Tuesday, May 21, 2013

about face : the pulse of patrick dewitt

A personal account from the inventive mind of a lauded yet self-effacing author.

Patrick deWitt is the last person to tell you that his most recent novel, 2011's The Sisters Brothers, is award winning—let alone that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious fiction awards in the world.

In fact, he's the first to tell you that he doesn't really care to discuss The Sisters Brothers. But, he will mention that "I'm working on a new novel. It's like a fable without a moral."

With two successful, yet forcefully dark and divergent books under his belt, the ever-modest deWitt currently has a noteworthy literary career going for himself, including writing the screenplay for Terri, a 2011 film starring John C. Reilly, while Reilly's production company also bought up the film rights to The Sisters Brothers.

Born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in 1975, deWitt is a high-school dropout who has bounced around between Canada, Washington and Southern California, ultimately settling in Oregon. 

His time working the bars of Los Angeles informed his debut novel, Ablutions, in which deWitt documents and embellishes upon drunken and drug-addled experiences of alcoholics and addicts tossed by the Hollywood wayside. But when pressed for what egregious details might actually be based on his own life, deWitt cagily pleads the Fifth, contending, "I was actually asked by the publisher’s legal department not to discuss this, sorry."

And the work that inspired his biggest success came not from his own past but that of another century entirely when deWitt stumbled on a Time-Life book about the California Gold Rush at a yard sale in Northeast Portland. Readily mentioning that The Sisters Brothers "is a departure from Ablutions," or vice versa, deWitt's Wild West tale of two murderous brothers—dubbed "cowboy noir" by The New York Times—has earned the writer local and international notoriety as he took home the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction at the Oregon Book Awards in 2012 as well as two Canadian literary awards in 2011.

That said, deWitt hardly thinks "my body of work is sizable enough for a highlights reel, frankly."

Making his home in Portland for the last five years, deWitt is engaged in growing his body of work by writing his next novel, which is set to be delivered to publishers before the end of the year. But in the interim, he spent some time composing emails back and forth with About Face Magazine “because, like most writers, socializing is something I've never quite mastered.”

You seem to be a steadfast West Coaster. From Vancouver Island to California and Washington, now you're smack dab in the middle. What brought you to Portland in the first place?

I’d been living on an island for two years and the idea of moving to a larger town was appealing. We zeroed in on Portland for all the reasons everyone else zeroes in on Portland. Also, we didn’t know anyone here, and I liked the idea of starting over as a perfect stranger.

I’m listening to Rye Coalition’s “Jimmy Walkover” as I type this. 

I've read that you were a high-school dropout, didn't go to college, and you've never taken a writing course. How did you find writing to be your calling? Or, did it find you?

I started reading when I was a very young chicken, and I bought into the sanctity of the novel in a way that almost embarrasses me. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really been interested in, to tell you the truth. I was a terrible student. I still can’t do long division. I literally can’t do it.

What is it about the novel that's so alluring and important to you? What “embarrasses” you?

Well, the endlessness of language and storytelling, I guess. The musicality and beauty of a well-crafted sentence. (See? Embarrassing.) As a young reader, it just seemed to me that the authors I responded to were having so much fun, and this was appealing to me. I had anxiety about becoming an adult, specifically relating to the looming threat of drudge work, and so when the notion of writing fiction (both for a living and as a way to live) came to me, I was hugely relieved.

Tell me about your average work day.

This is boring, but you asked for it: I wake up and work for a couple hours, then there’s the afternoon which consists of: reading, listening to records, book/record shopping, bike riding, press stuff, hands-off socializing, eating, erranding, movie-going, etc. I’ve been drinking at the Red Fox a few nights a week lately.

Does your afternoon routine provide inspiration or help you rejuvenate for the next morning of writing?

It provides distance from the work on the one hand, but then also, it’s from this distance that a good many of the breakthroughs take place. When I’m working on a long-term piece like a novel, it’s day in, day out.

What are you listening to now? 

Trio’s “Broken Hearts For You and Me.”

You mentioned that you're working on a new novel and that "it's like a fable without a moral." What else can you tell me about it?

It’s still coming together but I think it’s going to be like Moby-Dick on land with a love story pushed through its chest.

I can’t say where the ideas come from. One minute they’re not there, and then suddenly they are. It seems unwise to try to guess at their point of origin, actually. The process is so blurry; best to give it a wide berth and hope whatever’s happening keeps happening.

Is love a new frontier for you? In your writing, that is.

I’ve never tried to re-create the feeling of love before, I don’t think. Not easy, currently.

How have you attempted to inspire this re-creation?

I’m relying on imperfect memory.

Any clue when the novel will be completed?

If all goes well, I imagine I’ll have a rough draft in a year, year and a half. 

Now I’m listening to The Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care As Much.” 

In the past, you reported that you were writing a story about a corrupt New York investment banker who discovers that he’s about to be arrested so he skips the country to start a new life in France. This obviously isn’t the same book then, is it?

No, it’s a different novel. Here’s what happened with the banker story: I started it a few months before The Sisters Brothers came out, thinking I’d have time to work on it in addition to doing press and travel stuff, which with Ablutions hadn’t been particularly grueling. Well, The Sisters Brothers kept me busy to the point that I didn’t have time to write for a year, almost a year and a half, and by the time I revisited the banker story, I’d lost my affection for it. I fought against this for a few months, but finally I had to recognize there wasn’t anything I could do to save it.

If what you’re working on now is a completely different story, what happened to the previous effort? 

It’s in the failure graveyard, with the others. I could probably pull a short story or two out of it, but right now I can’t look at it because it’s too painful.

What else can you tell me about this “next” novel then? I know you spent three months in Paris this last year for a residency and the previous book idea had involved France as a setting. Did your time abroad have any influential inspiration on the setting of the book?

It’s set in a vaguely Central European location, in a vaguely distant time. I’ll point to the fable as the primary inspiration, but also certain other novels, such as Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, with bits of Moby-Dick or Frankenstein or Dracula or Robert Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten.

Your first two novels have been vastly different in terms of setting—and this next one seems to chart new territory as well—but both have been somewhat dark, exposing the seedier elements of life in a captivating way. There's also been humor amongst the murkiness, and characters that may seem "bad" or "misguided" on the surface but are relatable and understandable. Where have these characters come from?

This sounds like a question for my therapist.

Well then, are any parts of your novels based on yourself and your own experiences? Are they based on observation or invention?

There’s a bunch of autobiographical stuff in Ablutions. With The Sisters Brothers, I tried to step away from that type of thing but wound up siphoning all my pseudo-philosophical heart-garbage into the character of Eli. 

But, yes, there’s also lots of room for invention.

The Sisters Brothers is also set to become a film as John C. Reilly's production company optioned it and I hear he intends to star as narrator Eli Sisters, yes?

This is true, and I’m pig-in-shit happy about it.

Is there any other news about the upcoming film or your involvement in the making of it?

I’m involved to the degree that I wrote the screenplay, but from here on out there’s not much for me to do other than cross my fingers and cheer the others on.

At one point, you described The Sisters Brothers as a departure from Ablutions. Is your new book a departure from The Sisters Brothers and back to Ablutions? Or somewhere new altogether?

It feels different than either of those but I don’t know that I can verbalize how, because it’s a shade on the early side, and because I’m not all that cognizant of my own process. Something is either functioning or not functioning, and right now it’s functioning, so all other concerns are irrelevant.

I tend to not look back at or consider what I’ve already done, but of course, there must be some overarching tone or attitude, as it’s all manufactured in the same location.  

What are you listening to now?

Ford Eaglin, “That Certain Door.”

Your first and second novels were dedicated to your father and mother, respectively, but Ablutions says for "the last of the old, bold pilots." What did your dad, and mom, do?

To clarify: They’re not dead. They live in Portland, too. My mother is a photographer and recovering shit-disturber. My father is a contractor. The dedication you mention stems from the saying, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” I heard that and thought, “Not true.”

Who'll get the next dedication?

It’s still up for grabs at this point. 

What else besides writing keeps you busy in Portland?

I’m not by nature an outdoorsy type but it feels obscene to live here and not take part, so I do a bit of fly fishing and skiing and camping, etc. It’s a great drinking town. And the food is incredible. I was in Paris for a residency earlier this year, and time after time, I’d sit down to a 200 euro meal that just wasn’t nearly as good as the food here. 

Where would you go to spend the equivalent of 200 euro on a meal in Portland?

The Laurelhurst Market’s steak frites have been a favorite for a few years now, and the drinks are excellent there.

What other old favorites around town do you keep coming back to?

Again, the Red Fox. I love Liberty Glass. I’ve been eating breakfast at Sweedeedee on Albina. My favorite drink is Redbreast Irish with ginger beer and a lemon wedge. I need a new drink but I can’t seem to make the change.

What do you listen to your music on? And what's playing now? 

I have a record player. I’m not listening to anything, now. I’m listening to the heater pushing air.

Although you said, “I don’t think my body of work is sizable enough for a highlights reel,” what moments of your career or professional recognition that you’ve received would you put on your resume?

As far as resumes go: I bid them a bitter farewell on the day I started writing full-time, and I pray to God I’ll never have to compose another for the rest of my life. In moving houses recently, I unearthed an old resume from my early 20s, actually. Under “qualifications” I wrote: “Pleasant disposition.” That was it. My lone selling point. The sad part is, it wasn’t even true.

And, what are you listening to now?

The B-side of the Eaglin 45, “By The Water.”

Bonus! A discarded sidebar idea that AFM chose not to use

Patrick’s Picks: Although deWitt thinks his daily routine may sound boring, who wouldn’t want to spend their afternoons reading, listening to records and watching films? Here are a few of his recent and all-time favorites:

Spielt Eigene Kompositionen, Tsege Mariam Gebru
Michael Hurley, all records
Looks Like Rain, Mickey Newbury
Bach: Toccatas, Vol. 1, Glenn Gould
Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger, Bo Diddley
Venus in Cancer, Robbie Basho

The Big Why, Michael Winter
What’s for Dinner?, James Schuyler
Manservant and Maidservant, Ivy Compton-Burnett
Morte D’Urban, J.F. Powers
Jakob Von Gunten, Robert Walser
Impossible Object, Nicholas Mosley

The Servant, Joseph Losey
Il Posto, Ermanno Olmi
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog
A Prophet, Jacques Audiard

Read this interview in About Face Magazine.

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