I loved his novel The Sisters Brothers, described as “cowboy noir” with dark humor and an off-kilter view of the Wild West. The book chronicles the misadventures of two hired guns during the California Gold Rush.
Eli, the narrator, is conflicted about murdering people. His brother, Charlie, is not. You could easily imagine the Coen brothers making a hit movie out of this quirky story.
The most disconcerting part about reading this book was realizing, “Oh my gosh, I’m sympathizing with a killer. But he’s a killer who’s sensitive. Who just wants to meet someone special, get married, and settle down.”
The author sounded and behaved exactly the way you’d imagine after seeing his photo in the event program: angular face framed by black-rimmed glasses and longish, sandy blonde hair. Serious expression.
Oh, yes, ladies: brooding, charismatic, sexy.
In fact, after deWitt finished reading a revealing essay about his writing life, my friend Jamie texted me from the other side of the room: “Omg. I’m in love.”
The author was open about his not-so-positive life experiences. He mentioned them in passing: drug and alcohol addiction, his personal life “in shambles” as he finished his most recent novel Undermajordomo Minor, over-indulging in anything he likes. He paused and smiled after this last comment, which led to tittering among audience members: he was alluding to sex.
But he also mentioned the highs. His love for his 11-year-old son. Amiable and welcoming readers who enjoy his writing. A rewarding profession that nevertheless comes with oddities: “I spend time by myself in a room inventing my own playmates, and have them do perverse things.”
He also described his writing practice of two sessions per day. Strict, reserved Morning Man writes during a caffeine-fueled three-hour session with a donut (“ideally a fritter”), while Chatty Night Man engages in a shorter, “mild marijuana”-propelled stint.
The author was frank about painful writing experiences. He wasn’t able to complete one novel, and it caused him much anguish and guilt, partly because he moved his wife and son to Paris with him to write it. He wasn’t able to figure out how to make it work: “When a valley stays a valley too long…it becomes a hole.”
He thought it was a failure, a waste of many months and many thousands of dollars.
“What to do in a situation such as this?” he said. “I elected to pout.”
Until he realized the experience of working on that story – inspired by Bernie Madoff and the question “How did a man become a monster?” – led him to write Undermajordomo Minor. The book was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Author Emily St. John Mandel said it “wears a fairytale cloak…elegant, beautifully strange, and utterly superb.”
The bridge between the failed novel and the successful novel was the experience of reading a compendium of fables to his son near the Luxembourg Gardens. An experience he thought was a monumental failure turned out to fuel one of his great successes.
The unpredictable nature of writing is what he loves about it.
“Much of a writer’s work,” he said, “is simply standing still and listening.”
Katherine Valdez did not imagine drinking coffee and eating fritters with Patrick deWitt, did not wonder whether he’s currently in a relationship, and did not check out photos of him that her friend looked up online. But she was first in line to get her copy of The Sisters Brothers signed by the author.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of “Mature Fangirling at Literary Sojourn,” in which you will read about the true-life experiences – some embarrassing, some inspiring – of other best-selling authors featured at this event.
For readers who are the literary world equivalent of moviegoers who sit through all the credits to see the “Easter egg” bonus scene, I give you this:
- During questions and answers, deWitt mentioned his readers always demand meaning. “I just make things up,” he said. “I don’t consider my own subconscious.”
- On the criticism about the demise of a horse in The Sisters Brothers, he explained he had tried to express brutality without killing people: “I thought I was doing everyone a favor.”
- One older lady in the audience loved the novel but said, “I got tired of the body count.” deWitt replied, “I was aware about that being potentially grating, but when you’re writing about hit men, you’ve gotta deliver.”
- Another audience member, an elderly gentleman, said he didn’t like the ending of Undermajordomo Minor. “Endings are really hard,” deWitt said, then added with a smile: “…I’m doing the best I can. Get off my back.”The author concluded with this: “You never really know what you’re doing, and that’s one of the exciting parts of writing.”
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