The first time Helen DeWitt disappeared was in 2000.
Her debut novel, The Last Samurai, was on the verge of becoming a publishing sensation. It would eventually sell more than 100,000 copies in English and be translated into 20 languages. People told Ms. DeWitt she was a star. Tina Brown, the owner of Talk Miramax Books—the short-lived publishing imprint of her short-lived Talk magazine—wanted to throw her a big release party at the office. Ms. DeWitt did not believe she could handle that. She thought she was going insane and she told everyone as much. “I tell people I try not to go insane,” she said last month over coffee in a diner by Penn Station, a few hours before catching a plane back to Berlin where she currently lives. “And they think it’s funny and then I go insane and they get mad.”
She made it through to the end of the party. She was living in England at the time and had flown in for the occasion, but before that she had put her affairs in order. She gave away her clothes and put her books in storage. She went to the Talk party on Nov. 29, 2000, and after a few days, she left. She got on a train—“my body got on a train” is the way she puts it—got off in New Haven and checked into a hotel. How she spent her days is anyone’s guess. When she speaks about it today, she makes vague allusions to Niagara Falls. She was gone for about two weeks and ended up at her mother’s in a suburb of Washington, D.C. She fired her agent, returned to England and put off trying to sell her second novel.
That novel was called Lightning Rods, and it came out two months ago, with the much smaller press New Directions. She tried at various points over the past decade, but Ms. DeWitt could not get the book published before then. The book should have seen the light of day almost 10 years ago, when it was bought—after lengthy negotiations—by Jonathan Burnham, Ms. DeWitt’s editor and the editorial head of Talk Miramax. He bought the rights and paid Ms. DeWitt her advance, but the novel never surfaced.
Lightning Rods is about a salesman named Joe who fails to sell a single Encyclopedia Britannica and sells exactly one Electrolux vacuum cleaner. He realizes the problem isn’t with him. The problem is with other people. He needs to sell “something people knew they needed anyway.” He sets up a business of contracted female administrative assistants—nicknamed Lightning Rods—that have anonymous sex with the male employees in an office through a glory hole in the bathroom. He says he can convince people that this is a substitute for ordinary sex, and a way of guarding against workplace sexual harassment. The idea sweeps the nation and changes everything. Ms. DeWitt gives the last word of her novel to George Washington: “In America anything is possible.”
Many writers have gone mad trying to finish a manuscript, but Ms. DeWitt, who has a history of depression, is one of the few to lose her mind from the process of trying to publish one. The industry beat her down and wore her out. Mr. Burnham said she was “completely enveloped” in every detail of Last Samurai—from the choice of type to the layout of the page. It drove her to the edge. Like Lightning Rods, Last Samurai had also been bought by one publisher—Rebecca Wilson at Weidenfeld—before being published by another. After reading Ms. Wilson’s comments on the manuscript—“crap comments,” Ms. DeWitt says—she wrote to her agent, Stephanie Cabot, then at William Morris, and said she would commit suicide if she had to keep working with her. She then wrote to Ms. Wilson, thanked her for her comments and informed her she was going away to work on other books. She wanted to “protect her book from the publishing process.” She retreated to a house in Chesterfield in the north of England and started a number of novels; Lightning Rods was the first that she finished.
She wrote it, she said, because she “felt like she was getting fucked from behind through a hole in the wall” by the publishing industry.
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.
“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.
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.”