Patrick deWitt won an obscene number of literary awards in 2012, including the Governor General’s Award and the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for humour writing for his darkly funny second novel, The Sisters Brothers. You’ve probably read it by now, or at least watched its brother from another mother, the film True Grit. Feathertale contacted deWitt, a man of few words and fewer answers, in Portland, Oregon, where he waxed sparingly on bad guys, John Wayne and happy endings.
Just the facts:
If not a writer he would be: So, so dull.
First job: Pizza delivery, I think?
Favourite writers: Jane Bowles, Robert Walser, Gilbert Sorrentino, Michael Winter.
What’s in his pockets right now: ChapStick, Visine, wallet, notepad, lighter and matches.
Favourite sandwich: Philippe’s French dip in Los Angeles: beef and Swiss, double-dipped, with lemonade chaser.
First thing he ever wrote: Non-recyclable garbage.
Currently working on: A novel.
Just the answers:
FEATHERTALE: What is a Vancouver Island boy doing in Portland, Oregon?
PATRICK DEWITT: Fooling around. Forgetting people’s names and calling them “buddy.”
FT: In preparation for this interview, we’ve read several others in which you mention lawn mowing. You mention it maybe three out of eight times. What is it about mowing a lawn? Is the act of cutting grass a muse or something?
PD: Having recently moved from a house to an apartment, I now find myself lawnless. We’ll see if my writing goes south or not.
FT: Do you have any tips for optimal lawn mowing?
PD: Wear a hat and don’t huff the gasoline. The high doesn’t warrant the headache.
FT: Your latest novel, The Sisters Brothers, has been celebrated for its distinct tone. We think Ablutions, your first book, reads the same way. You use this formality to describe some truly heinous — and often funny — things. What’s at the root of this contradictory style?
PD: An excess of free time? A piss-poor attitude?
FT: How would you describe your sense of humour?
PD: I was going to say robust, but what if you took me seriously? I don’t know. Taciturn? Does that make sense?
FT: Yeah, that seems accurate.
FT: Is The Sisters Brothers a western or a parody of a western?
FT: Mmm. What is it about westerns that you think people are attracted to?
PD: The leathery aroma, and the universal appeal of rough trade.
FT: Who would win in a fight: Clint Eastwood or John Wayne?
PD: John Wayne is dead!
FT: Touché. The Sisters Brothers is set in 1851 and recounts assassins Eli and Charlie Sisters’ Wild West odyssey, from Oregon City to gold rush-crazy San Francisco, where they have been hired to murder a prospector. What inspired the book?
PD: No one thing. A bunch of different things. About fifteen different things. And I can’t remember any of them. You’re making me feel bad about my memory.
FT: Well, that’s nice and vague. Maybe you should see a doctor. How much research is involved in writing historical fiction?
FT: Yeah, we’ve read that absolute veracity isn’t important to you. In historical fiction particularly, most authors think getting those details right is paramount. Why isn’t it as important for you?
PD: Primarily laziness, but there’s also an aesthetic preference buried in there somewhere.
FT: On every page of your book, we couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the Coen brothers’ True Grit movie. Do you get that often?
FT: Does it bother you?
PD: No. I love Charles Portis (author of the novel True Grit).
FT: The Sisters Brothers won a whole whack of awards this year. It’s embarrassing, really, how much critics liked your book. Which honour means the most to you?
PD: I saw Michael Hurley (American musician) play a song inspired by the book a while ago. This meant the most to me, no contest.
FT: Well, the award that means the most is the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour writing. What did winning Canada’s humour award mean to you?
PD: Now when people tell me I’m not funny I can show them the medal, which I carry on me at all times, and say, “Then how do you explain this, shithead?”
FT: Right on. You do deal in the dark and nasty corners of human nature, but you still manage to make us laugh. The funny really takes the edge off the horror. So, two questions. First, why do you write about bad people?
PD: Because they’re more interesting than good people.
FT: All right, second question: Why do you make stories about bad people so funny?
PD: Because bad people can be unpleasant to be around, and a touch of levity lightens the room a bit.
FT: You’re really good at the deadpan. We loved Eli and his horse Tub in particular. Early on, Eli says, “I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.” Eli’s feelings toward Tub reveal the gunslinger’s developing humanity — at one point he trades Tub in for a better horse, but then goes back for the injured horse. You squeeze so much humour out of this bond, while also making it Eli’s barometer of morality. Where did this relationship come from?
PD: It started as a sight gag — fat guy on a fat horse — but magically morphed into something more significant. This sort of transformation is just luck — luck and waiting.
FT: Sounds like modesty. Do you read your own book reviews?
PD: Yes, I’m curious to know what people make of my work. Once the consensus is in, I do tend to skim.
FT: What goes through your mind when you are getting ripped apart or put up on a pedestal with the literary gods?
PD: The thought of a nice cold glass of beer — the way it chills your palm when you heft it.
FT: Last thing, can you finish this sentence: Patrick deWitt, a mime and a one-eyed drunk cowboy walk into a saloon. Who walks out alive (and why)?
PD: We all three walk out alive, arm in arm, best friends forever. Because happy endings are underrated.