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

“Joe was the first to admit that he made a lot of mistakes when he started out,” Ms. DeWitt writes in Lightning Rods. “He worried about all the wrong things.” One of his biggest mistakes, Joe says, was thinking that the hardest part would be finding women who would agree to have anonymous sex with their co-workers through a hole in the bathroom wall: not two weeks went by before he’d talked 19 women into believing they were right for the job. The problem was that sex in a bathroom stall felt “clinical and impersonal.” He considers solving this problem by having the woman leave her skirt on so the man can hike it up, but that would compromise the anonymity. He realizes the whole aesthetic is off. For one thing, the toilet would have to go. Joe “seriously underestimated the time he was going to need to get this baby off the ground.”

In 2001, when Ms. DeWitt was living in London, recovering from the depression that had prompted her earlier disappearance, Mr. Burnham had a change of heart about her second book. He made an offer, but Ms. DeWitt turned it down. She didn’t want to deal with the publisher’s world rights department a second time, which was claiming she was still $75,000 in the red for Last Samurai. Mr. Burnham upped the offer to a $525,000 advance for two books. This went back and forth for a while, with Mr. Burnham coming down in the price and eventually offering $400,000 for two books. In addition to Lightning Rods, Ms. DeWitt had proposed a book about poker. “Dealing with the publishing industry was a game of poker,” she said. “Not bridge, where you gather information and use it. It’s a game of lies.”

They negotiated a detailed contract offering Ms. DeWitt technical support for the poker book. The design was to be very specific. But the support never happened. Miramax was breaking up. The lawyer who helped draft the contract, Dev Chatillon, left without briefing Mr. Burnham on it. Ms. DeWitt told him Miramax was in breach of contract for not providing her with the support she needed to make the poker book. Mr. Burnham said he no longer wanted to buy Lightning Rods. Ms. DeWitt walked away with $200,000, her advance for Lightning Rods, which had already been accepted; there was still no published book.

The deal had fallen through and Ms. DeWitt, who was at this time staying on Staten Island, reminded Ms. Chatillon that the stipulations of her contract existed to protect her sanity. Then she once again attempted suicide. “I did not know how to write the books I wanted to write,” she said. She had read that if you took a sedative and tied a plastic bag around your head, you would go to sleep and not wake up. At 4:30 in the morning on May 25, 2004, Ms. DeWitt wrote an email to Ms. Chatillon with the subject line “termination”:

“Please call my cellphone. If I don’t answer you can assume that I am dead; in that case, please call my landlord, Silver Sullivan, and ask him to check my apartment. I have left my mother’s name and phone number by the bed.

It would be helpful if you could also tell Sheila Kohler that I will not be able to come to dinner on Wednesday.”

She wrote to Ms. Chatillon because she thought Ms. Chatillon would be indifferent to the email’s content. Writing to her about the proper disposal of her body was, to Ms. DeWitt’s mind, the same as saying, “I’m going out of town and I left a sirloin steak in the cupboard and it will start to smell.” Committing suicide sounds demented, but almost invariably seems practical to the person wanting to do it. As it turned out, the sedative and bag approach was ineffective. About an hour later she sent a second message:

“This method does not work as well as I’d been told, so I will try something simpler elsewhere. There is no need to call my landlord as the body will not be in the apartment. I will also contact Ms. Kohler.”

Once again, her body got onto a train and she disappeared. Her lawyer contacted her family and friends. As she headed north, she received multiple phone calls, which she didn’t answer. News of her disappearance leaked to the press. The Niagara Falls police department found her a few days later. The New York Times, which in a short article described a “suicidal email message to friends,” printed a comment from Lieutenant Joe Morrison of the Niagara Falls police: “She had a history here,” he said.