Tucson-based author Lydia Millet reflects on themes of climate change, place, and privilege in her new book Dinosaurs.
In her essay on Arizona in State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, Lydia Millet writes, with distress and awe, of her home in the Avra Valley outside of Tucson, a “place where the horrible meets the divine.” She misses “the dense intellectual cover of places like New York, Boston, or Chicago.” She thinks of her house and others nearby as “scar[s] on the face of the land.” Trying her damnedest for equanimity, she considers the rifle-toting neighbors, processed-food stocked mini-mart, fresh produce stand, vermin-kill- ing braggarts, and landscape-scrapping homeowners around her. She attempts to fit in, then gives up. Of the scene in which she’d planted herself, she writes, “It was the canteen from Star Wars, minus the diversity.” But the Sonoran Desert, with its abundant biodiversity, strange and alluring plant life, big sky, open space, and birds, so many birds, “is the closest I’ve ever come to the eternal and the sublime.”
Millet takes my call while she’s walking among her saguaros, cholla, ironwood, mesquite, palo verde, and prickly pear. This is also where she writes. Most recently, the novel Dinosaurs, her first set in the desert. Imbued with the violence people inflict on each other, as well as on the natural environments they inhabit, the book is nonetheless quiet and contemplative, with snappy dialogue and rich interiority, often quite funny, and ultimately uplifting.
Animals aren’t forefront as in her short-story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys (finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize). Absent are the irreverent inner monologue of the main character in Mermaids in Paradise (2015), and the tempered voice of teenager Evie in 2020’s apocalyptic A Children’s Bible (both National Book Award finalists). In Dinosaurs, the recently jilted Gil walks from Manhattan to Phoenix, moving into a “castle” next to a glass-walled modern home through which he finds a family. Gil has inherited money via, aptly, oil and gas, volunteers at every opportunity, is humble and unassuming. He impacts the lives of others—birds and children, men and women—through small, courageous acts of compassionate intervention.
Like Gil, Millet strives to be “useful in some practical way” (she finds fiction writing necessary but “self-indulgent”): She works thirty hours a week at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson as a writer and editor. “It makes me feel not alone in the longing I have for a world where we stand up for other forms of life,” she explains. “To be involved in that struggle, even though I’m not important in the struggle, is really important to me.” After talking pack rats and Gambel’s quail, Millet ventured into the singular visibility the desert affords its denizens and watchers, the ontological impacts of desert life on writing, and the value of humanity.
Your protagonist, Gil, chooses Arizona because of the desert’s “alien beauty.” You moved to Tucson about twenty years ago, like Gil, from Manhattan. In what ways do the desert landscape and its “alien” aesthetic attract, speak to, or resonate with you?
Arizona is so many landscapes; the diversity is quite extraordinary. But the Sonoran Desert is sublime, with rich biological diversity, especially underground. Above ground it resembles a terrarium, or an undersea coral reef. Everything in it seems deliberately placed, making all things visible. In the desert, we can see because our tree canopy often is non-existent or trees are widely spaced. And the morphologies are so strange with the different kinds of cacti and thorny trees; all of the vegetation is involved in a constant act of self-defense. The landscape is visually stunning and seems a product of intelligent design, but also you can’t touch it.
And I love the colors. Some people see the desert as brown; I can imagine that at times. But to me it’s really green, the sage green we see in different biomes in the Southwest. Those gradations have always appealed to me rather than the bright greens of the East Coast or the tropics. The sage-green-gray palette complements the bright flowers, and beautiful animals and snakes and insects and butterflies, and the huge sky with massive billowing anvil-like clouds in which you can see the Milky Way at night. The visibility of the animals, the sky, and the strange morphology of the desert are what drew me at first and still do.
Your prose, especially the dialogue and characters’ interiority in Dinosaurs, is so clean, spare, and just a bit prickly in a modern, clever way. How has living in the desert affected your writing style and narrative choices over time?
That’s difficult for me to diagnose. The main thing about living in the Southwest, rather than New York or LA or North Carolina, all of those places felt faster to me. Time seemed to move more quickly. The day moved more quickly. I felt the presence of human momentum and the velocity of so many lives, which left less room for silence, which, like embracing white space and the margins of your text, is a crucial part of the kind of writing I try to do. That physical and temporal spaciousness in the landscape and sky made it easier for me to get work done. And to be more deliberate in my work. I could breathe deeply and approach the work with less panic and urgency.
As for subject matter, I’d only written about the desert, before Dinosaurs, in little bits of nonfiction and a couple of shorter fiction pieces. Because the desert feels sort of sacred to me. I wish I could say definitely that my style has been altered by living here. I’m sure it has. I just can’t say how. I hope there’s more rigor, or meditativeness in my work, than there was in my twenties. But I can’t say if that’s getting older or the landscape. It’s a chicken-or-egg situation: did I choose to live here because I wanted to write toward this kind of landscape, or vice versa?
Why, in our era of anthropogenic climate change, is the Southwest a particularly poignant backdrop for this novel and its characters, many of whom enjoy extreme wealth and white privilege?
Dinosaurs is a quiet, realistic novel of contemporary life, but with the backdrop of pending catastrophic climate change and extinction. It was perfect to set it in the Southwest because in some ways we’re not on the current front lines of climate change, even though it’s happening around us. It’s not as visible here. We don’t have the wildfires of California or the Pacific Northwest. We don’t have evidence of sea-level rise or hurricanes in the Gulf, or the tornadoes of the Midwest. We do have an immense 1200-year drought and water scares for decades. We do have the diminishment and anomalous behavior of the monsoons, along with growing suspicions about how the saguaros are faring, and trophic mismatch, as when plants start to bloom at the wrong times. So, the Phoenix suburbs was a good place to set a certain oasis of privilege. The characters are sheltered enough to be protected from truly urgent existential fear and immediate chaos, but they’re not oblivious.
And they’re still surrounded by violence, including domestic abuse, bullying, drunken driving, illegal wildlife shooting.
You can’t, even here, escape people who kill for pleasure, whether birds or people. You can’t escape social strain and distress. And behind all of that in this enclave in Phoenix is another more existential global threat that’s partly invisible to the characters.
You deal with climate change more obliquely in Dinosaurs than you have in past novels. Is the care and compassion conveyed by the characters, their love for each other, enough in an age of extinction?
For sure. We can’t escape the onslaught of data on climate change from the larger world. But we first need to live in our neighborhoods with other human beings. Many of us don’t have that. My neighbors here are largely unknown to me; two or three of them shoot off rifles in their front yards on a regular basis. So, it’s not easy to get to know people. Part of writing this book was a wish-fulfillment fantasy, as I’ve had times in my life, just not here in Arizona, where people have really befriended me, took me under their wing even as an adult. I felt that was a form of grace. So, I was writing a version of that.
Oh, I thought your wish-fulfillment fantasy was of dealing with the gun enthusiasts next door, as Gil does in the book.
[Laughs] Oh, I don’t have the chutzpah to confront a guy with a gun. I don’t have a good feeling about the outcome of that encounter. It’s not only cowardice, it’s rational—being a woman and other demographic factors. And I wasn’t raised in a confrontational family; none of us has grown up to be people who do that. Part of Gil’s campaign is the notion that you could go against your own impulses in the name of something you believe in, however small but meaningful, whether on behalf of birds or children.
In the first sentence of Dinosaurs, you introduce not a flesh-and-blood bird, but a drone, described shortly thereafter as a “metal bird.” How did you make this choice, as real birds serve as structure, chapter headings, and metaphor throughout the novel?
A lot in the book is about visibility, about the seeing of others. The desert is a great place for birds and birders. In the book, there’s the visibility of the family behind glass. Also, we experience a curious disjunction with birds. We look at them and don’t always realize they’re descended from dinosaurs. They are what the dinosaurs became. We think of dinosaurs as the archetypal extinct beings, the fearsome monsters that walked the earth and are no more. Birds are just everyday little creatures we take for granted, but live in this lineage with massive extinct creatures.
So, who are the real dinosaurs in the novel? Who or what is evolving or going extinct?
That would be telling! I wanted to create multiple levels of meaning; some answers are obvious, some interpretations less so. But nothing so facile as white men. It’s just such a good word, “dinosaurs.” I haven’t told many people this, but the book’s first title was “Men of Birds.” I decided to appropriate some of the T. rex’s glamor for my title instead.
The novel’s conclusion is lovely. I’m reminded of how everything in the world is intricately interconnected, without beginning or end. Do you see Gil’s pain and drug-induced thoughts as elegy, or epiphany, in our era of environmental destruction?
I always write to a moment of recognition at the end of my books, whether of rapture, ecstasy, or understanding. Gil running into the cholla, my son did that when he was three. It was brutal. He literally ran full tilt into a jumping cholla and had to have hundreds of spines taken out with pliers. But with regard to your question: We suffer from this separation of ourselves from the rest of the animals, which is grievously hurting us and the natural world. The ways in which we ignore whole categories of people are also pernicious and widely devastating. That final moment with Gil touches on a small part of what it is to be human, which is to be an animal among other things, and to find that glorious.