i am other people: Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt is the author of The Last Samurai, and co-author of Your Name Here with Ilya Gridneff. She lives in Berlin, and writes a blog called paperpools, which touches on language, economics, the process of editing, and is subtitled "lies, damn lies, and statistics (especially statistics)." Her novel The Last Samurai is one of my favourite novels.

Joey: Suicide is often associated with mental illness. But in your work it's presented as a logical act. A fiercely rational act. Did you always think of suicide this way? You mentioned that there's a need for suicide philosophers. One of the warning signs for suicides is a sudden cheerfulness after a long depression, which can be a sign that they've made their decision. Is there a freedom that comes with this view of suicide as tool available to us, even if the decision has not been made?

Helen DeWitt: Well, it's possible to be mentally ill and rational - Leonard Woolf always said Virginia was extremely rational when she was mad. But I don't think I have ever thought suicide per se evidence of mental illness.

Any number of philosophers have written about suicide. The one I mentioned in The Last Samurai is Jonathan Glover, a modern Utilitarian who wrote a book called Causing Death and Saving Lives. I can't quote from memory - it's been a long time since I've read him - but he says something like, if death really looks better than the life you're leading, try to change the life first before killing yourself. Quit your job, leave your wife, go to another country.

So yes, taking suicide as a serious option might offer freedom. If you're ready to walk away from your life, it clears the mind: you can ask yourself whether killing the body is the only way. There might be some other way to walk away from your life. You could get on a plane, go somewhere new, start over again. NEW GAME NEW GAME NEW GAME.

Or, of course, there might really be no prospect of something better. Virginia Woolf once wrote in her diary: Father would have been 92 today. 92! People do live to that age. His life would have been the end of mine: no writing, no life, nothing. [I am paraphrasing horribly, relying on a very bad memory.] Sir Leslie Stephen died when she was 21, if I remember correctly. She wrote the entry in her diary when she was 46. If someone of her talent was to have no chance of using it, death at 21 looks better than death at 46. And her life as a daughter in a middle-class Edwardian household is hardly the worst we can imagine.

Joey: You talk about JRR Tolkein's popular Lord of the Rings and his invented language Elfish, "If an alter-Tolkien had done for the languages of the Middle East what Tolkien did for the languages of the elves and the dwarves, we couldn't have the unholy mess we have now!" Your blog details your interest in languages, and it shows up in your work. Are you interested in Languages for their beauty and differences, or as tools that allow us to understand, or both?

Helen: I think there are people who like languages who don't necessarily want to communicate with other people, they just like the medium. I have a feeling I'm like that most of the time. I like languages for their grammatical idiosyncrasies - when I come across a rare verb form in Arabic it makes me laugh out loud. I like the different ways they sound, the way Slavic languages are chewy, the way Spanish and Scots use rolled r's for a sort of verbal pinball, the way Danish has a sort of archipelago of half-submerged consonants. This is not obviously a recipe for world peace. But I do somehow think that if the potential for linguistic obsession revealed by Tolkien were realised, on the same scale, in relation to languages used in cultures often perceived as alien, this probably would lead to greater understanding. At any rate, there would be less chance that someone reading Harry Potter in Arabic would be mistaken for a dangerous religious fanatic.

Part of the attraction of a different language, though, is that the mind, immersed in this new medium, finds the possibility of a different self. When people do ugly things they don't use a separate language for them - so the words we use every day, 'if', 'and', 'the', 'but', 'you', bring back memories of that ugliness. If you escape into a different language you leave all those ordinary words behind; the words of the new language are innocent, harmless, have no history.

Joey: On your blog, you're selling electronic copies of your new book, Your Name Here, for eight bucks. Are you still planning to publish it in the traditional manner? You've written about difficulties with format and style editors at big houses. Would you consider publishing with a smaller press that would afford you more control over the book? With the success of your first novel, do you think that there might be a stigma attached to publishing with a smaller house, even if it might be best for a particular book?

Helen: I'd like to publish it in the traditional way - I don't really think it's much fun reading a print-out on A4. I'd certainly consider publishing with a smaller press; I got a very brilliant letter from one editor who I think would be wonderful to work with. The problem is, though, that seeing a book into print takes up a lot of time and energy that could be spent writing other books. Normally an advance gives one something to live on while one writes the next book; if one doesn't have that, one is using up one's own money, that could otherwise be used to buy time to finish a new book, to see one already written into print. (Needless to say, I feel horribly guilty leaving Brilliant Editor to wait for an answer while I try to sort out my finances.) I think publishing with a smaller house often has a certain glamour (though it does depend on the house); if it means very small print runs, though, sales of the book will necessarily be limited, and that might affect the chances of other books. I don't know if that's the case; people in the industry tell one all kinds of chilling things and then say: 'But I don't want to make you paranoid.'

Joey: Do you have a plan for your own career? Something big you want to say, or some way of thinking you want to depict? Do you have a picture in your mind of what you want your body of work to be? How you want to be remembered?

Helen: I don't know if 'plan' is the right word.

I'm interested in the fact that natural languages are translatable but games are not. You can translate from German to English, from English to Chinese, and you can use one language as a metalanguage to talk about features of another that it does not share. You can't 'translate' bridge into poker, or poker to chess. Someone who plays bridge well will 'see' the possibilities in a hand in a way that's instantly comprehensible to another bridge player, even if the two players don't share a natural language - but which can only be explained to a non-player by teaching the game.

Our social practices aren't as well developed as our games. A community of game players improves the standard at which a game is played over time. Bridge has only been around for a bit over a century, for instance, but well-developed bidding systems enable even very weak players to communicate the strength and shape of their hand and determine whether they have a good fit with their partner; the systems work well because they have been developed by first-class players who have a good sense of which hands play well. (You can't know the potential strength of a pair of hands, obviously, unless you know what can be done with them.) So if I'm playing bridge and have a six-card heart suit and 3 Aces a King and a Jack I have a very good chance of finding out whether my partner has a) a four-card heart suit and a fistful of honours, b) a four-card heart suit but a weakish hand, c) no hearts, a long spade suit and a fistful of honours, d) a few honours and no strong suit, or e) zilch. (to name just a few possibilities) By way of contrast, we have no comparable sophistication in the communication of sexual preferences or strength of interest. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever gone to jail for optimistically raising a 1 heart opening to slam on a hand with a singleton heart and the Jack of diamonds; we might think that the sophistication of the game could usefully be transferred to areas of life where the penalties for misunderstanding are higher.

That's one thing I'd like to do. Another is to think about ways of using information design to show kinds of thinking that are not well represented in sentences. Fiction is stacked against characters who mentally represent data graphically - I notice this because people often ask me questions which I don't know how to answer without spending a day inputting data into R (my pet vice), trying out various sorts of plot to see which best displays the situation as I understand it. Which would be all right, probably, if they were /aware/ of the fact that they were asking a question which could only be answered by etc. etc., but oblivion to this fact is precisely the problem. I think would be an interesting thing to do, but it's also an excuse to put in a text the sort of thing I like to see on the page.

There are others, but I seem to have gone on too long already.

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