“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if one thought only of his age (hits 30 sometime in the 90s); that seemed to matter somehow, that this simplistic, outdated view of the world should find a foothold in a real world that had left it far behind.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.