Patrick deWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers has earned him a place on the Booker Prize shortlist. It’s a beautifully written tale that takes place on a frontier in which family and old-school-feuding clash. He talks to Online Editor Ted Hodgkinson about finding his voice, embracing narrative and not doing your homework.

TH: The Sisters Brothers is a departure from your first novel, Ablutions. I wonder was there a formative experience that led you to write this book?

PdW: It was my harkening back to a formative experience. What happened was that I’d become the sort of reader and writer who essentially shunned the notion of plot or narrative. It had been creeping up over the years, but increasingly, story held no real importance for me – it was voice I was after, and even now I prize voice over all else. That said, I found myself growing bored, which had never happened before, and which was actually frightening in a way: my entire life revolved around books, and if I lost my affection for them, then what? Well, I found myself returning to novels I’d enjoyed when I was younger, and my tastes were less specific. Typically these were story-based tales – not light reading by any means, but more entertaining, let’s say, than what I’d been tackling in recent years. And it was such a relief to be able to relax with a book rather than sit at its feet or else do battle with it, that I began wondering if I had the ability to write something as plain-speaking and unambiguous. This provoked me to attempt a Western, or a variation on the Western.

I’ve since learned to mix up my reading. The moment it begins to feel like homework, I head for something more welcoming. And really, I should have been doing this all along.

Are there any scenes from the book that you found yourself surprised by as you wrote them?

There were a few different scenes that seemed charmed to me in that they felt pre-existing, and it was just a matter of setting down what I already knew was going to happen. But more than any one scene, a constant joy for me was working on the dialogue. The first rough pages were all dialogue, and from the word go the discussions these characters were having were really lively and slippery and fun to fool around with. It’s a dialogue-heavy story, and most everything is revealed via conversation. Eli’s narration, too, is a kind of dialogue he has with himself, or with a void – it has that chatty sing-song to it, almost taking on the slant of gossip. That’s what it is: at times I felt I was eavesdropping. Being something of a gossip myself, this made for a good time.

There seems something quintessentially American about this story, particularly the violence of it, would you say? Or is that a product of what we’ve come to associate, through pop culture, with America?

The question of whether or not I’m addressing America in my writing only comes up with people outside of America. When my first book came out in translation, several overseas journalists wanted my confirmation that I was spotlighting the decline of American society, which in writing the book never once crossed my mind. I can’t imagine ever addressing a society, any society, intentionally. I’m writing a book now about a corrupt investment advisor who grows up in a Manhattan slum and rises through the ranks to the level of multimillionaire, only to be undone by his own ambition – a thoroughly American story, in other words, but I’m not thinking about ‘America’ in the slightest. My thoughts are with the characters only. And perhaps they are a reflection of this or that society, but that’s not for me to consider.

Isn’t part of the appeal of writing about a frontier society (space or the West or the future) that morality is still in flux and often tangled up with violence?

Well, of course, to write a book is to address a frontier. That sounds contrived or precious but I don’t care, because it’s true. There was an early point in The Sisters Brothers where the story was unwritten but the characters were in place, as was the setting, and the general tone had gelled, and it was just wide open, you know. I could go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted. I had total freedom, and all the time in the world. Once I was immersed myself in the landscape it became bloodier and less romantic, but those contemplative moments before pushing ahead were significant for me.

Can you tell me what you’ve been reading recently?

The last few books I’ve read are: Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter, a fairly heartbreaking story of youthful criminality in 1950s Oregon; Loving from Henry Green, an account of the servant-master dynamic in an Irish castle during the Second World War; Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman, a shimmering story collection by one of my favourite writers; and Stone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta, which spotlights the life of a brilliant, hermetic musician.


Photograph © CBC

Dreams in a Time of War