Joshua Mohr recently sat down for a chat with Patrick DeWitt, whose latest novel, The Sisters Brothers, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly: “DeWitt has produced a genre-bending frontier saga that is exciting, funny, and, perhaps unexpectedly, moving.” The Sister Brothers is the the story of two brothers in the Gold Rush California.
The Rumpus: I love your new book. It’s a picaresque romp in the old west: gun slingers, saloons, the gold rush. What led you as a writer to this terrain, especially since your first novel, Ablutions, was set in new millennial Hollywood? Was it a conscious choice to veer to an entirely different milieu?
Patrick DeWitt: It was very much a conscious decision to veer from the first book, not so much the contemporary setting as the shit-wallowing subject matter. I wanted the sophomore effort to be free from specific personal experience, but I needed to maintain a personal connection to the story and characters, because that’s what made Ablutions engaging for me to work on. I came to the time period–1851–more or less by accident. The Sisters Brothers started out as an exercise, basically, that continued to grow, and my interest in it grew also; at some point I realized I was working on my next novel, and that it was a western, and there wasn’t a thing in the world I could do about it.
Rumpus: I really like the idea that as writers our material tells us what it wants to evolve into: we listen to the words, rather than steering them (hopefully). What was the writing exercise that launched the project and since so many Rumpus readers are aspiring writers, would you recommend this tactic as a way to turn your imagination loose on the page?
DeWitt: Exercise might not be the correct word. But it occurred to me that the garden-variety neurotic is underrepresented in historical novels and movies, specifically westerns, not because he didn’t exist, but because he was/is considered an uninteresting or ignoble person to focus on. With that in mind, I wrote a testy exchange between two men riding side-by-side on horseback. One of them was self-doubting and vulnerable, while the other was confident to a fault. The scenario ballooned and exhausted itself and I set it aside. Later I found a book about the Gold Rush at a yard sale, and in flipping through this I was reminded of the two men. I picked the piece back up and the larger story began to take shape
Rumpus: “The garden-variety neurotic”: I tell my students that anybody can make a compelling character on the page if the writer does her job right to really inhabit that foreign set of perceptions. What were the struggles trying to get to know a neurotic, to make him charismaticin scene? And how far into the process did you make the determination that having them be brothers would be beneficial to the narrative?
DeWitt: I think everyone is neurotic to some degree, or can relate to the neurotic’s fears, however distantly. Speaking personally, it wasn’t all that much of a stretch to get into the narrator’s head in this way. The question of making him charismatic was something else altogether. I had to ask myself what I find appealing in others (frankness, self-deprecation, curiosity, morbidity) and then try to blend these traits into the narrative voice. Realizing Eli and Charlie were brothers happened at around the thirty or forty page mark. On the one hand it was aggravating to have to go back and rewrite them as siblings, but really, this is where the book took off for me.
Rumpus: Well, you did a fantastic job, not only making the narrator, Eli, a fully realized character, but the brother, Charlie, is equally as fun to spend time with. They are hilarious, and the novel’s dialogue absolutely crackles. You write some of the best dialogue out there right now. Is that all revision? Where/when do you know how to pick the right words for your characters to speak? And any advice for writing successful dialogue?
DeWitt: I do tend to read dialogue aloud, more so than any other parts–to act the conversations out a little. I mean, I’m not stomping around the room and changing outfits, but I try and actually imagine the scenarios. If I’m having trouble putting words in a character’s mouth, nine out of ten times it’s because I don’t know who the character is. I just started this new thing last week and the narrator’s really foggy–funny one minute, melancholy the next. He’s a wealthy businessman, and I’ve never known any wealthy businessmen. What’s his private vocabulary? Is he eloquent, or brash? Does he curse? What are his interests? I haven’t figured it out yet. When I do, I’ll go back to the start and re-write the parts where his isn’t acting like himself.
Rumpus: Revision can be so idiosyncratic from author to author, what’s your specific process?
DeWitt: If I’m working end to end on a completed draft, it’s textbook slash-and-burn carnage, followed by a period of buffing with a shammy, repeated until I’m truly lost, and don’t even know what I’m looking at any more. At this point I go to my trusted readers, and by gauging their reactions I’ll know one of three things has come to pass: 1) I’m done 2) I’m not done 3) I’ve totally messed up and written something the world must never see.
Rumpus: Your novel is very scene-oriented, very cinematic, almost a kind of neo-Spaghetti Western. Was that a conscious decision to pace it in that manner or was that how the story wanted to be told?
DeWitt: No, not really. I did notice, when it came to the formatting/typesetting stage that most of the sections are under five pages, which I think keeps things moving at a good clip. But I wasn’t doing this consciously.
Rumpus: Structurally, you do something in this novel that I’ve never seen before: there are a couple “Intermissions” scattered throughout the action. I was wondering why you decided to use this tack, and also how you determined which chapters were “intermission-worthy.” Did those sections have different “rules” that you set up for yourself?
DeWitt: I can’t remember the original motivation. I think I was trying to amuse myself, which is always dangerous. But those two sections deal with a supernatural element in the shape of a not very nice little girl who may or may not be a seer. I actually suggested to my editor at Ecco that we cut the intermission titles. But she pointed out, correctly, that without the titles those parts were jarring in that they seemed to come out of left field. They’re more effective when the reader knows they aren’t a part of the immediate story.
Rumpus: Setting is an important part of this book. Gold Rush San Francisco is such a vibrant, raucous place. How did you research that era? And more importantly, how did you write a book that didn’t draw attention to its research? Didn’t pummel the reader with peripheral facts?
DeWitt: I wrote a book that didn’t draw attention to its research by not doing very much research in the first place. I looked things up as I needed them, but scouring around for facts is not my idea of a good time. One thing I did do, which probably doesn’t pass for research, is that I used old photographs as prompts. This is how the character of Hermann Kermit Warm came about. I cut out a picture of a prospector from the yard sale book I mentioned earlier, tacked this to the wall in my office, and made up a person based on the image. Anyway, my not having firsthand experience of what I was writing about wasn’t that much of a handicap because character and personality took precedence over setting detail from the start.