Helen DeWitt is the author of The Last Samurai, Your Name Here, and Lightning Rods, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books here [link]. She also maintains a blog at paperpools.blogspot.com.
We conducted this interview over email last month (as the inserted images probably make clear).
In bold defiance of the LARB tradition of having an absentee interviewer, I present the questions that inspired these responses, though, in the hopes of pre-disorienting the reader, detached from the provided answers.
1. Was there a time when you decided to dedicate yourself to writing?
2. You’ve said that you decided in the late 1990s to write ten novels each in a single voice — an antidote to the complexities posed by The Last Samurai. Lightning Rods was one of those novels. What were the other nine? What voices did they feature? What state of completion are they in?
3. Did writing a book about male sexual obsession pose special challenges? Were you sympathetic to Joe’s sexual fantasy life? Did you find it hard to understand why he might be attracted to the sorts of acts he found appealing?
4. You’ve expressed an interest in Edward Tufte’s philosophy of information design. Your work — including Lightning Rods — tends to foreground systems and information, education, our relationship to knowledge, etc. The “systems” novel or “novel of information” is often attacked for failing to present rounded characters and human relationships. I’m thinking particularly of James Wood’s disdain for “hysterical realism” and Jonathan Franzen’s conversion from a “status novelist” (concerned with systems) to a “contract novelist” (concerned with characters). Do you have views on the debate between advocates of “novels of information” and “novels of character”?
5. What sort of book does the twenty-first century desperately need?
— Lee Konstantinou
HELEN DEWITTThere is a strange taboo in our society against ending something merely because it is not pleasant — life, love, a conversation, you name it, the etiquette is that you must begin in ignorance & persevere in the face of knowledge, & though I naturally believe that this is profoundly wrong it’s not nice to go around constantly offending people.When you publish a book you do a lot of interviews. It gets harder each time. You try to work out what you want to say. Finally you think you have said the thing that matters, then people cut it out because it’s not right for the publication. So you get new questions by email and it’s hard to go through it again.
— Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai
It’s good to be pragmatic. That is, I say to myself: Be pragmatic! Just write the fucker! Weeks go by.
Go read about the Sloan Awards for Public Service. Go!