Novels From the Edge: For Helen DeWitt, the Publishing World Is a High-Stakes Game

Ms. DeWitt was born in 1957. She has platinum blond hair and a youthful face made more girlish by thick-rimmed glasses. She earned her PhD in classics at Oxford, where she wrote her doctorate on propriety in ancient literary criticism, but gave up her academic career in 1988 when she was finishing a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in Arabic poetics. She has varying degrees of fluency in multiple languages, including French, Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese and Russian.

This knowledge informed her debut, which some critics read as a novel about translation. The protagonist of The Last Samurai, Ludo, is an unusually bright boy who is raised by his mother; as a substitute for his absent father, she has him watch Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai (the book’s original title), about a village that hires seven ronin samurai to guard them against bandits. Ludo’s mother refuses to reveal his father’s identity, so he goes on a search for him. The book is a linguistic and aesthetic triumph, seamlessly weaving Greek, Japanese and various other languages into the narrative framework. For that reason, Ms. DeWitt was very particular about the book’s punctuation and typesetting. Greek, with its subtle and significant use of varying accents turns to gibberish if not printed correctly.

In 1998, after Last Samurai’s first deal with Weidenfeld went sour, Ms. DeWitt retreated to the English countryside to write more books; she had given up hope on selling her debut right away. She was at work on several novels, keeping tabs on them by maintaining an elaborate spreadsheet of each manuscript’s title with a word count next to it and the date she expected it to be finished. If she wrote 2,000 words in one day on a given manuscript, she would adjust the date accordingly. After about 10 months, she had finished Lightning Rods. She showed the book to Mr. Burnham at Miramax before she showed him Last Samurai. He wasn’t thrilled by it so she showed him her other book.

“Helen thought Lightning Rods would be very easy to sell and Last Samurai would be very difficult,” Mr. Burnham said. “But I felt that The Last Samurai was a masterpiece.”

He took the novel to the Frankfurt Book Festival, where his hunch proved correct: it quickly became apparent that Last Samurai would be the breakthrough novel of the season.

Ms. DeWitt was looking for an editor who was an intellectual equal and who understood the value of her words. In Mr. Burnham she found someone who at least would give her a contract guaranteeing her the final say on usage. This is very rare. Writers write and editors edit. That is how the publishing industry works. But Ms. DeWitt thought the only way she would remain sane was if she could get Last Samurai into print in two months. She made her final changes to the book’s punctuation and style and sent it off to the copy editor. When she received the 600-page manuscript with the copy editor’s proofs, Ms. DeWitt’s edits had been covered over with whiteout. There were hundreds of changes. “O.K.” was spelled out “okay,” “15” was “fifteen” and so on. “I am Helen DeWitt,” she said. “I wrote this book. You want to write OK as o-k-a-y go write your own novel.” She admits it sounds trivial, but Mr. Burnham himself called her “one of the great talkers and one of the great readers of our time.” She is careful and possessive with her words. Ms. DeWitt had not made a photocopy of her initial edits and had to painstakingly redo them.

“If they had sent a team to my house,” she said, “and just taken a truncheon and smashed my computer and taken my books and stripped the place bare, people would see that as outrageous. But if they just kill the mind that wrote the book, they don’t see that as bad. The point is, once something goes wrong in this particular business, it is very hard to make right.”

It was at this time, near the beginning of 2000, when Ms. DeWitt began to entertain the thought of suicide.