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Interview with Patrick deWitt

Patrick deWitt’s new novel, Undermajordomo Minor, tells the story of Lucy, a bungling young man hired to assist a butler somewhere in central Europe during an unspecified war sometime in the nineteenth century. It’s deWitt’s first book since The Sisters Brothers, a black comedy about two hitmen after a prospector during the California gold rush. That novel had already won over many critics by the time it was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, a year described as the award’s worst-ever after one of the judges said he liked his fiction to ‘zip along’. deWitt’s first novel, Ablutions (2009), ‘inspired by aspects of my life’, followed a drunk Hollywood barman in the second person.

 

DeWitt is Canadian and lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s in his early forties, elaborate tattoos above both elbows. The writers he reads are ‘typically long dead or at least very old’. ‘I don’t consider my place in the contemporary landscape,’ he told me when we met at his publisher’s office in west London in June. ‘Wherever I fit, put me there, it’s fine.’

 

Q

The White Review

— Weren’t you writing a different novel? About banking?

A

Patrick deWitt

— I ditched that one and started Undermajordomo Minor. It seemed a lot more fun than talking about money. After The Sisters Brothers I thought, okay, it’s time to get back to the present, but I lost interest and I know if I’m bored the reader will also be bored. I’m not particularly interested in life now – in contemporary life – in terms of writing about it or even thinking about it. I’ve more and more been turning away from the news and distancing myself from the internet and not watching television anymore. I very rarely watch anything anymore. I don’t know why. I’m just not interested.

Q

The White Review

— Do you own a television?

A

Patrick deWitt

— I have had one. But it’s been a number of years. I also cut the internet because I’ve been writing. So I don’t have that at home or on my phone anymore. It’s freed me up. More and more I find I’m focusing on books.

Q

The White Review

— Which ones?

A

Patrick deWitt

— I’m rereading Jakob Von Gunten right now which is my favourite book of Robert Walser’s. You read a page or two and you just want to set it aside and get to work. I read it ten years ago and it knocked me out: so lively and charming and strange, mysterious. There’s something about his tone throughout all his writing, a real lightness. I think he knew he was very funny and that life is absolutely ridiculous but he was never attempting to make anyone laugh. His writing feels pure and unaffected. My work is much more geared to entertain – I want to make people laugh.

Q

The White Review

— But you do take care over tone.

 

A

Patrick deWitt

— That’s the first thing you establish before you can really begin in earnest to roll up your sleeves. I’m trying to do that now with a book I have in mind. It takes place again in the distant past and it’s about an explorer. I’ve been reading Columbus’s diaries and books about Magellan. I’m trying to find a way to use the language without being archaic to the degree that it’s distracting. So I’ve got this long list of arcane words and I’m trying to decide on the ones that are arcane to the degree of being offputting. I tend to bristle if I’m reading a book that requires a college diploma.

Q

The White Review

— Did you need a list for Undermajordomo Minor and The Sisters Brothers?

A

Patrick deWitt

Ablutions too. It took a long time to get the tone right. I was working in a bar and I’d take these notes and try to translate them. I put them in the first person; it didn’t work. I put them in the third person; it didn’t work. It wanted to be written in a sort of notation, almost like a shorthand. ‘Discuss this. Discuss that.’ That stems from the notes I took. Compared to The Sisters Brothers it was a complete breeze. And Undermajordomo Minor was much harder.

Q

The White Review

— Because of your success?

 

A

Patrick deWitt

— People would say, do you feel pressured, writing a book after a book that’s done well? And I completely didn’t know what they were even talking about. Then one day suddenly I did feel a lot of pressure. And this was not imposed upon me by anyone. It was just there in the room with me: if I screw this up it’s going to be really publicly embarrassing. Because it’ll be scrutinised in a way that I wasn’t used to being scrutinised. So much luck went into me establishing a readership: you feel very fortunate. You don’t want to let these people down.

Q

The White Review

— Is that limiting?

A

Patrick deWitt

— I don’t think there was ever a moment in writing this book where I thought, I shouldn’t do this, it’ll upset people. Yet it’s something I’m aware of. The orgy scene Lucy witnesses: I can’t help but feel a degree of trepidation about it. I’m quite prudish about sex, writing about it. I don’t necessarily relish reading about sex. But this scene was important to me. I was aware after writing it that it is going to give a certain type of reader a difficult time. Because it’s quite… The book is moderately light up to that point and then it takes a darker turn. I think there’s darkness throughout but that one scene is really… I wonder how people will react.

Q

The White Review

— Did you follow the press when The Sisters Brothers was nominated for the Booker?

 

A

Patrick deWitt

— Oh, the readability scandal? It was fairly disheartening, you know, to be suddenly in this circus-like environment, where everyone’s really excited about literature, which was fun for me, and then this other element sort of creeps in. It’s strange for other authors to come out and criticise a list that you’re on. It doesn’t feel good. It would have been more unpleasant if I was standing behind a book I didn’t believe in. It was just that one word, readability. Funny word to take umbrage to.

Q

The White Review

— Did the fuss harden your view that writing should be accessible?

A

Patrick deWitt

— It did. Sometimes I’ll be reading a book and I’ll just think, well, this is beyond me. And I think that’s a shame. I don’t mean I want things to be dumbed down, I just mean I like the idea of a varied readership: I don’t want it to be, you know, only people that have a college education. Walser is an excellent example: someone who’s terrifically idiosyncratic and obviously lost a grip on his sanity at various points in his career – theoretically off-putting, you would think – but accessible because of his charm, his curiosity and his craftsmanship.

Q

The White Review

— Is your interest in genre relevant here? Drinker’s memoirs in Ablutions, westerns in The Sisters Brothers, fairy tales in Undermajordomo Minor

 

A

Patrick deWitt

— I’m utterly uninterested in genre. But I do admire writers who attack it or tinker with it or try to put their private impulses and characteristics on it. The confines of this book or The Sisters Brothers are almost purely set dressing – the rest of it is all me. But I do seem most comfortable when I’ve got something to build from that we’re all familiar with.

Q

The White Review

— The banking book didn’t give you that?

A

Patrick deWitt

— I was just uninterested in the accumulation of money. It was so boring. This was during the Bernie Madoff scandal. I was watching a lot of interviews with him and reading articles about him. I was fascinated by him. It made me curious: what makes this person tick? Why is the accumulation of money so important to him that he would act so foolishly and destroy his family? What’s the matter with this man? And of course there’s the larger question of what’s the matter with America. What’s the matter with us in terms of the way we approach money? I was interested enough that I thought there was a book in it. I’m sure other people have written books about it; for me personally it was just too realistic. I thought, what makes this person tick? And I realised, nothing particularly interesting. Just greed, you know. Wanting more than you already have. They get a kick out of it.

 

And I understand that: it’s a very basic thing. We all want things; some people want more than others; and some people devote their lives to accumulating all they can. It’s just not very rich terrain for me. And the thing is, I was chastising this person. I thought, this is a bit preachy. It sets a very low bar to criticise somebody like that. The book flatlined. I don’t care why that person wants to accumulate money; it’s an empty gesture to take someone like that to task. It’s not going to change anything. I’m not a political person.

Q

The White Review

— Moralising doesn’t seem your thing. In Undermajordomo Minor, it’s fun watching Lucy tell lies.

 

A

Patrick deWitt

— I’ve known some really truly talented liars in my life. My son is ten. He’s discovered lying in the last couple of years and he’s enjoying it thoroughly. He’ll lie about things just to lie, just for the sake of exercising this talent he’s cultivating. I remember him taking him to task for lying about brushing his teeth. I’d go into the bathroom and see the toothbrush dry, and so, because he’s lying to me about such silly things, I asked him, why are you lying so much? He apologised and said, I’m sorry: I just really, really wanna lie. I laughed and said, well I absolutely understand that but let’s just try to keep it to a minimum, you know? And let’s try not to lie about such silly things; I need you to go brush your teeth. But I remember that impulse and recognising the magic of untruth at an early age. ‘If I say something that’s not true, it becomes true by the fact of my saying it…’ Heady stuff for a child. I had all that in my mind when I was filling out the character of Lucy.

Q

The White Review

— Is your son interested in your books?

A

Patrick deWitt

— In a roundabout way. He understands that Ablutions is off limits. He’s not going to be able to read that till he’s eighteen. There’s parts of The Sisters Brothers and this one that he could read. I actually gave him a section: Memel’s Lesson to the Children. He asked. ‘I’d really like to read your new book.’ And I said, well you can’t, but you can read this one section. And he sat right down and read through it all. I was sort of watching him and he was reading very intently. He finished and didn’t say anything and I said, well what do you think? He said, it’s pretty good. That was the sum total of his reaction to it. I didn’t press him.

Q

The White Review

— Is Ablutions off-limits because of the subject or because of its personal bearing?

 

A

Patrick deWitt

— Both, I suppose. I remember writing that book and my parents reading it and being really concerned – it’s a strange thing for your child to give you, this document of filth. I remember my mother saying, I admire you very much and I’m very proud of you but it makes me worried. She had a very conflicted reaction. So I wouldn’t want to conflict my son, certainly not at this age. He’ll come to it in time and I’m sure he’ll be accepting of it. He’s a smart kid.

Q

The White Review

— With Ablutions, you see the author photo on the back, and it implies a narrative before you’ve even started, in the book’s very existence.

A

Patrick deWitt

— It says on the cover that I worked in a bar – of course you’re going to draw comparisons. But a big part of the reason I stopped working in a contemporary mode was because I really did tire of… I mean, I understand it: if you read a book like that, you have a voyeuristic impulse and you want to know every gory detail, what part’s true, what isn’t. It’s perfectly natural but being on the other end of that got fairly redundant. I found I was oversharing and saying too much and I felt very exposed in a way that wasn’t pleasant. I thought, I can avoid this by going back in time. And I’ve been doing that since.

Q

The White Review

— That’s a pretty big artistic decision.

 

A

Patrick deWitt

— Apart from it becoming uncomfortable to talk about and redundant, I didn’t want to be an author who wrote about his own life. I wanted a more varied output than that. I didn’t want to be one of those people constantly writing about things that had occurred.

Q

The White Review

— There’s a vogue.

 

A

Patrick deWitt

— You know, I keep a diary and I think I could probably flesh it out in some way and then it would be readable, perhaps interesting, to some people. But this to me is far more interesting: The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor are as personal as Ablutions, it’s just the personal details are imprinted with a lighter touch. It doesn’t have to be so overt. The book becomes autobiographical but in a manner the reader isn’t aware of. Now when you flip the book over and take a look at the author photo you’re not necessarily thinking of me being like Lucy. I appreciate that remove. It’s comforting.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Anthony Cummins lives in London.


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