Awesome Helen DeWitt Interview

[Link added. Sorry for the oversight.]

At Bookforum, Morten Høi Jensen interviews Helen DeWitt (the subject of last fall’s Big Read) on the eve of the release of her novel, Lightning Rods.

The interview is quite interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that DeWitt rewinds the whole story of the publication of The Last Samurai. It gives you some idea of how dysfunctional the publishing industry is when DeWitt had such trouble even finding someone capable of producing her book, let alone wanting to publish it.

HELEN DEWITT: This is hard to talk about. One way and another, The Last Samurai was THE major obstacle to publication of Lightning Rods. But the purpose of LR (and the other books I worked on in 1998-9) was originally supposed to pave the way for The Seventh Samurai (original title). My first agent, Stephanie Cabot, sent out partial drafts of The Seventh Samurai in London, back in 1996-7; editors thought it was too dense, too difficult; there were too many quotations, too much Greek, Japanese, Old Norse . . . It was clear that it would be easier to publish a book in a single voice, with a linear narrative, with no quotations, no Greek, no Japanese . . . More importantly, worryingly, it was clear that the people I talked to would be incapable of seeing a book like Samurai into print. For the book to be properly produced I would need to be in a very strong position—probably with three or four published books behind me. One editor did eventually offer £7500, but she was so vague, so woolly-minded . . . It’s hard to get a first book published. I tried to imagine getting Greek typeset, getting Japanese typeset, with this editor and thought: if I go through with this I will commit suicide within six months. I can’t do this.

It’s sad when publishers are so frightened of getting involved with a book as brilliant and innovative as Samurai for fear of alienating their readers. And, frankly, publishers are underestimating their audience. I’ve passed that book on to all kinds of readers–from the super-intense to the much more casual–and none of them have found the book out of range.

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