Q&A with Rebecca Miller

Arts & Books

Q&A with Rebecca Miller

Stewart Kampel

Rebecca Miller.
Rebecca Miller has a full-fledged resumé. She is a director, author and screenwriter (Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, her adaptation of a collection of her short stories of the same title, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002).

She was born in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1962, the daughter of Arthur Miller, the most important American playwright of the 20th century, and Inge Morath, the Austrian-born photographer and a Protestant. For a time, as a teenager, Rebecca Miller flirted with Roman Catholicism. She initially pursued an acting career and had parts in the television movie The Murder of Mary Phagan and in eight feature films, including Regarding Henry. She also wrote and directed several other films, including The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which she adapted from her novel of the same name, in 2009.

Miller is married to Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who she met when the actor and her father were preparing the film version of The Crucible. They have two teenage sons and she is the stepmother of her husband’s son with the actress Isabelle Adjani. They have homes in Ireland and New York.

I spoke to Miller about her most recent novel, Jacob’s Folly (read my review of the novel here).

Q. What does the title Jacob’s Folly mean?
A. The idea of folly is that it is an aesthetic value that has no purpose. According to the dictionary, it is an absurdity, a foolish undertaking. In the book, folly is also a building meant to perplex and entertain.

Q. Your book’s main character becomes a fly. This is reminiscent, obviously, of Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis and the flighty spirits that inhabit the literature of Isaac Bashevis Singer. I understand your influence was more Singer than Kafka. How much of Singer did you read?
A. Quite a bit. I started reading Singer in an attempt to get into the Jewish culture of the last century. He echoes older images and ideas. I read a lot about Jewish folklore. Singer used these sprites with so much playfulness and freedom. I love Singer’s blend of folkloric magic and at the same time a kind of hyperrealism. That to me is close to what I was doing. He led me to Jewish folk tales, and I hadn’t read any before I started this book.

Q. Why Paris of 1773? How did you choose your characters’ names?
A. I’ve always had a great interest in 18th-century France. And once I discovered gilgul, the reincarnation of souls described in the Kabbala, I knew the two main characters had to be Jewish. The history of the Jews of 18th-century Paris was minutely scripted, particularly in the police reports. I used the real name of the police inspector, Buhot, for the character who records Jews’ misdeeds. He wrote out descriptions of every single Jewish male in Paris, whether they had families, what the names of their children were, if they were of good character or bad character, what they sold as merchants and peddlers, how long their passports were for, what address they lived in. It was the origins of anti-Semitism in France.

With the French Revolution, along with everyone else, came citizenship for the Jews, which was an amazing thing. That came after the character Jacob’s time, but at the same time, a lot of the seeds of what became the Vichy government and cooperation with the Nazis were being sown during the Enlightenment. I used the name Gimpel, immortalized in Jewish literature as Gimpel the Fool. In this book, Gimpel is no fool.

Q. Why did you pick Long Island for the contemporary part of the book?
A. I picked Long Island because I knew someone who is a volunteer fireman in Patchogue. That’s sort of midway between East Hampton, where I spend some time, and Far Rockaway, Queens. It made sense geographically. It took a while to decide on Far Rockaway but the relatively small landscape there seemed appropriate.

Q. You spent five years researching this book. Before then, you had only a minimal knowledge of Jewish ritual and practice. Are you suggesting that it is a good idea to escape from the ultra-Orthodox world?
A. I tried very hard not to say good or bad things about the ultra-Orthodox way of life. I came to it with my eyes and ears open and discovered a lot of beauty.

Q. You have described how Jacob’s “voice” sounded inside your head. What made him special for you?
A. One thing that was like a gift was Jacob’s voice. It was very natural for me to go inside Jacob’s head after all the research I had done. Once I knew the period and I started to get a sense of who he was, it came to me pretty loud and clear. Jacob was a very liberating character to write both because he is male but also because he really doesn’t have guilt. He was sort of wonderfully wicked to write. Nothing in writing this book was easy, but it was a joyful and liberating experience.

Q. You’ve said that Jacob is “mischievous and sometimes malevolent,” but he has his own transformation through the arc of the story. How would you describe his transformation?
A. Jacob never denies God. He may be absolutely furious with God. In a way it’s like a son yelling at his father.

Q. What fascinates you about assimilation?
A. In truth, all the characters in Jacob’s Folly can be considered alienated to one degree or another. I think alienation is central to the human condition. Assimilation comes down to a choice of freedom versus responsibility. Anyone with children understands this. Alienation is one of the great themes of humanity. Think of the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. You can feel it. There is a sense of loneliness across the board. It is inherent in our condition.

Q. Can you describe the sprite that Jacob became? You said the idea came from the Kabbala. Does Kabbala still interest you?
A. The sprite is a gesture of freedom. You can sense a moment of freedom for a man who has little freedom in his life. I have read some Kabbala but I’m a storyteller, not a scholar. At some point I started to get overwhelmed.

Q. You have said that as a little girl you were obsessed with “the other world.” What do you mean?
A. All my 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 was 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 was always somebody who was sort of homeless, a wanderer…dogged by spiritual questions. People have an innate spiritual bent. I guess my work is always going to reflect this.

Q. Are you still “dogged by spiritual questions”?
A. Yes. It’s sort of asking, “What are we to God? Is there an element of humanity in all this? Some of these questions are really unanswerable.

Q. In an interview, you said that “the idea of the book was the form of a braided halla bread,” Can you expand on that metaphor, and have you ever made a halla?
A. Yes. I have baked halla in Ireland, and it came out pretty well. The book came from the form of a braided halla bread, not that the braids were perfect, but this sort of sense of these stories twisting around each other yet all being part of the same loaf of bread.

Q. What did you experience from creating these unusual characters?
A. I’m fascinated by people, their contradictions and their triumphs and successes. The satisfaction in creating them is the pleasurable part.

Q. Are you raising your children in any particular faith?
A. No. I can’t honestly raise them in one faith. I do believe in God, though.

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