Q&A: Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers

(photo credit: Danny Palmerlee)

Back already! This week’s installment features Q&A’s first repeat guest: Portland, Oregon’s Patrick deWitt, who was here last year talking about his remarkable first novel, Ablutions.

His new book, The Sisters Brothers, is a stylish, funny, and often dark take on the classic Western, centred on a pair of guns for hire during the Gold Rush. One of several twists is that Eli Sisters, our narrator, is a sweet and vulnerable cowboy who’s seemingly stranded in a land of savages. As he and his brother Charlie race to San Francisco to kill an important inventor, Eli dreams of a quiet life—one spent brushing his teeth (a novelty back then) and minding a general store somewhere.

All of which is to say: 2011, if you’re going to produce a more rip-roaring book than The Sisters Brothers, you’ve got your work cut out for you. This novel is the fucking best. Just ask the Booker Prize committee.

DeWitt (who, I should add for disclosure’s sake, is a friend) spoke to me recently about titles, magic potions, and why being a huge baby doesn’t help anyone.

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The Sisters Brothers is a kind of picaresque, with a bunch of self-contained vignettes threaded by Eli and Charlie’s journey to California. In other words, the length is negotiable. Did you ever think this was maybe best handled as a short story? At what point did you realize you were writing a novel?

Patrick deWitt: I’d started without any grand plans, just a bit of dialogue between two cranky men on horseback. At around the 20,000-word mark, though, I recognized that things weren’t tapering, and that I was going to be busy for a while. Looking at it now, I can’t see a single section I’d be comfortable cutting. Everything that’s there is there for a reason.

Eli’s ongoing fascination with brushing his teeth is a great little metaphor—the sensitive cowboy who yearns for a little cleanliness amidst the savage west. What appealed to you about using a character who runs so strongly against the grain of traditional Westerns?

PD: It’s probably a reaction to my lack of sympathy toward the traditional Western protagonist. The strong silent type puts me right to sleep. With a lot of Westerns, both films and books, you’re not supposed to consider the thought process of the hero, just his physical actions. That’s why I knew TSB had to be in the first person, and that’s why my protagonist focuses so often on existential matters and minutia.

When we spoke last year, the book was titled The Warm Job. Tell me a little about the function and evolution of the title, and how you came to settle on The Sisters Brothers.

PD: The Warm Job made everyone think of hand jobs and blow jobs. I’d thought this might be a good thing in that it would give your everyday browser something to ponder, but apparently, no. The Sisters Brothers was suggested by my friend Aza, and then again by my editor at Ecco, Lee. I was a huge baby about the title change. And like a baby, I was dead wrong. Cooler heads prevailed, luckily.

Without giving too much away, there are some supernatural elements in the novel—a magic potion here, a seer there. How do these work in conjunction with the rest of the book’s grimy realism?

PD: In an earlier draft the supernatural stuff was much more prominent, to the point it was eclipsing everything else. My wife read this, and I could hear her sighs coming from the living room. Finally she asked me, basically, “What are you doing?” Because it was very over the top, very flashy. Again, huge baby. I moaned and groaned. But she was right—I didn’t have a grip on the most important part of the book, which was the relationship between the brothers. So, I trimmed the supernatural stuff back, but didn’t want to lose it completely, because I like the way those parts colour the rest of the book, the way they flesh out the brothers’ world.

You’ve said you did hardly any historical research before writing the book. Did that continue even after it was finished? Are you any more of an expert on the western now than you were going in?

PD: The research was spare during the actual writing of the book. Once I was finished I started looking things up, and found mistakes here and there, but really, there wasn’t that much to check, because the book’s much more about the intangibles. I’m sorry to say that the few things I did learn have left me or will soon leave me. I’m just not wired to store data for any length of time.

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Want to read more? Sure you do. Here’s where you can buy The Sisters Brothers: Amazon (Canada); Powell’s Books; Amazon (U.S.).

And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!

Previously on Q&A:

Katherine Silver (translator), Tyrant Memory

Rob Taylor, The Other Side of Ourselves

Alison Espach, The Adults

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?

DC Pierson, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To

Patrick deWitt, Ablutions

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel

Justin Taylor, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

Molly Young, Troubleshooting


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