Mighty Cambridge writer and mycologist drops 16th book
If you hang out among mushrooms in the forest or around Cambridge, you may already be familiar with Lawrence Millman. A mycologist and prolific author, he’s called both those places home for 30 years and has authored more than half that many books over that time. We threw a few curveballs at Millman about his latest, the Book of Origins, which he promises “is likely to offend a good portion of the population.” He hopes so, at least.
You are primarily a mycologist. I understand that’s basically a fungi expert, is that correct? Can you tell us a little more about exactly what it is you do in that profession?
I wear many hats, one of which is that of a mycologist. This means I’m an aficionado of fungi (mushrooms). I study their ecology—how are they helping or hindering their respective but not always respectable habitats. I also delight in their whimsical nature. You never know what you’re going to see next. It’s a good way to look at life.
How does being a mycologist feed into your writing? Is it there sometimes and not others?
Fungi astonish me. They remind me that the purpose of good writing is to astonish one’s readers. To expand their three-and-a-half-pound thrones of wisdom (i.e., brains). On the other hand, they tend to hinder my writing because, if it’s a good day outside, I think, To hell with putting words onto paper, I’ll go outside and look for fungi.
You have released 16 books independently over the years. What’s been the most successful one and why? What’s been the biggest bomb?
The two most successful books have been Last Places, which has been translated into 11 languages, and A Kayak Full of Ghosts, which has been in print continuously for 30 years. The biggest bomb? My collection of parodic diaries entitled Paris Was My Paramour. It came out shortly after 9/11, and that apparently wasn’t a time in our country’s history for humor.
You have been a creature of Cambridge for 30 years. Where did you come from before that? And why have you stayed?
Before I came to Cambridge, I lived in Iceland (where I taught), Greenland (where I collected folk tales), and Vermont (where I mostly wrote). Mercifully, I’ve never lived in Florida, an utterly damnable place! I’ve remained in Cambridge because it has good bookstores and good libraries as well as a relatively literate and politically alert population.
Where do you hang out? Where do you write?
I hang out mostly in the woods, where I’m looking not only for fungi but also for communion with my favorite thing in all the world—nature. As for where I write, it’s usually in my own abode. I would write in coffee shops, but all the tables are always taken up by people umbilically affixed to their laptops.
Are we correct to assume that all your manuscripts originate on napkins before being typed out on an old Royal?
I write everything in longhand first, and then type it out not on an old Royal but a not-so-old Communicator I typewriter. Then I’m obliged to type the manuscript on my iMac, as no editor would deign to read either a longhand manuscript or one written on such a primitive entity as a typewriter.
For your latest, the Book of Origins, it appears that you have turned to allegory. Why this book, and why that device at this moment in time?
The Book of Origins is not allegory so much as satire. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump sometimes shows up in its pages. It consists of 100 short pieces, each of which gives the true origin of wellness, zombies, the afterlife, etc. The book is a celebration of political incorrectness and owes its allegiance to George Carlin and Mark Twain, but not, definitely not, Henry James—my all-time least favorite writer.
On the back cover, you’re laying on your side, kind of like a shirtless Scott Brown in his centerfold moment. And you’re holding something in your right hand. I hope this isn’t too intrusive of a question, but what is that thing you are holding?
I know what you’re thinking: that I’m holding some sort of iDevice. Perish the thought! I would never hold such a thing, especially on a remote island in the Azores, where the photo was taken. Why would I want to have my travels interrupted by a phone call that says, “Sorry, Mr. Millman, but I’ve got bad news for you”? Actually, I’m holding the case for a point-and-shoot camera.
Since I know it’s hard for a Cambridge lifer like you to answer this many questions without a chance to tee off on the president and war and global warming, please by all means finish us off with a rant about the horrific state of global affairs.
Your question effectively blots out my thought processes, except for three words: Impeach Comrade Trumpski!
THE BOOK OF ORIGINS WILL BE AVAILABLE IN LOCAL BOOKSTORES IN FEBRUARY. MILLMAN WILL ALSO READ FROM HIS LATEST ON 2.5 AT THE HARVARD COOP, 1400 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. CHECK OUT LAWRENCEMILLMAN.COM FOR MORE.