endless, unslakable thirst to keep making the thing—and I think it can drive people crazy, for sure. It’s almost like a visitation—you’re inhabited. The artist has to voluntarily use themselves endlessly.
A sub-theme in the book is being an artist and possession—to what degree you’re looking to lose yourself, for freedom of self, but hoping to come together again.
One of the things that’s good for me is that I can go from one art form to another. Because I think if I had to write another novel now I would really not be good in my head anymore. It’s too much. The frustration is so intense of knowing that this structure is right around the corner. Writing is a particular kind of frustration, which is why when I was making the structure for the novel I visualized it for myself with a color-coded board so I could see it. I had to be able to see it and touch it, to avoid being tantalized to death by the structure I was trying to get right but was like sand through my fingers. Reifying it was reassuring. I also think in this time where nothing is real, we work virtually so much, having an index card and moving it from here to there helped. I think people need something real.
Guernica: Family life—and the hidden secrets and traumas within families—is a theme you return to in your work again and again—why?
Rebecca Miller: I suppose that’s finally where the best stuff is. In so much of great literature—from Ibsen to Woolf and Joyce—the family dynamic is the natural place to play out ideas. Perhaps having children makes me more inclined to inhabit that arena, but I don’t think it’s an exclusively female domain—look at Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Guernica: Do you have plans to adapt Jacob’s Folly into a film?
Rebecca Miller: Not at the moment. I am going to experiment with how it could be done. I’d rather go on to other things and come back to it. In the past I’ve always done it before the wounds have healed—because to write something you have to open up a lot of wounds. When I look back at Personal Velocity I couldn’t write that book now, nor could I have written this book ten years ago. I think it was Tolstoy who said: “in each book the author stands still for a self-portrait”—we evolve and we’re not the same person. Now I think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to get more distance. It would be a huge undertaking to get the inner voice—with lots of special effects. This whole book is an experiment, really. I think it’s very important to keep being frightened—if you’re not frightening yourself, you should take a break. You need to keep experimenting. You also need to take time—that’s how you do good stuff—layering and depth of knowledge.