Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Patrick DeWitt and the Sisters Brothers ride for the first time

I interviewed Patrick DeWitt last week, an Oregon based Canadian whose second novel The Sisters Brothers is out in the UK as a Granta paperback this month.

It's a great read. Very funny, pretty clever, and reminiscent of the kind of western the Coen brothers make for the cinema.

The Sisters are ruthless killers: Eli and Charlie. Eli is the fat one, bit dim and sensitive. Charlie is the snake, a killer to his boots. There's a trailer for the book on YouTube.

I spoke to Patrick via Skype allowing me to both see and hear him. He's a charmer: a great long drink of a man, as skinny as a goalpost, who takes a long time over his sentences and clearly thinks a lot about everything.

Now I said Sisters is a western, but it isn't a western in the way Lonesome Dove is a western.

As DeWitt explained: "I think I've [only] read two [westerns], its not something im drawn to. I'm not drawn to genre writing... I knew the basic tenents of a western ... I knew people ride horses... they smelled worse... I didn't do much research [and that] was liberating. I would recommend that if you are writing a historical novel because research kills those books. Knowing nothing was great. I got to fill in the blanks with imagination instead of Wikipedia..."

His first novel, Ablutions, is quite different to the Sisters. While the Sisters reads just like a western should - with action and anecdote, violence and stupidity - Ablutions is an internalised monologue of someone suffering from alcoholism as he works in a bar.

With his blond hair and square jaw, DeWitt looks like a member of the Master Race, but he's actually a Canadian high school drop out, a former punk, who never even got a High School diploma, let alone a degree in Creative Writing from one of the Better Universities.

I loved hearing him talk about that: he really wanted to be a writer. His father, a carpenter, was a keen but unpublished author and an enthusiastic reader who introduced him to the Beat poets. But somehow Patrick never figured out how you actually became a writer, except by following one of his heroes, Jack Kerouac: which is to say, he roamed around the country doing odd jobs while writing a lot of short stories and reading everything you could lay your hands on.

DeWitt got there in the end. He has a modern, filmic quality to his writing which I liked - and perhaps it isn't so surprising to learn that he has scripted a movie too, which is out in the US in the summer, Terri, directed by a friend of his, Azazel Jacobs.

His comment on that about summed him up. Apparently he'd shown a draft of an unfinished book to Jacobs, who had liked one of the characters enough to suggest turning it into a film. Jacobs put the project together while DeWitt whittled down the pages into a script. I think he was genuinely amazed when the film got the green light and they signed a genuine star - the pockmarked John C Reilly - as the lead.

*My full interview with Patrick DeWitt appears in this week's Big Issue, go buy it from a vendor

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