The Joy of Describing: An Interview with Patrick deWitt


By Maurice Mierau

Patrick deWitt’s second novel The Sisters Brothers is a picaresque western narrated in a droll and striking manner by one of two sibling hitmen, Eli Sisters. In a reversal of Stockholm Syndrome, Eli and his brother Charlie become too involved with their hit, Hermann Kermit Warm, to actually kill him. And so after a lot of violence, more violence follows.

The Sisters Brothers is that rare combo, a terrific read and a stylistic tour de force. It’s also been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and for the Giller (we don’t mention banks by name in this space). Not bad for a guy who lives in the US.

Here at TWR headquarters all of us have read or are reading this novel for pleasure, including Scout the dog, who has trouble with the vocabulary. Our reviewer, Chadwick Ginther, liked it too back in May. The following interview was conducted by email.

Even though this isn’t a straight western, what intrigues you about westerns, whether books or movies? Were there particular influences on you when you wrote The Sisters Brothers?

I didn’t have any real interest in Westerns before attempting to write one. I’ve only read a couple of Western novels, and so my knowledge of the genre, such as it is, stems from the movies I’ve seen: the spaghetti Westerns, Peckinpah, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Early in the novel Eli says, sounding a bit literary and ironic, “… you will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace.” You’ve said that you didn’t do a lot of research for The Sisters Brothers. But Eli’s voice seems inevitable and self-conscious. Where did that voice come from?

I wanted both brothers to be wordy and poetic and capable of expressing themselves with a certain panache. It’s probably not accurate at all, that two assassins in the 1850s would speak this way, but whenever I tried to write a more realistic, stunted voice, it didn’t feel right to me.

While Eli is a more humane, sympathetic character than his brother, he’s also capable of psychotically violent actions. For example:

“It was a head shot, which took the back off his skull like a cap in the wind. I dismounted and limped over to the twitching body. My leg was stinging terribly and I was possessed with a rage. The man’s brain was painted in purple blood, bubbling foam emerging from its folds; I raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognizable as the head of a man. When I removed my boot it was as though I were pulling it from wet mud.”

Why is this level of violence interesting to you as a novelist?

That section was interesting to write not because of the subject matter so much as the difficulty of getting the descriptions down correctly. But I don’t have any particular affinity for violence, I don’t think — it’s not something I look forward to writing about more than anything else. Believe it or not, I tried to avoid writing about violence as much as was possible in The Sisters Brothers. I knew there was going to be a good deal of gore in there due to the fact that the brothers were assassins, but I didn’t want the gore to be what the book was about.

Why did you stick in those little inter-chapters called Intermissions? They seem dream-like and quite different from the rest of the book.

They are different, hence the title cards. I proposed pulling the titles to my US editor, but she pointed out that without them, the sections were simply puzzling. The titles tell the reader he’s taking a step away from the immediate story. As far as why they’re there: I just like them! They were amusing to write and hopefully are amusing to read, as well.

There are many funny passages in the book. Some of my favourites include when Eli says that he and his brother are “the opposite of lawmen,” when he tries to order a light meal in Jacksonville, “the soothing method” as his mother’s euphemism for masturbation, and best of all when Charlie says that one of their victims “has a describing problem.” This last is funny because it sounds like a literary critic and not the psycho alcoholic killer that Charlie is. What’s your favourite bit of humour in the novel?

I like the part where Hermann Warm is talking about how his father, Hans, went crazy. Hans was a German inventor who immigrated to the US; his frustration at not being accepted into American society poisoned his mind and he abandoned his useful inventions, devoting his time instead to the improvement of torture and killing devices. Says Hermann, “He updated [the guillotine] so that instead of simply removing a person’s head, the body would be cut into numberless, tidy cubes. He named the great sheet of crisscrossing silver blades Die Beweiskraft Bettdecke — The Conclusive Blanket.” Running this last phrase through the Google translator made me laugh, I remember.

Canadian readers will be curious what your connection with our country is, beyond getting listed for big-time awards that Americans aren’t eligible for. So what’s the connection? If it’s not too personal a question, how’d you end up in Portland, Oregon?

I was born in British Columbia and lived there on and off for years. Both my parents and their parents and grandparents were born in Canada. I’m still a Canadian citizen; I have green card status in the states. My living in Portland was pretty random. I had a bit of money from my first novel and my (American) wife and I wanted to start over somewhere we’d never been. We didn’t know anyone here but we’d heard it was a nice place, good for kids — we have a six year old. So, we gave it a whirl, and we’re glad we did. It’s a very hospitable town.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau is editor of The Winnipeg Review. His new book of poems, Autobiographical Fictions, is just out with Palimpsest. His previous book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award.