Thursday, December 22, 2011


I posted a link yesterday to Michael Miller's profile in the Observer.  I'm not sure that it's not petty to correct details of chronology and such; the problem is, as you probably know, that Wikipedia treats accounts published in the press as sources.  If I understand the piece correctly, MM thought that, upon receiving Bill Clegg's resignation in January 2010, I went straight from my mother's bedside in Silver Spring to Eastbourne in the UK with the intention of committing suicide, and that I wrote to Bill from Eastbourne.  (I expect getting a verbal account at the Tik Tok diner, and then having to make sense of the material from a recorder, contributed to the misunderstanding.) This was not correct, and I think gives a false impression of the situation:

She could not see a way forward. “Fourteen years of publishing crap, no end in sight,” she said. She knew of a 600-foot cliff in Eastbourne. Back in England, she booked a one-way train ticket to Gatwick, an hour from the cliff by train, then checked into a hotel. On Feb. 10, 2010, she sent an email to Mr. Clegg that said, “I’m leaving tomorrow, sorting out a few last-minute things.” 

I had a flight booked back to Berlin on January 28.  I did not know what to do. I was exhausted after looking after my mother; Bill had resigned while she was in intensive care, saying the relationship was unproductive. I had $10,000 in credit card debt; I could not finish a new book fast from a state of exhaustion, and even if I could I did not know where to send it. I had tried desperately hard, as I had for the last 14 years, to get information leading to publishers who could cope with technically challenging work, and I had failed yet again. 

The point is, in other words, that the reason I could not see a way out was not simply because things had not worked out with Bill, but because I had tried so many times over the last 14 years.  With Bill, I had forced myself to overcome all kinds of phobias and inhibitions - a phobia of the phone, a phobia of meeting people in person to talk about work, a profound horror of showing people unfinished work, finished work with which I was dissatisfied.  And it was simply not possible to do more. If it was necessary to be even MORE phone-friendly, if it was necessary to send out even more unfinished work and be judged on that basis, I would never be able to do it. I had made a special trip to New York to talk about new work; Bill's assistant had misunderstood a request to see Bill's office before going to lunch, so we had never made it to the coffeehouse where I would have a table to lay out materials -- so I could not make best use of this single meeting, because an assistant misunderstood. How could I guarantee fewer misunderstandings without micromanaging even MORE, which was the thing that drove people crazy in the first place?

So I sat in a sublet apartment in Berlin, and what lay ahead was not a lifetime of writing, but a lifetime of trying to do business by phone, going to New York for meetings and having them derailed by Hardyesque accident, it had never not been like this so why would it change?

But the thing is. The fact is, as I think Wittgenstein said, intention is not the furniture of the mind. I can't look into my mind and identify an intention to commit suicide, in the way that I can look in the attic to see if I have a chair.  And I can't, how can I put it, distinguish a fake from a genuine intention the way I can have an antique chair assessed (is this really Queen Anne or just a cheap copy). All I have to go on is what an observer would have to go on.  Feeling miserable is not evidence. What counts as evidence is actions. If I make my will, it's a piece of evidence, but hardly conclusive.  If I book a one-way flight to Gatwick (from which it's a quick train journey to Eastbourne, from which it's a short bus trip to Beachy Head), that's a piece of evidence, but hardly conclusive. If I spend the night packing a suitcase to catch the plane, that looks a bit more like something is going to happen, but still, of course, hardly conclusive.

Well, the point is, at what point are observable actions sufficiently conclusive?  Conclusive enough, I mean, to merit taking into account the grief that would be caused survivors. Saying to oneself: There is a virtual certainty that nothing can be done, that there is no way forward, but people in this position often think there is no way out when there is a solution, the rational course of action is to contact someone with relevant information and see if I am mistaken.

At any rate, I stayed up packing to catch an early morning flight to Gatwick, and it felt very good not to have to fight any more. It felt so good. It felt so good. People who have never confronted a fate that is literally worse than death will not understand.

But the fact is, there might be a solution I did not see; if so, it would involve a lot of dreary striving, but there are people who would be spared grief.  The person to ask was someone with relevant information.  Bill must presumably know what I should have done differently; he might know what I could do now; the person to ask was the person with the answer to the question. So I wrote to Bill (part of this e-mail is quoted in the piece) and went on packing.  I did not say where I was going, because if I had said I was going to Eastbourne, to Beachy Head with its 600-foot cliff, it would be very easy for him to stop this. He could simply call the police in Eastbourne, explain the situation, forward the e-mail, tell me he had done so; if I went, I would be picked up by the police.

I got a reply from Bill in 40 minutes which I could not bring myself to look at. Just before it was time to go, I read his e-mail - and it must be said there was a great deal of sympathy and feeling in his reply. (I sent this to Michael Miller, though I could naturally not grant permission to print it, because I wanted to be fair; many people, I think, would warm to this. See Bill in a more favorable light than the person packing to catch a plane.) It did not answer the question. It was an emotional response to a factual question - which is precisely what one always does get from the biz.  So I walked out the door with my carry-on bag and took the U-Bahn to Rudow and the bus to Schoenefeld and got on the plane.

It is very tiring to expose yourself to more of the same misunderstandings, but I realised, as I flew to Gatwick, that this is a bad thing to do to someone: contact him before leaving to commit suicide, in the hope of a helpful solution, and then jump off a cliff because he said the wrong thing.  How can you do that to someone? If you're going to jump off the cliff, it turns out, it would have been much better to jump without writing, Bill is very emotional, perhaps not the kind of person to respond rationally at a time of crisis.

The fair thing to do was explain once more that I simply wanted to know whether there was something I could do; if there was something I hadn't tried, I would do it. And then give him time to think things over, because perhaps he would not immediately know what to say. So I checked into a hotel and wrote explaining again, pointing out that I thought I was doing what people had wanted DFW to do. I got a reply which still did not answer the question, he said that suicide was the most selfish thing you could do and Wallace's family had had to live with terrible grief and so on.  There was a certain irony to this, because the reason things had gone wrong was that I had unselfishly spent 3 months looking after my mother instead of pulling together another MS for Bill to sell. Meanwhile I was getting emotional e-mails from many other people; Bill had contacted the reader who had introduced us, who had tracked down my ex-husband, my sister, friends in Berlin - it was all messy and bad.

Anyway, to be fair, it may be that if one gets an e-mail from someone who only says vaguely that she is going somewhere where it is easy to make an end, the vagueness is not very convincing. And perhaps if the person gives one time to think that also does not sound very urgent to someone impulsive and emotional. But I was anxious not to reveal my location, because it would be so easy for someone to call the police. And it has to be said, all this emotional turmoil made things worse. 

I think if one reaches this position one is aware that one may not be sane, so one falls back on reason - it is like Descartes, imagining that the mind may be possessed by an evil demon, asking of what one can be certain if this is the case.  It seemed, bringing reason to bear, that the fact that Bill had not offered any practical suggestion did not mean there was nothing that could be done. Bill doesn't much like e-mail as a means of communication; he is more comfortable on the phone; I was unable at this point to speak on the phone. Therefore the only way of determining whether something might be done was to ask someone else to speak to him on the phone. I would rather not have brought in my ex-husband, but since he had been brought in anyway, and since he would certainly want to do something if something could be done, I wrote to him explaining the situation and asking if he would mind talking to Bill on the phone. I gave him the office number and the cell number; he called Bill but could not get through.

I think at this point I wrote to Bill suggesting it might be better if he talked to David. His assistant wrote saying that Bill had gone on vacation to Mexico for 2 weeks and was uncontactable. I wrote explaining to Shaun that I was a 12-minute bus ride from a 600-foot cliff and did not think I would wait 2 weeks for Bill's return on the off-chance that something useful might come of it. It seemed as though it would look bad for Bill if a suicide took place in his absence, so perhaps it might be better to consult one of the other agents. 

In my talk with Michael Miller I was trying to convey the way the mind works at such a time; there isn't a social self that can be deployed. The mind is trying to make the correct decision, depending on relevant facts. If the requirement is to keep the body alive while the talent slowly dies off inside, if this is the life required to allow others to live a life without grief, it is not possible to undertake to live indefinitely in this way.

But if there is some action that can be taken to give a chance of a life that can be lived, one would take that action. One is trying to determine whether such action is possible. There is no pain, no despair if by despair one means a state of mind with emotional affect; on the contrary, one feels happy because in all likelihood there is nothing to be done and an end can be made in a day or so.  One goes cheerfully out for Belgian beer and frites.  I am sure this does not correspond to most people's notion of suicidal behavior; that was precisely why it seemed worth trying to explain this thing that does not conform to a stereotype to a journalist.

The curious thing, or rather the wholly unsurprising thing, is that David understood this line of reasoning at once. He does not want me to die; he would be desperately unhappy if I were to kill myself; but he understands that it would be terrible to ask someone to keep the body alive as a shell. But he had no relevant information, and the person with relevant information was not someone who would be desperately unhappy if I died.

Perhaps this is impossible to explain to a journalist. On the one hand, certainty that there will be no more dealing with people who are not like David.  A little space before the end to go out for Belgian beer and frites; then it's over.  On the other hand, the endless dreary jockeying for a scrap of information that might possibly someday somewhere lead to something slightly better. You write to someone against your better judgement - in all likelihood there is only endless dreary jockeying to look forward to - only because, as everyone says, the death will cause grief to people who will continue to exist.  And everything you do, not for yourself, but for the people who might be spared grief, only makes it look as though there is very little likelihood that there will be a body at the bottom of a cliff. Meanwhile, er, the more you try to do the decent thing, the more you are simply dragged into more of the endless dreary jockeying that made a quick end, preceded by Belgian beer and frites, look so good.  (Why, presumably, so many people have the good sense not to 'reach out'.)

Anyway, Bill's assistant send a team of pygmies out into deepest Mexico in search of the Uncontactable. David got a call on his cellphone from a man who was aggrieved, anxious to limit damage (David said Bill did indeed think a suicide would look bad). The caller talked aggrievedly on at some length before mentioning the 600-foot cliff, at which point David said WHAT?????!!!!!!!!

Bill sent the relevant e-mail to David, who sent an e-mail saying DON'T DO ANYTHING! Adding that his wife was pregnant. (Awwww - a littul BAAAAYbeeee.) He explained later that he could not think of anything else to say.  I explained to Mr Miller that this did not solve the problem, but how can you-- How can you darken joy with grief. Something like that. Of course, if I had not written to Bill I would have been much better off, but what can you do.

Miller says a short time later I got an offer of publication for Lightning Rods from New Directions. Well, if you're a young journalist with your nice New York life 9 months may look short. 9 months of sitting in an apartment in Berlin with absolutely no idea of what to do. 25 years from now, yes, the infant prodigy now lulled to sleep on 2001: A Space Odyssey may have the publishing industry eating out of the palm of her hand. Meanwhile, I sit in the apartment, writing e-mails, putting them in the drafts folder, checking flights on Easyjet 5 times a day, sometimes booking and cancelling out, sometimes booking and letting the booking expire, wondering what to do.

At some point David Levinson mentions to Dale Peck that he has met me. Dale Peck says The Last Samurai! That book was HUGE! Dale reads the book and loves it. He says if there is anything he can do to help he will do it. I have no idea what would help.

But Dale Peck is giving a party! Dale Peck and friends are launching Mischief & Mayhem, a new imprint; they are giving a party! And David Levinson says DP knows everybody. I think that if I go to New York, if I take the body to New York, I may somehow meet someone who will know what I could do. DP may know. Someone else may know. I'm told there are editors who love my work; I don't know who they are. But friends say they can get me meetings with any editor I want to meet. I think if I go to New York for three weeks I may find out if there are editors who would be right for my most ambitious work. If not -- I have booked a flight on British Air, changing at Heathrow. $10,000 in credit card debt is now $20,000 in credit card debt, more want matter if there is no way forward. I can leave the plane at Heathrow on the way back, go to Eastbourne again, eschew the pointless e-mail in search of a solution.  If there IS a solution, the debts will someday be paid.

I go to New York. DP is taken up with his launch. The friends who said they could set up meetings with editors can't set up those meetings. They suggest people who might have ideas. I meet people who suggest other people. I talk and talk and talk and talk and talk.  I take with me my carry-on bag. I pull out the Taschen book on Manga! A book on Otto Neurath's Bilderstatistik! An antique book on French 3-handed whist! And more and more and more! I am trying to explain how one might change the face of 21st-century fiction!

I have some very good conversations. It seems as though there are editors who are real problem-solvers, editors who could cope with the most interesting books on my hard drive. I can go back to Berlin and ignore my credit card debt and finish one of these books.

There's something Michael Miller doesn't understand, because he takes for granted something he knows and I don't know.  Miller, obviously, knows how to make money as a journalist. When I was looking after my mother I could not finish a novel, but I thought I might do some journalism; I asked Bill and he waved this aside. I wrote to the handful of people I knew and they did not know. If I had known what Michael Miller knows I would not have had to ask Bill; I could have done whatever it is that Michael Miller does to get paid.  Meanwhile, the way forward was to write a work of genius.

A couple days before I leave I have drinks, then dinner with Jeffrey Yang of New Directions. I talk about some of my crazy ideas that will change the face &c. &c. Toward the end he says he wouldn't mind seeing Lightning Rods, the book Bill had tried to sell. I don't think it is an ND book, but I say Sure; I get back to the place where I'm staying and send him a file.  Back in Berlin, I get an e-mail expressing enthusiasm for the book.

What it means is that it is not possible, after all, to work at once on the books that might change the face of 21st-century fiction. It it necessary, first, to see into print a book finished 11 years ago.  That's showbiz.

Miller researched, wrote, and got his piece into print in 3 weeks. So we can imagine that, if a book is already written, it too could be seen into print in 3 weeks, or even 2, or even 1. Leaving plenty of time to write the books that might change the face of 21st-century fiction.  But that's not showbiz.

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