Rebecca Miller on ‘The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,’ the Novel — and the Movie

Photo: Courtesy of Farrar, Strauss

Given that her most recent work was the 2005 drama The Ballad of Jack and Rose — about the near-incestuous relationship between a daughter and her father — it’s hardly surprising that writer-director Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur) takes a keen interest in the power of familial relationships. In her debut novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, a former teenage wild child leaves a comfortable life in Manhattan to reside in a retirement community with her much older husband, a move that makes her question her role as a prim and proper wife and mother. The book hits stores today, and Miller is already editing the film version (starring Robin Wright Penn and Blake Lively, among others) for a 2009 release. She spoke with Vulture about the inspiration for Pippa, how much of her own life is in the story, and the wisdom of not casting her husband — an acting nobody named Daniel Day-Lewis.

At the very beginning of the novel Herb and Pippa are having a housewarming party, and among the guests are a fiction writer, a poet, and a screenwriter. Does that scene reflect your own upbringing?
Definitely, to a degree. I think when you are around a certain kind of milieu, you learn about rhythm of speech. You almost absorb it. So I am sort of able to re-create that rhythm of speech and way of being in a very easy way. But it’s kind of a different vibe. My upbringing was much more bohemian and different from what Herb and Pippa are living.

Do you tend to draw on your own life in your work?
Like most fiction writers, I’m more interested in hiding; otherwise I’d be writing memoirs. And I always give myself to the most unlikely candidates, like 80-year-old men. You’re more likely to find me in male characters than you are female characters.

Where did the idea for the character Pippa come from?
I met up with someone I hadn’t seen in a long, long time, like twenty years or something, and she had really transformed herself as a person, going from being a pretty wild person to being remarkably stolid and a kind of calm, gracious woman. And I was like, What happened to this person? And I started to think about outer transformations, and to what degree our inner life is changed as well. And funnily enough, I got lost in an old people’s home.

That really happened?
That really happened. My brother-in-law made the joke that if we stayed long enough, we’d have to actually retire there. And I thought, Well, that would be funny. Writing the younger part was kind of hard, because in order to get that voice, I really, really had to hear it in my head as if I was thinking that way. As if I was sort of Pippa.

Is that why you switched to first person midway through for young Pippa to tell her story?
I think I shifted because I liked the idea of judging a person up to a certain point, and almost feeling like, Okay, I know who this person is, I sort of know her a certain way. And then to drop into someone’s real “I” — in other words, their true thoughts — would probably be a shocker because we have separate selves. I was just interested in dropping the bottom out of the book.

And when did you decide this would work for a movie?
I suppose it was when I was reading the very last draft of the novel. I began to have that double vision that I start to have when I start seeing it as a film at the same time.

Ever consider casting your husband?
No. He’s not really old enough for Herb, and he’s not young enough for Chris. It would be my greatest wish to work with him again. But it would have to be the right thing.
—Lori Fradkin