Q&A with Patrick deWitt
Patrick deWitt is the author of two novels, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel (2009), and The Sisters Brothers (2011), and Help Yourself Help Yourself (2007), which deWitt’s web site describes as “a short book of random writings and bad advice.” His imaginative, unflinching writing has quickly gained a wide and enthusiastic following. Film rights for The Sisters Brothers have already been sold.
Ablutions drags the depths of a naugahyde-seedy Hollywood bar, the kind of place hidden away from daylight that America does best. The narrator works in the bar, and presents “the regulars” with a combination of excoriating acuity and black humour, constructing a murky aquarium of exotic types, with the most exotic being the Lowryesque narrator himself.
Wrapped in the trappings of a western, The Sisters Brothers follows Eli and Charlie Sisters, two nineteenth-century hit men on a job, as they travel on horseback from Oregon City toward their target in gold-rush-era San Francisco. On one level a violent and fast-paced picaresque narrative, the novel is also a meditation on loneliness, alienation, power, greed, and the countervailing forces of human connectedness and fellow feeling — aspects of society and the human psyche brought into sharp relief by the historical setting, while also transcending it.
DeWitt’s writing is visceral, dark, and yet not gratuitously unkind or devoid of a moral center.
DeWitt was born on Vancouver Island, has lived in California and Washington, and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He will be appearing at Incite with Madeleine Thien and Jen Sookfong Lee at Vancouver Public Library on May 25th.
Festival blogger Lachlan Murray asked Patrick deWitt several questions about his work.
Tell us about your book, The Sisters Brothers.
It’s Hoss and Little Joe from Bonanza in couples therapy.
The characters in your two novels inhabit a bleak universe. They often treat one another, and even themselves, with an almost matter-of-fact cruelty. And yet, your vision isn’t entirely dark. Or is it?
I feel it’s divided pretty evenly, half light, half dark. I was raised in a cynical household and am myself very cynical and suspicious, but this is something I dislike about my personality, something I try to keep in check — a hard habit to break.
I came away from your books feeling there’s not badness in your protagonists, so much as a corrupted goodness. How do you view them?
“Corrupted goodness” covers it nicely, actually. This links to the previous question, in a way. The thing about the two protagonists is that neither of them is consistently malicious, and they both possess a base humanity that, in spite of all they do, informs their larger decisions in some fundamental way.
Your prose is admirably devoid of clichés. At two junctures in Ablutions you intentionally have characters speak in clichés at what should be key moments of truth. Elsewhere there are startling metaphors. Could you share some of your thoughts about language?
I wouldn’t know where to start. One thing I’ll say: clichés are underrated. Another thing is, musicality is a prime attraction for me — the way a sentence bobs along in relation to the other words and sentences, and the way it sounds phonetically. The substance of the sentences — what the words add up to — is paramount, but the rhythm is important as well.
When you say “clichés are underrated” are you saying that you think the creative-writerly prohibition against clichés is overdone?
I meant, a cliché in the hands of someone with a unique point of view isn’t a cliché at all. Just because something’s been covered already doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. It’s up to the individual creator to make it new again.
Could you tell us something about your Canadian background, and your move south?
My family on both sides is from Canada, back to the great-great-grandparents. My mother was born on PEI, my father in Fort Erie, Ontario. I was born on Vancouver Island and then lived on Salt Spring until I was two, when my parents moved us to California. We returned to Canada when I was seven, and then back to California when I was ten. At eighteen, I came to Vancouver on my own, and stayed until I was twenty. Since then I’ve been in the States, and was sort of stuck there because I had some green card trouble, and if I’d left I wouldn’t have been able to return. That’s all been sorted out now, and I’m looking forward to coming up on the 25th. It’s been too long.
A New York Times review of Ablutions, while generally admiring, called your writing “very male.” In an interview, you said, “I think of my work as basically sexless.” Do you think these opposing views of your work can co-exist?
Well, the alcoholic’s tale, and the Western — obviously these are male-populated areas, male-friendly subjects, and I can see why some people feel inclined to label the books in such a way. But I push against it because I think it oversimplifies the work. When I said my work is sexless I didn’t mean that gender has no place in the work, but that at its core, gender isn’t any more relevant than the font or typesetting. I’d never write for men, specifically, and I hate to think that women wouldn’t read something I’d written because they’d heard it was too macho or whatever.
You’ve written a screenplay, and film rights have been sold for The Sisters Brothers. You were involved in the production of a short, graphic-novel-like video to promote Ablutions. Some of your fiction’s black humour reminds me of the deadpanning in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Is film something you draw from in your work?
For this book I did, though it wasn’t something I was overly conscious of at the time. But my reference points for the Western are more movie based than book based — Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the spaghetti Westerns. I really haven’t read very many Westerns, to be honest.
Besides a thoroughly engaging story, which both your novels offer, is there something you hope readers experience, or come to understand, when reading your books?
That they enjoy my books in the same way I enjoyed reading when I was young and unpolluted, and that my writing makes them want to continue reading fiction, to continue searching out authors they haven’t read yet.