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Exclusive Q&A: Lydia Millet’s Celebrity-Filled Animal Planet

To say that Lydia Millet’s first book of short stories (after six novels) is merely a tome about human and animal relationships would be a blatant understatement — too Cesar’s Way. In Love in Infant Monkeys, the animal and human (er, superhuman, in the case of Madonna in the opening story, “Sexing the Pheasant”) hierarchy is leveled, with each influencing the other’s life, decisions, and emotions. You meet David Hasselhoff’s dog, the elephant that Thomas Edison electrocuted, and a ferocious Komodo dragon that an Indonesian billionaire bought for Sharon Stone.

After the jump, Millet discusses why she saw Noam Chomsky at the dump, which animal humans resemble the most, and what she’d like to do to a baby spider.

Flavorpill: How did you choose the humans to write about in this collection of short stories?

Lydia Millet: It started with an autobiography I read by Joy Adamson’s husband George — you know, of Born Free, the late-’60s lion movie. I wrote about him, and then decided I wanted to write about other known figures and their encounters with animals. I wanted to do some more fictional riffs on true pairings. I’m always listening for animal stories, so in this case I was listening, and browsing, for celebrity-and-animal stories or relationships. These were just the ones that filtered down to me and caught my attention. Except for the one about Noam Chomsky in the dump — my husband actually ran into him there, and he was actually trying to get rid of a gerbil cage.

FP: Many evolution theorists believe humans descended from apes. In your opinion, what animal are humans most like?

LM: Yes, I’ve heard that rumor too…then someone reassured me. They were all, “No, man, God made the world in seven days and also made us, too. So we’re totally special!” And I was all like, “Whew, what a relief. Because chimps throw their feces. Bonobos have sex all the time. Gorillas eat their lice, or whatever. So I would be totally humiliated to be in their club! All we do is build massive bombs, heat up the globe till everything else dies, and sometimes genocide!”

On a global population scale, we’re clearly pests — pernicious vermin. On a personal scale, we can be anything. No one animal is a symbol of us, other than us. But we have so many animals in us. In some sense we’re composed entirely of other animals, their attributes and habits and mythologies.

FP: You’re an author, so it goes without saying that you’d be keen on the human experience, but you seem to know a lot about animal nature, too. Where does this knowledge stem from?

LM: I wouldn’t call myself any kind of expert but I’ve always loved animals, always, always. It stems from the stories of childhood, the talking beasts of Narnia and Beverly Nichols, even from the genius of Dr. Seuss.

FP: If you could spend the entire day with either your favorite animal breed or your favorite celebrity, which would it be?

LM: Oh, I’d do a dolphin swim before a Noam Chomsky Starbucks date any day, but I fear I’d annoy the dolphin even more than I’d irritate Chomsky.

FP: Would the title story have had the same outcome if it wasn’t about the main character Harry Harlow and his monkeys, but Harry Harlow and his spiders (or squid, or flying bat)?

LM: At first, it seems like a no-brainer. If it were different, would it have been different? But I sense there may be wheels within wheels. Now you’ve got me thinking I’d like to discover some stories about spider behavioral experiments. Has anyone put baby spiders in Skinner boxes after removing them from their spider mothers, for instance? Where is that fiend, and may I write about him next?

FP: Which animal in which of these short stories most mirrors you?

LM: Probably the murderous circus elephant.

FP: Do you have any pets?

LM: Twenty tropical fish and a pug dog.

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