It sounded like an absurdity. Patrick deWitt’s second book, The Sisters Brothers, had been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the redoubtable honor bestowed annually on the finest British novel. Patrick deWitt wrote his novel in Portland.
But it’s no joke: DeWitt was born on Vancouver Island, B.C., and so is eligible for the Man Booker as a citizen of the Commonwealth. The selection of The Sisters Brothers, a darkly comic tale of Old West assassins, to the 13-book longlist last week marks the latest apex of a ridiculously triumphant year for the 36-year-old deWitt, who arrived in Portland from Los Angeles in 2008. Already in 2011, he’s watched the screenplay he wrote, Terri, get made into a movie with John C. Reilly, and open to glowing reviews. And he’s been chosen for a literary residency in France, where he’ll travel next year with his wife, Leslie, and their 6-year-old son, Gustavo. But for now, he’s content to sit in the sun outside Caffe Vita on Northeast Alberta Street, sipping a San Pellegrino Limonata and talking about dogs.
WW: Are you going to get knighted now, or what?
DeWitt: My mom keeps making cracks about that. When I don’t pick up her phone calls, she asks if I was speaking with the queen. But yeah, if you make the shortlist, which is announced on [Aug.] 6, then you get to go to London, which would be great fun. But I’m not really sure what my chances are.
Did you even know you were eligible?
I knew I was eligible because I’m Canadian, but I didn’t know the book had been submitted, and I’ve never really thought of my work as being far-reaching enough to be included on lists like that. I didn’t know that they were announcing it that day and I was checking my emails, not awake yet, and there were just a dozen hysterical emails from all these different people with a lot of capitalization and exclamation points. That sort of screwed up my whole day, really, in the best possible way. I didn’t get any work done at all.
Were you trying to write?
I started what I hope will be my next novel a couple months before all that stuff descended. It’s about a corrupt investment banker who finds out that he’s about to be arrested and so he expatriates, and then starts a new life under a pseudonym in France. There’s sort of a two-pronged story of him discussing his assimilation into a foreign society with quite a lot less money than he’s used to having, and then also him looking back over his childhood in tenement living—these things that lead him to become somewhat sociopathic.
Which he shares in common with characters in The Sisters Brothers.
Well, apparently I have an attraction to unkind men, and I don’t really know why. But I think I like the idea of humanizing people who do inhuman things, I guess. But it’s certainly been a through line, for me. But backdrop-wise, it’s different than anything I’ve really done. I don’t know that much about finance, and I don’t know that much about New York and I don’t know that much about Paris. With the last book I did, it sort of was really minimal research, and it felt like homework to me and it just sort of brought pouty adolescence back into the light. But this time around I’m going to try to get a little bit more into it. My wife and I are going to Paris next year....I got a residency for three months, but it’s sort of open-ended. We might not want to stay, but I suspect we will. It’s pretty pricey, though. I’m not sure how we’re going to swing it.
How much French do you speak?
Virtually none. I was taking classes but then I dropped out. I hadn’t been in a classroom since 12th grade. But my wife’s doing pretty well. My plan is to cram right before, so February, March I’ll be sitting there with the Pimsleur CDs, hoping for the best.
You’ve said some of the ugliness in Terri is making people uncomfortable. Have you seen examples of that?
It’s not really an escapist movie, you know? It’s like the opposite of an escapist movie. But yeah, I’ve just been hearing it quite a lot. My father said he saw the shed scene and he said, “All I know is when the sun finally came up, I was as relieved as I can remember being in seeing a movie.” And he wasn’t joking around. I think that it had been taxing for him, and I don’t think that’s a bad reaction. When I see movies and they make me anxious, I tend to feel a certain hostility. I feel anxious enough in my daily life. I don’t want to go pay $10 to be anxious. So I’m sympathetic to people who are kind of bucking against it. But at the same time I don’t see how I could have told that story without there being a certain degree of anxiety wrapped up in it, because adolescence was such an anxiety-filled period for me, and for most people.
Terri director Azazel Jacobs told me you’re working on something together.
Yeah, we’ve talked about the novel that I’m writing now. He thinks it would make a good film. And I think if anyone could do it he could do it and I would be honored if he would work with me again.... When the Man Booker thing came out, [Jacobs] called me to say congratulations. We were talking about when we first met: I was washing dishes in a bar and he was shooting Good Times Kid and he came and asked if he could shoot for free at the bar, and the film they were shooting with was film they had stolen off the back of a truck in Hollywood from some Brad Pitt film or something. So we were just sort of discussing [how we got] from A to B and it’s nice that we’ve sort of been able to share these things together.
It has to be strange, too.
It’s just very odd. You read a review from Roger Ebert and there’s just sort of a laughing-gas quality to it. It’s hard to ingest it. There’s a dreamlike quality to good news. Bad news is much more concrete somehow.
Do you still hang out at Liberty Glass these days? Every time I write something about you, I end up mentioning at some point, “Patrick deWitt, longtime habitué of the Liberty Glass,” and I don’t actually know if that’s true anymore.
Well, I think the good people of the Liberty Glass probably don’t know who I am, and they’re probably puzzled about it. But when we moved here, that was just one of the first places my wife and I would take my son. And the macaroni and cheese is really excellent. There’s a three-legged dog scene in Sisters Brothers and that was inspired by a back-and-forth my son had about [Liberty Glass’] dog, Otis, who actually was thanked in Sisters Brothers.
I didn’t realize he got a thank-you.
Yeah…Otis the dog gets a thank-you in the book. I only met him this one time, but we had this thing where my son, who at the time was I guess 4, and it was just like in the book—except my son wasn’t trying to poison the dog. Otis was lying down, there was a bone right next to him that looked like his leg, and I didn’t know Otis was three-legged. My son said, “That doggy’s leg came off.” And I said, “No, no, that dog has four legs, it’s just a bone for the dog to chew on.” And right at that same moment Otis stood up, and he happened to be missing the leg that was nearest the bone that was lying independently of his body, and my son gave me a look like, “I told you so.” So that inspired a scene in the book relating to a three-legged dog.
It’s a darker scene in the book.
Yeah, much darker. I hope they’re not offended because the dog dies in the book.
READ IT: The Sisters Brothers is available in stores now.