This striking scene hurtles into motion Miller’s ambitious, absorbing novel, which moves between contemporary Long Island and 18th-century Paris and examines identity and its myriad facets—religious, spiritual, sexual—through the perspective of a telepathic fly. (Yes, a fly!) Narratively speaking, it’s a remarkable feat how the author/filmmaker agilely threads together three distinct narratives—the aforementioned Leslie Senzatimore, who runs a marine repair shop in Patchogue, Long Island; Masha Edelman, a 21-year-old Orthodox Jew who struggles with a vague illness and the rules and rituals of her religion; and Jacob Cerf, an 18th-century valet living in Paris who is reincarnated as a fly and hovers and, ultimately, impacts the lives of Masha and Leslie.
Jacob’s Folly is a rare book from a rare breed of artist. Prior to becoming a filmmaker and writer, Miller—the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis—trained as a painter and sculptor at Yale. Despite this experience, Miller has always considered herself a writer first. “I started writing as a teenager, but I never published anything,” she says. “Later, when I was painting, I always wrote. In a way, it’s something that I’ve always done.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Miller pursued acting and took on several television and film roles (Regarding Henry, Consenting Adults), but then started to direct her own movie projects. “It’s been a long time since I’ve acted, but the experience really informed me as a director and also as a writer,” she says. “It taught me what’s it like to work from the inside. Because of my own acting and my husband being an actor, I have developed a tremendous appreciation for what real acting is.” Her films—Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and cinematic adaptations of her last two books, Personal Velocity and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee—have garnered numerous awards, including the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
“For me, writing and directing are two different languages,” explains Miller. “Writing prose is hugely satisfying because you’re creating this world and it’s hermetically sealed—unlike with a screenplay that people are going to tear apart. What you’re really providing is the scaffolding for the imagery and acting whereas with a book, it’s your world and you can actually perfect it up to your abilities.”
Given her background as a painter and director, it’s not surprising that Miller has a tendency to see things visually. This holds true for the complex structure of Jacob’s Folly. “I saw the strands of narratives like a Challah bread,” she says. “The interlocking narratives were braided like the bread.” Miller admits that the structure was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the novel. “It’s almost like breathing: You breathe in, and you breathe out. It’s about finding those moments when the reader is ready to move on.
“Leslie came to me first,” continues Miller. “The image of a man standing on the front lawn taking a pee.” During the making of her last film, Miller had worked with an editor with the last name Senzatimore. “I thought it was such a great name. It means 'without fear'—and it made me think that there was something titanic about the character. When I saw Leslie in that moment, I had this intuition that there was another dimension. I didn’t think of it as a fly at the time. I saw it as another creature, maybe a sprite. Like a soul stuck between two lives. Like some kind of cosmic accident.”
A reader might immediately assume that Miller drew inspiration from the most famous insect-perspective classic, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but the imaginative origins of her novel largely came from other sources, such as the supernatural short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. When Miller began work on Jacob’s Folly, she also read an article written by a Hasidic Jewish woman who lives in Canada. “It was a homespun article that included little, funny things about her life,” explains Miller. “One of the things she wrote about was her daughter being followed around by a fly. She joked that maybe the fly was a soul that was in between lives. That was when the whole idea of the book clicked for me, and I understood that Jacob would be reincarnated as a fly.”
Miller spent five years researching and writing Jacob’s Folly. With the help of Max McGuinness, a graduate student at Columbia University, Miller scoured literature and interviewed experts, learning as much as she could about the small population (about 600) of Jews who were living in Paris. “My interests had run deeply into 18th-century France,” Miller says. “Honestly, I was interested in the origins of anti-Semitism in France. Where did it come from? The medieval period was impacting, informing these attitudes, and really cast a shadow on the 18th-century. It was a very interesting period—and I was interested in following the line of the Jewish question.”
Miller’s home life also had an influence on her choice of Jacob Cerf as the narrator. Together, with Day-Lewis, Miller has two sons, Cashel, 10, and Ronan, 14, and a stepson, Gabriel, 17. “We all live together,” explains Miller. “They have taught me so much—and I definitely think that it has something to do with going with a male narrator for this book.”
Speaking of family, how does Miller manage to balance such an ambitious creative life with motherhood? “It makes you use the time you have more intensely,” says Miller. “A lot of other things go by the wayside: I don’t have the cleanest house in the world. I find it hard occasionally. And I definitely think that I need to add on time, because everything takes me longer than I think it’s going to.”
It seems like the natural next project, for Miller might be translating Jacob’s Folly to the screen. “I’m not planning to at the moment,” she says. “I’m so tired from writing the book that I don’t see how it would work. Right now, I just want to enjoy it.”
S. Kirk Walsh has written for Guernica, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe, among other publications.