In Melissa Broder’s new novel, the main character is a novelist dealing with a father in intensive care and a husband with a chronic illness; she flees to the parched wilderness of California in search of figurative (and literal) clarity and discovers a cactus with mythical powers. Valley of Death is what the author describes as a “pusher of autofiction,” a meditation on both her current ills and the literary form itself. The author joined prior to the book’s publication The Hollywood Reporter via Zoom to discuss the parts of her own life that directly inspired the book: the desert landscape drawn from her past; the psychedelic plant less so – and offers musings on the painfully slow process of Hollywood adaptations.
Can you tell us something about where your inspiration comes from?
Every book is a little different, but every idea starts with an image. For The fish, I was on the beach in Venice, where I had moved from New York. I had been in an open marriage, and we had just concluded the marriage and I was trying to answer the question of why a healthy, therapist-mandated relationship so healthy and long-lasting feels so much less intoxicating than something with a stranger you could murder. The answer to that may be clear to some. Like, because that’s a fantasy and this is reality, and it’s not that sexy. Anyway, I was reading this book on the beach called The professor and the siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and the idea of writing about an older woman and a younger merman occurred to me.
Of Milk fedI would have written this really bad short story about a love affair between an anorexic woman and an Orthodox woman. I longed for and felt nostalgic about the cultural Judaism of my childhood – which is really connected to food. I had an image of frozen yogurt and then started thinking about how appetite is really connected to our desires and spiritual longings. That’s how it all came together.
I know that Valley of Death was partly inspired by your experience with the loss of your father, but was there also a specific image?
I imagined a cactus where you could go inside and meet different incarnations of your loved ones. My father was in a terrible accident and subsequently spent six months in the ICU during COVID. We couldn’t visit him for several months, which was very difficult. My sister lives in Las Vegas, so I was driving back and forth from LA trying to escape a feeling. I was in Baker, California, home of the largest thermometer in the world, when I got that cactus statue.
You say you sat on the beach and wondered why you were less attracted to the safe marriage – did you ever answer that question?
I did. To write The fish cleared that up for me. But Valley of Death has not freed me from my sorrow for my father. I feel like I’m still lost in the desert in a way.
Do you feel at all better than when you started writing?
As I wrote it, I still felt very connected to my father. There was a sense of propulsion. I didn’t think it would bring him back, but it was like our connection was still going. When I finished the book, I thought, oh, what now?
Does talking about the book, or knowing that people will read it, give you more of that propulsion?
That is a good question. I feel like this book has been a very different publishing experience than my previous books. There are many mixed feelings. I think some of that might be Valley of Death does not have a nice ending, there is no good solution. Just like in life, I would like to have complete control over my life and achieve inner peace, but there will always be peaks and valleys, especially when it comes to grief. I think, more than any of my other books, I started to see the possibility of a sequel Valley of Death.
Many of the emotions in the book are autobiographical, but what about the actual lost-in-the-desert element? Have you been to Joshua Tree or something similar to research?
I went on a desert exploration trip to Death Valley. I went for a lonely walk and didn’t tell anyone where I was going because I was going to the most touristy part of the park. No one gets lost in that part. Except I was lost. I am an idiot. (Laughs.) I didn’t have any water with me. I had Coke Zero, thinking it would only be a short walk. I eventually got back to my car, but I had to climb this ravine and got all torn up. After I got back to my car and stopped crying, I realized it was a gift to the story.
What have you learned about your fan base over the years?
The reaction I get most from readers is people saying: I relate to you so much. And I thought, oh, I’m so sorry! People also really connect with the characters, which I find funny, because there’s also a lot of talk about my protagonists being unlikable – and I really like all my protagonists.
All of your previous books have been optioned, and I believe they are in various stages of adaptation? Claire Foy was in talks to play the lead role The fishand Liz Tigelaar was attached to a TV version of Milk fed. I’m curious about your relationship to that process, to what extent you find it important or unnecessary.
I’ve adjusted all my books for the screen, but I still don’t see the camera turning on. And I don’t think that’s going to happen for any of them now. Of course, I haven’t written any screenplays since the strikes started. I find the idea of adaptation extremely exciting because I enjoy seeing the characters again after I finish the novel. It looks like fan fiction. I’ve been really lucky so far to work with great people like Liz Tigelaar and Stacy Silverman Milk fed. But I do think that in my lifetime I would like to see a camera actually turned on.
Did you innately know that you wanted to work on these scripts?
The first project I sold was based on my Twitter feed, and I wrote that pilot – with my friend Brad Listi – just for fun. That got us representation and we sold it to MTV. So when then The fish And Milk fed were chosen, I was asked if I wanted to write. I thought, yes, that would be great and also mom needs health insurance. Both projects were a hybrid of the spirit of creative adventure and the need for insurance.
Which of these stalled adjustments do you feel most involved in?
I’d like to see it The fish become a movie. It was written as a pilot. I also think it would be fun to see Valley of Death be a movie. This was not done because of the strike.
Interview edited for length and clarity.