Patrick deWitt

[Interview by Christian Dogimont / Photography by Alana Paterson]

Hobo #17 – Portland, January 2015. Novelist and screenwriter Patrick deWitt was living a quiet and uneventful family life in Portland, Oregon when he stumbled upon fame. The literary short listings and awards accumulated and his second book is becoming a movie. Subjects have followed each other in a seemingly random pattern: His first novel, Ablutions, is entirely located in an Hollywood dive bar. His second, The Sisters Brothers, an Anti-Western picaresque about two killers, two brothers, is set against the backdrop of the 1850 Californian gold rush. The third one, Undermajordomo Minor, coming out this fall, happens in “a vaguely distant past, in a vaguely eastern European environment”.

I read The Sisters first, then picked up Ablutions: deWitt’s writing is smart and dark and funny. A relentless, underlying humor constantly balances the cruelty and absurdity of the images—like falling in love with Jameson Irish Whiskey, or the things you tell yourself in order to be able to continue to live the life you find yourself in, and what happens when those stories no longer work.

Christian Dogimont — What’s the last great work of fiction (or non-fiction) you read?
Patrick deWitt — I really admired Frank Stanford’s Conditions Uncertain & Likely to Pass Away. Also Speedboat by Renata Adler, The Infinite Passion of Expectation by Gina Berriault, and Do the Windows Open? by Julie Hecht.

— Who is your favorite singer/writer/artist? If you met someone who had never encountered your choice, what single song/book/painting would you choose to convince them you weren’t crazy?
— I’m not sure that I’ve ever been one of those types with a favorite anything, but regarding music: I’ve been listening to the John Fahey song “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, Calif.” a lot. I have a painting of his on my wall that I love, also. I could never pick a favorite book! The last novel I read that killed me was: Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel by Evan S. Connell.

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— Ablutions was your first novel. I read somewhere that you described it as semi-autobiographical. If yes, it means that you went down an abyss of sorts, then came through to talk about it. How much of you was in the book?
— Well, I did have a magical car, a Ford, which I eventually traded to an old friend for a lifetime supply of french dip sandwiches from Philippe’s in Los Angeles. But I never shit my pants at the Grand Canyon. Actually, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon.

—You give somewhere in the book the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary definition of the word ablutions as “the washing of one’s body or part of it (as in a religious rite)”. Was writing Ablutions an exorcism for you, the definition of which being “the expulsion or attempted expulsion of an evil spirit from a person or place”?
— Exorcism might be overstating it. At times it did feel like vomiting, or anyway, dry heaving.

— Is there a book that everyone loves but you?
— Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

[Editor’s note: Asserting that one must first know the rules to break them, this classic reference book is a must-have for any student and conscientious writer. Intended for use in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature, it gives in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style and concentrates attention on the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.]

— You left LA for Portland. Why did you choose Portland instead of going back to British Columbia where you’re originally from?
— Actually I went from LA to Bainbridge Island, Washington, then on to Portland. I knew I wanted to stay in the Pacific Northwest but I didn’t want to backtrack. Portland was new to me and seemed a good fit generally. I didn’t know a soul here, which was appealing.

— What do you like most about this part of the world?
— That the sky is low and padded-feeling. The rain keeps me busy indoors, and the temperature lends itself to my preferred creature comforts: baths, coffee, whiskey, etc. The people possess a remoteness I’ve always admired.

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— Do you have any favourite Westerns?
— I don’t, to be honest.

— So what inspired your second novel The Sisters Brothers?
— It was just a writing exercise that got away from me.

— If you could travel back in time, what period would you choose and what would be your occupation of choice?
— I think I would have liked to’ve been myself, with my same interests, at twenty years of age in 1950 in America. Of course, I’m imagining this leading to the 1960s in my 30s and the 1970s in my 40s. Three varied, strange, and dangerous decades. In the 1980s I’d go live on a tropical island or commit suicide or whatever.

— One of my favourite authors, Georges Simenon, used to say that he had no idea where the story was going when he started writing a novel, what his characters were going to do. Was it the case with the brothers Eli and Charlie’s trip or did you start with a well defined plan? Are your books outlined before you write them?
— I don’t outline, so I’m with Simenon on that one, though the book I’m finishing now was nightmarish precisely because I didn’t know where it was going half the time. At a certain point I typed out each scene on a three by five card and tacked these to the wall, just to try and get my bearings. I guess it worked, but it felt like the last refuge of the scoundrel.

— There is a lot of ‘matter of fact’ violence in the book. Is this something you’ve experienced?
— In that I watched loads of television growing up, yes.

— There’s also a lot of humor. Do you agree with Tom Robbins’ statement: Humor is both a form of wisdom and a means of survival?
— That sounds pretty good to me. I’ve found humor a multi-use tool, like a Swiss army knife. You can open a can of soup with it, you can kill someone with it—voila.

— “I write books to relieve myself of pain. That’s the prime motivator to write. Period”, said Brett Easton Ellis. What is your motivation?
— It’s fun. And it makes me feel useful. I take aspirin when I’m in pain, or Prontalgine if I have it.

— You have a very conversational, natural way of writing. Do you edit a lot?
— No more than anyone else, I don’t think. After a half dozen or so passes I start getting antsy to move on to the next thing.

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— Do you think The Sisters Brothers will become a movie? If there was interest would you be interested in participating?
— Yes, I think it will become a movie, and there’s a team of folks working to that end. I participated up to a point, but now it’s in their hands.

— What actor will you watch no matter the film?
—Warren Oates.

— I read somewhere that you had a vinyl collection. I remember that a while back Tim Robbins interviewed Eddie Vedder for Hobo and that the two of them talked at length about vinyl basically saying that a CD  was a collection of songs but not an album. I remember Tim saying, and here I quote “I have got so many empty fucking CD cases and I have no idea where the CDs are. I’ve never in my life lost an album. It’s impossible to lose an album. You can break them, they break fantastically when you really hate an album, you know, chuck ‘em up against the wall and they shatter to pieces. That’s the other thrill that you’re really missing with a CD, you really don’t have a dramatic demonstration of how much you hate it.” Do you concur?
— I prefer records, but only because I grew up with them, and never got it together to adapt with the times. But I’m not a proper collector in that I don’t covet rarities, and I’m not fetishistic about it in that I treat my records pretty roughly via daily use.

— Do you listen to music while writing?
— No, never. Or almost never. If I do it means I’m shirking.

— If you could drop everything and take off on an adventure, what would you do?
— I would like to go to the Robert Walser Centre in Bern, Switzerland.

— Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be besides a writer?
— Before I decided to write I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. I was comforted by the thought of it, but then I remembered I lived in the suburbs and had to recalibrate my life-plan. Most authors come from the suburbs, it occurs to me. All that stucco awakens the dormant storyteller.

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— What is the subject of your next book?
— Ah, it’s a love story and an adventure story and a comedy of manners and a fable without a moral and etc.

— Can you say where it takes place?
— Vaguely distant past, in a vaguely eastern European environment.

— Do you believe uncertainty to be beautiful?
— Not innately, no.

— Tom Robbins also said that as a kid he wanted to grow up to be Tarzan and when that didn’t quite work out, writing books seemed the next best thing. Have the dreams of your youth been fulfilled?
— All I ever wanted was to avoid being one of those lonesome faces stuck in traffic, and I’ve done that, so I’m happy with the way things have turned out. I still feel a pang of regret whenever I see a lighthouse, though.

— And finally, what’s one book you want to be buried with?
— Surely I’ll have had enough of books by the time they put me down, so let’s have none in the casket, please. Just let the worms at me, and let the world get on with it.