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.
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.