Bookforum talks to Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt

One of the most exciting literary events this fall is the publication of Helen DeWitt’s long-anticipated second novel, Lightning Rods. DeWitt, a Maryland-born polymath, is best known as the author of The Last Samurai, the story of a boy genius who sets off in search of his missing father. Sam Anderson called that book “the most exciting debut novel of the decade." Lightning Rods promises to generate even more emphatic responses: It is, among other things, a satire in which a businessman develops a service that will end sexual harassment.

BOOKFORUM: Lightning Rods, your new novel, is not actually new at all—it was completed more than a decade ago. What have been the major obstacles to publication?

HELEN DEWITT: This is hard to talk about. One way and another, The Last Samurai was THE major obstacle to publication of Lightning Rods. But the purpose of LR (and the other books I worked on in 1998-9) was originally supposed to pave the way for The Seventh Samurai (original title). My first agent, Stephanie Cabot, sent out partial drafts of The Seventh Samurai in London, back in 1996-7; editors thought it was too dense, too difficult; there were too many quotations, too much Greek, Japanese, Old Norse . . . It was clear that it would be easier to publish a book in a single voice, with a linear narrative, with no quotations, no Greek, no Japanese . . . More importantly, worryingly, it was clear that the people I talked to would be incapable of seeing a book like Samurai into print. For the book to be properly produced I would need to be in a very strong position—probably with three or four published books behind me. One editor did eventually offer £7500, but she was so vague, so woolly-minded . . . It's hard to get a first book published. I tried to imagine getting Greek typeset, getting Japanese typeset, with this editor and thought: if I go through with this I will commit suicide within six months. I can't do this.

So in 1998 I quit my job and went away to write some other books. There was Lightning Rods, inspired by The Producers. Lotteryland, inspired by Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Give God a Chance, inspired by A Comedy of Errors. Some others. In other words, Lightning Rods was one of several books written to be completely UNLIKE Samurai. The one that happened to get finished first.

In August 1999 a friend at Miramax showed Lightning Rods to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books. Jonathan was initially enthusiastic. The friend then insisted he read Samurai, and he became obsessed. He called with an offer of publication, $70,000. For the wrong book.

Jonathan took The Seventh Samurai to the Frankfurt Bookfair in 1999 and caused a sensation! Publishers fought for copies of the book! But my lawyer insisted I clear permissions myself (when I had five books coming up for completion). The copy-editor whited out my mark-up and sent her version to the printer. The production manager could not get a typesetter who could cope with Greek and Japanese. The title of the book had to be changed. Miramax took 40 percent of foreign rights money—and STILL would not send foreign publishers the files they needed to produce the book correctly.

So then we have a decade of breakdowns, clinical depression, brushes with suicide. There was no mad rush for the second book because it was COMPLETELY UNLIKE the book everyone loved. My UK editor: This could destroy your reputation. Lois Wallace (DeLillo's agent): You might want to publish under another name.

I got the rights reverted in 2008, I think. In summer 2009 a reader introduced me to an agent, Bill Clegg. I wanted to talk about editors capable of dealing with a book like Samurai; Bill wanted to hit the ground running and sell Lightning Rods. Sent it to 17 publishers.
1-16: Funny, well written, too controversial to publish.
17: OUTRAGE!!!!!!

Bill, meanwhile, was completely fed up. He now wanted a big ambitious new book when there was no reason to think anyone was competent to publish it—but saw briefing me on editors as a waste of time. Stopped looking for publishers for Lightning Rods. Quit. I went over to New York in October 2010 to talk to editors about new work, Jeffrey Yang of New Directions asked to see Lightning Rods, loved it, and the rest is history.

You are one of few contemporary novelists to have embraced the blog form and online publishing. What do you think the Internet offers as platform for literature?

Well, look, all this anxiety about getting a technically difficult book into print would be irrelevant to online publication. If I type in some text in Greek, or Arabic, or Japanese, if I use equations, or statistical graphics, or images, I can put something online that looks exactly like what I see on my screen. It won't get converted to gibberish by Quark or InDesign; corrections will not have to be input by someone who doesn't know what he's doing. For the most part, it will be right. And if there are careless mistakes, people in etherworld with relevant expertise will spot those mistakes and tell me and they can be fixed.

Also, of course, online communities tend to be more highly specialized than the audience of general readers publishers vaguely market to. There are language blogs by and for people obsessed with language. There are statistics blogs. Information design blogs. There's xkcd: a webcomic on sarcasm, romance, math, and language. There's no one to police the text, no one to lecture the writer on alienating the general reader.

In your first novel, The Last Samurai, a single mother and her precocious son go in search of the boy's missing father. How did you go from this to Lightning Rods?

In each case I started from a completely preposterous idea (what if a boy could choose his father? what if the mechanisms of a sexual fantasy could be used to solve the problem of sexual harassment?) and tried to work out the implications. There was also probably some kind of subconscious reaction to the initial resistance encountered by Samurai, all those people who insisted that readers didn't want all this extraneous material: so Joe is a guy who starts out selling Encyclopaedia Britannica, then moves to vacuum cleaners, and finally commodifies his sexual fantasies because there just weren't enough people buying the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

You mentioned the influence of Mel Brooks on Lightning Rods. Where did you get the idea using satire as a way of writing about sexual harassment?

I think I just started hearing this voice in my head. It had been 18 months since my first agent told me she could get an advance so I could finish writing Samurai; instead I had had well over a year of unsolicited advice. I couldn't look at the book, thought I would never write again. And this funny voice started talking in my head. I love the innocent bad taste of The Producers—I think “Springtime for Hitler” is a work of genius—and this had something of the same feeling about it. I discovered recently that Mel Brooks also created Get Smart, and that his breakthrough was to have the hero of a sitcom who was not very bright; this seemed to offer similar comic potential.

What draws you to data and mathematics from a literary standpoint?

Chance often plays a big part in fiction, but it is generally not chance as this is mathematically understood, which tends to be counter-intuitive. A while back I discovered Edward Tufte's brilliant books on information design, The Visual Presentation of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and so on. I read Gerd Gigerenzer's Reckoning with Risk, about why we have trouble calculating probabilities using percentages, even when it's a matter of life and death (a doctor working out the likelihood that someone is genuinely HIV-positive, based on a positive test result); I read Peter Bernstein's Against the Gods on the history of risk; I read Michael Lewis's Moneyball, on the way sabermetrics had transformed professional baseball. It seemed to me that one could use Tufte's methods to incorporate this tremendously interesting subject into fiction.

In a previous interview, you spoke about the idiosyncrasies of languages, and described Danish having "a sort of archipelago of half-submerged consonants.” Being Danish, I found this hilariously accurate, and potentially fruitful as a way of talking about languages. Could you elaborate on another idea you mention, which is the notion of discovering other selves through other languages?

I think when one engages with a new language one recognizes something extraordinary: a person genetically identical to oneself could have grown up as a native speaker of this completely different language. So there's the feeling that all the linguistic habits that one has internalized, that feel as though they ARE the self, could be displaced by something new. This fact is, of course, especially evident in America, where the children and grandchildren of immigrants grow naturally into Americans, with English their first language; it's not hard to imagine the chance that brought their parents or grandparents to the country failing to come to pass, the child growing up with an Italian or Chinese or Russian self.

Having lived in other parts of the world for the majority of your life, why did you decide to set Lightning Rods in the American workplace? Do you think the issue of sexual harassment has a different resonance in, say, Germany or England?

That was just the voice I started hearing in my head. It may have had something to do with his preoccupation with sales—America has tended to be ahead of the rest of the world in elevating salesmanship to a kind of science, something with pretensions to explaining the human condition. I suspect the issue of sexual harassment plays out differently in America, simply because it is a much more litigious culture—there is a much stronger possibility of getting substantial compensation if one goes to court. Which is, of course, why a solution to the problem might look like a promising business proposition.