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Helen DeWitt's novella 'The English Understand Wool' hits big

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There's a little novella by Helen DeWitt. It's called "The English Understand Wool." It's a psychological thriller that also works as a satirical critique of the publishing industry. The book came out in 2022, but it recently got so popular you pretty much can't find a copy anywhere. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more on this tiny book that's now a big hit.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Three Lives & Company is a bookstore in the West Village in New York, where Miriam Chotiner-Gardner is a bookseller and buyer and, importantly, a booster for Helen DeWitt's "The English Understand Wool."

MIRIAM CHOTINER-GARDNER: I think this book is pretty wholly original. The voice is singular. In 70 pages - 70 pages - Helen DeWitt, I think, accomplishes something that many writers don't accomplish at two or three times that length. It's such a cohesive voice. It's cutting. It's snobbish. It's clever. It's witty.

LIMBONG: It's also sold out.

Are you guys tapped out?

CHOTINER-GARDNER: Oh, we're tapped out. We're waiting for the next printing. We've got all these orders lined up.

LIMBONG: The book is published by New Directions, and their head, Barbara Epler, says the book has sold nearly 10,000 copies, which is huge for a small publisher like them. And she says there may be a couple reasons why this book is popping off right now. One is a scarcity of any new Helen DeWitt work.

BARBARA EPLER: You know, relative to her talent, she just doesn't publish enough.

EPLER: DeWitt's first novel, "The Last Samurai" - unrelated to the Tom Cruise movie - is an epic story about a mother and her prodigy son, and it was published in 2000. Since then, DeWitt's published a couple short story collections here and there, but that's it.

EPLER: Everyone is hungry for more Helen.

LIMBONG: But what really drove interest was this TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANN PATCHETT: Hi, everybody. It's Ann Patchett at Parnassus Books. And it's Friday.

LIMBONG: Ann Patchett, the author, bookstore owner and now book influencer, does a lot of work promoting lesser-known authors, and she posted this in October.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATCHETT: I went to one of my favorite stores, Three Lives in New York in the West Village, and I said, what's selling? What are you guys loving these days? And they showed me a book I had never seen before.

LIMBONG: I think you can guess which book. Here's Miriam Chotiner-Gardner from Three Lives again.

CHOTINER-GARDNER: She was here visiting and signing stock of "Tom Lake," and we recommended it to her. And she took it home - I think, read it on the plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATCHETT: I took a nap on the plane. I woke up. I started it over again. Oh, my God. This is the best thing ever.

CHOTINER-GARDNER: The last month, dozens and dozens of people have come in asking for the book because of Ann's TikTok.

LIMBONG: Here's publisher Barbara Epler.

EPLER: That was a very big bump. That was - I think we were cruising along at, like - I don't know - 6,000 copies. And so now we have back orders. So essentially, it's doubled.

HELEN DEWITT: Oh, it was lovely. It was so sweet of her. I mean, you know, she really did seem to like it. And, you know, it's just a lovely thing to do.

LIMBONG: That's author Helen DeWitt, who, by the way, when I reached her in Berlin, also didn't have a hard copy.

DEWITT: But I really did not know that it was so popular. I'm sort of out of the loop, I guess.

LIMBONG: DeWitt says her novella, which is about a rich, young girl navigating her way through the publishing world, was inspired by Daenerys Targaryen from the "Game Of Thrones" books.

DEWITT: Once she started to realize the machinations of the people she was dealing with, you know, she would start saying, I'm only a young girl, but - and then she would run rings around these cynical players who are trying to use her as a pawn. And I just - I loved that.

LIMBONG: The book is an interesting critique of the publishing industry, with hard questions over, what kind of story are you willing to sell? But that question only matters if there's a book available to buy. And Barbara Epler from New Directions tells me there are more copies of "The English Understand Wool" on the way. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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