Steven Millhauser Interview
by Jim Shepard
I first met Steven Millhauser some 16 years ago, when, with my friend Ed Hirsch along as a somewhat disinterested coconspirator, I induced Steven to meet us at the Russian Tea Room. My plan was to convince him to take the job of visiting writer at Williams College, to replace me when I went on leave. He took some convincing.
Steven’s hesitations — and hesitations is too tepid a word for the tenacity and resourcefulness of his initial resistance to the idea of himself teaching anyone anything — were just one part of an enduring conviction he’s displayed throughout his career that his work alone should do the talking; that nearly anything else the writer has to offer is either an impertinence or an unacceptable approximation of what it was the writer really wished to express.
There was a single week sometime soon after his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, appeared, when three different writers called to tell me that I had to read it. Once I’d done so, I started calling people. The sensibility on display was a revelation: the book posited childhood as a magically illuminating state, and the tenderness and generosity of its perceptions made that wonderful and Nabokovian claim entirely persuasive. Nine books later, Steven’s work is still all about magical illuminations: The King in the Tree, three novellas, opens up the intensities of obsessive love and anguished betrayal with both minute precision and startling élan. That book was the occasion for the following interview, conducted over a couple of weeks through email, a format that spared at least one of us the bother of having to clean our house for company. MORE