Broder’s writing grasps the contours of this emptiness, traces its edges and lacunae. In this delineation, there is hope—that by understanding a wound we can heal from it, no matter how slowly. “Growth is not always linear and there’s a lot of steps back,” Broder offers on a phone call in early October. “Or maybe not even back, maybe it’s just life, spread horizontally.”
Broder has detailed her own mental health sidesteps and growth spurts across essays, poems, and a robust social media presence; that trademark candor and levity sparkle in her novels, whose protagonists are equally (though not identically) depressed, anxious, and neurotic. The Pisces (2018) and Milk Fed (2021) zoomed in on the minutiae of romantic abjection, self-destructive tendencies, and eating disorders; Broder’s latest begins with the intimate experience of watching her hospitalized father struggle to recuperate from a car crash and unfurls into a near-cosmic understanding of mortality.
In Death Valley, life stretches across the horizon as the anonymous narrator finds herself adrift in the desert, based on Broder’s own ignominious odyssey at Zabriskie Point: “I got so fucking lost. And I was crying. I was like, ‘How long have I been lost here?’ And it had been like 30 minutes.” Broder lived to tell me the tale over the phone just a few days ahead of Death Valley’s release; she was walking her dog Pickle, a 10-year-old chihuahua of uncertain genealogy. (Regarding a recent second DNA test: “How the fuck is he 20 percent poodle?”) “Getting lost in the desert, I did make it back to my car. But getting lost in the interior can be much scarier and much more harrowing,” she muses. “How do we work with the inner landscape when we’re not happy? When we don’t want to be feeling what we’re feeling?”
By enduring, her work seems to answer. Twenty years after its installation and multiple ownership changes, the World’s Tallest Thermometer stood dark and in disrepair. A successful foreclosure in 2014 brought the landmark back to the family of Willis Herron, the monument’s since-deceased creator. In 2021, it would be spotted by Melissa Broder, “driving through the desert trying to escape.”
VIVIAN MEDITHI: In Death Valley, the narrator is lured to the desert by a childhood memory of a cartoon. Tell me about some of your first experiences of the desert.
MELISSA BRODER: I grew up on the East Coast, so there was no desert. Ten years ago, when I moved to L.A., I spent a bunch of time out in the desert: Joshua Tree and Palm Springs and Yucca Valley. I was living in Venice, so I wrote The Pisces. I was very inspired by the ocean because it was weird to be living by the beach.
The way the desert came to be in this book is that, in December of 2020, my dad was in a car accident on the East Coast and was in the ICU for six months. We couldn’t go see him because of COVID-19 for the first couple of months, and it was really awful. My sister lived in Las Vegas, and I had a new niece. We couldn’t fly anywhere because of COVID, so I was driving back and forth through the desert to see my sister a lot during this time when we couldn’t go see my father. Because it was like, “What the fuck are we going to do?”
And we would talk to him every night on FaceTime, either when we were together or we would FaceTime each other, and sometimes he was unconscious and sometimes he was awake. During that time, I did get to go a lot to the East Coast to see him before he died in May. He made it out of the ICU for 10 days and finally did get to rehab. He was unfortunately still on a feeding tube, but he was off the ventilator. But I did get to see him a lot the last couple of months; I would fly back and forth.
So, anyway, during this time I was in a state of anticipatory grief, but I didn’t know what that was at the time. And I was really scared of what I was feeling. Like, because we didn’t know that he was going to die. But also he died a couple of times in the hospital and came back. So, we were prepared for him to die multiple times. And then he did. So, I was in a state of anticipatory grief and I was just scared. I’m so sensitive to my own feeling—I was so scared that I was like, “Oh my God, my depression is spawning a new and horrible kind of depression.” So, I was driving through the desert trying to escape that feeling when I passed through this town called Baker, California, which is the home of the world’s largest thermometer, and the first two lines of the book came to me. And then, very shortly thereafter, on that same trip, I started thinking of this cactus, I guess maybe because of the giant thermometer, but I don’t know.
That’s how the book was born, and I just was very excited. I love archetypes, and the ocean and the beach had played such a big role in The Pisces—I was physically on the beach when I came up with The Pisces. So, I was physically in the desert when I was like, “Okay, this book is going to be set in the desert”—but that was just a germ.
By the way, if you tell someone, “I’m gonna write this book about this,” they’re like, “Yeah, okay.” It sounds insane. But to me, it made a lot of sense. But I didn’t know there would be a “lost in the desert” section until I decided to take a desert recon trip. And I wasn’t planning to go to Death Valley—ended up in Death Valley. Went for just this little hike in this touristy area called Zabriskie Point, where no one gets lost. And I got so fucking lost. And I was crying. I was like, “How long have I been lost here?” And it had been like 30 minutes.
I panicked, which you’re not supposed to do. I did everything wrong. Like, you’re supposed to tell people where you’re going? I didn’t. My phone was dead. And I didn’t even have water with me. I had Coke Zero, which is the dumbest fucking drink you can possibly … like, not bring water on a hike in the desert? It’s so stupid. But I climbed up this rock face after I panicked, trying to get back, and got like, really, really scraped up because I had panicked. And so I was just climbing this thing crying. Anyway, I got back to my car. And when I finally stopped crying, I was like, “Oh, now I know what is going to happen in this novel.”
When you were driving through Baker and you saw the World’s Tallest Thermometer and you had the germ of the idea—“Oh, the novel is going to be set in the desert”—were you already in the space of, “I’m going to write a novel about what’s going on with my father?”
No, not at all. I was actually working on a totally different book that I had started before Milk Fed was published. And actually, that novel will never see the light of day because it’s a piece of shit. The book that the writer is writing in Death Valley, there’s some resemblances to that book. So, what she’s working on is, in part, somewhat like that book I had been working on.
How do you feel about the term autofiction?
Right. So, you know, it’s funny, because the book that I read right before I wrote this one, and perhaps would not have come up with the first couple lines of this one had I not just read it, was Tao Lin’s Leave Society (2021). And I loved, really loved that book. And I think that put me in a bit of a headspace, an honest headspace. I will say, though, as a novelist, everyone’s always like, “How much of this is true? How much of this is true?” There’s an obsession always, when you read novels, with how much is true. This book is actually a send up of autofiction, because it’s grounded in some reality. And I mean, I’m not from Los Angeles, my family doesn’t live there. But there are some details, you know: I do have a husband who is disabled, I did have this father in the ICU, and my sister does have a baby. There are a lot of details that are similar, and then it departs from there.
When I was recording the audiobook, after I finished, the audio engineer was like, “So, is this a true story?” And I was like, “Yes, I went into a magic cactus and met my father as a child and I flew up on the wings of a bird.”
Do you worry about readers inserting their own narratives or jamming your biographical details into how they approach the text?
Not really. Sometimes people come up with shit; they’ll say something about my book or they’ll do a reading of my book, and I’m just like, “I have no clue how they even got that, but you know what? They might be right. That’s a really convincing argument.”
As a writer, I mean, yes. Every writer has read a review of their book like, “No, they got it wrong.” But no, I think once a book is in the world, that’s it. And there’s actually something really cool about people overlaying or weaving in their own meaning.
Going back to that desert recon trip you took to Death Valley and the trails, I was really struck in the novel by the way you described the flora and fauna. What was that research process like?
I am not really a nature girl: when I go out into the wilderness, I like to go home at night. I haven’t camped in a tent since I was a child, and I was always fucking terrified because I’m terrified of everything. Except germs.
So, what I did was, in addition to spending a lot more time in the desert on several recon trips, I also read. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968)—I am obsessed with that book now. I’ve read it four times. It’s such a wonderful book. It’s just such a pleasurable, wonderful book. Read a bunch about the Gold Rush, read Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain (1903), read Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert (1960), although that didn’t really influence the book. And then a lot of literature I got in Joshua Tree, and also in the Mojave.
But the thing that really influenced the book in a funny way—there’s this desert survival guide [Desert Survival Skills] by this guy David Alloway, and he’s just talking about all the mistakes people make in the desert. Of course, I’m like, “Oh, I made every single one.” But he talked a lot about the hierarchy of survival needs, like how long you can go without water, how long you can go without food, fire.
And when I was writing, like, I wouldn’t have thought of a fire. I know that the desert gets extremely cold at night—I’ve been in the desert at night. But I was like, “fire.” So that helped me plot the book.
Also, I had to do a lot of research about which cacti are safe to eat. And I wouldn’t have known that you should follow—like, it makes so much sense that whatever the animals are eating is probably safe for human consumption, or at least more likely safe. My narrator comes up with that. Do I think I would ever come up with that on my own? Absolutely not.
Oh, yeah, there was also—so, like, saguaros don’t grow in the wild in California. There is a debate about that, but allegedly they don’t really. And so you would think that a magic cactus, it wouldn’t matter, right? Like, it’s a magic cactus. Who gives a shit if they grow in California? But I remember I was eating dinner one night when I found that out. And I was like, “fuck!” Because if I’m going to depart into the surreal, I need to know every aspect of the reality, if that makes sense. It has to be really grounded in truth for me, so it’s logical that it has to then become a plot point. It has to be a big deal that they don’t grow in California, I needed to make a big stink about it.
It’s funny that you bring up the desert survival guide, because when I was reading Death Valley, one of the books that came to mind, showing my semiliteracy right now, was Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet (1986), that classic American school gem. And I was really interested in the scope of conflict in Death Valley, where your previous two books are really about your protagonists, Rachel and Lucy, relating to others in the world and modern society, but Death Valley seems to move towards something a lot more primal.
I love archetypes, and the desert and the landscape of grief are real echoes of each other. I talked about this a little bit in the book, the inner landscape of fear, but the landscape of the desert, in a lot of ways, really maps onto the desert of grief, basically. We’re powerless over our feelings, right? We can control our behaviors, but we can’t control our feelings. Unfortunately, I spend my whole life trying to, and failing to, control my thoughts.
Likewise, we’re powerless over nature, especially when you’re in the desert, right? You have to prepare, and we’re not in control. And the desert can feel endless, and it can feel barren, and it can feel hopeless. But also, there are these rich oases and beauty, so much beauty to be found in the desert. But it’s like, the animals are nocturnal, most of them, so you have to look at it differently.
I should also say, in terms of the endlessness of the desert—and this is actually something I have not said to any other interviewer—the narrator in the book talks about the fact that when you, as a writer, finish writing a book, the characters have this arc. It may or may not be super closure—I don’t like books that have a neat arc—and then they get to disappear, but the writer keeps on living. And in a moment, in just one moment, the narrator of Death Valley comes to terms in some way with the nature of feeling and is able to find some peace. I have really struggled a lot in my life the past couple of years, since my dad died, and then there were a couple of other tragic deaths in the orbit around me. And it’s been a real struggle, and in some ways, I feel like I still haven’t gotten out of the desert. And I’m like, “Am I supposed to be out of the desert?” There’s a lot of judgment.
A book is a thing with a beginning and an end. But life keeps going. And it made me feel in some ways, not fraudulent exactly, during the writing of Death Valley—not the actual writing of the book, that was a highlight, but my life in general while writing it was really emotionally hard and fraught and I was pretty depressed. I was really struggling with depression and anxiety—shocker. And so, the day I sold the book, I was like, “Why am I not more excited? Why are you not more excited?” That kind of emotional temperature-taking, it’s interesting.
There’s a difference between a book and life. And I want things to be neat. I want things to have an end in life, I always want to be done. I want to be done with a feeling, I want to be done with grieving, I want to be done with my husband’s illness. But the terrain of human experience is so fucking endless.
It’s almost like how people will say, “Oh, you’re depressed? Just go outside and go for a walk.” But actually, if you do somehow make it past all of these other hurdles to get yourself outside, it does build eventually. There’s something really beautiful about the kind of self-sufficiency that your characters can build toward even if it’s these smaller steps.
Yes. And like, it is true. Sometimes, a walk really does work. “Move a muscle, change a thought,” sometimes it really does work. And sometimes you’re watching yourself like, “Why isn’t a walk working?” That’s what I always do. I’m always like, metacognition, “Why isn’t the walk working? Oh, no, the walk’s not working.”
And I guess that’s the desire for control, which, look, man versus nature, man versus inner nature. I mean, I guess we have to. If you’re lost in the desert, you have to keep walking. But it’s best not to panic, and to work with the elements. And I think the same can be said of the inner landscape. Work with the elements, keep walking.
But I often panic in there, and I’m like, “Is anybody gonna rescue me?” And I’m like, “God, God, where are you?” And God’s like, “Keep walking?” And I’m like, “Why aren’t you helping me?”
Thinking about that idea of control, in The Pisces and Milk Fed, the protagonists are detoxing, going no-contact with an ex-boyfriend or no-contact with their mother. Now, that idea of a digital detox has expanded to the point where it’s now no-contact with contemporary society. As an author, what do you find so compelling about this idea of taking space from these fundamental relationships?
Well, you know, I tried to. It’s funny, after I wrote Milk Fed, I tried to do a detox from my own mom, who’s different than Rachel’s mom in a lot of ways. And I’ve gone, like, a week without talking to my mom, but not when I’ve said it’s intentional. And it lasted … I could only do three days. And I was like, “Damn, this shit’s hard.”
But in terms of a detox, I think the fine line—my tendency is towards isolation, personally. But also, like, I need people, but I forget that I need people, and I get scared of people.
So, I wrote Death Valley during the pandemic, and it was the fastest book I ever wrote. March 2020 to September 2021, about a year and a half. And I still feel like I’m isolated, not on a germ front, but I feel like I never fully came back from doing a lot of stuff at home and a lot of stuff on a screen. I just haven’t returned to the world fully and that’s difficult. But I want to; it’s just like, “Where is the world?” But I wanted to convey a sense of isolation, and I wanted to convey that experience of being at a distance when someone is in the ICU. That was really important to me, that powerlessness. You’re powerless when you’re there, but especially when you cannot get in to see them, and you’re reliant on a dispatch from a nurse. It’s just a very special kind of hell.
Even in isolation, the narrative of Death Valley still has a number of these anthropomorphic dialogues with various elements and objects and creatures in the desert. The most poignant are the ones involving Teen Bun, and then Mustache Oriole. Why those specific animals?
So, I knew I needed characters, right? Like, you can’t have no characters. So, I was like, “Okay, if this is going to be like a novel that’s more isolated, how am I going to get some characters in here?” Because nobody wants to listen to this bitch talk for 150 pages. So, I was like, “All right, we’re gonna have the desert come alive, the rocks, the buns [bunnies]. The cactus, in a way, is anthropomorphized to some extent. We’re gonna have these characters at the Best Western; we’re gonna use some flashbacks to her interactions with her husband, her interactions with her father. And then, of course, before she’s lost, we have the mother.
Mustache Oriole actually wasn’t in the book when I first wrote it. And then, when I was trying to figure out how to get her up a mountain at the end, I was looking over this page of notes—I keep documents of notes when I’m writing. And I had done this Siberian shamanic meditation on an audiobook like six months before, where you go to like this upper realm—whatever, it’s all archetype, and you ask it a question. And like, going to the upper realm, you either can ride on the smokestack or climb up a rainbow. And the bird came to me and the question I asked was, “How do I know my father’s still with me?” And I had Pickle on my lap, and suddenly I imagined Pickle and me being on this bird, flying up to the upper realm. And then I just put that in these notes and forgot about it, and then later, when I was like deep, deep, deep into the book, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, well, so then I will come back in, right, because like, check off Mustache Oriole, like it can’t just show up here.” So, I weaved him into the beginning too, which is what I did with the rabbi and the golem in Milk Fed. The whole book was written, but they weren’t in my first draft at all.
The dialogue with the rabbits about kindness and suffering, and suffering with dignity or empathy for others, was really moving to me.
Some of what she goes through in the desert is a parallel to or a mirror of some of what her husband goes through, some of what her father goes through, like thirst. And it was really, in some ways, a lesson on how to and how do you not take someone else’s death personally, right? People have to die the way they want to die, or not want to die, but as themselves. And just because a person is resistant to you being there when they are in the ICU doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, but how do you depersonalize that?
I also think some of the rabbit stuff just came from my own guilt about not being a vegetarian—which, if I could change one thing about myself, that would probably be it. And maybe someday I will be vegetarian.
One of the threads connecting your narrator and her father is music. How did music figure into your writing process?
I probably listened to “Sh-Boom” by the Chords like a thousand times. I don’t write with music on, but I would listen to it a lot, and then go back to the document, listen a lot, go back to the document. I also did make this giant 24-hour playlist for my dad when he was in the ICU. In the first month after my dad died, I was listening to that. And also, while he was in the hospital, he was into that a lot. This is the first time actually that music played a big role in any of my books, besides Lucy having sex to “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel on the floor of the hotel bathroom in The Pisces.
I’m not a huge music buff. I like music, I listen to music, but it never played a role. But for this, the ways that music and books can make us feel connected to those we are losing or those that we’ve lost, I was like, “It just has to be in there.” And also the feeling of, particularly, Bob Dylan—my father’s name was Bob. And we used to listen to Bob Dylan in the car all the time, with him smoking cigarettes, and then when I was of age to smoke cigarettes, and it just will always be my dad to me.
But also, it’s funny because the narrator, I was like, “Okay, enough about fucking Bob Dylan.” But then, when my dad was dying, I was like, “Bob Dylan!”
I don’t know how much you’re at liberty to say, but The Pisces is getting made into a movie. Can you speak on that process?
I’ve adapted all of my books for the screen for various production companies and I have yet to ever see a camera turn on. So, more will be revealed on that front. I hope that by the time I’m an old lady, I see it. I’d be interested in seeing one of my books turned into something on the screen.
Do you believe in happy endings?
You know what? I think I must, because every time I feel a sense of peace, or happiness, I’m like, “This is it. I’m gonna be here forever.” But then it’s not. But then again, every time I feel inner discord, I think, “This is it. It’s going to be like this forever.” I want a happy ending, though.
Melissa Broder is the author of the novels Milk Fed (2021), The Pisces (2018), and Death Valley (2023); the essay collection So Sad Today (2016); and five poetry collections, including Superdoom (2021). She has written for The New York Times, Elle, and New York magazine’s The Cut. She lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @SoSadToday and @MelissaBroder, and on Instagram @RealMelissaBroder.