Writer and filmmaker Rebecca Miller’s most recent book is Jacob’s Folly, a romp through time from 18th-century Paris to present-day Long Island, narrated by a fly. Miller made film adaptations of three of her earlier books, including The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis.
A book about an 18th-century Jewish peddler named Jacob reincarnated as a fly?
I think it sounded crazier than it actually ended up being. When I was describing this challah bread of a braided story to [FSG publisher] Jonathan Galassi he was encouraging, but when he actually read the first real draft he said, “I really didn’t think you could pull this off.”
How did you come up with the idea of using the fly as a narrator?
I came across this book, Better Laugh Than Cry. The author [Glenna Kauppila] writes about an animal bothering her daughter. It was a fly! And [she says] that maybe it was a soul atoning for its sins. What a gift! I knew intuitively that there was this third being in my book, like a demiurge or a sprite. When I first started—five years ago—I was kind of bashing my head against it. I knew there was this mirthful character. I had this character Leslie, who was a volunteer fireman, and I had the character of Masha, and her inner self was already there. She was going to be a young woman essentially destroying a man. It wasn’t until I became mesmerized by a very large group of Orthodox Jews in [Brooklyn, N.Y.’s] Prospect Park that I knew Masha needed to be a Jew. I was both fascinated and completely mystified, by the women in particular.
Is your writing influenced by the work of your father, Arthur Miller?
You can’t escape being influenced by your parents, whoever they are. I don’t know if he’s my literary father as much as my biological father, but I do think his natural economy... There’s a kind of moral inquiry in my work that isn’t completely foreign to what he was doing.
How much do you collaborate with your husband?
He’s not my very first reader because I want a story to be finished enough that I know it’s something I can stand behind. He’s a wonderful reader, very honest, wonderful in terms of [understanding] humanity—what people would really do.
Will you make Jacob’s Folly into a movie?
No, I don’t think I’ll be making it into a film anytime soon, or maybe ever. It was a very hard book to write and I’m really tired. I can’t imagine starting to write a screenplay. With Personal Velocity and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I didn’t let the scab form on the books. I wanted the wound to be fresh to get back into the material and continue to search. I think with Jacob it would have to be a different approach. I worked so hard on it. I just want to see it live as a book.