It's a main thing, a sort of barometer in all my work: if I'm not having fun, then something is wrong


Patrick deWitt

Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers

With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt has written a highly entertaining, funny and enjoyable revisited version of the classic western novel. We were lucky enough to meet him and ask him a few questions about this exhilarating story of two brothers on a killing mission in Oregon in 1851.

As the genre of your novel is quite a peculiar one, what or who were your influences?

I don’t think I can point to anybody because I was approaching it very little about the genre. I would point probably to some movies that I’ve seen, that my father watched – a lot of westerns – but it was my not knowing that much about it. You know, you’re forced to make things up when you don’t know that much about it and it was wide open in that way for me. Some people have talked about Charles Portis, who wrote True Grit, and I would consider him an influence in an overall sense, he’s one of my favorite authors, but his other novels are non-westerns, they’re all sorts of masterpieces, that’s more general. I didn’t really have any books in mind when I was working on this, I think people have commented on its cinematic qualities so it probably points to the movies that I’ve seen. But again, I’m not a big fan of the genre.

The realm and the atmosphere of the novel are indeed quite cinematic, I could really see it adapted for film, probably a crossover between Jarmusch and the Coen brothers. Since you’re also a screenwriter, would you like to see it adapted?

It’s been optioned by an American actor named John C. Reilly, he wants to play Eli, so they’re putting a team together to figure out who is going to direct it and who is going be in the film. John let me write the screenplay so I adapted it myself, that was actually very nice of him. There are so many variables in terms of getting a film made, I cannot guarantee anything but it seems that they’re heading in the right direction and that it’s in good hands, so I have my fingers crossed.

Why did you choose to make Eli the narrator of the novel?

He just revealed himself to me as the more thoughtful, the more interesting of the two people. I think that if Charlie had told the story, it would have probably been a lot shorter, he wouldn’t have all these digressions. The whole tone of the book is very searching, Eli is by nature a curious and sort of philosophical type of person. At the beginning it was a third-person voice, but when Eli started coming into focus, I found myself more and more curious about what he was thinking about, so I switched it to first-person, I think it was the right thing to do. I think he’s sort of a natural born narrator, because he’s very busy-minded, so hopefully it makes for good reading.

In The Sisters Brothers, but also in Ablutions and the movie Terri that you wrote, the characters are very endearing despite their flaws and dispositions. Don’t you want to create despicable characters?

Apparently not, actually! It’s one of these things I don’t really think about that much, because it’s just instinct and it’s best to just listen to instinct and get it out of the way. But I guess I have a soft spot for a certain type of person and I seem to revisit it over and over again. What I’m working on now is the same sort of thing: it’s a flawed person, a compulsive liar, and yet he’s quite loveable to me. You spend so much time with these people, so who wants to spend time with someone who isn’t pleasant to be around? It’s like having a roommate or something like that: do you want a nice person living with you or do you want a monster? I just prefer the company of nice people, if flawed.

Why are they called Sisters?

I like the idea of feminizing them a little bit, but really it’s just a gag, it’s like a play on words, I just thought that was mildly amusing. It actually wasn’t supposed to be called The Sisters Brothers, it was just something you recognized in the text, you realize at a certain point: “Oh these are the Sisters Brothers”, but it wasn’t overly a reference. My editor in the United States asked me to change the title because it was called The Warm Job… Which didn’t really work, I thought it was a great title, very funny! But it was upsetting to the publishers, who were behind the book 100%, but they said “Please change the title, no one is ever going to buy the book if it’s called The Warm Job”, so my editor said “Can we just call The Sisters Brothers and be done with it?” so I gave in to that and I’m glad I did cause the Warm Job is just not good.

As a writer, how do you work with American mythologies?

I think it’s important, for me anyway, just not to take it too seriously. I think that if you’re working on a genre and you’re referencing something that has really rich history, you should treat it respectfully, but I also think it’s important to approach such things with as lighter touches as possible. It’s easy to get wrapped up in something’s history or the legacy you’re addressing, and I tried to avoid it. I came away with something like reverence for the western, because it was difficult to tell one, to write one, but I didn’t take it too seriously, and I sort of made fun of it too along the way. This is empowering and this is also fun. It’s a main thing, a sort of barometer in all my work: if I’m not having fun, then something is wrong. And fun is maybe not the correct word, because if you’re writing something sad, I’m not saying you should be laughing, but it’s engaging or it’s not engaging. When something is boring me, then I know that I’ve done something incorrect.

How do you deal with the fact that you’re Canadian and tackled a genre which is quite sacred in America, while, in my opinion, doing better than most Americans? :-)

I’ve lived in the US for a long time, I don’t feel American necessarily but I also don’t feel too terribly outside of it. Enough time has passed where I do feel comfortable there and I still consider myself Canadian, and I’m a Canadian citizen and everything, but it was beyond my reach. I didn’t feel like I was speaking for someone else or anything, it felt natural enough.