An Interview with Helen Dewitt
“What if is always so cheering,” Helen DeWitt said last fall, over the telephone from Berlin, shortly before the American launch of her latest novel, Lightning Rods. In it, a failed salesman transforms himself into a highly successful peddler of a novel anti–sexual harassment device: a toilet in which a guy can screw an anonymous female coworker from behind, thus decreasing inappropriate, pent-up libidinous energy in the workplace.
The book’s plot proceeds from a series of what if’s—what if such a thing could be accepted into the workplace? What if such a device actually worked? Such what if’s are present not only in DeWitt’s fiction—what if one could choose one’s own father, like Ludo, in her first novel, The Last Samurai, which sold one hundred thousand copies in English alone?—but also, sometimes maddeningly, in her career: what if your second book, Your Name Here, was being published four years after the PDF version, available on your website, was reviewed in the London Review of Books?
DeWitt is one of the funniest writers going (in a Nathanael West/Mel Brooks way), and devoted readers of her books and her blog, Paperpools, admire her ferocious, wide-ranging intelligence, and her faith in readers’ intelligence. She never panders or talks down.
Although Helen and I have emailed sporadically for years now, we corresponded more intensely during the course of this interview. For several weeks we emailed, skyped, and gchatted regularly. She was charming, funny, and outspoken, and always quick with a new example of why publishing is an almost unimaginably bad industry, an impossible context for a writer to thrive in.
I. HE HAD BEEN ON MY SIDE, IN IGNORANCE OF MY EXISTENCE
THE BELIEVER: I’m interested in how your books come about, emotionally. How do you end up writing what you write? The Last Samurai seemed to come from this what if of a boy navigating issues of paternity, and you said you had a clear structure in mind for it. Lightning Rods was one of the ten books you began writing post-Samurai—books that did “just one thing.”
HELEN DeWITT: Around the time of Samurai, I had a very bad argument with my father. So I thought, We don’t pick our parents. If we picked, I would have picked something better than this. And then I had an idea for a book, or, anyway, a question: what would be necessary for it to be possible to pick? I think interesting books explore new paradigms. First you think of the paradigm—it might be: how does a chess player see the world? how does a statistician see the world?—then you look for the form that would make this work. But that kind of book does take time to execute well. It’s not just a question of writing so many thousand words a day.
BLVR: Does writing bring you joy, fundamentally?
HD: Welll… it’s like this. Perhaps I am reading Jim Pitman’s book Probability. I am reading along and come to a page of Poisson distributions. I’m looking at this page. This is a standard textbook; it’s used in introductions to statistics. Thousands of people have read this book. It’s right out there in the public domain. It is not privileged knowledge. But I am the only one who looked at this page and instantly saw the connection with Invisible Cities—that there was something that could be done with this in fiction, something that had never been done before. It was waiting just for me. So that feels very good, that is a moment of happiness, there is the feeling that whatever writes is not dead. But the thing is, I think actually it’s readers and agents and editors who have an enjoyable relationship with texts most of the time, who expect to be excited and enthusiastic all the time. Once you have an idea, there are things you need in order to make possible the execution, and a lot of this work may involve endless exasperation. Perhaps you have to learn a programming language, or you are trying to get the graphics you want, the plots you want, and you feel stupid and frustrated. And this is just the preliminary, this is just a tool you need for the book, something you need in order to put other things in place. So much of the time, maybe you are not feeling happy or joyful or enthusiastic. You are just keeping your head down, doggedly doing this thing you know you need to do.
BLVR: One of the big thrills your work offers is ferocious logic. In Lightning Rods, the logic of wanting to keep high earning workers sexually sated trumps norms against prostitution. The Last Samurai has a similar plot movement, based on reason trumping social norms. I don’t know how to phrase this as a question, other than asking why are logic and reason such havens for you?
HD: I have a feeling that the first work of philosophy I ever read was J. S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women. I took a course in women and literature in twelfth grade, and I think it was on the syllabus. This was, and still is, an extraordinary thing to read: one sees this immensely powerful mind painstakingly refuting arguments that, to our eyes, are self-evidently nonsensical, but which at the time made the systematic oppression of women seem absolutely natural and unalterable. I felt that I owed everything I valued in life to Mill and those like him. We are often reminded that, during the Third Reich, the majority of Germans did not resist the Nazis—the implication being that most of us would not have done so. If one wants an example of what it is to live in a corrupt society and yet not assimilate, Mill’s book is a picture of such a mind in operation. So in the first place, I felt that this was someone who had been on my side, in ignorance of my existence; who had made my life possible out of passion for justice, pursued through logic. In the second place, there was the sense that one could repay the debt only by following his example. And in the third place, there was the conviction that, if I felt myself to be trapped by social constraints, I would do better to attend to the dictates of reason than to try to make myself the thing society said I should be. This was also the school in which I was made to read Sophocles’ Oedipus plays in translation, a translation I loathed. I worked out at some point that the texts must be better in Greek, or they could not have survived the millennia. But our teacher did not tell us. She could not tell us, because she was not in a position to know. So I started Greek only when I went to Smith, and I knew this was something worth doing only by ignoring the assumptions of my school and relying on reason. I then read the Apology and the Symposium—my second exposures to philosophy—a few books of the Odyssey, and selections from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. It seemed to me that the speakers in Plato and Thucydides were more real as characters than what we think of as “fleshed-out characters”—those with physical descriptions and personal histories—because their style of argument establishes how they engage with the world. I longed to be a writer, but it seemed to me a writer should be able to distinguish good arguments from bad. What I mean is, on the one hand I did think philosophy was—what shall I say?—the key to integrity, the way to avoid adopting contemptible positions by unthinking conformity to social norms. But on the other hand, it was also completely insane. When you start studying philosophy, you realize that all kinds of crazy paradigms have never been explored in fiction. There was this extraordinarily liberating sense of endless possibilities. I was rereading Richard Sorabji’s Animal Minds and Human Morals a couple of months ago. Sorabji said he was looking at ancient philosophers’ notions of the nature of animals. Aristotle thought animals did not have reason. The Stoics thought they had reason but they did not have syntax. Sorabji said the underlying agenda was “They don’t have syntax, so we can eat them.” He said this was such an embarrassingly bad argument that he was appalled—and even more appalled because virtually no progress had been made. He immediately had to rethink his own attitudes to animals in light of the hitherto-unnoticed appallingness of the arguments on offer. To a certain type of person, there’s something drearily dowdy about flimsy reasoning when it’s convenient to uphold a dodgy moral position. One looks at the arguments used to justify slavery, or the oppression of women, and— how can I put it?—one doesn’t want to be the kind of person who would waste intellectual energy in coming up with involved, implausible arguments to justify the status quo.
II. A FAKE MUSTACHE
BLVR: In Lightning Rods, most of the characters receive almost no physical description. I felt no lack because of it, but it did bring up, for me, questions of the whole round/flat character thing. Your characters do feel thoroughly fleshed out—more so in Samurai than in Lightning Rods—but you don’t achieve it through the more traditional methods of character development.
HD: My sense is that “round/flat” doesn’t really capture the difference between characters in Samurai and in Lightning Rods; the difference seems to be a matter of genre, hence of different styles of rhetoric. The characters in Samurai invite an emotional investment that the characters in Lightning Rods do not, which is simply to say that the latter is a comedy.
BLVR: Right. Lightning Rods is a much more comic book than Your Name Here or The Last Samurai. But you don’t seem to attach any preciousness to those two books over Lightning Rods, saying, “These are truly who I am; this one’s what I do on the side.” Is that fair?
HD: Yeah. And maybe film helps us there, because in the lit world—it’s very interesting—there’s this sort of snobbishness. I mean, Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy. Bringing Up Baby, I think, is a work of genius. But you’d never see something like that taken seriously as a work of fiction. Film’s less hierarchical, perhaps.
BLVR: I’ve been trying to think of other writers who offer some of the same pleasures I find in your work. You’ve talked about Wallace…
HD: I love DeLillo. I don’t think I’m much like him, but I love his work. I read Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, and I loved it. This isn’t something we see in fiction, but he would describe these different players who were not what a scout’s preconception was of a good baseball player. Then all of a sudden this method of statistical analysis showed that these were undervalued players. Somebody crunches the numbers, and it turns out that someone who didn’t fit the stereotype is a star! This is profound, this is moving—or I found it moving. And it’s something that’s hard to portray in fiction, because the drama of interactions, of individual interactions, is easier for us to understand than the significance of patterns of behavior that emerge when someone throws computational power at the data. I’m interested in risk and probability, statistics, and the way that one can make that visible in fiction, which I think is completely fascinating. Probability is counterintuitive, at odds with what normally looks likely in a novel; part of what’s interesting is the challenge of showing this, working out how to present something visually in such a way that the eye takes in relationships that the mind, left alone with the facts, wouldn’t work out on its own.
BLVR: Do you worry that you might just end up with a lot of visual tricks?
HD: There’s a story that Michael Caine told about working with Sir Laurence Olivier on Sleuth, because on the first day, Olivier showed up in a bad mood, was not really engaging with the film; it was pretty lackluster. The next day Olivier showed up wearing this fake mustache and suddenly the character was just there, it crystallized: suddenly he was that character. Caine was talking to him later, and Olivier—he was not a method actor—said, “That’s what I always need, I need a bit of business or a prop—if I get that thing, that’s what makes it work for me.” In a way, that’s the way it works for me. When I was working on Samurai, I had this idea of the boy learning Japanese. I bought some kind of plug-in for Windows that did Japanese—I got something that was really primitive, I think it was called TwinBridge, which enabled you to input Japanese into WordPerfect or Word. And as soon as I could type my kanji onto the page, suddenly I could just see—I thought the little boy’s diary, with new, exciting words in Japanese, would be a much better way of making the character visible, showing his mind at work, than straight narrative. So I would spend a lot of time going through my dictionary, looking for great kanji, and it just felt perfect and right for the text. It seems as though a lot of what I’m working on involves looking for that kind of thing, something to do with the page that’s not a gimmick. It feels like Olivier looking for his mustache—just something that makes it work.
III. THE DOG HAD TO PEE
BLVR: When is Your Name Here coming out?
HD: I think in November or December. I did something bad. Seeing Lightning Rods into print had used up its advance, so I wanted to sell something else to buy time to finish works in progress. Lotteryland, a novel inside of Your Name Here, was originally a book in its own right—unfinished but nearly complete. It was about sixty-five thousand words. I wondered if the publisher would be willing to let me take it out and put something else in its place, or if the novel would work without it. Of course they were in anguish, because I think they’d started to typeset the book. They said if I really felt like I had to do it, they’d relinquish the Lotteryland element, but they thought the book needed something else. So I thought, If the only solution to my problems is publishing something I was working on ten years ago, I should just give up. That was just me being feeble.
BLVR: And are you happy with Your Name Here, which is now being published five years after it was made available on your website?
HD: The thing is, I had this idea for a book, a collaboration. One half of the book would involve a narrator who was in a state of alienation, a Beckettian, unengaging narrator at the verge of silence, forced into gamesmanship by a system that left no space for the disengaged. The other half would bring in texts from a character with an extraordinary gift for manipulation. The book started out this way, but my collaborator, Ilya Gridneff, kept interrogating the blocks of text relating to the character in a state of alienation, asking for explanations, and a friend who read the book liked all the material that was more engaging, more explanatory, so there was more and more and more of this, and the half of the book that was to be my contribution had less and less to do with what I wanted to write. Meanwhile, I was sending it out, engaging with agents, transacting with the world—manically hustling when I wanted to finish other books. This would never have been great, but it was harder to bear given that the final version was not the kind of text I had envisaged; it was this compromise, something that attempted to address the objections of my co-scripteur and the preferences of the reader whose opinions I respected. I look at the book and think of the books I could have finished that were entirely by Helen DeWitt, books over which I could have had total control. And I think: Why don’t I just shoot myself now? This is not necessarily to say it’s a bad book. People I respect think it’s brilliant. It may be brilliant. If we take theory seriously, we should admit that the—or even an— author may not be the best judge of a work. But if we grant that, we should also be willing to grant that a work may be divorced from anything the author cares about, and the/ an author should have the right to walk away and do other things. This is naturally at odds with the normal procedure of the industry, under which someone whose name appears on the cover should go out and do a roadshow promoting the fucker.
BLVR: There’s an even bigger gap between the composition and publication of Lightning Rods. Was it weird to have the book come out so long after it was written?
HD: Well, the nice thing about just having something on my hard drive is that it’s mine. If I want to read the next book by Helen DeWitt, I can just write it, and read it, and then write another one. Painters do that and nobody objects. Because the publication of Samurai was so difficult, other people can read that book, but I can never read it again. If I look at a certain page number, I just remember the day the production manager could not discuss it, because her dog had to pee. Nobody else sees it like this. Other people reading the hardback are not going to look at the page and think of this dog that needed to pee, but for me the whole book is like that.
So what’s strange is not so much that Lightning Rods came out long after it was written. It’s strange not to have that simple relationship to the text, this thing on the hard drive that’s mine. This was something I had; I’d pull it up and read it and laugh at it. Once in a while I’d send it off as an attachment. I’d mention it in passing, readers would ask about it, and I’d say, “Oh, you can read it,” and they’d say it was really funny; why hasn’t it been published? Published?! I wanted to finish another book before I published it, so that I always had something. I kept resisting. Because as soon as you feed something into the machine, it builds up an accretion of all these other events that come back to haunt you. And then—it’s strange to see all these strong, positive reviews when for so long so many people were nervous about publishing it. My U.K. editor thought it would destroy my reputation. My Miramax editor passed on it twice, made an offer in 2001, finally closed a deal in 2003, and then decided not to publish. It took five years to get the rights back; when an agent finally sent it out in 2009, seventeen editors rejected it as too controversial to publish. The agent resigned in early 2010; ten months later, New Directions made an offer of publication. I thought: Sometimes you just have to do it. And then it got all these acute, enthusiastic reviews. Which is great, obviously (three cheers, New Directions), but if my Miramax editor had given that kind of intelligent response, I would have published it ten years ago.
IV. DESPERATELY SEEKING SANITY
BLVR: Halfway through Lightning Rods, I had to stop myself and go, well, is this that bad?—having, essentially, prostitutes in the workplace for the sake of keeping the best workers at their best. You make this ridiculous, unreasonable thing seem fine, but the discord’s what’s important— the reader’s got to do the work of being shocked into seeing this in a new way.
HD: I was very traumatized when I wrote it. Lightning Rods was a response to the very bad experience of having Samurai sent out and having all these unsolicited comments from people whom I knew nothing about, so I couldn’t place them in context. Which certainly to me, as an academic— it was offensive. It was intellectually offensive. I don’t think books come programmatically, they come from the subconscious. So my experience of that was like being fucked from behind through a hole in the wall. See, sexual abuse is taken very seriously, but intellectual abuse is not seen as a problem. That’s just our society. I don’t know what to say. In academia, the whole idea is that you argue with people, you adduce evidence for your points, you try to be logical, you try to read more widely, you’re looking for new paradigms in case the one you have is wrong. Then to be forced into this world where that was just not the case, I felt it to be very degrading. Anything that is just an arbitrary statement rather than something that is argued for, I perceive as degrading and insulting and being fucked from behind through a hole in the wall.
BLVR: You’re the only writer I know who will talk this way.
HD: Are you serious?
HD: I thought everybody thought this way.
BLVR: Not that I’m aware of.
HD: Hmm. Anyway, when I wrote Lightning Rods, the subconscious did not engage with these things directly; the result was something like Mel Brooks’s Springtime for Hitler, which is just funny and in the worst possible taste. We’re not invited to share outrage, we’re invited to laugh. I was laughing. I mean, I’m dwelling on the circumstances now because we’re having an interview, but at the time my impulse was to make jokes.
BLVR: When you were working on The Last Samurai, it was before you’d experienced the publishing industry. Will it ever be possible for you to get back to a pre-Samurai place?
HD: I had a very clear structure in mind when I started writing Samurai. That was one reason it got finished when so many others did not. Also, I had a solid month at the beginning when I had literally no interruptions. It’s very hard to just go away and not talk to anybody. But the problem is not just the interruptions, or needing to provide a social self, or lack of a clear structure; the problem is that in 1996 I moved from a position where my work was influenced by engagement with the most brilliant man I know—my ex-husband—to financially constrained intellectual engagement with people I didn’t know from a bar of soap, which to me felt (and feels) distinguishable from prostitution in only one respect: in prostitution you sell intercourse with something of indifference to me, the body, whereas in publishing you sell intercourse with the mind, which is the thing that writes the books. I try to get away from this damaging relationship; I try to heal the trauma and get to something better; I explain to people that if they want books like Samurai, which they all say they do, I can’t be asked to engage in intellectual prostitution; I point out that I have about two hundred unfinished books on my hard drive, so there is money to be made from letting me do it my way—and they keep replicating the behavior that produced Lightning Rods as Book 2, rather than something bigger and better than Samurai. I point to the breakdowns, the clinical depression, the suicide attempts— and it never makes any difference. David Foster Wallace committed suicide, so people did not have a chance to fix what was bothering him. I tell people what I can’t deal with; I put clauses in my contracts and I explain: this clause stands between me and suicide, don’t sign this contract if you are not going to comply with it—and they laugh.
V. YOU DON’T NEED A BRAIN, YOU NEED A DIPLOMA
BLVR: As a reader who loves Samurai, knowing about how the production process was so nightmarish for you is weird—
HD: I know, it’s probably a terrible warning to young writers.
BLVR: But it’s refreshing. I asked this before, but it’s worth repeating: why bother publishing? I appreciate that you do, but if it’s this much of a pain in the ass, and people are this shitty, why publish? Why not forget about it? I’m not advocating for this outcome, for the record.
HD: I thought it would be a way to get some money to write, that was all. It didn’t seem that complicated. But it’s an industry that loves leaving things to chance, more than you would expect in something that’s notionally a business. It’s the rationalist in me that can’t believe a system can be this irrational. The people I get on well with, I get on very well with, I think: maybe there’s somebody like that in publishing! And it would be very straightforward! And I’d publish a book a year! If you hold out for that, though, it looks bad. So there are long gaps between books. You know, I feel as though instead of spending last year writing, I spent it getting a publishing credential. I’d already written Lightning Rods. Last year was the year I dedicated to getting the credential. So, sometimes I do despair. I look at this system, and I despair. But then I get into another mental argument with David Foster Wallace and feel I should not despair. David Foster Wallace took this very novelistic approach to being a decent person; he had this idea that if you’re going insane at the supermarket, you invent possible reasons for people to be doing what they’re doing. But there’s this great online retailer in Virginia, relayfoods.com—you can order groceries from local businesses and grocery stores, but also from farmers, people who’d otherwise sell only at farmers’ markets. You put in your order and Relay Foods has pickup places where you can just stop by in your car—so if you have a small child this is really nice, you just pull up with your toddler, or five, and they will pack all your stuff in the trunk. Relay Foods is a technical solution to the problem of driving each other insane in the process of shopping for groceries. Wallace was not suggesting that reducing the berserkness-inducing elements of shopping for groceries would solve your major problems. The project that kept you working late, the mother with cancer. The competing claims of a mob of preschoolers and a career. Just, maybe, that all the extra aggro associated with the practicalities of daily life, when you’re already running on empty, is more than we can bear. Leads us to loathe our fellow man. So suppose just some of the things that drive me crazy could be fixed. Suppose, to take just one example, that I am working on a book that could change the face of C21 fiction, but it involves statistics, and people think statistics are boring. Just suppose that carrying out market research online revealed that two million people visit a web-comic three times a week that is math- and statistics-oriented, and that this fact actually carried weight with people in the biz, instead of the current position, which is that people “have to fall in love with a book” and are not interested in data. Changing that single thing would not solve all my problems, but one thing that drives me crazy would be removed, and maybe that would suffice—maybe I could somehow cope with all the other things that drive me crazy if one thing could be fixed. So we need people to come up with more good solutions. In publishing as in grocery shopping: we just need to think more. If you’re an author, you’re not normally part of the search for solutions. But there are solutions, we just need to be very smart. We can work it out.
BLVR: Whistling in the dark?
HD: No! No! I read an interview with Ian McEwan a while back in which he said one problem with Solar was that the issues involved a lot of statistics; he was interested but he had to go through and take out the statistics because they would be unnerving for readers. I was appalled. So I tried to persuade an agent that statistics need not put readers off—look at xkcd! A web-comic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language! Which gets 2.1 million hits a day! Which is huge! Look at Edward Tufte, whose books have sold millions of copies! And he said publishers aren’t interested in that. But if the audience is there, you have to believe there’s a way for evidence of this audience to enter the system. There has to be a way for Ian McEwan to know he can do whatever he wants.