Author Interviews
6:07 pm
Fri March 1, 2013

Man Turned Fly Seeks Revenge For Bad Reincarnation

Originally published on Fri March 1, 2013 8:01 pm

A Parisian Jew who dies in 1773 reappears in the 21st century as an angel, fluttering gently down to Earth — or, so he thinks. He imagines himself as "a fully formed Christian seraph, a Viking with blond hair, a beautiful chiseled torso, hairless feet, and eyes the color of whiskey." So imagine his shock when he realizes he's no angel — he's actually been reincarnated as a common housefly.

That unlikely insect is the narrator of a wild new novel by Rebecca Miller. Miller's mother was photographer Inge Morath, her father was playwright Arthur Miller and her husband is actor Daniel Day-Lewis. On top of writing, Miller is also a painter, an actor and a film director. Her new book, Jacob's Folly, veers between 18th century Paris and a present-day Long Island family of Orthodox Jews.

The fly, formerly Parisian Jewish peddler Jacob Cerf, has supernatural powers. He can read minds and can actually will people to do what he wants them to do.

"He realizes the scope of his powers gradually in the narrative," Miller tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And then, once he realizes he's a fly, he's so angry at the form of his reincarnation that he decides to sort of get back at God."

Jacob wants to punish God by taking good people and turning them bad. But Miller says she wouldn't call her protagonist an "evil character": "He's mischievous and sometimes malevolent, but he has his own transformation through the arc of this story."


Interview Highlights

On the joy of creating Jacob

"I had to work really hard for this book, but there was a gift and it was Jacob's voice that seemed to kind of come through my fillings in some way. Once I heard how he sounded inside of my head, I was able to figure him out. And yes, writing him was a joy because he's so free. And he's not somebody who's controlled by guilt at all."

On writing about Orthodox Jewish life

"I was interested in the allure and also freedom and also pitfalls of assimilation; and in the hidden beauties of actually belonging to a community, which is much more certain than our more secular world. So I came into it really not understanding very much at all about the Orthodox Jewish life ... and ended up seeing as well as understanding more firmly why I couldn't be part of it, [and] understanding the beauty of their community."

On researching the history of Jews in 18th century Paris

"I did go to Paris and went to the museums and walked the streets. But before that, I found a wonderful researcher named Max McGuinness. Together we really had to try to crack the case of Jews in Paris in the 18th century, because there were so few. There were about 500 of them. Most of the evidence for their lives is the police reports, because there was a particular policeman who was the inspector in charge of Jewish affairs at the time whose job it was to really record the comings and goings and, in fact, the character and occupation of every single male Jew in Paris. And sometimes, if they had families, who they lived with in their apartment, whose apartment they lived in, what they sold, if they had been arrested for being in Paris without a passport. They were very strictly monitored. And so those police reports really were like a gold mine for me. And in fact, I used a lot of the actual names of the Jews; I used the name of Inspector Buhot, which was in fact his name. So I grounded my writing in reality."

On imagining Jacob's Folly as a film

"It's tempting. It's very visual and it could be funny, but I think I need distance. In the past I always had the technique that I would not let the scab form. I would write the book, and then immediately, if I was going to write the screenplay, write the screenplay. I always had this feeling that you can never go back. You're not the same person five years [later]. You might not even understand it anymore, what you wrote. But with this one, I have a feeling that if I ever do it, it would be better if I have a little distance."

On how much her artistic background (as a painter, actor and film director) and artistic lineage come through in her writing

"I think certainly I'm a very visual writer. I tend to try to communicate emotion and ideas through visual means so that you see it in your eye of your mind. And I think I have an ear for dialogue, which, I remember listening to my father read his plays out loud all the time, and I think I might have inherited certainly a fascination with dialogue and character. But it's always difficult to know where everything comes from."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. A Parisian Jew who dies in 1773 reappears in the 21st century as an angel, fluttering gently down to Earth, or so he thinks. He imagines himself as a fully formed Christian seraph, a Viking with blond hair, a beautifully chiseled torso and eyes the color of whiskey. So imagine his shock when he realizes he's no angel. He's actually been reincarnated as a common housefly. And that unlikely insect is the narrator of a wild new novel by Rebecca Miller.

She's also been a painter, an actress and film director, as well as a writer. Her new book, "Jacob's Folly," veers between 18th-century Paris and present-day Long Island, in particular, a family of Orthodox Jews. Rebecca Miller, welcome to the program.

REBECCA MILLER: Thank you.

BLOCK: The fly, who is formerly the Jewish peddler from Paris, Jacob Cerf, has supernatural powers, right? He can read minds, and he can actually will people to do what he wants him to do.

MILLER: Yes. He realizes the scope of his powers gradually in the narrative, and then once he realizes he's a fly, he's so angry at his - the form of his reincarnation...

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: What bad luck.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: ...that he decides to sort of get back at God.

BLOCK: Yeah. He wants to punish God by doing malevolent things, right? By taking good people and turning them bad.

MILLER: Yes. But yet, I wouldn't call Jacob an evil character. He's mischievous and sometimes malevolent, but he has his own transformation through the arc of this story.

BLOCK: What's so interesting is that as lusty as Jacob Cerf the peddler was back in 18th-century Paris, he's just as lusty as a 21st-century fly. And there's a moment - a great moment when the fly has landed on the Sabbath table of the Edelman family on Long Island. It's this huge feast. They've got salmon roulade and pistachio-stuffed chicken breasts and hummus and blueberry cobbler. And I wonder if you could read from that section?

MILLER: Oh, yeah, absolutely, well...

(Reading) It was paradise. With a shudder of pleasure and surprise, I stepped into a droplet of gravy and tasted the rich salty fat through the pads in my feet. In a trance of sensory overload, I strolled from one luscious crumb to another, sometimes even flying to a serving dish to drink from the rim knowing full well that my hosts were forbidden to kill anything, even flies on the Sabbath. These people were not even allowed to wash lettuce after Friday sundown, less they kill the bugs hidden in the leaves.

(Reading) I was completely safe. They shooed me away several times, of course, but nobody dared swat me. Alisha's(ph) husband, Yitzhak(ph), a humorist, even quipped he's a Jewish fly. He knows we can't kill him today. I laughed at that joke along with the rest of the party.

BLOCK: You know, I was thinking about the life of Jacob Cerf in Paris and how you carry him through these various chapters of his life in these really fascinating, you know, picaresque ways. And I wonder if it was just joyful for you in the morning to sit down and think about, you know, what can I do with Jacob next? What fun adventure or sexual escapade can I throw his way?

MILLER: Yes. Writing Jacob was a great joy. And in fact, I had to work really hard for this book, but there was a gift, and it was Jacob's voice that seemed to kind of come through my fillings in some way. And once I heard how he sounded inside of my head, I was able to figure him out. And, yes, writing him was a joy because he's so free, and he's not somebody who's controlled by guilt at all.

BLOCK: At heart, the book is about two characters who both lose or give up what was their very deeply-held Jewish faith, both in 18th century Paris and 21st century Long Island. Who was it that interested you about that?

MILLER: Well, I was interested in the allure and also freedom and also pitfalls of assimilation; and in the hidden beauties of actually belonging to a community, which is much more certain than our more secular world. So I came into it really not understanding very much at all about the Orthodox Jewish life - real Torah Judaism - and ended up seeing as well as understanding more firmly why I couldn't be part of it, understanding the beauty of their community.

BLOCK: And the other side of the world that's also in this book is the lives of Jewish peddlers in 18th-century Paris, lugging boxes full of knives and hammers and snuffboxes and things like that.

MILLER: Yes.

BLOCK: How did you find out about that world? What was your research right there?

MILLER: Well, I did go to Paris and went to the museums and walked the streets, et cetera. But I really - before that, I found a wonderful researcher named Max McGuinness. Together, we really had to try to crack the case of Jews in Paris in the 18th century because there were so few. There were about 500 of them. Most of the evidence for their lives is the police reports because there was a particular sort of policeman who was the inspector in charge of Jewish affairs at the time whose job it was to really record the comings and goings and, in fact, character and occupation of every single male Jew in Paris.

And sometimes, if they had families, who they lived with in their apartment, whose apartment they lived in, what they sold, if they had been arrested for being in Paris without a passport. They were very strictly monitored. And so those police reports really were like a gold mine for me. And in fact, I used a lot of the actual names of the Jews. I used the name of Inspector Buhot, which was in fact his name. So I grounded my writing really in reality of what I found.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Rebecca Miller. Her novel is called "Jacob's Folly." Rebecca, I mentioned earlier your other artistic lives, as an actor and a painter and a film director. I should mention that your mother was the photographer Inge Morath. Your father was the playwright Arthur Miller, and your husband is the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Does it seem that your background as a painter or maybe anything you inherited through your artistic mother and father comes through in your writing, in other words, that visual sensibility from - at least from your own experience as an artist and your mom as a photographer?

MILLER: Probably. I think certainly I'm a very visual writer. I tend to try to communicate emotion and ideas through visual means so that you see it in your eye of your mind. And I think I have an ear for dialogue, which, I remember listening to my father read his plays out loud all the time, and I think I might have inherited certainly a real fascination with dialogue and hcharacter. But it's always difficult to know, you know, where everything comes from.

BLOCK: Yeah. Do you imagine "Jacob's Folly" as a movie? It'll be fun to shoot Jacob as the fly.

MILLER: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: It's tempting. It's very visual, and it could be funny, but I think I need distance. In the past, I always had the technique that I would not let the scab form. I would just, you know, write the book, and then immediately, if I was going to write the screenplay, write the screenplay. So that - because I always had this feeling that you can never go back. You can never be - because you're never - you're not the same person five years away. You're not the same person. You might not even understand it anymore, what you wrote. But now, with this one, I have a feeling that if I ever do it, it would be better if I have a little distance.

BLOCK: Rebecca Miller, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

MILLER: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: Rebecca Miller's new novel is titled "Jacob's Folly." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: