The Rest Was Just Imagination: An Interview with Lydia Millet
Lydia Millet is a prolific novelist and Pulitzer Prize finalist whose work has received the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and, recently, a Guggenheim Fellowship. Millet is a keen satirist—both dark and affectionate, brutal and humane. This interview began as an inquiry into her work as a copy editor for Larry Flynt Publications, from 1991 to 1994.
THE BELIEVER: When did you first begin to work for Larry Flynt Publications?
LYDIA MILLET: I was desperate. Right after college I went to grad school but dropped out after one term and moved to LA; it was 1991 and there was the first Gulf War and a recession on. I’m sorry, “economic downturn.” After a few jobless months of increasing anxiety, I got a job as a dogsbody for a failing screenplay agent/lawyer who ran light scams, then an aging producer of TV after-school specials who threw a five-gallon Sparkletts bottle at my head. When someone told me I could take a proofreading test at LFP and join the copy pool if I passed, I jumped for joy. The proofreading marks were right there in the dictionary, under “Proofreading Marks.” I worked there for three years, correcting typos in magazines like SWAT: Special Weapons and Tactics for the Prepared American, Fighting Knives: America’s Most Incisive Cutlery Publication, Busty Beauties, and, finally, Hustler.
BLVR: How long did you stick around after the Sparkletts bottle? That sounds like an awful situation.
LM: Well. If you’re going to insist on honesty, it was an empty Sparkletts bottle. And it didn’t actually hit me. Still, the insult rankled. My boss made me put a car cover on her white Jaguar every morning. It was awkward, grappling with that cover. I had a spiral perm in those days, a kind of boxy, poodle-head look, and wore ’80s office clothing—shoulder pads, floral prints. So picture that, if you’re made of strong enough mettle. A poodle-head wrangling a car cover. All told, not a self-esteem booster. These were jobs that paid under $250 a week with no benefits. Before taxes.
BLVR: Once you joined LFP, did you have say over which magazines you edited? Did you have a preference?
LM: In the copy pool you went where you were asked to go. At the beginning I was put on magazines for weapons enthusiasts, which no one else wanted to do. However, our copy chief, Kim, was a humanitarian. I think she knew I’d rather do porn than guns, in the end. Love not war, etc. That’s how I roll. So she moved me.
BLVR: Your book Everyone’s Pretty is reportedly based on your time working with LFP. Could you talk about this influence in specific terms? The book doesn’t seem concerned with reporting on or analyzing the pornography industry.
LM: No, that was other people’s bailiwick. To me, mass-produced pornography is excruciatingly boring and the industry only a little less so. I was mostly interested in the styles of neurosis I met there.
BLVR: Whose neuroses?
LM: My favorite was the reader mail. There, technically, I guess we’re talking full-out psychosis more than anything—inmates were our biggest correspondents. Once, Richard Ramirez called my editor up on the phone. Our readers sent us rude ephemera, potatoes shaped like penises—that kind of deal. The neurotics were mostly coworkers, people who did bondage sessions right in their offices, friendly cross-dressers, aging queens in bad wigs. I liked many of them very much.
BLVR: Would you be willing to talk more about the nature of the boredom you mentioned? I was interested in the distinctions you make between the materials and the institution producing them, as well as the specificity of your objection to “mass-produced” pornography.
LM: The porn I encountered then was pretty formulaic. Amateur stuff hadn’t fully hit, with the web still in its infancy. It was all fairly glossy and dull, I thought. I did like the comic aspect of it, sets of archetypal morons transacting sex in a series of coded clichés, but it wasn’t often interesting.
BLVR: Your writing is brutally satirical at times, but it never feels as if it were written without optimism. I say this because your characters are lovable, and they love. Even the more despicable ones, such as Dean Decetes, the would-be pornographer with delusions of messianic proportions, read as if they were written with a certain delight on your behalf, or at the very least a kind of wonder.
LM: I do love Dean Decetes—although it’s perverse, or at least revoltingly precious, to talk about loving people you made up yourself; moronic, finally. Still, with the proviso that I’ve pulled back a bit, as I grew up and wrote further books, from blatantly vile protagonists, I do find them funny and I like to read them even today in others’ work. There’s something I always savor about a corrupt, solipsistic, poignant mess of a protagonist. (Some of the principals in Everyone’s Pretty are named after Hustler cartoonists of yesteryear, incidentally.) Dean Decetes, the idea of whom drove the writing of that particular book—my second, though not published till years later; I wrote it when I was about twenty-six, I think—was based on about three men I knew at Hustler, each editors of separate porn titles in the Larry Flynt stable. One was a former porn stud himself who always seemed to be half-pining for those halcyon days. One was an angry, depressed, intelligent power-monger. The last was a decrepit, office-couch-sleeping worshiper of large breasts. I think it’s self-evident that they were intriguing.
BLVR: When you find yourself engaging with a potential subject, how do you approach investigating him/her/it?
LM: I sure don’t have a rigorous investigative method. I knew those guys as well as instinct allowed—that is, decently, casually—without attaining intimate knowledge. I wasn’t close to any of them, but we did work together daily and I was fairly able to predict their behavior. The rest was just imagination.
BLVR: I’ve read that you found a partner while copyediting Hustler. What was it like to become involved with someone in that environment?
LM: He’s still one of my best friends, more than twenty years after we met and more than a decade after we broke up. There was kind of a bunker mentality in the underpaid LFP editorial pool—we were overeducated and bored and it was just before the internet got big and smoking got banned. We smoked in our offices, slept under our desks, and joked a lot. Of the people I knew in that Beverly Hills office, three besides me went on to write well-regarded books, my old boyfriend’s a creative at Disney, and my office mate’s a tenured professor at Dartmouth. And that’s just the ones I’ve followed. It was a time when young people in LA needed work, and Hustler was there.
BLVR: You’ve said before that this work was “educational—more so than either of the master’s programs [you] attended.”
LM: It was good old diversity of experience, that’s all. It led me out of my sheltered cove, which grad school never did. I hadn’t had much experience of community, other than school, and school isn’t a community you want to write about forever. Young, upper-middle-class fiction writers should probably both read voraciously and get into the world outside college before they presume to show anyone a book they’ve written.
BLVR: I’m curious what your thoughts were going into something like copyediting at Hustler. Did you have reservations?
LM: I knew I was hurting women, in the large, vague, aggregate way that sometimes feels too abstract to be real. It’s real, of course. I didn’t like being an antifeminist by default. Hustler was also full of racist jokes—stupid ones, too. So I got paid to be a part of that. On the other hand, I needed work and I knew it would be good for me to spend time with people who weren’t like me. I suffered a temporary cynicism, in both my personal life and my work, but as the years passed I grew out of it and now I see it did more good for me than bad. In the end, I came out less pretentious and more imaginative than I went in. I came out better.