ONE OF the most praised novels of recent years was Patrick deWitt’s highly original western tale The Sisters Brothers, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won a number of prestigious awards in deWitt’s native Canada.
The Sisters Brothers follows the adventures of two paid assassins, Eli and Charlie Sisters, as they journey from Oregon City to gold-rush era California with the intention of killing a prospector called Hermann Warm. The story is narrated by Eli Sisters and is filled with a remarkable cast of characters - losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells from all stripes of life.
Violent, yet darkly funny, it offers a vivid, compelling portrait of the Old West and brotherly companionship. On its publication in 2011, the novel garnered numerous rave reviews, with this excerpt from The Sunday Telegraph being typical of the enthusiastic responses it inspired in readers:
“The writing is superb, with each brief chapter a separate tale in itself, relayed in Eli’s aphoristic fashion. The scope is both cinematic and schematic, with a swaggering, poetic feel reminiscent of a Bob Dylan lyric, while the author retains gleefully taut control of the overall structure...In The Sisters Brothers, a diabolical combination of Laurel and Hardy and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (with a touch of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, just to emphasise the high literary stakes) deWitt has ensured another unforgettable pair their place in fictive lore.’
Given deWitt’s hugely successful take on the western, it is somewhat surprising to learn he is not steeped with an in-depth knowledge of Louis L’Amour novels or John Wayne movies.
“I came to it knowing very little about the genre,” he tells me. “It was a blessing to be ignorant in regards to what was expected of me, because it freed me up to make mistakes, heedlessly, and without shame.”
Many reviewers remarked on the cinematic quality of The Sisters Brothers and the book is indeed due to make the transition to the big screen, the rights having been bought by actor John C Reilly’s production company. Reilly himself will take the role of Eli Sisters. I ask deWitt when the movie might be released and remark that I am looking forward to seeing it.
“So am I,” he replies. “But, I don’t know the answer to the question. The road that carries a novel from the print format to the film format is not for amateurs, which I most definitely am. For the time I rest easy knowing it’s in the hands of seasoned navigators.”
DeWitt wrote the screenplay for The Sisters Brothers and he has also scripted the 2011 comedy-drama Terri (which coincidentally also featured John C Reilly). How would he compare the process of writing for page and for film?
“I came to screenwriting almost accidentally, and was surprised to find I liked it,” he declares. “It seems to be the inverse of fiction writing in that it’s more about what you don’t put in rather than what you do. Also it feels more hands-on or manual than prose does, like assembling a diorama.”
Patrick deWitt was born on Vancouver Island in Canada in 1975. He has spent time in California and Washington and Oregon and has now made his home in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and son. He made his literary debut in 2009 with the booze-soaked and grimly funny novel, Ablutions.
The novel is set in a seedy Hollywood bar and narrated by a nameless barman with a ruinous love of whiskey. The barman is trying to compile notes for a novel but his drinking is making his life increasingly painful and lonely. Realising he has to break free of his destructive habits he devises a plan of escape and strives for a shot at redemption. Like The Sisters Brothers, Ablutions was also garlanded with glowing reviews, with The Financial Times hailing its “painful humour and tender beauty”, and Booklist magazine declaring “DeWitt writes beautifully about ugliness and his book casts a haunting spell”.
DeWitt himself, who worked as a barman for several years, has described Ablutions as “a nasty little book”.
“Well, that book documents a time in my life which was nasty, so it’s natural the work would echo that,” he explains. “It’s not that I planned for it to be nasty so much as I knew that it had to be.”
With two fine novels already to his credit, I enquire how far along deWitt is with his next book. “It’s still covered in grime,” he replies wryly. “But if you look closely you can see a certain something underneath. I have a mop and bucket at the ready.”
In Ablutions, the narrator’s whiskey of choice is Jameson. Does deWitt’s acquaintance with Ireland extend beyond sampling its liquor?
“I’ve been to Ireland a few times now, and I’m so happy to be coming back,” he states. “I love it. The Irish public’s interest in fiction perks me right up. Regarding whiskey: I’ve been drinking Redbreast lately, and I find it does the job, handily.”
Patrick deWitt’s appearance at next month’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature is sure to be one of the event’s hottest tickets. He reads at the Róisín Dubh - along with acclaimed poet and spoken word artist Hollie McNish - at an event entitled Words and Fables with Hollie McNish and Patrick deWitt on Friday April 11 at 8pm.
Admission is €10 and tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh (www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago) and the Town Hall (091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie)