Questionnaire: Helen DeWitt

Q. What do you wish you knew? A. How to drive an HGV; how to repair a roof.

What images keep you company in the space where you work?

In Berlin: a pencil drawing by Paul Thomas (the artist formerly known as TAR ART RAT) of a mythical animal – some sort of bear/beaver hybrid, maybe? A small painting by Ingrid Kerma: a dense square of purple-blue; an exploration of pigment and light. A framed enlargement of Robert Mitchum sur la plage (1954), shot by Mirkine. A printout of Mark Goetz’s Every Time You Make a PowerPoint, Edward Tufte Kills a Kitten (2010). Arrays of histograms of the binomial distribution, some from Jim Pitman’s Probability, some I’ve cobbled together myself through a mixture of R, Python and Illustrator.

A battered postcard of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, arms folded, standing in front of a painting from Picasso’s blue period in which a boy stands, arms folded. This is the most dangerous: it is a reminder. With money earned by the genius of his hands, Horowitz could buy one work from the hands of Picasso. What would Picasso do with this money if not allowed to paint? Spend it on other people’s paintings? Buy a Braque? The value of money for a great artist is that it buys space, time, materials; whatever is necessary to make new art and so develop as an artist. This point of view is scandalous for a writer: it is a breach of the social fabric if finishing new work is preferred to promoting the old.

When I begin to write, normally my walls are very bare, so that I can pin up images from what I am working on. Sometimes I go to the plainest motel I can find, one with only a bed and a desk. I once worked for a day in Istanbul airport, surrounded by white plastic tables as far as the eye could see. Perhaps I should have missed my plane and stayed for a month. 

What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?

You’d think if it really mattered I would remember, but the first I remember can’t be the first. In the mid 1980s the Brazilian artist Ana Maria Pacheco had a show at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. Oversized wooden sculptures, humanoids with real teeth, were displayed in tableaux. In one, The Banquet (1985), a naked man lies prone on a table, surrounded by men in suits.  Description captures the concept, of course, but not the savagery.

If you could live with only one piece of art what would it be?

If I really had a choice it would have to be Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993). I saw it being made while I cycled to work in London, and then I saw it destroyed in 1994 by order of the local council because they had only permitted the installation for a limited time. I would undo this travesty and the work would still be in the world. In the world of works that exist, I would probably want Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano (1435): a permanent reminder of Giorgio Vasari’s seductive dismissal of a talent misled by obsession with ingenious tricks of perspective.

What is your favourite title of an artwork?

Let Blue = Blue, which I invented for a painter in The Last Samurai. He went down in a bathysphere to see blue. How can one paint blue if one has never seen it? How is blue paint to represent blue?

What do you wish you knew?

Too much to list and miscellaneous in kind:

How to drive an HGV; how to repair a roof; how to programme competently in the languages I need for what I want to do. Are there residencies that offer writers technical support? I wish I knew. Are there residencies run on Trappist principles? I wish I knew. Are there places where women not only enjoy notional equality under the law, but can exercise their rights? Are there places where you really can be alone, if you choose, in your home, or are you at the mercy of stalkers wherever you go? I wish I knew. (That’s seven out of a list of hundreds, roughly representative in distribution.)

What could you imagine doing if you didn't do what you do?

A novel gives each fragment of the self an entire life of its own; it’s easy to imagine lives that give scope to underserved fragments. Programmer. Data scientist. Statistician. (What I do is embedded in a culture that is opposed toto caelo to hacker culture and despises numeracy as the stuff of bean counters.) HGV driver. Forester. Pastry chef. Costumier for the Royal Ballet. Gallerist of the kind of artefact described by Alain Delon as the place where ideas come into the world. Professional bridge player. Professional poker player. Trappist (transgender, presumably) monk. French intellectual. (I could go on, and on and on. And on. Which may be why I find myself, thwarted at every turn, a novelist.)

What are you reading?

Edward Carey’s unheimlich ‘Iremonger Trilogy’ (2013-16); P. G. O’Neill’s A Reader of Handwritten Japanese (1992); Grammatik kurz & bündig TÜRKISCH (Turkish Grammar in a Nutshell, 2007); Winston Chang’s R Graphics Cookbook (2013); Brunel & Sarian, Les Conventions (1995); Lahure, Le whist à trois ou mort (Three-handed Whist or (Whist) with a Dummy, 1886).

Helen DeWitt is based in Berlin. She has a cottage in Vermont, a library in storage in New Jersey, and a mother in a sinister retirement community. (She is often off-base.) Her first novel, The Last Samurai (2000) will be re-issued on 31 May 2016 by New Directions, who also published Lightning Rods (2012). Your Name Here, a collaboration with journalist Ilya Gridneff, is still waiting in the wings. She is working on a new novel which draws on Edward Tufte's information design, the history of scientific whist, and sabermetrics.

Lead image: Ana Maria Pacheco, The Banquet, 1985, polychromed wood, 1.8 x 4 x 2.5 m. Courtesy: Pratt Contemporary, Sevenoaks; photograph: Colin M. Harvey

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