Under the Spell of Author PATRICK DEWITT
By Tyler Malone
What’s the opposite of a sophomore slump? Is there a term for sophomore success? Patrick deWitt’s first novel Ablutions was a promising debut, but it wasn’t until his next novel, The Sisters Brothers, hit the bookstands last year that people really sat up and took notice of this rising star. Term for it or not, Patrick deWitt’s sophomore success The Sisters Brothers is a perfect example of what a second novel should be. It went in a completely different direction than its predecessor, while still holding on to certain aspects that allow for there to be a minimal but extant link between the two, and thus, in this early stage of his career, give us a glimpse at what we can expect from deWitt in the future.
The Sisters Brothers won praise from nearly every quarter, garnering comparisons to critical darlings like Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers. Unlike Ablutions, which takes the form of “notes for a novel” and is set in a modern day Hollywood bar, The Sisters Brothers takes readers back to a wild west populated with compelling characters. But this isn’t your daddy’s western–it’s funny, it’s violent, it’s philosophical, it’s mystical, and it’s written in the most exquisite prose. Patrick deWitt has enraptured us with his writing, bewitched us, one might say. While waiting for a third novel from the author, we decided to catch up with him to chat about the craft of writing, and his own trajectory in the art of letters.
Tyler Malone: When did you become interested in writing? Have you always known you wanted to be a novelist?
Patrick deWitt: I became interested in reading when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 15, 16, I was writing short stories and poems. At 17 I knew I wanted to be a novelist.
TM: Who are some of your most admired literary forebearers?
PdW: Robert Walser, Harry Mathews, Charles Portis, Lynne Tillman, Jean Rhys, Knut Hamsun.
TM: The change in subject matter and style from your first book, Ablutions, to your sophomore effort, The Sisters Brothers, was a pleasantly surprising turn in an unforeseen direction. Could you talk about your transition from notes for a novel in a modern day Hollywood bar to a picaresque novel set in the wilds of the Old West?
PdW: The shift was intentional. The first book had a lot of autobiographical elements to it, and that didn’t seem like something I could sustain, so I started casting around for a foreign locality. I knew very little about the Western setting, so I headed in that direction. Most people are bewitched by their own ignorance, and I’m no exception.
TM: I like that idea of “bewitched,” perhaps because it dovetails so perfectly with something else I wanted to ask you about: the mystical elements in your writing. These elements show up in both of your novels. Do you find yourself interested and attracted to mysticism? Or were these elements merely useful to the two specific stories you were telling?
PdW: I do have an interest in it, but it’s a pretty inactive interest. It’s not something I know much about or even have a strong opinion about. I only know that it’s something I’m aware of, and afraid of, or anyway made uncomfortable by, and so I find it fascinating to write about.
TM: I’ve read that originally these mystical elements in The Sisters Brothers were much more prominent in the book’s first draft. Why did you end up excising some but not all of these elements?
PdW: I preferred them as they are now: as a part of the landscape, rather than accounting for the landscape itself. It was key to me that these elements didn’t overshadow the earthbound story of the siblings.
TM: Yes. In my opinion, one of the best parts of the novel is the way you write these really fascinating characters, especially Eli. I always think the most difficult characters to write believably are likeable “bad guys.” I think Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita is one example of a villainous character made somewhat likeable. From television, someone like Walter White of Breaking Bad also fits this mold. Can you talk a bit about finding that balance in a character that allows a reader to like and be fascinated on the one hand, while still finding actions detestable and irredeemable on the other?
PdW: In the case of Eli, it’s his openness, and the fact that he’s guileless, or as guileless as a contract killer can be, which endears us to him. It’s hard to dislike someone as frank and searching as he is. It would have been much more challenging if Charlie had been the protagonist, I think–though I must admit to have some sympathy for him as well.
TM: Let’s talk a bit about your process. Are you a writer who prefers to do lots of research and planning before actually sitting down to write, or do you tend to just start writing and do the research and plotting out on an as needed basis?
PdW: I just sit and write. Research is work, which I’ve never been a fan of. I looked things up after the book had sold but it wasn’t exactly painstaking, and I think the book is stronger for this, the dearth of the factual.
TM: So do you tend to hammer out a first draft and then go back and do a whole mess of revising and editing, or do you tend to continually revise and edit while working on your first draft, going over each sentence and paragraph til you think it’s as perfect as it’ll get?
PdW: I make a big mess, then clean it up. When I’m at a loss in terms of how to improve it, or if I get sleepy, or grouchy, then I’m done.
TM: Salman Rushdie tweeted that your novel was one of the best he’d read in 2011. I’m curious what your favorite book of 2011 was?
PdW: I didn’t read very many books in 2011 that were published in 2011, so I might not be the best person to ask. I did discover Bohumil Hrabal, and read three of his novels back to back, and each was a gem.
TM: Very nice. I actually lived in the Czech Republic for a year a few years ago, which was when I discovered Hrabal. I read two of his novels, Closely Observed Trains and Too Loud a Solitude, both of which were really wonderful. What three Hrabal novels did you recently discover?
TM: Have you begun work on a third novel? If so, can you tell us a bit about it? Should we look for something unexpected again? Or would that now be expected?
PdW: I’ve learned that it’s foolish to talk about a work in progress in detail, but I will say I’m chipping away on a third novel, after recently abandoning or setting aside another, and that I have hopes it will be of a certain quality. But, you never know until it’s over. The whole horrible bloodmobile could explode at any given moment, and what a mess it makes, what a mess.
Patrick deWitt is a Canadian novelist, currently living and working in Oregon. His two novels Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers have both garnered a substantial amount of praise, the latter shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Patrick deWitt interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Danny Palmerlee, Courtesy of HarperCollins
Design by Marie Havens
Photography by Danny Palmerlee, Courtesy of HarperCollins