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Author Patrick deWitt on Booze, Expectations, and Fairy Tales

The author has followed up his wildly successful Western novel, ‘The Sisters Brothers’, with a new book that's basically a mashup of a Wes Anderson movie and ‘Grimm's Fairy Tales’.

by Josh Visser
Sep 8 2015, 3:43pm

Patrick deWitt.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

As a former Hollywood bartender, acclaimed novelist Patrick deWitt would likely have few qualms with calling his own remarkable success story a bit of a cliche. His debut novel about a whiskey- and pill-abusing Hollywood bartender (Ablutions) was helped along after he plied a customer (High Fidelity screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis) with booze so he would read it. That bleakly funny book, obviously based a bit on his own experiences, initially sold like ass but put him on the map as a writer to watch. It brought him just enough success to get him out from behind the bar and let him work on his second book, the confusingly named The Sisters Brothers. That book, a black comedy Western with modern sensibilities, contended for pretty much every book award worth mentioning, winning the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Stephen Leacock Medal. It was also shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller and Man Booker.

Although deWitt currently lives in Portland, Oregon and spent most of his life in the US, he was born in Canada. VICE sat down with the author at House of Anansi's downtown Toronto office to discuss his new novel, Undermajordomo Minor—best described as a mashup of a Wes Anderson movie and Grimm's Fairy Tales—and to basically ask for some advice on how to get your shit together.

VICE: What was it like writing this book for an audience, knowing that you have a readership after the success of The Sisters Brothers?
Patrick deWitt: It was different. In the beginning it didn't feel different, it felt the same as it always had, but then at a certain point, coinciding with me struggling with this book, I began to worry. I just became aware of that audience in a way I hadn't before. It was off-putting. It was not a good feeling necessarily, because I was struggling. Once the book corrected itself, I began to think of the audience in a different way, or not really at all. It took me some time to recalibrate after Sisters Brothers and all the travel I did with it and all the press. I felt distracted for a period of time. It was a process to get back to the original state that you need to be in to work properly. I'm grateful the readership is there, but when they are there in the room with you, it can be distracting or frightening.

So, this wasn't the novel that you intended to write after 2011's Sisters Brothers.
I was on another book for about a year about a corrupt investment advisor, a Bernie Madoff type. I'd done research trips to New York City and I was doing a residency in Paris as research because the character in the book flees to Paris to avoid prison. Two months or so in my residency, I ditched that book because it wasn't working. The subject matter wasn't interesting enough, I just don't care that much about bankers and the accumulation of money. It was a bit boring.

But around the time I began reading fables, fairy tales, first to my son and then on my own. I was easing my way into this other world. It seemed like a nice Plan B.

What appealed to you about the fairy tale world?
If you read Jewish fables, central and eastern European fables, the sheer quality of the storytelling is very high. They do so much in the space of a few pages. They are often strange, bleak, bizarre, and twisted. They are very funny. It's just really rich material.

It just seemed approachable to me in a way and a nice antidote to this banker book. To go from someone obsessed with numbers to something so much freer and so much more strange and magical. I was so relieved to leave the world of high finance.

You discussed this overtly in your last novel, this idea of a "likable character" and Lucy (the protagonist of Undermajordomo Minor) initially doesn't inspire much at the start of this one. Is there something that interests you in particular about these neurotic, weaker-willed-type characters?
It must. I think you are speaking about the obvious. The opposite type of character, the investment banker or whatever, there are just no surprises with an alpha male. If someone can't be proven wrong then what mystery is there for them for you?

I've been wondering how I can mix things up a bit, because I do have this tendency to create these hapless, compromised individuals. I don't want to necessarily stop doing that but I don't want to repeat myself either.

Your novels are quite cinematic. There are set pieces, especially in this one. You've lived in Los Angeles and have written a screenplay (Terri), so how much has the world of film played into your novel writing?
I listed a cinematic reference of Werner Herzog on the acknowledgment page (for this book). I've immersed myself in film since a young age. I think it is an influence but it's a secondary influence to the literary. I'm not one to worry about why I do things. If something feels correct, it feels correct. If it feels good and I think it serves the greater good of the book, I go with it.

I've been criticized sometimes for writing this way, but it's not a criticism I take seriously. These three books are the ones I wanted to write. If I meet a reader who tells me my work is too cinematic, then we are just not a good match. And that's OK.

Switching gears a bit, you have a pretty interesting origin story. You were in LA, bartending, got someone (screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis) to read your draft which became a well-received but little-read novel, and now, a few years later, you are a best-selling author who has won a number of major awards. Looking back at that period to where you are now, do you think much about that? It's probably pretty inspiring for those who also dropped out of high school and didn't go the MFA route...
It doesn't really add up that I've done as well as I had. I would not recommend my path to anyone, because I felt like I wasted a lot of time. That's not to say I'd recommend an MFA. It's a strange story but no stranger than any other part of my life or anyone's life.

What I wanted was to write books and ideally, I wanted that to be my sole focus. Typically when I obsessively want something for a long period of time, I feel there's a letdown there. That's the human condition. I don't even resent that happening anymore.

In terms of the trajectory of my career... luck plays such a large role in it and you can't really applaud yourself for something where luck plays such a prominent role. I've been given a gift and I don't want to fuck it up.

I have to ask, what's your relationship with booze and writing now?
I'm really a bit of a teetotaler these days, to tell you the truth. I've always loved to drink and, at times, it has been to the detriment of my health and relationships, but I'm mellowing. A lot of that has to do with fatherhood and just not wanting to be that person anymore.

I don't think I've ever written a single good line when I was drinking, when I was drunk, I should say. At the age of 40, I've learned the difference between having a drink or two and drinking. That's advice I wish someone would have told me earlier, because I lost a lot of time to drinking. I think of drinking and drugs, if it's done in excess to the point you are degrading yourself, it basically represents a complete stasis. You stop evolving the moment you begin to do anything habitually.

Addictive behavior doesn't lead to much, although you get some stories out of it. That's something. I don't mean to belittle that. A lot of these experiences I had through drinking and drugs were colorful, if not positive. But in relationship to writing, I don't see there being a real connection there.

I was a year late on the deadline for this book, and the deadline was really bearing down on me and it was a close call, so I stopped drinking completely for the last two months. I came out of that realizing I hadn't been drunk in however many weeks and I just found I didn't have any overwhelming desire to go back.

I'm not saying I'm never going to get drunk again, I'm just at a point now where I really don't want to get wasted. That self-destructive impulse is just not [in me] anymore. Maybe it will come back, but I hope it doesn't because I am a lot happier without it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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