Patrick deWitt in conversation with Sinead Gleeson

Patrick De Witt
Patrick De Witt

Were did the idea for Sisters Brothers come from?

I wrote down in a notebook; sensible cowboys – just those two words – and the idea happened over time. Not being a fan of westerns particularly, it was surprising to me. Whenever you write a novel, or anything, there has to be fascination for the author. 90% of the time, even when you’ve started an idea, the fascination is not there. It just becomes work. The big appeal of writing to me was that it doesn’t feel like work. If a story feels like work, I abandon it.

We all know lots of literary duos; was it important to you from early on that your two main characters had a comic touch?

I think that’s just inevitable for me; it’s something I’ve been relying on as a coping tool for being on earth since the age of about ten. It’s a big thing in my family as well; we rely on humour a lot, we’d tell jokes at funerals.  So it naturally filtered into my work.

What interests you about a character?

The western is very male, very macho; it’s about life and death. I’m much more interested in characters that fail.  When you succeed you feel one thing; when you fail, you feel lots of emotions. Trying to mime the emotions of people who never existed; that’s not easy. I find failure and compromise a preferable area to visit. The story of someone accomplishing is not as interesting as the story of someone recognising that they need to be accomplished.

Did you grow up in a bookish house and did you start to read from a young age.

My father was a musical man; he’s a big muscular macho man, played hockey and had lots of obscene adventures but he was also introspective, obsessed with literature, blues and jazz. At the age of 12 he started giving me adult novels because I was curious about books. He found me lurking around the bookshelf more than was natural; he wanted to know why I was so fascinated. I wanted to know what was so fascinating that these objects kept them away from us.

So he started sharing them with me…books twelve year olds shouldn’t be reading (like Kerouac) and I loved it right away. It became part of an ongoing dialogue between he and I- and I remember realising that writing this novel was this man’s job. This was what he did everyday. The idea that someone’s existence involved making stuff up all day was just amazing. Aged 13/14, I started writing poems that were really terrible but by the age of 16 I knew I wanted to be a novelist. That was the word I had in my head.

Every character should want something…what do these characters want?

It’s pretty straightforward. Ely wants a life of his own and Charlie wants a life where he’s in charge. Ely wants a smaller life and Charlie wants a larger life.

When reading the book, I was taken with the dialogue, struck by how filmic it is.  So it came as no surprise to fund out you also write screenplays. Do you find any overlap between screenwriting and novel writing?

It’s like poetry vs prose. Screenplays are very much a puzzle; you have to get to one point from the next using mainly dialogue. It’s intensely difficult and limiting but this can be freeing in many ways. With fiction it’s a wide open door. If you’re charmed by somebody you trust them. I was charmed by Ely so I let him do what he wanted to do as a character. Screenplays are much more mathematical, more rigid; you’ve got to follow a formula but I enjoy the fiction format because it’s much more fun.

There are elements of Nick Cave and the Coen brothers in your work…would you say these were influences?

They don’t mean anything to me as an influence really. I like them, and I understand why someone would suggest that, but it wasn’t conscious.  My reference points are finite and there are people I’m fond of but when I was working on the story, I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular. Charles Portis – who wrote True Grit – is probably my favourite living writer. But I would never start a long project thinking I want to emulate someone; if it came out that way I have no control over that. Once you divorce yourself from a book and send it into the world you lose the control; so whatever a reader takes from the book, it’s their business.

How much of the book is fictionalised and how much is autobiographical?

In the book, there’s about a third of me, a third of a co-worker who still works at the bar – a good man – but then there’s some invented stuff. I wish there was less of me in the book and I feel a degree of shame thinking how much of me is in that book. Working in the bar was like lord of the flies; it was so unchecked it made for interesting nights and ugly mornings. I grew up in a family of drinkers but I couldn’t fathom the motivation of the regulars every night; because the people who worked in the bar didn’t like them. Yet they visited every night like we were their closest friends; I couldn’t fathom it. When I started writing the book I asked the customers lots of questions but I never ever figured it out.

Is there a deliberate absence of women in your books?

This is a weakness of mine as writer; immaturity or something but I always end up writing from a man’s point of view. Hopefully I’ll get better at it.

Do you read other writers when you’re working on a novel or do you have fear of osmosis?

I do have that fear; I’m currently writing a book that takes place in a fable-type story and a friend gave me a fabulous book called ‘Dwarf’ that he said would inspire me. But every time I opened it, the book was so wonderful, I had to close it and keep resisting. I thought it would screw me up; in the end, I read it on the plane and it screwed me up so that’s my fault. I fear influence.

The supernatural influence; is it true there was a lot more about that in the book initially?

It was a story about Ely being cursed initially; it was about whether Ely was cursed or not cursed depending on the reader. In the original draft of the story, I had him cursed by the witch but the supernatural element overshadowed the natural element and the relationship between the brothers so I cut it back. I have a weakness for the supernatural; in everything I write, there’s a reference to that murky stuff.

When it comes to the structure of the book; why did you include the intermissions?

It’s a classic case of the writer enjoying his work. I sold the book with the intermissions and titles in place and my editor and I discussed it – she cut the titles and imagined reading them without them and suggested either cut the sections or else keep the titles. Without the titles it’s jarring, upsetting for the reader. I didn’t want to include them at first but it seemed silly or something. – but I think they work. The book is so fast paced it’s a good way of slowing it down. As far as imperfections go, I’m happy with those.

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