“A Glory Hole Would Have Ruined EVERYTHING.” An Interview with Helen DeWitt
Helen DeWitt is the author of EB pick Lighting Rods. She is also the author of The Last Samurai and the blog paperpools. Andy Selsberg is the author of You Are Good at Things: A Checklist and teaches college freshman composition. They had a fascinating recent email conversation about Lightning Rods and the ethical and physical practicability of some of the acts described therein. You should certainly follow both Helen’s and Andy’s twitters.
AS: Eureka, FL, Electrolux, Encyclopaedia Britannica, characters who say
“Jumping Jehosophat”: these all seem to set the story in a mythical
American past (or at least a parallel America). Did you do this to
give the story an air of fable or allegory? (If not, what drew you to
this setting? It is one I’m sucker for.) At any point you consider
about making it more now—maybe have Joe hustling ads for a website,
or going after venture capital for a startup? Would that have changed
the essence of what you wanted to do with the novel?
HD: I think what I had in mind was the simplified America(s) of TV sitcoms of the late 50s, 60s, 70s. It struck me that when Joe was growing up the popular culture that was his frame of reference would not all have been contemporary, it was common to have endless reruns of shows that had aired years, even a decade earlier. (I suppose one could see that as a kind of mythical past.) His outlook feels more dated than one would expect if one thought only of his age (hits 30 sometime in the 90s); that seemed to matter somehow, that this simplistic, outdated view of the world should find a foothold in a real world that had left it far behind. Which, in turn, is possible because 1 person in the 1000 he tries shares the same dated point of view and is in a position to give him his first sale. I don’t think that particular irony would have been possible if Joe had been brought up to date, been more recognizable as a modern businessman.
I don’t mean to imply that the book is particularly profound, but this does seem to be a fictional instance of something that is genuinely shocking about our world: most of its structures were put in place, are now kept in place, by people who couldn’t even IMAGINE the resources taken for granted by the young. America has the highest degree inflation in the world and crushing levels of student debt — this might be comprehensible, sort of, in a world where a manual typewriter was high-tech and off-limits for an 8-year-old, but it looks insane when we think of what even an 8-year-old can do today.
AS: Joe has elements of a Nicholson Baker character: this conscientious,
down-home smutiness. In The Fermata, Baker’s character explains how
he’s ethical when he stops time and strips women. Your character also
is, beyond the absurd premise of the lightning rods, careful to do the
right thing. What do you think of the Baker comparison? Did you
challenge yourself to make it Joe’s logic as compelling as possible?
(After one accepts his flawed “Women were being molested in the
workplace solely because their colleagues did not have a legitimate
outlet for their urges they could not control” premise.)
HD: I have a feeling I was trying to finish a book when The Fermata came out; I haven’t read it, so don’t know whether this is a good comparison. It’s true that Joe wants to do the right thing; it’s not so much that he reasons correctly, if one accepts the premise, as that we watch someone blundering around trying to engage in moral reasoning with very limited tools. The challenge was to come up with the kind of argument someone might plausibly produce who had those limitations.
AS: I didn’t trust these dudes, and was worried for the women working as
lighting rods being so exposed, even with the alarm system (which can
only be rung after a transgression, of course). I wanted the more
balanced power that comes with an old fashioned glory hole. Did you
consider the glory hole option?
HD: No - I think because Joe’s fantasies were the first thing that came to me. I didn’t initially realize he was going to develop them into a multimillion-dollar business, I just had this hapless guy tinkering with his fantasies. (Those cheerleaders coming ass-backward through a wall in their little short skirts, etc.) He was miserable enough having a toilet mar the real-life implementation of his fantasy; a glory hole would have ruined EVERYTHING.
It’s perfectly true that the protection and anonymity supposedly on offer to the women are more of a convenient fiction than something that would hold up in real life. I thought: Well, Aristophanes had all kinds of far-fetched scenarios that would not stand up to the cold eye of reason. The book was inspired partly by Mel Brooks’ The Producers, and Brooks does have that crazy Aristophanic streak - the sort of person who thinks the “One move and the nigga gets it” scene in Blazing Saddles is one of the best things in the film is probably not going to worry too much about Joe’s Disabled Toilet installation.
AS: To me, one of the funniest things about the book is the fact that
the Lamborghini-driving, sex-crazed, high-earning alpha of the company
is named “Ed Wilson”. (Technically not a question.)
HD: Not a joke, technically, but it did seem perfect for the character.
AS: The sales aphorisms—about dealing with people as they are, about
the importance of a good suit, “Why does coffee never taste as good as
it smells?” how we deal with disappointment by being philosophical and
making jokes—seemed legit to me. If I were in the field, I’d use
them. I think you could distill them and have a best-selling business
book. Did you want to make these parts of the book straight-up useful,
or were they intended as a satire of the Business way of thinking?
HD: There’s an episode in Season 4 of Mad Men where Dr. Miller talks to Draper about the conflict addressed by advertising, which is, she says, always the same: We’re torn between what we want and what’s expected of us. I think one hears this with a sense of recognition - recognition of something true, but also of the fact that its truth is mainly deployed to get us to buy things. I’m not sure that the aphorisms in LR were meant to be useful, but maybe also not as straight satire - there’s a gap between principles which may be true and the use to which they are being put.
AS: There seemed to be a comeuppance suggested at with Roy, but it never
came. Were you toying with our expectations of justice, or at least
the massive difficulties we’d expect someone to have when running a
business like this?
HD: Well, it’s true there isn’t a showdown; maybe the reader expects to see one. It’s entirely possible that I thought there WOULD be one when I introduced Roy, that it later just seemed funnier to have him be the unwitting instrument of a new business opportunity for Joe. (What I mean is, I probably thought of Joe talking to an FBI agent about Thomas Jefferson and the South’s right to secede and thought it would be funnier if the FBI agent came up with an unexpected solution to Joe’s problems rather than hauling his ass off to jail.) I realize it would be more impressive if I had all the answers, but I wrote it a long time ago - at this distance I have dim memories of sitting in my room in London, distraught after 18 months of William Morris Agency Round 1, suddenly thinking of a guy with a fantasy that involved walls, a game show. If I look at something and wonder why I did it the answer is probably that I just thought it would be funny.
AS: The contraption itself never seemed physically possible. (The Times
review has a stylized schematic where the woman is flipped around.)
Was this intentional, like one of those drawable-but-not-craftable
HD: Yes, I noticed we were not getting a woman set up for the old ventrodorsal. (In the NYT, I mean.) Though I liked Casey Burns’ graphic otherwise - a lovely example of the sort of thing Edward Tufte deplores as chartjunk, perfect for the book. To tell the truth, I vaguely assumed that a workable contraption could be constructed, but I never sat down to sketch a prototype and test this vague assumption. Maybe I should now! Lightning Rods, the graphic novel! Would it be lèse-Munroe to use stick figures?