I met with Rebecca Miller on a recent chilly afternoon in New York to talk about her ambitious new novel, Jacob's Folly (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). Her previous books include a story collection, Personal Velocity, and a novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee; she also wrote and directed the films based on these books. While it may be for her films that she is best known (she is also the writer and director of "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" and "Angela"), Rebecca Miller is a novelist in her own right. We took refuge in the warmth of a West Village bistro, and over a long lunch discussed sources of inspiration, acts of sacrilege, and other topics sacred and profane.
Bookforum: Jacob's Folly spans three centuries and features as the protagonist a man who has been reincarnated as a fly. What specifically inspired this book?
Rebecca Miller: Well, I started with the image of a man peeing on his front lawn.
Rebecca Miller: Yes!
Bookforum: That's an arresting image.
Rebecca Miller: And I sensed a kind of sprite—not necessarily evil, but malicious in a slightly comical way—who was looking down at him and laughing. This became Jacob. The idea of him as a fly came from gilgul, which is the reincarnation of souls described in the Kabbalah.
Bookforum: The opening paragraph of Jacob's Folly announces you as a writer who is attuned to craft and the possibilities of language. There is such lyrical acuity in your description of Jacob in the limbo that preceded his reincarnation, "lost as a pomegranate pip in a lake of aspic." Can you talk about the experience of writing about Jacob? Was it liberating?
Rebecca Miller: Absolutely. He's male, he's from the 18th century, he's pre-analysis. I got rid of everything in one stroke, my sex, my time period, my guilt, it all went out the window.
Bookforum: One of the satisfactions of this novel, for me anyway, is that it succeeds at the level of prose but also as a compelling narrative. You really give full play to your imagination. You have these three wildly different characters whose lives overlap in surprising ways: Jacob in 18th century Paris, and two 21st century characters—Leslie Sentazimore, a volunteer fireman, and Masha, an Orthodox Jew.