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Portland writer Patrick DeWitt

Portland writer Patrick DeWitt

Photo by Mercy McNab
Photo by Mercy McNab

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Patrick deWitt’s desk was very neatly arranged. Maybe too neatly. A beautiful old black typewriter on the far left, an open book next to that, and a series of small notebooks on the right, carefully arrayed in two rows of three. When pressed, deWitt admitted he may have cleaned a bit before my arrival.

DeWitt has published three novels: Ablutions, The Sisters Brothers and, just out this September, Undermajordomo Minor. The books have garnered rave reviews and, for The Sisters Brothers, a nomination for the Man Booker Prize. Both Undermajordomo Minor and The Sisters Brothers draw inspiration from years long gone by, but both books also glow with the sheen of some strange modernist polish. They owe a debt to old Westerns and European fairy tales, but they are wholly deWitt’s in their uncanny way.

He told me he had only recently moved into his new house, but he was starting to settle into and appreciate the new writing space. In the living room was an impressive collection of vinyl and an enormous new ficus plant. Beautiful green and cream wallpaper hung above darkly polished wood in the dining room. I tried to imagine what might come next from this space. I pictured something funny, strange and simultaneously new and old. That is to say, unmistakably deWitt’s.

ELEVEN: You recently returned from a tour of the U.S., Canada and the U.K. How does it feel to have the book out in the world?

Patrick deWitt: The moments before a book’s publication, and then the early days of its existence, are surreal, but it’s a really good feeling to have it out there at last.

11: I know that before Undermajordomo Minor you were working on a Wall Street novel inspired by Bernie Madoff that never quite came together. Jonathan Franzen also said recently that a similar project hadn’t come to fruition for him. What do you think the pull is for novelists? Should we still be expecting the great Madoff novel?

PD: The pull of a character like Madoff? I’d thought it would be fascinating to try and humanize such a monumental swine. But the book never really took off, so it went in the garbage. I’m sure there’s a great book to be written on the subject; or probably it already has been. I’m not the one to write it, though.

11: I’m interested in that desire to humanize. Your last two books could be considered “genre” books, and a lot of people have an automatic stereotype for anything classifiable as such. Is your desire to humanize–to transcend the stereotypes–part of your attraction to writing genre fiction?

PD: In hearing it echoed back to me, I feel suddenly that the word “humanize” is incorrect. It makes it sound like I had noble intentions, which, I didn’t. I think I just meant I was curious about a person like Madoff, whose goals and interests are so different than mine. Regarding my relationship and interest in genre, or genre-adjacent writing: it’s puzzling to me. My interests come from I-don’t-know-where, and I’ve never been one to worry about such mysteries. Actually the fact of my motivations being obscure to me is a large part of the appeal.

11: Undermajordomo Minor is modeled after old European fairy tales, but there’s no real “magic” or fabulist touches. But I also wouldn’t call it a “realist” novel. How did you toe the line between those two realities?

PD: It seems I’m unable to describe my writing process with any sort of authority, partly because I’m not working from a verbal or intellectual place, but a wordless, instinctive place. When you make a bath, and you test the temperature, and decide it needs more hot water, there’s no debate about why you want more–you just know that you do. That’s my process in a nutshell: measuring things out to suit a mood.

11: So how does a new idea present itself to you? Are you on the lookout or is it a more generalized idea of leaving yourself open to inspiration?

PD: Usually it’s some small detail or curiosity that catches my eye. The Sisters Brothers stemmed from a note I jotted down which read: Sensitive cowboys. Other times the starting point is more fleshed out. My girlfriend’s friend just had an unhappy experience with a rodent entering her apartment. Not knowing what to do, she called in friends, relatives, a boyfriend, and eventually an exterminator. It all went poorly, and as I heard the tale, I knew I wanted to write about it.

Sometimes these jumping-off points deliver, but just as often they don’t turn up a thing. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. The trick is to keep looking. The law of averages is on your side; something has to pan out eventually.

11: A lot of Undermajordomo Minor is dialogue. It’s often wonderfully witty, strange and funny. Is this a more comfortable writing form for you?

PD: I think I’m happiest working on runs of dialogue with two game characters. Nothing weighty has to be said, and the conversation doesn’t have to propel a plot. As often as not it amounts to little more than a sort of wonderfully purposeless human interaction. But that’s more than enough for me, luckily.

11: I know you’re currently fighting the good fight to keep the internet out of your home. Do you think that changes the world you encounter on a daily basis? How might that change what you end up writing about?

PD: I feel alone again, which is nice, actually. For me, the internet represented the death of solitude, of solitary thought. This isn’t to say that the moment I cut it I was flooded in solid-gold notions, but things are quieter, now, and I do feel better situated to receive ideas. There aren’t any guarantees, but the hope is that the void will be filled with something worthwhile.

11: You read with some musical accompaniment from Michael Hurley at Wordstock this year. It was a great pairing. Does music play a regular role in your creative process? Any dream musical line-ups you’d want to soundtrack your work?

PD: I’m not what you would call a dynamic public speaker, so musical accompaniment brings a welcome outside element. Regarding the creative process: music is more something I turn to when I’m not writing. Dream soundtracks: playing with Hurley was like a dream for me. I’d like to collaborate with Brian Mumford, who does Dragging an Ox Through Water. I love Marisa Anderson’s work. Also my brother, Nick, who just moved to town.

11: I don’t want to spoil anything for folks who haven’t had a chance to get to Undermajordomo Minor yet, but there’s one section that is fairly sexually explicit and rather intense. Where did that scene come to you from and was there any indecision on your part about its inclusion?

PD: It came to me early on, but it took months to get down to actually writing it. I knew it would disagree with certain of my readers, but ultimately I think it’s a necessary part of the landscape, and I never seriously considered cutting it. None of my editors proposed cutting it either, the angels.

11: You’ve had some luck with screenwriting, with the well-received indie-film Terri. Is The Sisters Brothers still floating around Hollywood somewhere? Would you care to take a stab at adapting your own novels?

PD: The Sisters Brothers film is in good hands, with Jacques Audiard directing and John C. Reilly set to play Eli Sisters. Jacques is writing the screenplay, but I’d be game to give Undermajordomo Minor a whirl. »

– JP Kemmick