Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt published The Last Samurai in 2000, and some time later, moved to Berlin. Her new book, Your Name Here, 580 pages co-authored by DeWitt and the journalist Ilya Gridneff, is being digitally distributed: the longest PDF I’ve ever downloaded. It’s about Arabic, luck, airplanes and disappearance. And reading, always reading. Dewitt’s blog, Paperpools, is subtitled »Lies, damn lies and statistics (especially statistics)«. 
As a component of the DERZEIT Accident Issue, I interviewed Dewitt via email about her views on risk and gambling. by Emily Segal

Emily Segal wrote:
Dear Helen DeWitt,
I’m Emily, the managing editor of DERZEIT, a newsprint magazine out of Berlin and the official publication for Mercedes-Benz Berlin Fashion Week.
I am also an enormous admirer of your writing. I’m currently wedged into the first chunk of Your Name Here (I realize I’m reading a copy pirated from my friend and should paypal you some cash). To take some unnecessary credit, I was the first of my friends at school to read The Last Samurai and proselytize madly, thus starting a little knot of you-obsessives.
I would love nothing more than to interview you for one of our next issues, coming out during this next Berlin Fashion Week, Jan. 20.–23.
Basically the idea of the magazine is to take the most commercial form possible – essentially a trade publication, funded by a huge car company – and use it as a trojan horse for whatever weirdo texts we’d like to publish, or those that could possibly be used to gloss the reading of fashion / spectacle / and / or Berlin. (We started from scratch last July as a small team, managed to get funded by Mercedes-Benz, and put out four issues over the course of four days. Here’s our site, which is pretty bare, and a write up the New York Times T Moment blog did on us.

Last year, the issues were centered around architecture / art / design / fashion, but this year it’s origin / structure / accident / prognosis. I’m really digging Lotteryland () and I think for the accident issue it could be cool to talk about luck, forecasts, the gambler’s fallacy, games, whatever--
or we could talk about none of these things, and that would be cool too.
I’m sure you’re super busy, but email, skype, phone or meeting in person in Berlin (any time between tuesday and january 20th) would all work for an interview.
Let me know!
Looking forward to hearing from you,

EMILY SEGAL: When did your interest in statistics start, and how?
HELEN DE WITT: A friend who started out as a mathematician before switching to Classics said he thought it would be interesting to see a book that showed the way mathematicians think. He gave an example of the way mathematical vagueness misleads people.
Suppose we’re told a DNA test is highly accurate: there’s only a 1 in a million chance that traces of blood left on a corpse will match the DNA of someone who was not involved. Someone is found whose DNA matches that of the test – someone for whom there is no other evidence of involvement. Can we be confident that X was the murderer? Well, no. If there are 65 million people in Britain (that may not be the correct figure), we can expect 65 people to match the sample – there’s only a 1 in 65 chance that X is the guilty one.

Where has it taken you?
I started reading around – one of the first books I read was Gerd Gigerenzer’s Reckoning with Risk, which talks about how humans are bad at working out probability if given percentages, do better when a problem is set out in terms of frequencies. The thing that’s interesting is that probability is counter-intuitive – our sense of how likely something is turns out to be highly unreliable. But fiction, after all, works partly by presenting individuals and events which the reader perceives as normal, unsurprising, or, perhaps, as exceptional, highly unusual. Since most writers of fiction have no background in probability or statistics, they tend to replicate the misconceptions of the untrained reader. I wondered whether there was a way to present statistical ways of thinking without using complicated equations, which many readers would not be able to follow. It seemed to me that one might be able to do this using the techniques in information design of Edward Tufte; one might be able to use the methods of Isotype developed by Otto Neurath beginning in the 1920s. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
I haven’t thought so much about deliberate deceit. It’s possible to mislead using statistics, but it’s very common for people to mislead because they themselves don’t have enough data, or have data but don’t know how to interpret what they have.

A lot of Your Name Here is in the form of an email exchange. What did you think of emails when you first started sending them? What platform did you use?
Before emails came on the scene I thought I was a bad correspondent. I would get a Christmas present, start 20 drafts of a thank-you letter, and finally write and send something 10 years later. I also have a horror of the phone, so I had virtually no contact with family and absent friends. Then I worked in an office from which emails could be sent; started writing to my ex-husband David. Wrote hundreds, thousands of emails. Fabulous. I can’t remember what platform the office used. Went on to Eudora after a while. Now I’m on Thunderbird.

One of your characters mentions reading 900 words per minute. So, speed reading, can you, how fast? I like youtube videos of people learning to speed read because of the way they touch their paper – it looks pious.
No, I can’t do that; the friend who got me interested in statistics reads that fast. He is a bad influence, probably: he read YNH at a single sitting, and it didn’t strike him as particularly long or complex, but I gather other readers have had more trouble.

Let’s talk about Lotteryland. Can you trace your writing about the lottery to any particular starting point for you or in your work?
Lotteryland was originally a self-contained book in its own right which I wrote in 1999. (It got interrupted when I got an offer of publication for The Last Samurai, so it never got finished; it seemed as though it might be better to use some of it as a book within a book in Your Name Here. I do wonder, though, whether it doesn’t just make the structure impossibly complicated.)
I started thinking about it when Britain introduced the National Lottery. Before the Lottery there was an investment scheme called Premium Bonds which gave participants the chance to win a million pounds: you had to buy a minimum of 100 Premium Bonds for Ł1 apiece, you were assigned 100 numbers, and your numbers went into the draw every week. You could get your Ł100 back at any time. You could leave them going into the draw for years. You could buy up to Ł20,000. In other words, you were gambling the interest you could otherwise have earned if you had left that Ł100 in a bank. When they brought in the Lottery, they reduced the frequency of draws in Premium Bonds to once a month. They also promoted the Lottery very heavily – it was widely advertised, tickets could be bought over the counter in newsagents, people could pick their own numbers. So it was much more entertaining, but you were almost certain, not just not to win, but to lose the money you put in. That was interesting in itself, and also seemed to be connected to other things that were going on in Britain at the time.

In terms of the lottery, aren’t you basically always guaranteed not to win?
No, you are guaranteed an extremely remote chance of winning.
You’re gambling on your perception of odds, or of an emotional distortion of odds. I was just in Vegas, where I thought a lot about the idea that the more you play, the more times you pull the lever on the slot machine, the better your chances are (ignoring that your chances are always the same).
Er, I think I would have said the more you play the more money you are likely to lose.

Would you call fashion (/costume/uniforms) a game?
I think I would see fashion as ludic, which is perhaps not quite the same thing. The types of clothing you mention involve quite different practices: dress as costume happily admits to the ludic, dress as uniform purports to mark compliance with the requirements of a task, the formalized constraints of a particular place int he social order.

You make me think of this quote from the Swiss writer Robert Walser: »We wear uniforms. Now, the wearing of uniforms simultaneously humiliates and exalts us. We look like unfree people, and that is possibly a disgrace, but we also look nice in our uniforms, and that sets us apart from the deep disgrace of those people who walk around in their very own clothes but in torn and dirty ones. To me, for instance, wearing a uniform is very pleasant because I never did know, before, what clothes to put on. But in this, too, I am a mystery to myself for the time being.«
That’s awfully nice. I used to look at those ads for Benetton and think they were playing at radicalism (and now that game is all too familiar). If you walk into a Benetton store there are these arrays of sweaters; a handful of styles, dozens of colors. Saussure says language is a system of differences; Benetton offered the differences, but no one had used them to create a language. So the signifiers are just there for the asking, and if you wanted to you could create a system of signifieds and deploy – the signified (an array of desires) is not given, you could select any range of objects of desire you liked. So you could use an array of sweaters to create a system of signals that did not exist. A company with its sweaters could devise this, or the people who walk in off the streets could appropriate. One only sees the range of possibilities if one sets out different possible systems of signifieds.

When and why did you move to Berlin?
I went in September 2004 after a bad time in New York. A London friend, the painter Ingrid Kerma, has an apartment in Kreuzberg, in Naunynstrasse; she said I could stay there a month. It was very good being there – very quiet, no people to deal with – so I thought if I found a short-term rental in Tip or Zitty I could finish a book. I found a place for 3 months in Mehringdamm; hadn’t finished my book so took a place for 5 months in Kurfurstenstrasse; found another short-term let (all this time, unfortunately, there were all kinds of business problems to deal with); sublet a place in Hornstrasse and finally took over the lease. I’ve never really mastered the art of living with Kohlheizung, though, so I think I’ll have to find something else.

What do you think about hair dye?
Hm. When I got to Berlin I would go to this or that Frisür with the idea of having some highlights, and the hairdressers would try to persuade me to include brown highlights as looking more natural. Every time I would get dragged into a discussion of the Natural. I slightly felt that the Natural could be mine without recourse to a hairdresser, by the simple expedient of leaving the hair to its own devices. My German is not really up to discussions of the Natural and the Artificial, though, let alone the Natural as understood by early 21st century German hairdressers.   ◊

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