INTERVIEW: Patrick deWitt

PATRICK DEWITT...https://storgy.com/2018/10/19/interview-patrick-dewitt/

What was your first experience / engagement with literature?

I guess I was around twelve years old. I grew up in the home of a reader, my father was a big fan of novels in particular. I asked him what was so interesting about this format and he began loaning me books. These books were probably not intended for twelve year old’s, books that were filled with drugs and sex and things. It was flattering that he would trust me to be mature enough to read these types of books. And I think I got it fairly quickly after that, I understood what the appeal was to him and I related to it in a similar fashion. There was a phase of two or three years of reading before it occurred to me that I might want to try my hand at writing. I started writing poems and short stories but by the time I was seventeen, I had it in my mind that I wanted to write novels.

I read in an article that you had a meteoric rise, from barman to novelist – is that what happened?

Meteoric is a stretch, I think. But, I was working at a bar and writing a novel about a similar bar, and I finished it, but didn’t know what came next. At this point in my life none of my peers were writers and I didn’t understand how to move to the next level in regards to getting the book published. One night at the bar a screenwriter I was aware of came in, a friend of a friend, and I gave him free drinks that night, to trick him into reading my book. And he agreed to read it and was gracious enough to pass it onto another friend of his, who then passed it onto another man who became my agent and who effectively changed my life completely.

Talking about being a barman, a lot of our readership and writers nowadays are working class writers, how did you in the early days manage to fit in your writing habits, and how did you sustain the motivation to write when you didn’t have the end goal in sight?

Well, the good thing about bar work is that, at least in the US, you get tipped out each night. I was just a dishwasher but I made enough working three nights a week to get by, and this gave me my days free to work on my writing. In my youth I was always searching for jobs which were minimally distracting, minimally demanding, so that I would have free time for reading and working on my own fiction.

I didn’t really know what success was supposed to look like, and I didn’t know what I was hoping for, exactly, other than wanting the book to exist. The thought of a career in fiction was pretty murky and mirage-like. I figured that eventually somebody would put it out, or else I would just publish it myself. Ultimately I didn’t need to do that, so I was lucky in that regard. But I think what I’m trying to say is that I should have been more worried for my future than I was. In the early days I was utterly ignorant, and there’s bliss in that.

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I absolutely loved French Exit, it’s such a brilliant book – I read it in two sittings…

Oh wonderful. Thank you.

…for those that are going to be reading this, would you be able to explain to them in your own words what they can expect from French Exit?

Sure, this is the story of the Price family. Frances Price is the star of the book. She is a
Manhattanite in her sixties who in her younger years was known for her great wit and style, a great beauty along the lines of, say, Jackie Onassis. The book focuses on the era of her life after the glamour has passed. She spends most of her time with her adult son Malcom, who is fairly useless, really, but they have a very close bond and are a united front — them against the world. Casting a shadow across the narrative is the deceased Franklin Price, husband to Frances, father to Malcolm. Franklin Price had been a highly immoral litigator and all around cad, and both Malcolm and Frances have issues with the way this man behaved. I don’t know how much to give away, but rounding out the narrative is a cat called small Frank, and Frances believes that the spirit of her deceased husband lives inside the cat. She and Malcolm have been working diligently to spend every penny of the money which her deceased husband has earned and bequeathed to them. At the beginning of the book we see that she has achieved this — that the money has all but gone. She decides to uproot her small family and cat and decant to Paris where they stay in a borrowed apartment, and it’s here that their lives officially fall apart completely.

With French Exit I felt it was a stunning expose on life, class and society it had me
reminiscing about Brett Easton Ellis’ work of Less Than Zero and The Informers – what inspired you to write French Exit, was there a particular ground zero that made you think that this is the idea I want to write?

I don’t think of story so much as character. With much of my work, there’s a narrative, but this is secondary to the study of the characters who make up the world of the book. And the starting point of French Exit comes from my wish to realise a character like Frances Price. Hers is a voice I’ve had in my head for some years. I wasn’t sure if she was going to be the focus, or just a background character – but when I finally got around to getting to know this person, a book grew or gathered around her attitudes and behaviours and wit.

I had two authors and one director in mind. An American author named Jane Bowles who wrote a book called Two Serious Ladies which is one of my favourites, and an enduring influence on my work; I was also thinking of Evelyn Waugh; and lastly I was thinking of John Cassavetes, the American film director. There are different moments in French Exit where each of these influences are most apparent, but with Cassavetes, I love the way he handles the de-evolution of adults when drinking to excess in a party type of scenario — people falling apart in real time. It’s something he captures so well in his films and it’s always shocking and ugly, but also beautiful in some way. With Evelyn Waugh, it was his humour, and the way he addresses the upper class, with a healthy amount of malice, but something more tender underneath.

I like to start from a recognisable point, as with The Sisters Brothers being a western, or
Undermajordomo Minor being somewhat of a fable – and within this pre-existing world, I seek out a space to tell a private or personal story.

The character of Frances is one that leaps off the page, she’s a stubborn, cantankerous socialite, with no conscience what so ever, how much fun did you have writing that character, a character that is against the grain in all her ways?

I remember getting this question with Undermajordomo Minor: did you have fun writing this book? And to be honest, I didn’t, because that book was fussy and difficult from the start. But one of the goals, I guess, is to make it appear to’ve been fun to write, and I think I managed that with UMDM, but barely. French Exit was much simpler, in every respect, and it truly was a pleasing and entertaining book to work on. I was happy in my personal life, and I’d just moved house and finally had a proper office, and the book seemed blessed from page one. There were moments of crisis, as there always are, but generally speaking it went smoothly. I have a real affection for the book because it didn’t beat me up so badly as the last one.

Your lyricism you have for writing is second to none, it’s exquisite and a delight to read as all your work is, how did your lyrical style develop? Was it there from the beginning or is this something you picked up through your bar work, having real conversations about real stuff…

At a certain point I recognised what I was actually looking for as a reader, as opposed to the phenomenon of reading things you feel you ought to. Part of becoming a writer is finding what it is you desire most from a book, and what moves you the most. I realised that what I was and am looking for is brilliance in dialogue. I’m also looking for a high level of craftsmanship on the sentence level. I know people for whom plot is everything, and the construction of the prose is secondary, but that’s alien to me. I don’t think I would read a book if it wasn’t beautifully made. It’s important to me that writing is pleasing to the ear, and that’s important to me when I’m proofing my own work — the shape of the words in your mouth. I think it’s probably similar to the way a lyricist writes his or her lines, words are selected not just because of their meaning but because they fit aurally — the sound of the words being almost as important as the content.

Do you read your work out loud when you write?

I do. Once I’ve got a complete draft, I’ll read the book out loud, front to back. Often times I’d hear something that just doesn’t sound quite right – whether that be a word, a phrase – I really love redundancies of sounds, reading two or three adverbs in a row can be pleasing to me. It’s an ever-changing thing for me the development of my taste at the time of writing, it changes from book to book or even day to day. The way that the words look on the page even are quite important to me. I realised how important these things were to me by reading. So, this has become important to me as a writer as I want to create beautiful books and at the core of that is language and structure of my sentences and paragraphs. I was on my own though, I didn’t have any teachers and at some point I think I may have taken some wrong turns, but you become more aware of what it is you are actually looking for, it took me a good number of years before I really knew, so all my writing during this time was quite messy or all over the place – but once I realised what I was looking for as a reader that clarified for me my own goals as a writer.

With French Exit you hit a lot of culturally relevant issues – there is the scene in the park with the immigrants and they start to riot – what are you hoping French Exit will leave your readers, once they have finished?

It occurs to me that the culturally relevant issues of French Exit are only there by chance, rather than to illustrate any point of mine. There are writers you come to because you know that they are going to sum up or clarify what it means to be alive at this particular point in time. I’m not one of these writers, but rather am rooted in the tradition of escapism. I want to amuse my readers, I want to make them laugh, but I also want to trick them in some way, to give them a literary experience they weren’t necessarily looking for, but enjoy nonetheless. My books are all very user friendly in terms of the language, quite easy to read, and that is intentional. I have a special place in my heart for books that are open, simple even; and the emotional information can be more nuanced and challenging but the language is plain and workmanlike.

I wanted to take a look now at your first novel Ablutions which is set in the new millennial Hollywood, French Exit is based in new York – is it a conscious decision to experiment with different tropes and genre etc?

The popular opinion is that my books are very different from one another, but to me they’re similar in tone and particularly with the use of humour. The settings are different, but then my settings aren’t particularly deep or rich, it’s more like a scrim on a stage, just painted on for mood or to establish a sense of place. The Sisters Brothers, for example, could have been a noir, and it wouldn’t have made a difference, I don’t think.

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Which authors or books might you credit as having a creative influence on Ablutions? Did you research the book with beer and whiskey chasers and where did you draw your inspiration on the format that the novel takes?

In Robert Walser’s book The Robber, there’s a recurring phrase, something along the lines of, “The Robber loves her. More on this later.” But then he doesn’t pick the thread up later, necessarily. This happens throughout the book: More on this later. But there’s nothing coming later. I loved this, and adopted something similar for my own book, namely the ‘discuss’ device: “Discuss the regulars,” etc., and some of the things I tell myself to discuss I do discuss, others I don’t. This format was a crucial jumping-off point for me, the key for beginning the writing of the text. You have to understand, I’d tried to write a novel many times by that point, tried and failed, and I was so surprised to find myself finally doing it — it was terrifying but also wonderful and sheer. I had that sense of: at last I’m doing it, it’s been so long and now it’s really happening.

As far as the research goes: I would say I did my due diligence. My twenties in particular were marred with stupidity and excess. I don’t have much to say about this; the story of the self-loathing straight white man is so common and banal. This was a hurdle for me in writing Ablutions, actually, because the world doesn’t need another version of this well worn tale, does it? I felt I had something to add to the pile, however, something unique to myself. I don’t regret publishing the book but I did have the sense afterwards of: I won’t do that again.

Congratulations on Sisters Brothers being turned into a film – did you have any links with bringing that into the screen in an advisory capacity?
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I worked with John Reilly on a film called Terri, and the director of that film is a friend of mine named Azazel Jacobs. He read TSB in rough draft and gave it to John and John’s wife Alison, who would become a producer of the film. That was eight years ago, and John and Alison have been working all this time to get it made. A few years in they found a director in Jacques Audiard, who penned the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain. They sent me drafts as they went along and I gave them notes on what I was thinking, and then I did a dialogue polish at the end — they wrote in French and then translated into English, so some of the dialogue needed rejiggering. But, by and large I would say the script is very much Jacques’s. It relates to the universe of the book but it is Jacques’s interpretation of that universe. I’m a fan and I admire Jacques’s body of work very much, so it wasn’t terribly problematic that he took the lead.

I’ve read The Bastard the short story you wrote for electric literature – what’s your take on the short story genre?
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I try, I keep trying, but I’ve never had much luck with the short story. I’m more naturally suited to the longer format. I’ve written eight or nine short stories that I think are passable, and maybe two of them are decent or even good, but my strength is in the the novel. As a reader I also gravitate to the novel. This is my lot in life, then, and I’m comfortable with it.

You can read this short story here.

If there was a book you have read and wished you had written what would it be and why?
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That’s a difficult question. But I would probably say Two Serious Ladies from Jane Bowles, just because it’s so unique — her uncommon mind is on display with each page, each turn of phrase, and it’s such a relentlessly surprising book, it could never be recreated. Lots of people have tried, and I am one of those people who have tried to recreate the tone that she achieved — but it’s silly to try, because only she could have done it. I wonder if that isn’t the goal,
ultimately: to write something so specific to your experience that it could never be reproduced.

STORGY would like to thank Patrick deWitt for taking the time to talk to us and for Bloomsbury in setting this interview up – our heartfelt thanks to all involved!

French Exit is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

You can also read our review of French Exit here.

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Patrick deWitt

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Patrick deWitt’s writing has appeared in several US magazines and anthologies. His first novel, Ablutions, was published by Granta Books in 2009. He had previously published a short book of random writings and bad advice, Help Yourself Help Yourself. His second novel, The Sisters Brothers won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Govenor General Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Interviewed by Ross Jeffery

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