Keith Gessen: A few years ago I gathered two roundtables of n+1 writers and editors to ask them about their regrets: what they wished they had read earlier, what they wished they had never read, what they wished they had known earlier, and what they wished they had never learned. We turned this into a little book. And now, four years later here at Fordham, I thought we might attempt a sort of live version of this with two writers whom I admire a great deal. Helen DeWitt and J. D. Daniels have agreed to this experimental format. They’ve agreed to tell the truth.
KG: Let’s start with books you wish you had read earlier.
Helen DeWitt: Much of my rage at university was that there were things I hadn’t been able to read before I came there. I only started reading ancient Greek at university—I had not had the chance to do it earlier. This is one of the great literary languages of the world. My last year of high school we were made to read Sophocles’s Oedipus plays in this horrible translation, and I realized that it could never have survived the millennia if had been that bad in the original Greek. I wish I had been able to read Homer in the original Greek before going to college. That’s sort of a wasteful thing to be doing at 18. It displaced other things I could have been doing.
KG: What did you get from reading in the original that you didn’t get from the translation?
HD: From Homer I got the composition, this rapid narration. There’s something profoundly moving and interesting about the way that Homer (the Homeric poets) uses these formulaic building blocks to put together the hexameter. You think, “How is this possible?” If you are a writer this is something you need to know. It’s like Martin Amis talking about the war on cliché. Whenever I read that I think, “I’m sorry: What’s the difference between cliché and formulaic language of the kind that Homer uses?” Does he think the Argonautica is better than the Iliad?
KG: Do you regret learning languages at a point when you could have been thinking?
HD: I think it displaced other things, things I started reading much later like Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, a fabulous book, Erving Goffman, certainly for a novelist, he’s a very important person to read, so The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; Stigma; Asylums.
KG: John, what’s a book you wished you had read earlier?
John Daniels: It’s always been difficult for me to talk about books. I think it’s partly because of the way I grew up: not in a bookish family, not in a bookish milieu—I don’t even know if that’s how you say milieu.
I have trouble talking about books because to me it feels like narcissistic display. I’m reading this great book because I’m so great. Now, that’s not what people really mean when they talk about books, but it makes it difficult for me. “What is a book you wished you had read earlier?” A book I had read earlier in order to do what?
JD: Metaphor reveals what is ready to hand. It seems to me like a kind of Men’s Health question: Ten books you should read or else die the death. I don’t have a control life and an experimental life to compare and see where they diverged, and consider what was I reading at the time.
KG: You mean your life could not have gone in some different direction?
JD: Had I read a book?
KG: Or anything. Had you done anything.
JD: It could have, I suppose. But probably the most important book I’ve read in my life is less important to me than the least important member of my family, in terms of having an effect on what I was going to be like. Graham Greene, when asked if Henry James influenced him, said, “How can a mountain influence a molehill?” I suppose things could have been different. I’m reasonably happy, which is something that time will do for you.
HD: What tends to happen for me in books is that I think I know something and realize I have no idea. The background, whatever it was, is something that it helps to have. Take engineering; I wouldn’t be able to dedicate three years to learning it.
JD: That’s part of the pain of life: You will not master everything. In fact, you may not master anything.
HD: For things I’d wish I’d read earlier, John Hicks’s Market Theory of Money. I read it while doing a doctorate in classics. It would have helped to have read Hicks at 21 rather than at 26.
KG: John, do you feel short on time?
JD: Sure. Yes.
KG: Do you feel shorter on time now than you did ten years ago?
JD: Yes. Every day my knees hurt more, and I think: it’s going, it’s going. My body is rotting out from under me. This is what it’s like to get old: you still feel 19, except your knees hurt, your back hurts.
KG: Does this cause you to read more? To write more? What is your reaction to this feeling?
JD: I wonder where I got the idea that it would be any different. We’re embodied and we’re in time. What fancy crap to say at a college!
You guys should know I dropped out of college three times. I went to the University of Louisville, chiefly noted for the excellence of its men’s basketball team (and justly so).
KG: Did you drop out of Louisville three times?
JD: Yeah. Thrown out, kicked out, dropped out. I started at the University of Louisville in ’93. In ’95 I had a psychotic breakdown and was hospitalized, dropped out, fell out, tripped. Don’t worry, I’m fine. But I went back and dropped out again and again. What is difficult for me in this setting is having “what I should have known” cast as “what I should have read.” There are ways of knowing other than reading. There’s a very interesting and strange thing said by Siddhartha Deb in the original pamphlet. He says, “We were learning Shakespeare in India. We were reading Coriolanus and there were bombs going off down the street.” Mr. Deb says he was trying to get that together in his mind. What did Shakespeare have to do with a bomb going off down the street? Possibly nothing, but you could go down and see what was going on in the street where the bomb went off. I dropped out of college because I’m not a literary intellectual. I wanted to be a writer.
KG: So were you writing?
KG: You’ve been writing ever since? Did you ever stop writing?
JD: For a while I didn’t write, I just played music in bars. I lived over a grocery store in Louisville.
I went to middle school, high school, did a bachelor’s degree and most of a master’s degree all within the same city block, like a little rat in a terrarium. I wish I’d had more courage, but I have it now.
HD: I started college at Smith and dropped out twice. It felt as if everybody there had this thing in their mind, a stereotype of a certain type of person. When you talked to them they thought about what that type of person would say, and behaved accordingly. I took a year off and read a lot. I read Proust, Pound, Eliot, and I thought, “Now I really know what the life of the mind is like.” I read Hume, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
JD: So you dropped out of Smith…
HD: I thought if I could study classics at Oxford it would be worth it. I studied for these exams and then I got in. I learned later that you don’t have to matriculate; you can go into those lectures, walk in off the street. It’s never about this or that college. It’s about who is good to work with—that is the crucial thing.
I couldn’t really see how to be a writer. I thought it was impossible. But Greek and Latin had been important to the writers I read, so I thought it could be helpful.
KG: Is your study of philosophy finished or are you still studying it?
HD: Study is possibly a strong word. I still read. I’m still thinking about the working of language. In the philosophy of language you have things like “ordinary language study.” You have to see what people are doing within a system to figure out how it works. I think that if I, for example, knew Python and Perl and Ruby, I would have a better understanding of language and it would help me as a writer. Those are the things I think I need to be doing now.
KG: John, when did you feel that you had become a writer? Do you feel that way now?
JD: No. I left my teaching position to write a novel. “When are you going to write a novel? When you’re 40? 50? When you die? Tomorrow?” I went down into the basement to write my novel. I looked at the desk. I hit my head against the desk for forty days and forty nights. Then Wes Enzinna called me from the Oxford American. I should have kept beating my head against the desk. It’s the book that’s going to last, not the magazine. I mean, the magazine . . . I used to have a parakeet. The book you put in the library, the magazine you put in the recycling.
KG: Helen, when did you feel like you had become a writer?
HD: I’m not sure. I had about a hundred fragments of novels on my hard drive (and one was 300 pages long). I thought: “I will write a book in a month, I will send it out. Maybe it will get published, maybe it will not, but at least I will know.” This was my first novel.
KG: You wrote The Last Samurai in a month?
HD: I wrote a lot of it in a month. Day one there was a blank piece of paper and soon there was a chapter: this whole world that didn’t exist before. I had been doing all kinds of jobs for seven years, and here was this whole other thing where I gave myself this uninterrupted block of time. I thought: People will realize all they need to do is leave me alone in my room with time. And actually the kiss of death for dealing with the publishing industry is thinking that your time has value.
KG: Do you regret publishing your book?
HD: No, but it’s difficult. If a book is being published in different countries, or being published at all, it’s not like taking it to Kinko’s.
KG: You should have published it with Kinko’s.
John, any ideas for how to clear time?
JD: Sure. When Diogenes saw a man drink from his hands, he threw his cup away. Does it sound too much to say: “You have twenty-four hours a day. Other people have written books. The library is full of them. Some of them are good, some are bad—the books, not the people (but the people, too). You can do it.” It is educational to retype a novel so you can see how long the physical task actually takes—not long. It’s the fucking around that takes so long. It’s about sacrifice, which is hard. You give up this and that.
I have plenty of time. I just don’t seem to be able to assess my work in a way that is not completely self-destructive. You have a pile of pages, how bad can it be? There must be something good in there. [Mimics flipping through a pile of pages.] It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad. You get to the bottom and you see the desk. I don’t want to see the desk! I want to see the Nobel Prize under all those papers.
I need less time. The more time I have, the more time I have to bite myself. If I have twelve hours, there’s nothing left.
KG: John, did you do an MFA?
JD: I did an MA in writing. I’m glad I did it because I met the woman I love there, but then they threw us out.
—Transcribed and edited by David Wescott