Patrick deWitt's debut novel, Ablutions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 164 pages, $23), perches at the back of a pitiful bartender's mind as he observes his wretched regulars and struggles against becoming one himself. The author, who now calls Portland home (and the North Mississippi Avenue bar Liberty Glass his home away from home), tended bar in Hollywood for six years, so he knows a thing or two about the squalid lives of barflies and the people who serve them. DeWitt will read from Ablutions on Thursday, March 12, at Powell's on Hawthorne, and he talked books and booze with WW on the eve of his novel's release.
WW: Literature and liquor are not exactly strangers to each other. Why add to the crowded canon of alcoholism?
Patrick deWitt: I was in a precarious place with my writing, where I felt I knew enough about form and sentence-building but was unsure what to write about. One day my wife was proofreading some overambitious tale of ideas I'd patched together and she said, "You should write stories like the ones you tell me every morning after work. They'd clobber everything you've done before." A bitter pill, but she was right, and once I got started on the book the ubiquity of the alcohol angle became a non-issue because I knew I'd tackle it from my own vantage point.
So no 2666-esque novel of ideas from you in the near future?
I'm not crazy about this question, because it could lead the uninitiated reader to believe Ablutions is light reading, or that it's simplistic, which I doubt was your intention but which I will at any rate go ahead and disagree with. I didn't mean to imply that by finding a subject in bars and drinking with Ablutions that I'd found a subject for the rest of my life. I have no plan to revisit these themes, at least not so specifically, and I've never wanted to be the type of writer that depends wholly on his own experiences for material.
I got the sense, reading Ablutions, that it was as much about the sadness of Los Angeles as it was about substance abuse. Doesn't this story have to be an L.A. story?
I would say yes. The regulars in a dive bar in Tacoma, say, are a totally different animal than the regulars in a dive bar in Hollywood, a place that breeds both fame and failure on a larger level than any other town in the world, and which as a backdrop gives everything a warped, glowing weirdness. There's a lot of class-mingling in L.A. bars, too—millionaires one night, winos the next, which is interesting.
Jonathan Lethem said [in an interview by Dave Weich at Powells.com] the following about literary influences: "I've always been very aware of 'Oh, I'm really trying to do some DeLillo here' or 'Here I'm trying to write a scene that's all Shirley Jackson.' I know when I'm doing it, and I like it. I feel comfortable there." As a first-time novelist, I'd imagine this feeling of "doing" other writers is difficult to overcome. Who or what haunted your process? And is Lethem on to something? Should we all just own up to our inheritance?
Sure. Why not? Every writer was a reader first, after all. I didn't have any particular person in mind when I was writing Ablutions, but there's been times where I've seen someone else's hand in my work, absolutely. Harry Mathews said something very liberating about it, which was that imitating literary models is the best thing a young writer can do, like painters making copies of classical masterpieces. Of course at some point you have to stand on your own, but everyone has their go-to authors.
The subtitle of Ablutions—"Notes for a Novel"—gives the impression that you've written something fragmented or "un-novel-like," which is not the case. Why the subtitle?
The subtitle came from my habit of taking notes at work on Post-its. I tried to re-work these into the more traditional first- or third-person voice, but when neither of these satisfied me, I decided to stick to the notation style, hence the second-person voice. The original title was Ablutions: Notes for a Novel: A Novel, but this was pared down along the way. Probably for the best.
Are there going to be a bunch of angry people at your old place of employment once Ablutions comes out?
I suspect there'll be more confusion than anything, people looking for themselves in the pages and wondering who this or that character is modeled after. Kind of a waste of time, actually, so much of the story being altered or invented. But I hope they don't take offense. And really, no one in the book makes a poorer showing than the protagonist, who everyone seems to think is me. That could be my defense in the event of mob violence: "How do you think I feel? People have me pegged as the pants-shitting, horse-punching old-lady fingerer."
You've been on both sides of the publishing game now—you self-published a chapbook, and now you're getting published by Houghton Mifflin. Which "hustle" is preferable?
Well, you're talking about two situations that are so completely different, it almost doesn't make sense to compare them. I enjoyed doing the small book—my brother put that out by the way, not me—and am planning another, and will probably always do them as time permits, because it's rewarding to build something from the ground up like that. But I'll stick with the large publisher to put out the longer work because I want the novels widely read and considered, and because it's what I want to do for a living, and the small-press route wasn't going to afford that. Of course you give up a degree of freedom, but as long as they don't monkey with the writing, I'm all for it.
You will surely answer a variation on this question in every interview you will do for this book, but I can't resist: Where are your favorite places to drink in Portland?
I really like Liberty Glass, at the far end of Mississippi on North Cook. You know that big pink house? It's homey and creaky and the food's excellent. There's a three-legged dog there I wrote into my new novel, The Warm Job. He plays himself, in 1850.
READ: Patrick deWitt reads from Ablutions at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, March 12. Free.
Patrick deWitt reads from
at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, March 12. Free.