An interview with novelist Helen DeWitt

In 2002, The Economist writer/editor Emily Bobrow gifted me a copy of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and my life changed forever. It’s one of those novels that you can go back to every couple years anew, discovering and rediscovering with each re-read. Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, DeWitt’s story centers on a single mother in London raising her child-prodigy son.

The genius in her latest novel, Lightning Rods, is DeWitt herself, who cooks up one of the funniest stories I’ve read in recent memory. It’s a highbrow version of the movie Office Space with a Jonathan Ames-esque plot. Read my exclusive, in-depth interview below with DeWitt about the new novel, as well as her writing habits and her tips to would-be novelists.

David K. Israel: As I understand it, you actually finished this manuscript for Lightning Rods before completing and publishing The Last Samurai. Sounds like an interesting story for aspiring novelists. What happened there?

Helen DeWitt: Not quite. I finished it after completing but before publishing The Last Samurai.

I wrote a lot of The Last Samurai between September 1995 and June 1996, but there were structural problems. I needed a clear block of time to think about it, was working freelance as a legal secretary. The wife of one of the lawyers was an indie producer, saw 2 chapters, LOVED them, wanted to option for a film – I thought I might get £1000 and a clear month in 1996 to finish the book.

She introduced me to an agent, Stephanie Cabot, of the London office of William Morris. Stephanie LOVED the chapters. Said she could get an advance on 6. In July 1996 an editor expressed interest in a preemptive bid and Stephanie told him it was too early. It took 9 months for the agency to finalize the option contract. In the end work on the book was disrupted for 18 months by unsolicited advice from editors, who thought the book “needed work” but were not willing to provide the money which would enable me to do it.

There was a complete manuscript by this point, but I had so many other voices in my head they had driven out the voices of the characters, couldn’t tell whether the book was what it ought to be or not. Couldn’t look at it. No idea what to do. Thought I would never write again. Nowhere to turn. Suddenly, out of nowhere, came this funny voice, this guy who was down and out, working out his frustrations with sexual fantasies he was trying to set up to his own satisfaction. Well, I LOVE Mel Brooks’ The Producers; I LOVE “Springtime for Hitler;” the guy made me laugh hysterically the way “Springtime for Hitler” made me laugh.

I thought: OK, Samurai is too much, I can’t publish this book now. I’ll write a book with a single voice, with NO Greek, NO Japanese, NO Old Norse!!!!! I’ll go away and write 10 books in a year! Each doing ONE THING! And SOME day I’ll be in a position to publish this crazy book with Greek and Japanese and Old Norse . . .

So I saved up some money and quit my job and moved to Chesterfield, and I did nothing but write for a year. I worked on a lot of different books; by July 1999 Lightning Rods was finished and others were coming up for completion . . . . and in August a friend showed LR and Samurai to Jonathan Burnham at Talk Miramax Books. Who LOOOOOOOVED Samurai and did not want LR. And took Samurai to the Frankfurt Bookfair! And caused a sensation! But many of the people who LOOOOOOOOOVED Samurai were shocked and appalled by LR. One book was inspired by Seven Samurai, the other by The Producers, people didn’t get it.

In 2001 Jonathan decided he wanted LR after all and offered what Publishers Marketplace calls a good deal. But I wanted an editor who was genuinely enthusiastic about the book; I was nervous of giving him the world rights he wanted (first time round it had been hard to get paid); and I desperately wanted someone capable of looking after my other books, which (like Samurai, unlike LR) were technically challenging. Translations of Samurai kept trickling back in which the Greek was gibberish.

I talked to an agent in New York who said: “If you sign with me I will introduce you to at least 3 and at most 5 new editors.” That seemed unambiguous. Jonathan, meanwhile, upped his mere paltry good deal to a MAJOR deal for two books, LR + 1. $500K+ is a tidy sum, but there was the Greek-into-gibberish concern, and he still wanted the world rights. And amid all the excitement I got a royalties statement in which Miramax made a $150,000 accounting error in its own favor; it was not getting noticeably easier to get paid. So I signed with the agent, thinking she could handle the royalties snafu and introduce me to new editors as promised, and she went straight into negotiations with Miramax. No new editors, deal fell apart . . .

If you know David Mamet’s State and Main, this gives something of the flavor of the behind-the-scenes machinations, the backstabbing, the chicanery -- but we probably don’t want to spend a whole interview on a decade of S&M, S&M II, S&M III, S&M IV . . . S&M MCMDXLIX . . . Suffice it to say, if Lightning Rods had not been inspired by the tasteless genius of “Springtime for Hitler,” it would have been easy to find a new publisher. I blame Mel Brooks.

DI: Your protagonist in Lightning Rods is a man. As a woman, is it harder to write from the male POV?

HDW: Funnily enough, I now find it easier to come up with male characters. When I was a child I drew incessantly, but could only draw girls – I would draw up lists of girls’ names, every name I could think of, on yellow legal pads, and then draw long sagas with this cast of hundreds of girls. And I couldn’t draw boys at all. But at some point, I’m not sure how this happened, I started to notice the way men are obsessives: creating a male character doesn’t feel like writing from a ‘male’ POV, what you do is you get inside the head of someone with a particular kind of obsession, and understanding the obsession makes the character plausible, and this turns out to feel like a male character because women are often more inhibited (I feel) about giving free reign to their obsessions.

There’s also – bearing in mind the fact that LR is partly about sex – that men are more confident about generalizing from their own sexual preferences to those of other men. If you (I) talk to a man, the man will often say something like “Most men are interested in breasts.” I think: WOW. How do you know? I assume YOU know your sexual preferences; how can you be so confident that most other men share them? Did you do a survey? Because I certainly think I know my own sexual preferences, but I would never feel confident of generalizing from them to say Most women are interested in X. So it’s possible to be much more confident, creating a male character with certain sexual preferences, that the character will be plausible. (And then, you know, I’d show the book to men and laugh because it actually worked.)

DI: Without any spoilers, talk a little bit about how you got the idea for this fascinating novel. Where did the seed come from and how did you develop it?

HDW: Two things. One source of the book went a long way back. When I did my doctorate at Oxford I met my ex-husband David, an Orthodox Jew who loved Mel Brooks’ The Producers. If “Springtime for Hitler” came up in the conversation David would be unable to resist launching into a word-perfect rendition, with all the business. David doesn’t much like what I would describe as the arthouse response to the Holocaust, but he loved The Producers and “Springtime for Hitler.” So I thought that was interesting. In The Producers, you have a couple of Jews who, you might think, epitomize the Nazi view of the inferior race: one fat, sexually perverse, the other a diffident accountant, both incorrigibly materialistic – and yet we love these characters, their imperfections are part of their humanity. I liked the idea of a likable sleazeball as a character.

The other was the response I’ve sketched in above to The Last Samurai when it was first sent out to editors. My ex was the most brilliant student his tutor at Oxford had ever had; we had both done a special subject in Aristophanes; he had introduced me not only to Mel Brooks but to the whole tradition of British satire (Blackadder; Yes, Minister; Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective). To go from this kind of intellectual engagement to unsolicited advice from persons of no demonstrable competence was profoundly humiliating; at the risk of spoilers, it felt like being fucked from behind through a hole in the wall. So it’s not that I sat down to write a satire on publishing, but whatever it is that writes the books came up with this, this was the voice that came into the head. 

DI: What’s your writing process like? Do you have set hours? Are you looking for a certain number of words or pages per day?

HDW: That’s hard to answer. The thing that works best for me is to clear time and admit NO INTERRUPTIONS. WITHOUT EXCEPTION. I don’t necessarily work on a single book. I have a rough word count that would probably amount to a finished book. For each book I can say that if I wrote 2000 words a day it would be finished on Day X. I have a workbook in Excel with the number of words written in each book, and the date each book would be finished if I wrote 2000 words a day. Needless to say, I’m unlikely to write 2000 words a day on each book. I write down however many words I’ve written on each book in a day, and I then change the finish date according to how many words have been written. So if 4000 words are written on one book, the completion date of all the others goes back a day . . .

It’s not always possible to work that way. What happens is, I’m dealing with some long-drawn-out publishing problem. If I let the voices in a book take over, if there is no social self, I will offend people with whom I’m doing business. What is to be done?

Well, there are all sorts of technical problems to address. So I go into Illustrator and spend hours grappling with the pen tool. Or I open up the statistical graphics package R and start setting up plots. Or (purists will be appalled) I start playing around with charts in Excel.

I mooch around online filled with shame and self-loathing. I experiment with a series of ads on Project Wonderful. (It doesn’t feel like work, but maybe it IS work.) I discover a webcomic, Penny and Aggie, and read many many episodes, filled with shame and self-loathing. And suddenly I discover a brilliant graphic solution to a problem I’ve been grappling with for years!!!!! How to display poker hands graphically in a way that sets a series of strong hands next to the slightly better hands that win. 

DI: Do you rewrite as you go or do you like to get a draft done first and then go back?

HDW: I think I mainly write episodes and leave them alone for a while until I know how they will fit in the larger framework. There’s something, though, that this somehow doesn’t capture. I once read an interview of Michael Caine in which he talked of working with Sir Laurence Olivier on Sleuth. Olivier turned up the first day and was lackluster, disengaged. The next day he turned up wearing a small moustache and was suddenly electrifying. He explained to Caine that he always needed a prop, a bit of business, the right sort of costume, to inhabit the character.

Something like this seems to work for me. I may have a vague idea about a character – he is learning Japanese at an early age, say. But I don’t know how to make this work formally, I don’t know what to do with the narrative. I then buy some software that lets me input Japanese within my wordprocessing program. I start playing around, I come up with bits of Japanese. And suddenly I see that I can make visible the development of the character just by using a succession of kanji! I don’t cut out text – I have eliminated the need for 20 pages of text just by using this software!!!! So a lot of what I do, it seems to me, is look around for the moustache, the bit of business. (This obviously militates against word count as a measure of progress. 

DI: Your work is always very character-driven. I’m curious if you start with a protagonist and then develop the plot as you write or if you have the beginning, middle and end all set in your mind before you start writing.

HDW: When I wrote The Last Samurai I had a very clear structure in mind. Thank God. I knew how it would end. So I was confident that it WOULD end, could be finished. In the case of Lightning Rods, though, I didn’t know how it would end up; I started writing, and new episodes occurred to me as I went along. It seemed possible to write that way, I think, because it was written in a single voice, with a straightforward linear narrative; if there are different voices and many different stories one needs a clear picture of the structure.

DI: You protagonist, Joe, is a salesman and an ideas man, or so he claims to be. What kind of research, if any, did you do to get into his mind?

HDW: Ha! None. But when I was 19 I met a guy in Provincetown who was trying to make ends meet selling Electrolux. He was studying Russian and Chinese at Yale, very smart guy, but somewhat unmanned by the reality of demonstrating the virtues of Electrolux. (One demo: you used the vacuum cleaner with attachment on a bed, then dumped the resultant dust in a disgusting pile on the floor.) Years later I rented a room in a house in East London; one of the tenants sold sofas, then a mobile phone service. His room was crammed with books on salesmanship. So I realized there was this whole rhetoric of self-improvement and persuasion and seat-of-the-pants sociology in which would-be salesmen immersed themselves. 

DI: What are you working on now? What can we expect soon?

HDW: Er, interviews, mainly, at the moment. In a somewhat hit-and-miss way. When things went wrong with Miramax back in 2004 I ended up in a psychiatric ward with the press besieging the hospital; there were thousands of hits on Google, journalists clamoring for interviews – but my publishers were reluctant to exploit this windfall. I pointed out to one agent, a few years later, that if I should crack up again and attempt suicide to press furore it would help if he could organize a press conference; he said firmly that if a client attempted suicide no responsible agent would set up a press conference, because there is more to life than sales. No unscrupulous agents have come forward offering representation – Edward Orloff, who has been looking after LR, is a man of unimpeachable integrity – so here we are.

That said, before I got this offer of publication from New Directions I was concentrating on three books. Stolen Luck is a book about poker using Tuftean information design to give readers a feel for both the game and the mathematics. Sexual Codes of the Europeans starts with a blog describing sexual codes of five European cities – that is, ways of signaling different sets of sexual preferences. The codes are fictional, but travelers to the cities start deploying the codes so they become real; this has all sorts of unanticipated consequences. (One man works out that if you knew the next city whose code was to be published you could buy up property. Manipulate developers. To the public at large, meanwhile, it’s just another form of diversity in our networked age.) Recovery is a book about addiction – there’s a draft of a couple of hundred pages. I hope to get back to these some time in November and finish them in 2012, but of course they can’t all be published at once; I’d hope to bring them out in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

DI: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

HDW: Advice is probably the wrong word.

There are things I didn’t understand when I started out.

I live in Berlin, which once, famously, had a Wall. On one side was the West; there was KaDeWe, a famous department store, a monument to materialism; there were also all kinds of people experimenting with different kinds of art, social structures, lives. On the other side was the East: command economy, paucity of consumer goods, society of surveillance, secrecy, patronage – and with all this the compulsory rhetoric of ideological enthusiasm. (I read a chilling interview the other day of Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer: “Die Kunst war, morgens noch in die Spiegel schauen zu können …” – “The art was, still be to able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, but not to be expelled from secondary school or lose your university place or jeopardise your scientific career opportunities.” To have any kind of career it was necessary to make certain decisions.)

So look. Of course there are things you can do to make yourself a stronger writer – they will not be the same for every writer.

You can think of that lunatic Pound: if there is good poetry written in a language, learn enough of the language to read the poetry. If you read something in translation and are blown away, find the text in the original language, get a dictionary, get a grammar, keep your translation to hand, read at least one paragraph of the sentences the author actually wrote.

You can read a wide range of genres. You can engage with a wide range of disciplines – philosophy, history, sociology, economics, cryptography, mathematics, yes, but not only disciplines learned by reading, perhaps you learn rock climbing, or lockpicking, or glassblowing, or tae kwon do. Perhaps you learn computer programming, perhaps you learn a lot of these artificial languages.

Perhaps you live somewhere cheap, so the time you spend earning money buys as much time as possible. Perhaps you find a way of earning money that will let you go anywhere. Perhaps you travel – perhaps you immerse yourself in different cultures, you go to Japan, Finland, Turkey, Peru.

Any of these things could help you write better texts, and the list is no doubt much longer.

If the aspiration is to be published, though, to be a professional writer – if it’s not enough to publish online, produce your own books, show work to people you know and respect – you will need a completely different – I was going to say, set of skills, and then I was going to say, it’s a question of character. (Fast Eddie Felson had talent; Minnesota Fats had talent and character . . . ) Then I was going to say, it’s a question of luck.

So the challenge is not to write well; the challenge is not to find ways to deal with this system; the challenge is to deal with the system without damaging the work.

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

If I could tell you I would let you know.

Helen DeWitt's homepage
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  1. “…the challenge is to deal with the system without damaging the work.”

    With such a variety of subjects and forms, not long ago some publishers might encourage adoption of pseudonyms for different genres, but in this age of social identity branding I’d expect the opposite.  Is that still an issue, or are readers publishers more comfortable with encountering the unexpected when they open a familiar writer’s new work?

    What if the areas are even farther apart… if Palahniuk had a series of children’s books to release, for instance?

    Or you could use this one old weird trick Jeffery is going to tell us about.

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