Patrick deWitt’s new novel The Sisters Brothers follows two sibling hitmen who become entangled with their hit, Hermann Kermit Warm. With a cast of dissolute, rough talking prospectors and only regular outbursts of violence to pass the long hours in the wilderness, it is both a Western and a timeless story about a pair of conflicting brothers. The author spoke to Granta’s Online Editor Ted Hodgkinson in July about American violence, being long-listed for the Booker and the elusive mystery of naming your characters.


 
TH: What does being long-listed for the Booker mean to you?

PdW: I haven’t grasped it completely. It’s just outlandish to me. I’m humbled and proud and distantly, pleasantly nauseous. It makes me feel that the years I spent writing into a void (with nothing but photocopied rejection notices to show for it) was time well spent.

The Sisters Brothers, follows a pair of fraternal hitmen through a now disappeared North American West. Do you think of it as a Western?

At a certain point I began to think of it as a Western for people who don’t read Westerns, and that’s proven to be true, but it’s also been generously received by people who do read them, and by and large these folks aren’t finding anything amiss. Well, they know better than I do. If it’s a straight Western for them, it’s a straight Western for me, too.

The brothers are very different. One, Eli, goes on a diet and apologises for his brother Charlie’s rudeness. How do they survive for long stretches in the wilderness without throttling one another?

It would seem that they take out their anger on others.

Is there such a thing as an American kind of violence, do you think?

I think violence has evolved, and that it’s now fairly uniform the world over, at least in the major cities. But I do feel that during the period of time referenced in The Sisters Brothers, American violence was more blunt and direct, lacking in decorum. The prominence of pistols and an overall lawlessness made for some brief arguments, apparently.

From the Sisters brothers themselves to the man they are sent to snuff out, Hermann Kermit Warm, to horses Tub and Nimble, there are some great names in your book. Do your characters ever confound their names, and you?

Names are always hard to come by for me, which can be maddening, because it’s an ever-looming question mark when I’m trying to bring a character into focus. And oftentimes it’s the name that solidifies someone in my mind. Unfortunately, there’s no way to hurry the process along; the names show up when they want to show up. Today I was in my backyard and noticed the brand of my lawnmower (Murray) and its model name (Mulcher), when combined, makes a great alliterative name. I can see him now. Murray Mulcher. He’s a perfect failure. I wrote it down right away.

It’s a very funny book. Did you crack yourself up while writing it at all?

Most of the time, if I’m writing something humorous, I’m actually pretty dour about it. But there were a few moments of snorting and desk slapping when I was working on the fireside scene with Hermann Warm drawing out his horrific back story.

What are you writing now?

I’m working on a novel about a New York City investment advisor who expatriates to France rather than go to jail for crooked business practices. I don’t know what his name is yet, and it’s driving me crazy.

 

The first chapter of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt is available here. The Sisters Brothers can be purchased from Granta Books in the UK, House of Anansi in Canada and HarperCollins in the US.

Photograph © CBC

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