The prolific author, director, artist and actor Rebecca Miller has contributed several important films to the independent cinema landscape, including the award-winning “Personal Velocity” and the star-studded “Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” which she adapted from her own book. But none of her stories are quite as ambitious as her rollicking new picaresque “Jacob’s Folly,” a complex novel that traverses space and time.
It starts with an image of a good-hearted volunteer fireman from Patchogue urinating in his lawn and continues, unpredictably, in 18th century France and a modern orthodox Jewish community in Patchogue, interweaving three stories. Perspectives shift on a dime, but most of the action is viewed through the lens of a fly – the reincarnated soul of a once-penniless Jewish peddler, whose thoughts affect the lives of the modern-day Long Islanders. Funny, sensuous and occasionally tragic, with flurries of drama and violence, “Jacob’s Folly” is a bracingly original work of literature.
Miller will be in Palm Beach next Friday, March 29, as part of the Brazilian Court hotel’s ninth annual Author Breakfast Series, to discuss her work and read from the book. But in the meantime, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis shared some time with Boca Magazine to expound on this terrific novel.
As someone who has worked in both formats, how did you know this story would best be told as a novel and not as a film?
I never saw it as a film. I saw it as something I had to explore as a book. There was no way I could explore it as a film, at least initially, and I don’t know if I ever will, to be honest. I still don’t see it as a film.
I think it would make an ambitious movie. It seems like it’s written cinematically at times. The cross-cutting between generations could be interesting, as could point-of-view shots from the perspective of a fly.
It would be. My thing in the end is, I don’t think I could have found it if I hadn’t found it in prose. But also, apart from the fact that I just wanted it to live as a book for a while, I also felt that in order to fit it into a two-hour format, I would have to cut a lot of the story, and I just don’t know if I’m willing to do that. There’s always a miniseries format – the longer format is more interesting to me. Although I tend to shy away from that, because I like people to see things in one sitting.
You mentioned in the acknowledgements that this book “metamorphosed” over the years. In what way?
I started with just the image of Leslie Senzatimore having a pee on his front lawn, and I had an intuition that there was a third dimension, a creature looking down on him, in a way. And I didn’t know what the creature was. Then Masha started to develop, and at first, she was not Jewish. She was from Connecticut. It was a completely different background that she had. And then, when I realized she was Jewish, I started doing a lot of research, and the whole thing started to transform. So really, I was feeling my way through the dark, and then illuminating first one corner and then another corner, and gradually I was illuminating the story.
I learned a lot about Jewish rituals reading this book. Were the worlds of Orthodox Judaism, either modern or historical, new to you when you embarked on this project?
Definitely. I feel like I learned almost as much about the observant Jews in my own country and my own time as I did about Jews in 18th century France. I feel that we live together side by side but do not know that much about each other.
This could have something to do with my own beliefs, but your depiction of this extreme kind of religion feels like a cult – like something that must be escaped if one is to gain intellectual enlightenment or real-world knowledge and success.
I personally don’t think that’s how it’s portrayed. I can only say what my point of view was, which was that I saw a lot of beauty in it, but that there are certain things that just don’t fit in that way of life. One of the things that doesn’t fit is what Masha wants to do, which is to have that life where she’s performing and singing and working on Fridays. It just doesn’t fit. But that isn’t to say that the women in the community aren’t powerful, funny, accomplished people. Because they are. I did not find the women to be somehow enslaved or inferior in any way in the family structure.
There are plenty of things that bothered me about the religion and culture – women prohibited from singing, from touching another man’s hand who isn’t a family member, forcing them to always leave a door open. But you’re right – the sense of love comes through, and so does the idea that family is paramount.
It’s a balanced view, and I tried not to judge it, and just to present it as I found it. And of course, I was alienated from the things you talk about, and didn’t understand them in some visceral way. But I came out of it understanding that, in a way, for them, the rules are easy because they’re learned so young.
What led you to the subject of reincarnation? Is it something you believe in, personally?
I don’t know if I believe in it. I know that I ended up feeling like I did by the time I was finished with my book! What led me to it was that when I was researching the contemporary Judaism element of it, I read a lot of books and articles, and one book was written by a woman who had many children and was living in Canada. In one of the comedic articles, she mentioned that her daughter was being followed around by a fly all day. And in it, she says that maybe it was a soul doing penance. And I thought, wait a minute – is there reincarnation in Judaism? Nobody told me about that. I checked, and in fact, gilgul is the return of souls, as humans and as animals, doing penance. That’s when I realized that my little creature staring down at Leslie Senzatimore having a pee was going to be this fly.
Once I had my triangle, everything started to take off, and I realized he was a fly from 18th century France and an observant Jew. That’s what drew me to reincarnation – it was an amazing synchronicity, which is that I needed him and he appeared. Also, it’s a fantasia in a way, so the more locked into a real cosmology it can be and a real system of belief, the safer I was in my wild narrative.
I wonder if you ever had noir fiction in mind when you were writing this book. The character of Leslie sort of reminded of the corrupted noir patsy who is lured into this moral morass by a femme fatale, in this case Masha. Is this character dynamic something that was on your mind?
Yes. Originally, the book was a completely different book, and in fact was a very similar story to that, dealing with that classic structure. And once the book became a much more fantastical and open story and opened up so much historically, there’s still the kernel of that basic premise. Originally, it was the idea of this man who is destroyed by a woman. And once Masha became a Jew, etc., there was always this basic element to the storyline.
Leslie feels like quite a tragic character to me. He and his wife, Deirdra, seem to be living one of those lives of quiet desperation.
Yes, I guess in some ways, there is an element of desperation to their lives. But they’re also admirable people. And sometimes admirable people have to suffer a lot for their goodness, especially Leslie. That’s why I feel he finally gets the break that he really deserves, because he just has to ask for help and say uncle.
Lastly, what have these past few months of award season been like; you and Daniel certainly been through it before. Is it possible to stay above the fray and not be so affected by the awards buzz?
We just try to enjoy the whole thing as much as possible. I wasn’t able to go to everything because I have the kids here. But I really wanted him to enjoy it. Sometimes you forget to enjoy it, because it does get really exhausting.
Miller will speak and be interviewed at 8:45 a.m. March 29 at The Brazilian Court, 301 Australian Ave., Palm Beach. Tickets are $100, and include breakfast, valet parking and a copy of Miller’s novel. To make a reservation, call 561/366-4301.