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

Ms. DeWitt had met the literary agent Bill Clegg in 1998, when The Last Samurai was still in the hands of Rebecca Wilson at Weidenfeld. At that time, she was hoping Mr. Clegg could find her a new editor. In 2009, she was reintroduced to Mr. Clegg through the young novelist Ida Hattemer-Higgins. Ms. DeWitt was living in Berlin and working on different writing projects. A short novel, Your Name Here, written in collaboration with the journalist Ilya Gridneff, was excerpted in the literary journal n+1 in 2008. That book never found a publisher, but could be purchased through Ms. DeWitt’s web site. Jenny Turner wrote a nearly 5,000-word review of Your Name Here in the London Review of Books. She said the self-published novel was “like catching a flicker of the future” and praised The Last Samurai as something like “what Joyce and Pound would do with the Internet.” Meanwhile, Ms. DeWitt was becoming widely read as a blogger, cataloguing the grim details of her experience in publishing.

She contacted the defunct Miramax books in 2008 and had it revert the rights to Lightning Rods. Mr. Clegg, now back in the picture, thought he could sell the book in a week to Mitzi Angel at Faber US, but Ms. Angel didn’t think the book was right for her company. Over the course of two months, he sent the novel out to 16 more editors, a checklist of some of the most prominent people in publishing: Hannah Griffiths at Faber UK; Jill Bialosky at Norton; Reagan Arthur at Little, Brown; David Ebershoff at Random House; Andrea Shulz at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Molly Stern at Viking; Lauren Wein at Grove/Atlantic; Gerry Howard at Doubleday; Ethan Nosowsky at Graywolf; James Gurbutt at Constable UK; Nan Graham at Scribner; Dan Frank at Knopf; Anton Mueller at Bloomsbury; Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury; Dan Halpern at Ecco; Sean McDonald at Riverhead. They all turned it down. Most of them liked it; they just couldn’t get over the premise.

Mr. Clegg wanted to resign, but he met once more with Ms. DeWitt, who had flown to New York to show him projects she was working on. She showed him plans for what she calls an “insanely ambitious” novel, the one everyone had wanted from her since Last Samurai. Mr. Clegg was thrilled, but said he wanted to see 100 pages in two months. Ms. DeWitt went to the D.C. suburbs to be with her mother, who required live-in care for about three months after colostomy surgery. Once the surgery was reversed, Ms. DeWitt spent most of her time sitting in intensive care. She did not manage to write 100 pages worthy of submission.

She could not see a way forward. “Fourteen years of publishing crap, no end in sight,” she said. She knew of a 600-foot cliff in Eastbourne. Back in England, she booked a one-way train ticket to Gatwick, an hour from the cliff by train, then checked into a hotel. On Feb. 10, 2010, she sent an email to Mr. Clegg that said, “I’m leaving tomorrow, sorting out a few last-minute things.” She continued:

“… The system strangles the books in the head; it’s not possible to live that way because not living will make someone desperately unhappy.  It goes on too long.   If I had died in 2000 it would have been very simple and clean; the things one does to try to make things work only make it all go on longer.”

Forty minutes later, Mr. Clegg responded:

“None of this—and whatever else is telling you that dying would be better than living—is true, none of it.  As sharply as it may feel so, it is not.   I know, because I reached that black place exactly five years ago.  I failed, somehow, and thank god.  It is snowing today in New York—the fattest flakes against a copper roof out my window.  My brother who is in rehab just called and needed an encouraging voice.  I had lunch with a friend who is having a professional success after years of crushing disappointment.  And you just emailed.  None of these moments would I be here for if I’d left the world when I planned to.”

Ms. DeWitt never made it to the cliff. She sat in her hotel room, smoked, looked at the wall and continued living. It was not long after that when she met with Jeffrey Yang of New Directions. He asked her if he could see Lightning Rods and she said yes.

When Joe’s Lightning Rods business really begins to catch on, he gets a visit from an FBI agent. He thinks to himself: “Holy shit.” The FBI agent, instead of arresting Joe on the spot and shutting down his business, tells him that the public sector is the place where a service like having sex through a hole in the wall is really necessary. People who serve in the public sector, the agent says, “you don’t know when, or how, they’re going to blow.” The bureau would provide a range of locations for Joe to operate his business. They would give him the opportunity to serve his country “and make a profit at the same time.” Joe says, “There comes a time when you have to recognize that you can’t always do things exactly according to plan.”

mmiller@observer.com