Melissa Broder on Why Writing Death Valley ‘Almost Killed Me’

Fashion

Writing her latest novel almost killed Melissa Broder—or, anyway, that’s how it seemed when the Milk Fed and So Sad Today author realized she was lost during a solo hike at Death Valley National Park’s Zabriskie Point. The Los Angeles-based Broder had come to this trail to research what would eventually become her third novel, Death Valley. How she ended up lost in “the most touristy area” under the hot April sun with no cell reception, no water, and a bottle of Diet Coke, was thanks to both misdirection and tragedy.

In December 2020, Broder’s father was in a car accident, and his resulting injuries required a months-long stay in the intensive care unit. Living on the other side of the country and unable to visit him due to the hospital’s COVID precautions, Broder spent hours driving back and forth between her home in Los Angeles and her sister’s in Las Vegas, “trying to escape a feeling.”

“I was driving through Baker, [California], which is approximately where the fictional town [in the novel] would be, and the first line of the novel came to me,” Broder says. (The book starts: “I pull into the desert town at sunset feeling empty.”) “I was like, ‘OK, this is it.’ I was working on another novel, and I put it down and started writing this.”

This epiphany led to her taking a “desert recon trip” to research Death Valley for her book, where she roamed astray around Zabriskie Point, panicked and cut-up from climbing rocks to find her way. Around 40 minutes after becoming lost, Broder found her way back to her car. “When I got out, I was like, ‘This is a gift.’” she said. “Now I know what’s going to happen in my novel.”

In Death Valley, a woman drives to a small desert town under the pretense of researching a book—though, underneath the guise of work, she’s running from feelings of emptiness and doom caused by a chronically ill husband and her injured father in the ICU. But when what’s supposed to be a casual hike turns perilous, the woman encounters a giant cactus, talking rocks, and a huge mustachioed oriole over the course of her multi-day fight for survival. Death Valley, even more than Broder’s past novels, makes powerful use of poetic diction and lyricism as the narrator works to orient herself—both in a physical and emotional sense—to the terrain, the new reality of her “probably dying” father, and the nearly decade-long constant of her sick husband.

After six months in the ICU, and one month after her desert misadventure, Broder’s father died. Now, two and a half years later, Broder sat down with us to discuss why writing this novel felt like such an essential homage to him.

All of your work has been very personal, but Death Valley is particularly intimate. What was it like to write about the loss of your father?

My father died over a year before I finished the book. When I finished the book, I had a new experience with grief because the book had been a real connection with him. The day that I sent it off to my agent, I was like, “Oh, he’s not coming back.”

How did your own experience with your dad in the ICU play into the relationship the narrator has with her own father?

There was a lot of similarity. The first few months he was in the ICU, we weren’t allowed to see him because of COVID. I didn’t want to make the book a COVID narrative, but I felt like the distance was really important, the separation and the FaceTime. Because when my father was in and out of consciousness, my sister and I would just talk to him on FaceTime. But there would be times when he didn’t want to talk to anyone. He was fighting for his life. And that was a new learning curve: to not take someone’s ill health personally, and that we have to let people die in their own way and that it isn’t personal.

Is it difficult to channel that vulnerability and bare it all for the world to read?

With this book, and actually with a lot of my writing, I can’t not do it. Writing this book almost killed me, but also not writing it would have almost killed me. I just had to do it. It’s really like, cows make milk; writers write. It’s how I orient myself to the world. It’s how I exist and survive in the world.

I’m always so scared about being judged!

There’s a big difference between writing and editing and publishing. The publishing is more challenging in terms of my perception of the reader. In my writing process, I just go. I try to dismantle any perfectionism and any voices, because otherwise I’ll never write about anything. Editing is when I start to think about clarity, lucidity.

The publishing is like closing your eyes and jumping into a pool. I can definitely feel, years after a book comes out, very invaded by something I put out in the world. Like, my 80-year-old Aunt Judy tells me she read So Sad Today and I feel invaded. But it’s like, I put it out there!

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While So Sad Today is nonfiction pulled directly about your lived experiences, Death Valley also draws a lot of obvious inspiration from your life.

What was fun about this book is that it’s totally a sendup of autofiction. Obviously there’s a lot of differences, but someone could read it and say, “Oh, the narrator is the author.” Then you start to get further and you’re like, “Um, did the author go into a magic cactus?” Probably no. That was really fun to do because people are always trying to figure out in novels, “Did this really happen?” Even when I was recording the audiobook, the audio engineer was like, “Is this a true story?”

There’s a passage in Death Valley that muses, “I don’t believe a person has to suffer to make art. But that’s only because I imagine it’s true for others.” Is that a belief you personally share, or is suffering a necessary part of creation?

I don’t, intellectually, believe that you have to suffer to make art. And even for myself, in a theoretical sense. I would love nothing else more than not to suffer. There’s nothing I would love more, truly. And perhaps a lot of my suffering—and I address this in this book—is caused by a desire of wanting to be at peace. The human experience will have its ups and downs. The alchemy of writing is a way to bring in light and creativity and, in a way, a higher power—if a higher power is (and it is for me) a creative force and not a destructive force.

It’s interesting that the book is about grieving and dying, but in the end the father character doesn’t die.

When she has the vision of the bird, she’s so convinced that her father is dead. That’s a projection of her own experience, however mystical, however divine. I do have a relationship with signs and certainly with a higher power, but I believe that what we believe exists if we choose to believe that it exists. But we can’t project that on other people; faith only goes as far as ourselves. I think it was another lesson for her. Her interpretations and the way she perceived catastrophe were her own projection—it was something coming from herself. And that, to me, was really strong.

I don’t, intellectually, believe that you have to suffer to make art.”

This novel deals with heavy themes, but it’s still so very funny. It’s not often that a book about death makes me literally laugh out loud.

My father was very funny, very dry, very sarcastic. So a book that is my homage to him has to be funny. And I have to have a good time when I’m writing, especially prose, because it’s such a marathon.

I feel the same way about incorporating humor as I do with sex scenes. When I write sex scenes, I have to turn myself on. If I don’t turn myself on, there’s no way I’m going to turn on the reader. It’s the same with humor in the sense of, you can feel when you read a book that the writer is having a good time writing it. And I think there’s something really beautiful about that.

Life and death are also funny in their strangeness. It’s hilarious that we exist and it’s hilarious that we have to die. Both are really dark, but also really funny.

You wrote your first two novels, The Pisces and Milk Fed, largely through dictation. Did you do this for Death Valley as well?

I did a bunch, dictating, and then I scrapped the whole thing and started again. This was the first piece of prose that I’ve written by typing. I usually don’t edit that hard in my first few drafts—it’s mostly getting the clay out. But with this, because it was for my dad, I wanted it to be a diamond every step of the way.

I realized dictation wouldn’t work; I edited this like I edit a poem, with the intensity and care. There’s a risk to editing on a sentence level that precisely early on, because, if the structure doesn’t work, a lot of those sentences are going to be thrown away. But I wanted whatever was on the page to be beautiful.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Claudia Guthrie is a freelance writer based in Denver. When she’s not writing about food or pop culture, she’s probably listening to the latest true-crime podcast or binge-watching a Mike Flanagan Netflix series for the third time.

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