Helen DeWitt is an American genius living in Germany. Her new collection of stories, Some Trick, features some of her funniest and most biting satire to date. In a sendup of the contemporary art scene, a rich man scoops up an unsuspecting art gallerist and shepherds her on a whirlwind tour to buy the most authentic Soviet-era fabrics for his impulsive art concept. Other stories skewer the New York publishing scene and delight in a man’s irrepressible compulsion to take with him when he travels an ever-growing collection of books. In DeWitt’s hands it feels only reasonable that to carry the suitcases full of books, our man must hire an entourage. It follows that our man should set up a training curriculum for future members of said entourage, and hire a manager to recruit children to his labor camps. As in Lightning Rods, DeWitt’s parodies often take a dark a turn. And yet, in person DeWitt has the winning charm of a mad scientist in a children’s cartoon. At readings, she delights in random anecdotes about microwave cookbooks and giggles irresistibly. Her novels take her readers to what David Lynch might call “a place both wonderful and strange.” Suffice to say DeWitt is a fan of the Wizard of Oz. Her most famous book, The Last Samurai, was reissued in 2016 by New Directions after a 2000 first edition, and Vulture last year called it “the best book of the century (for now).” Despite the fact that she has dozens of works-in-progress to attend to, she was nice enough to answer some of my questions. I spoke with DeWitt about the role language plays in Some Trick, the secret to success, and why Thomas Bernhard could not let his sentences go.
Ben Streeter: In an older interview found on your website you mention Roland Barthes’ remark that utopia might be the coexistence of extremely different languages. Your work often seems to be doing a lot with bringing diverse languages together.
Do you think in a blend of languages or in fragments in different languages?
Helen DeWitt: I think in English when I think in language.
Sometimes I think something through by working with my hands (felling trees, stacking firewood, clearing brush). Sometimes I think visually, e.g. by trying things out in Illustrator or sketching on graph paper or running variations on a plot in ggplot2 (a package of R, the open-source statistically oriented programming language). I would say that when I immerse myself in a French text, for example, the mind observes. There are registers in French that English doesn’t have, so there are things that can be done in French prose that we can’t do. I suspect no native French speaker can ever see the language the way it looks to an English speaker — one is conscious of being an English speaker looking at effects that would be available only if one wrote in French.
Are any of your works in progress written primarily in a language other than English?
No. It’s conceivable that “Sexual Codes of the Europeans” would actually have better luck if written in French, because it is the type of book that would be suitable for the Prix des Deux Magots (first winner, Raymond Queneau). But I am trying to keep my head above water, so it is not a good time to try to find out.
Noise-making is like another language throughout the story collection Some Trick. For example, in “Climbers,” Rachel makes a vague soothing affectionate noise. An agent makes regretful noises about the market for translations. What is it that noise-making does that spoken language doesn’t?
Certainly in the case of “regretful noises” there must have been spoken language, because we know that something was said about the market for translations. I think the point is not that noisemaking is a substitute for language, but that sometimes spoken language is simply a vehicle for conveying sentiment. Rachel probably said SOMETHING, but precisely what doesn’t matter, because the purpose of whatever was said was precisely to be vague, a vehicle for affectionate soothing.
In Lightning Rods — and in “Brutto” and elsewhere — you are very good at parroting/parodying business speak and corporate jargon. Is this something you did a lot of research for, or something you were able to pick up from your experience doing office jobs? If you did research, were there any favorite business jargon manuals?
I don’t think I did any research. I’m not sure it came out of my various office jobs either; it seems to me one is exposed to it in advertising, in the business section of newspapers, above all perhaps in job descriptions in ads. In advice on what to put in a CV. Sometimes a CEO, the president of a college, a government spokesman gives an interview, makes a statement. And you feel the secret of their success was mastery of this peculiar style of language.
You mentioned there are certain phrases you really cannot stand in the English language. One of them being “it’s a step in the right direction”— can you expand on that or give some other examples? Do you have some favorites in French or German, or some other language you often communicate in?
There are phrases in English that have bad connotations. When New Directions offered to publish Lightning Rods, for instance, I was not at all sure this was a good idea; I did not think it worked as a second book, and in any case if publication of another book replicated the trauma of publishing The Last Samurai I might never finish another book. The challenge was not getting a book into print, but convincing the thing that writes that it is possible to publish a book without going insane. I thought it might help if I had an agent to run interference, so I talked to someone I had met in New York, and he said of this offer, “It’s a step in the right direction.” But all it meant was that getting the book into print — something I had been resisting for years — had a value in its own right, whatever damage might be done to other work.
Other phrases: “There will be other books.” “You can always go home and live with your mother.” “Maybe you should go back to being a secretary.” “Nobody will do anything you don’t like.” “We didn’t know you cared.”
So in this regard, other languages are preferable simply because they don’t have bad connotations. It’s hard for a writer of English to get away from the word “book.”
You are very fond of the design work of Edward Tufte. You say he inspires you to want to make intelligent use of the page. Can you give an example of how you have done this or are contemplating doing this?
Well, to my mind, spelling out short English words in Greek letters, in The Last Samurai, was an example of information design. Tufte talks about conveying the most information with a quantity of ink (I paraphrase horribly). If you write ατ βατ εατ βεατ βιτ βιτε κιτ κιτε (as it might be, I am not checking with the text to see what I used) I think most readers READ these as at bat eat beat bit bite kit kite. OK, note that I have italicized the English words simply to mark them off as quoted words, and most readers are not unnerved by italics — but people are often unnerved by Greek in part because it looks like a lot of squiggly letters, in part because of the absence of ascenders, the absence of a dot over the i.
Of course, there are also false friends, and letters with no equivalent in English, but my impression was that a general air of alienness meant people didn’t make use of the knowledge they had. So making use of the page is one way to get past that learned helplessness.
I could give other examples, but this is getting rather long. I do have some files in Illustrator where I have a shot at the Bilderstatistik of Otto Neurath, but I ended up dealing with a stalker for two years and did not have a chance to work out how to use them in a text.
To stay with Tufte for a moment: His valuing of excellence and impatience with mediocrity reminds me a little of Thomas Bernhard, especially Bernhard’s vitriol against the hypocrisies of Austria. Have you read much of Bernhard? Has his writing been an influence for you?
I haven’t read a lot of Bernhard (I see his collected works are available in 22 volumes, and I might have read 3 or 4); I admire what I’ve read, but don’t see him as an influence. But surely among many differences between them is precisely Tufte’s obsession with maximizing the ratio of information to ink. Bernhard is an obsessive who often can’t let a sentence go because it has not done enough to express his revulsion — the obsessiveness is one of the things that are most compelling about his work.
What has your work with translators been like? Are you involved in some languages more than others? Do you prefer not to be very hands on in the translation process?
I’ve never been put in touch with a translator by a publisher. Sometimes a translator will write with questions, and some are more thorough than others. It seemed to me that what was really wanted was a wiki, some mechanism so that if one person asked a question, everyone had access to the answer. So I set one up for Lightning Rods, but to the best of my knowledge no one has ever used it.
That still strikes me as a more interesting way forward than endless ad hoc correspondence, because it offers readers another way to engage with a text, to see the decisions that have been made, the questions that arose. Translators operate at a level of detail not open to reviewers, and there isn’t a public forum where readers can see what is involved in thinking about such issues.
There has been a lot written about translation in recent years. What would you like to see differently in the way literature is translated and circulated?
When a book is translated into English, I would like some kind of deal enabling the reader to obtain the original, perhaps in digital format. I often find myself wondering how a language sounds, so it would be nice to have a recording of one page, perhaps, of the original, and especially nice if the recording were made by the author. I would very much like to see more of the translator’s behind-the-scenes work made available, especially when this involves correspondence with the author — perhaps a central translation wiki would be better than one-offs for individual books.
Assuming that writing is a way of thinking, and that thinking is done in language — words, phrases, sentences — do you enjoy writing in short stories or fragments as much as you enjoy working on bigger, more complex works?
Writing can be a way of thinking. Sometimes it seems as though a voice comes into the head and one writes down what it says — that would count as thinking, it seems to me, only if any conscious mental activity counts as thinking.
You’ll probably see, from my answer above, that I don’t think thinking is always done in language. Tufte’s work surely shows a wide range of non-linguistic thought that makes use of the page. I find these days that if I want to explore an aesthetic preference writing is the worst way to do it, since I then work in a sphere where so many decisions are out of my hands; I am better off cutting up two fallen trees from the forest floor, removing them, burning them, or cutting down a diseased beech, or painting my porch.
I enjoy working on something I can control. That rules out everything written for publication – it makes no difference whether the piece is short or long.
Games of chance and questions about probability are a big theme in your work. How do you bridge the gap between your ideas, wanting to do something new with the novel form using probability, and the business-mindedness of the publishing world? Do you keep ideas and projects stashed away for when the industry becomes ready for them?
I don’t think the conflict is between some new ideas and the business-mindedness of the publishing industry.
OK, let me tell you a story.
There’s an early edition of Jurassic Park with a very funny mistake, one I can’t believe Crichton made himself — maybe someone alienated the typesetter.
“…You showed us that you can track the procompsognathids and you can visually display them individually. Can you do any studies of them as a group?…”
Arnold was punching buttons. Another screen came up: [I am attaching this, since I don’t think I can insert an image in this email]
“We can do all that, and very quickly,” Arnold said. “The computer takes measurement data in the course of reading the video screens, so it is translatable at once. You see here we have a normal Poisson distribution for the animal population. It shows that most of the animals cluster around an average central value, and a few are either larger or smaller than the average, at the tails of the curve.”
What we in fact have here is a perfectly unremarkable bell curve, in other words an example of the normal distribution. Sadly, however, the term ‘normal distribution’ sounds rather ordinary and unexciting – it has none of the mysterious mathematical glamour which the term ‘Poisson’ instantly bestows. If you have an engineer explaining something to a brilliant mathematician, you obviously want the explanation to sound highly technical and glamorous; what could be more natural than to help oneself to the Poisson distribution? (If I wrote a technothriller using beta densities, might I too be a millionaire? And do I really need to get it right? Wouldn’t it be easier just to smuggle in a bell curve and call it a beta density?)
I think the real difficulty is, the best way to make probability intelligible to the reader who hasn’t thought about it is to use graphics. Most introductions to probability or to statistics, in fact, have fabulous graphics to help the struggling reader — and these are for people who have chosen to study the subject. But getting this right really involves access to technical support in design and production. Tufte hired a team of first-rate people for each of his books, which were self-published; a writer working with a publisher is kept firmly segregated from the production side.
In 2003 I signed a contract with my editor at Miramax Books, Jonathan Burnham, for 2 books, Lightning Rods and a poker book: the poker book had yet to be written, but would be published as a second book, LR coming out third, and there were extensive provisions for the necessary technical support. They handed over a check for $200,000 — and then simply WOULD NOT provide the technical support. So the poker book half of the deal was called off, and they decided they didn’t want to publish Lightning Rods (to which the check was attached). And it was a nightmare, because I had moved to New York specifically to be on the spot, able to talk to designers and production people.
That is a long messy story, but the point is, I realized how profoundly it goes against publishing culture to give an author the kind of control a director has over a film. I realized that I would never find a publisher who was willing to give me a team to work with, so I could then come back with a book. I would need to produce a prototype myself, and it would take a very long time. And I would need to write and publish other books in the meantime, and wait until I was in a stronger position.
So it’s not really a question of waiting for the industry to be ready for ideas. The industry has no problem with IDEAS, as long as this involves a text that can be handed over to a production team the publisher controls. The problem is, when it comes to fiction, there is a strong preference for a finished book. A book should be finished before it is submitted — but not TOO finished. It should not be typeset, it should not be designed and ready to go to the printer — because that disempowers the editor and editor’s team. It is perceived as reducing them to the status of photocopiers. So if a book is to incorporate design, and make use of the page to a Tuftean extent, there’s no way not to do more than is liked in a submission — so maybe you get round it by calling it a prototype, leaving people scope to play around with the book at a stage when it isn’t particularly helpful.
You talked about the tension between your pedagogical aims and the narrative aims. Can you think of any writers who you look to as having navigated that contradiction especially well or in an especially poor way?
I can’t think of writers of fiction off-hand. Michael Lewis does an extraordinarily good job of explaining fairly technical subjects to the complete novice. I know nothing about football, for example, but reading The Blind Side I felt I really did understand what was so innovative and brilliant about Bill Walsh’s passing game. And Lewis, of course, has a remarkable gift for narrative.
You reference David Foster Wallace, and he was a contemporary of yours. He had that hilarious essay about getting rid of his television because his “fear of missing out” drove him nuts having to constantly change the channel because he was worried no matter how much he enjoyed what he was watching that there might be something better on another channel. Do you think that your point about missing out on books we might never know about because we only see what gatekeepers decide to translate, or what gets recommended, is similar to Wallace’s notion of the fear of missing out?
No, not at all. Channelhopping arises from the fear that something may be AVAILABLE that is better than what one is currently watching; it seems to me to have very little in common with, for instance, seeing that there is NOTHING one wants to watch, and being in anguish because something brilliant may exist, but not have been released, or not be distributed in this territory, or perhaps because something brilliant was proposed but never got funding.
You said at a reading at the bookstore Politics and Prose, citing “la loi de la collection,” that readers might learn more about the real you from reading excerpts from your collection of essential books (the abridged library handout). You are very active interacting with readers online and expressing yourself digitally. Does your interaction with readers play an important part in your creative process?
I once sublet the apartment of a Marxist art theorist in Berlin, and it was a fabulous experience: I could inhabit a collection assembled by someone knowledgeable about things I was interested in but hadn’t explored very deeply. So I thought that, though the book world is always desperately trying to get people to buy books, this was something no one had thought about: the luxury of inhabiting a collection formed by a knowledgeable collector. (It’s striking that this is not one of the amenities Airbnb makes it possible to offer as an attractive aspect of a property.) Bookstores get annoyed because people use them as a showcase and then order off Amazon — well, I see why they don’t like it, but the fact is, a good private collection is really a much better showcase. (Only today I was reading a twitter thread by a writer of fantasy who was OUTRAGED because bookstores dedicate vast amounts of space to Tolkien and next to none to new books, even those by winners of prizes.) So I would like it VERY much if the collection that genuinely reflects my preferences could be used to support the biz, and encourage people to be adventurous buyers of books themselves, and that could be my service to the community instead of writing blurbs for this or that random book.
I don’t think I actually am very active now in engaging with readers. I have a blog, paperpools.blogspot.com, that I started in I think 2006, and to begin with I wrote quite a lot of posts. But then I had a stalker and was embroiled in the criminal justice system, I was threatened with eviction and was embroiled in a civil law suit, I had a difficult interaction with an agent who was a former crack addict, there were simply all kinds of things I couldn’t talk about. It did not seem to me that I was under an obligation to entertain people while dealing with highly traumatic events behind the scenes. Things have been bad for one reason or another for a long time, and discretion has seemed the better part of valor.
Interaction with readers may occasionally help the creative process, but when it goes wrong it goes so horribly wrong that it more than wipes out any benefit interaction might bring. (It was a well-meaning reader who recommended I go to the crack addict for representation. Another reader turned into a stalker who forced me to move out of my apartment and go into hiding. One reader met me briefly at a launch party, embarked on a long email correspondence, and then started lobbying for my publisher to make an offer for a book when I actually didn’t want to work with them.)
He was a friend of Tina Brown. She was the head of Talk Magazine, her friend Jonathan Burnham was my editor at Talk Miramax Books. This guy read the MS of Lightning Rods and got very excited and thought Jonathan should publish it, and as a friend of Tina’s he had access, so he could agitate for Jonathan to make an offer for the book. I did not really want to work with Jonathan again, but if the paperback edition of your book has yet to be released you might not want your editor/publisher to know that you want to go elsewhere. There’s a LOT more to the story than is worth going into here, but his intervention forced an issue I was trying to avoid.
Look, he apparently read The Last Samurai after the launch party upon getting an email from his wife asking for a divorce — he had been thinking of jumping off his 50th-floor balcony and then read the book and didn’t, and this is of course one thing books can do. But I think it’s a bit hard on me to have someone on the rebound, someone I met once at a party, get a fixation on me and start trying to insert himself into my professional relationships.
If the good readers were to club together and raise half a million dollars that might cancel out that problems caused by a handful of saboteurs, but unsurprisingly it doesn’t work that way.
Your blog, paper pools, shares a name with a book by David Hockney, which is also one of the books in your abridged library of essential books. Did you found the blog at a time when you were immersed in Hockney? What draws you to his work?
Back in the 90s I read a couple of books of memoirs by Hockney — My Early Years and That’s the Way I See It. A couple of things I liked very much were the voice and the use of images in the text. Then I read the book Paper Pools (about how he came to experiment with making work out of paper pulp). At one point I took the train to Bradford and then another train to Saltaire to see an exhibition of Hockney drawings at Salt’s Mill, which also has a large permanent Hockney collection. What I liked, I think, was his curiosity, his excitement in trying out new techniques. So I wrote a novella, Paper Pool, loosely inspired by this, somewhere around
- The blog was started in I think 2006.
You collaborated with a co-author in Your Name Here. Could you see yourself co-creating again? Is there anyone in literature past or present with whom you would have liked to co-author something?
A couple of months after I suggested collaborating on Your Name Here with Ilya Gridneff I received notification that I had been given a Guggenheim Fellowship. I felt that I could not renege on the offer to write a book with someone who was unknown, but I very much wanted to see the project through quickly so that I could get back to my own work. As it turned out the project wiped out years, not only because of the challenges involved in collaboration, but because of all the people who thought my time would be well spent overseeing publication of an extract, giving interviews, taking on editorial comments. (The person whose time was to be spent on these activities was invariably mine.) At the same time, in some peculiar way, the fact that it was a collaboration made it impossible to get published. So it did my collaborator no good and deprived me of the chance to make best use of a fabulous opportunity.
I don’t really understand this. People are always badgering me for blurbs, which implies that my endorsement of a writer counts for something. Well, if I go to all the trouble of collaborating on a book with someone, surely that is a much more powerful endorsement of his talent? Surely people would take that seriously? But they didn’t. They went right on treating me as the real author of the book, and ignoring the writer whose talent had made me take it on in the first place. All that is to say that the collaboration only happened in the first place because I didn’t understand the workings of the biz. That was a very expensive lesson, but I would never be stupid enough to do such a thing again.
Thank you for your generous answers to my questions. Any final thoughts?
I think in the movie business it’s quite common for people to start out by thinking about some cool technique they might use — Pixar is one obvious example, the claymation that led to Wallace and Gromit is another, there’s CGI, well, an endless list. People start by thinking of a technique, and then try to come up with a project that makes best use of the technique. To me this sometimes makes sense as a way to approach books — first see what Edward Tufte is doing and that it’s amazing, for example, then try to think of the best book or books to use it in. But if you’re not going to have a wall-of-words book there will have to be a lot of coordination — first with the primary publisher, then with foreign publishers. If the agent, the first point of contact, is inefficient and forgetful and tolerates carelessness in her staff, you’re looking death in the face: making a living depends on coming up with some simpler book that can’t be damaged. That’s a pretty demoralizing thing to undertake. Perhaps I can think of a workaround, perhaps not, but I really need to get away.
Ben Streeter is an editor at Stateline and a graduate student at the George Washington University living in Washington, DC. Ben reviewed Helen DeWitt’s Some Trick for Politics/Letters and has also written book reviews for outlets including Public Books, World Literature Today, and ASAP/J. You can find him on Twitter at @BenMStreeter.