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

Ms. DeWitt.

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.

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