An Interview with The Sisters Brothers Author Patrick deWittBy Art Edwards
July 13, 2011
At the beginning of 2011 I bought five literary magazines off the rack at Powell’s. I did this for all the self-involved reasons we buy literary magazines: I wanted to know which ones might publish my work. I read all of the fiction in these magazines and some nonfiction, 25 pieces total. I liked most of what I read, but I loved one story in particular, “Reed and Dinerstein Moving” by Patrick deWitt in Electric Literature No. 3. I liked the story so much I vowed to buy deWitt’s novel when it came out, and lo and behold, The Sisters Brothers started getting the big push shortly after this.
The Sisters Brothers is actually deWitt’s second novel. His first, Ablutions, came out last year, accompanied by the rave reviews that produced both admiration and jealousy in me in equal measure. Upon devouring Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers, I found both feelings warranted.
I bum-rushed deWitt at his Powell’s reading in May, asking for the chance to do this interview. He was too polite to say no, and you, lucky readers, are the beneficiaries of my bravado.
Art Edwards: After reading your second short story published in Electric Literature [No. 4] “The Bastard,” I was struck by how close you take your protagonists to the area of un-sympathy. Likewise with the father in your short story “The Worst Thing my Father Did in his Life” in Annalemma: Number Seven. The way you’re not afraid to come very close the line of dislike, and cross it at times, is one of the most compelling aspects of your characters. Do you ever worry your protagonists aren’t sympathetic enough?
Patrick deWitt: I wouldn’t say I worry about it. It’s something I’m aware of — the potential for dispiriting the reader. But the readers I want to reach aren’t inflexible; they’ve lived a bit and have senses of humor and in my experience they’re up for it.
AE: Your characters in Ablutions are down-and-out Hollywood types, and are of a certain struggling class I’m forever drawn to. A maxim I’ve heard about writing is “Write only what you love,” attributed to Ron Carlson. What do you love about these characters?
PD: I’m fascinated by the characters in Ablutions, but I don’t know if you could say I love them. There’s something resembling tenderness there, but also contempt and mortification. I might amend the maxim to say, “Write only what you feel strongly about.” Neutrality, for me, is the kiss of death. But if I only wrote about things I loved, my output would be halved.
AE: I think of Saul Bellow as a novelist who’s at his best when he barely alters his fictional characters from people he knew in real life, and I think of John Updike as more in his element when giving his characters based on real people more fictional elements. (These assertions may be completely false, but hang with me.) Can you put yourself on that spectrum with the characters in Ablutions? In other words, do your characters interest you more when they’re very close to the people they’re based on, or do they get more interesting to you the more you fictionalize them?
PD: It’s a case-by-case thing. It can be interesting to write from real life, or it can be drudge work. And the same can be said of writing from thin air. I wouldn’t have written Ablutions if I hadn’t shared some of the experiences of the protagonist — working in a bar, being a miserable shit — but I never wanted to recreate my life to a T, or the lives of the people I worked and drank with. It was more my need to share the feeling of loathing I was carrying around with me during that time. With the new book [The Sisters Brothers], which takes place in 1851, I set out to make a work of pure invention, but what wound up happening was the characters took on certain traits of people I’ve known, they said things I’ve overheard, affected attitudes I was familiar with. So, life sneaks in even when you don’t invite it. How you shuffle fact and fiction is an individual, instinctive decision.
AE: On The Sisters Brothers‘ cover, let me just say, Christ, that’s cool.
PD: Oh, thanks. That was done by a Portland artist named Dan Stiles. I really appreciate how thoughtful Ecco were with the design of the book, both the cover and the interior layout, which was done by Suet Yee Chong.
AE: While reading The Sisters Brothers, I was struck by how often I was reminded of movies of my youth. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, History of the World Part I. I know you’re also a screenwriter, and that you wrote Terri, the indie film with John C. Reilly that came out in early July. Can you talk about the line you draw–if any–between your fiction writing and your screenwriting? Do these two crafts inform each other, or are you consciously keeping them separate?
PD: I’ve only just got started on screenplays, so it may be early to say, but at this point I don’t feel that they inform each other at all. I’m aware of the concern that screenplays are a corruptive influence on fiction writers, and I could see this being the case if you were writing terrible movies for loads of money. But that’s not what I’m up to, so hopefully keeping the two separate won’t be a problem.
AE: In The Sisters Brothers, I like how secondary characters like the kid and the weeping man pop up early in the narrative and then again later. I found myself wondering if this kind of interspersing comes naturally for you or if it’s an effect that takes you drafts to accomplish.
PD: This is just basic tinkering, trial-and-error stuff. A hundred pages after the weeping man’s initial appearance I thought: What’s he been doing? So, I brought him back, and then again toward the end. Same thing with the hit-on-the-head boy. I liked him and wanted to see him one more time. Sometimes these things work and sometimes they don’t. I like that the weeping man returns for no real reason. He does nothing, and we learn nothing from him, he’s just this semi-humorous vaudevillian prop wandering into someone else’s scene.
AE: You hail from British Columbia. Did you get to bring your universal health care with you, or are you now stuck in the same health system as the rest of us?
PD: I’m stuck with the rest of you. I went without healthcare in the states for about ten years, then finally bit the bullet and signed up. I actually enjoy doctor’s visits, pointing here and there: “This hurts. And this also. What’s this? How long am I going to live? Where did you go to school? How are you?” I still don’t have dental, but I found a place outside of town that gives you free laughing gas and the remote control to a wide screen television. Last time I was there they were either backed up or else forgot about me and I watched two full episodes of COPS with the gas mask on.
AE: I came across someone on the internet who went to your reading at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. She mentioned that you said you were a self-taught writer. What was your writing apprenticeship like?
PD: Pretty pathetic. I was clueless about the whole thing. I didn’t know anyone who wrote and I didn’t read contemporary writers. I didn’t grasp that their were creative writing programs, etc. I thought you were supposed to just go out into the world and do it. I was alone a lot and only worked when I absolutely had to, so there was lots of room for reading and writing, and the habit of doing both in a daily way was dyed in. If I’d had a more successful social life I probably wouldn’t be a writer. Having all that time to focus without distraction proved useful.
AE: Of all the places you’ve lived, you seem to have remained in the west. Is there something about the west that keeps you here? Do you feel a kinship with western writers?
PD: I love the west coast of North America. My parents moved my brothers and I back and forth from Canada to Southern California several times when we were young, and I remember the drives as great adventures: seaside hotels and strange towns and restaurants. As an adult I’ve kept this up, the back and forth. It hasn’t occurred to me to head east (or wherever) because the coastline here is so varied, I never felt I was staying in one place. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt a regional kinship with another writer. The kinships usually spring from something less specific than locale.
AE: You’ve admitted to being a “house mouse,” and searches of Facebook yield no page for you. Having said that, a cursory search of the internet yields several Patrick deWitt interviews. Are you comfortable with the promotion aspect of being a novelist in 2011?
PD: I’m happy to speak with anyone that wants to discuss the work, sure. Most of this is by email, and that can be fun, with each interview like a little writing project. Public speaking is more complicated because I am a house mouse, or haus maus (pronounced howz mowz), but I’m game to do it because I owe it to the book and publisher; also, I like meeting the readers and booksellers, and I think it’s important to try to push past things I’m afraid of.
AE: I find that, when I’m truly jealous of another writer, it’s often because of the clothes he wears in his publicity photos. Can you tell us a bit about your wardrobe, how you come by it and what goes into your choices?
PD: Well, what we’re working with in this picture is a thrift store tweed blazer whose cuffs, when I extend my arms, sit a provocative five or so inches above my wrist. I’m wearing a scarf I stole from my younger brother and a hat my father bought me for X-mas a decade ago — notice the touch-of-class sweat rings. The glasses were a tip from my bartending days. A thankful optometrist patron brought in a half dozen frames one night and I had my pick. The brand is: Oliver Peoples. I didn’t know that until just now, when I looked.
Hey, Portlanders. Come see what ensemble Patrick sports at his reading at Ampersand on Friday, July 15th at 7:30 PM. Also reading are Scott McClanahan and Jenny Forrester.
Great, great interview, Art. You ask questions that make me want to read the work so that I can see precisely what you’re talking about. (Like, for instance, the bit about sympathetic characters. I could have a whole discussion with you about the fact that I think many real life characters are unsympathetic and, therefore, I find this trait valuable and authentic in fictional characters, too.)
The Sisters Brothers cover IS super cool.
I love that he asks his doctor how he’s doing. I do that, too.
Also, he does dress very Liverpool 1962 Fabulous.
I wish I could make the reading tomorrow, but i have the kids. Alas…
I have so much to read. I’ll add deWitt to my list of must reads but, honestly, if I started right now I might get through what’s already on my stack by this time next year. I feel like that Burgess Meredith character in that Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.”
Thanks, Art, for this great introduction to what seems like a fascinating writer.
Thank you for your thoughtful response, Gloria. It’s not easy at TNB to get people to read author/artist interviews–especially this week, when everyone seems to be publishing one.
I don’t do interviews lightly–it’s easier for me to read a book and write a review–but deWitt’s quite good, and I want people to know he’s out there.
For real. Was there a competition? Is there a prize for publishing the best author/artist interview by Friday? If yes, I’m totally voting for you.
Hey, where’s your author interview?
Can I interview you?
Are you kidding? Hell, yes!
Great interview–what an interesting guy. Does he know that Oliver Peoples glasses are eeeexpensive–nice tip!
I bet he doesn’t. They do look fab, don’t they?
Good stuff, Art. Well done with the bum-rush interview. That could be just the thing to replace flash mobs- bum rushed interviews.
It’s been too long since I’ve read good fiction and this sounds pretty interesting. There’s something so compelling about down and out types- they seem to care so much less about the consequences because well, what have they got to lose?
I enjoyed hearing that he’s a “self-taught writer.” I never thought about that, but I guess that’s me as well- I’ve never taken a creative writing course, or any formal writing course for that matter. Good to see that I’m not the only proletarian trying to get a foothold in the industry.
I can’t say why interviews don’t get more traction on here, but I’d speculate that if people haven’t read a book, then they might not feel competent reading about it or commenting on it. But I’d guess/hope that the lack of comments on these pieces is not reflective of the views.
On the other hand, when people write about their personal stories, it’s easier to relate to the feelings therein, so people might be more comfortable jumping in with a comment.
Either way, well done man. I look forward to Gloria’s interview of you. Make sure you stand her up for a couple hours and then insist that she get you drunk.
Oh, Joe, you do so know the way to my heart…
Oh, I have a great Morrissey story about playing rock star…We’ll save it for the interview.
I think of TNB as personality driven, in the best way. I get to know the writers as smart and entertaining people, and sometimes when I see that one of my favs is doing an interview of someone else, I feel like her personality is going to take a backseat to them and I’m like, NOOO!
Still, most of the time the newbie is ushered in with typical TNB class and panache, so it’s no big deal, but it can be tough for me to break through that barrier as a reader.
Great interview, Art.
Wardrobe, cover design, health care–you’ve covered it all.
The Sister Brothers was terrific. Wish I could be at that reading tonight. Saw Scott MacClanahan read once and it was inspiring. Let us know how it goes.
Thanks, T. And so glad you like Sisters, too. I just re-read a portion of it for another project I’m doing, the scene where Eli walks the accountant/love interest through town and the two are getting to know one another, and was blown away again. Such a great scene, and it really shows deWitt’s range. Everyone could do worse than to buy and read Sisters Brothers.
I hear Scott McClanahan is great “in concert.” I can’t imagine what that means, but I’m curious.
You know, I think I read Sisters based on a video you posted to FB. (that poor horse…)
Yeah, McClanahan is something to witness…I wouldn’t want to follow him.
Yeah, “leave the damn horse alone. Go mess up some people.” I felt the same way.
I really love Patrick DeWitt’s writing and thought this was a terrific interview. (I need to get his latest book. I’m so backed up. Must take a speed-reading class from the 1980s to get on top of all the things I want to read.) Glad you bum rushed him and put this up for our reading pleasure!
I loved Ablutions, too. Just trying to add to your pile.
Thanks for stopping by.
I have/have read Ablutions! — that’s how I know of PD. But, yes, it’s part of another pile that’s next to the pile previously spoken of. The “I loved this and want to be reminded of its goodness so I’ll keep it close pile.” I may need to go to Piles Anonymous.
I could do a whole post on my piles!
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