In the winter of 2021, Melissa Broder was driving through Baker, California—a sparsely populated Mojave Desert town best known as home to what was once the World’s Tallest Thermometer—when the first line of her new novel, Death Valley, out October 3, came to her: “I pull into the desert town at sunset feeling empty.”
“I was trying to escape this feeling of anticipatory grief,” the 44-year-old author says, over Zoom, of the pilgrimages she made that year between her hometown of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where her sister lives. “But you can’t escape a feeling, because the feeling’s inside you.”
A little over a year before that fateful drive through Baker, Broder’s father had been in a car accident outside of Philadelphia that landed him in the ICU for six months before he died. Her emotional landscape during that time, which coincided with the height of the Covid-19 crisis, became a springboard for Death Valley. The novel follows an unnamed writer’s journey to (and through) the high desert as she attempts to glean inspiration for her next project and escape her murky grief-haze.
On a hike, the writer stumbles upon a behemoth cactus—the kind that shouldn’t exist in the area—and, through a gash in its side, enters it. Inside she encounters a series of lifelike visions of her father and husband during different stages of childhood and adolescence. When she tries to relocate the mystical cactus the next day, she becomes lost in the desert. Visual, sensory, and auditory hallucinations abound: Rocks give advice, rabbits speak aphorisms.
The details of the writer’s personal life—a father in critical condition in an ICU across the country; a husband whose chronic illness is worsening—mirror those of Broder’s during the time of writing. Like her character, Broder did once find herself lost in the Mojave Desert (albeit for a much shorter time). But she sees Death Valley as a send-up of autofiction. “When I was recording the audiobook,” she remembers, “One of the engineers was like, ‘Is this a true story?’ and I was like, ‘Yes. I entered a giant cactus and encountered my husband in his youth.’”
After working as a book publicist and releasing collections of poetry, Broder burst onto the literary scene in 2015 upon revealing herself as the voice behind the well-loved Twitter account @SoSadToday—a series of pithy insights on depression, anxiety, and existential angst, which she adapted into an eponymous essay collection in 2016. The Pisces (2019), her first foray into fiction, tells the story of a heartbroken PhD student’s all-consuming affair with a merman, while Milk Fed (2021) centers around a calorie-obsessed woman’s infatuation with an Orthodox Jewish frozen yogurt clerk. Her narrators are witty and cerebral, prone to fixation, connected by a desire to escape the discomfort of being human by any means necessary: food (or lack thereof), substances, love, excursions to remote desert towns.
Death Valley—at its core, a story about love and survival—is perhaps Broder’s most personal work yet. The writer’s surreal journey through the desert can be read as a parable for the process of navigating anticipatory grief, with the desert and its numinous oases echoing her psychological landscape. “Being lost in the desert and being lost in the interior landscape of grief have a lot of parallels,” Broder says, “Because we are not in control. We can’t wish grief away any more than we could wish to not be lost in the desert. That being said, there is beauty to be found in both of those barren landscapes.”
In conversation with Vanity Fair, she discusses her thoughts on spirituality, her changing relationship with the internet, her favorite modes of literary divination, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The narrator of Death Valley comes upon an oasis in the form of a giant cactus—and you’ve spoken about the metaphysical oases that often arrive through grief. What kinds of oases did you encounter during your own grieving process?
The last day I saw my father, he had finally made it out of the ICU and gotten to a rehab. He was still on a feeding tube, but he was off the ventilator. I had been flying back to the East Coast every couple of weeks to see him, but it was still COVID. We were wearing masks, and at one point, when he had pneumonia, we had to wear hazmat suits. That was the first time I was able to touch him and hold his hand. I remember touching his wrist and thinking, I could just sit here forever. It was the most profound…it was almost as though time had stopped. Talk about an oasis. I didn’t know that would be our last visit, but it was perfect. I FaceTimed my sister, and he thought she was in the room. He died the next morning.