- Text by Shelley Jones
I first discovered Patrick deWitt when his second novel Sisters Brothers – a dark and funny tale of gangsterism and adventure set during California’s 19th Century Gold Rush – made the short list for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. The prize was awarded to Julian Barnes’ existential Sense of an Ending that year – a moving and disarming book that’s currently being made into a TV film – but Sisters Brothers stuck with me. It was like Of Mice and Men meets Django Unchained. A classic western – full of good-and-evil dichotomies – with a hilarious streak of surrealism. Modern writing, set in an unexpected historical context. It did very well, or so I heard.
So now deWitt’s back with his third novel Undermajordomo Minor and there is understandably quite a bit of fuss over its release (I was actually reminded to get this interview up by Vice’s post of the same nature, which is a clear sign of fuss if anything is). Following a popular novel is never an easy thing to do but deWitt took his time – actually shelving the book he spent over a year writing in Paris – and has returned with what is being called, “A love story, an adventure story, a fable without a moral, and an ink-black comedy of manners.”
The book tells the story of a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor, who takes a job at the fairytale Castle Von Aux. Soon Lucy realises things are not quite what they seem and the gothic mystery plot unfolds. The time and location are left intentionally vague – a sort of nostalgic neverland.
I suggest to deWitt in our interview that he’s totally got ‘a thing’ now – deWittian: edgy classics – which he poo-poos a bit, but he does admit he’s working on a new novel about a Scott-era explorer, which seems to perfectly fit within that kind of canon.
Here’s a chat we had in the Ace Hotel at the beginning of the summer while sipping on a cocktail called a Rose Garden.
How did you get into writing?
At a fairly young age, I think I was like twelve or so, my father started giving me books to read and I just kind of took it up in a way that was probably abnormal. The books he was giving me were probably a little bit advanced beyond my experience and I remember thinking it was intimidating but also that he was treating me like a peer and that was meaningful to me. It was only a matter of time before I started writing as well – poems and short stories. But I think the goal from the start was to write novels.
Did you have ideas you wanted to communicate?
I didn’t have any burning stories I wanted to tell as such it was more about having an affinity for language. From the beginning I was more of a sentence, word and grammar person. I really admired a well-constructed page or story. Plot and things like that were secondary to me. It was more my curiosity about how these things were constructed than the actual content.
So did you then study writing?
No I think it was a symptom of me reading books that had been published in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s – and reading very little contemporary fiction – I felt like to be a writer you had to go out into the world and have adventures and write about them, so I dropped out of high school to do that. I just went out and read a lot and wrote a lot, over a period of ten years.
Do you still think that’s true that you need to have adventures to be able to write well?
No absolutely not. I think it’s a good jumping-off point because adventures tend to inform your worldview, but I don’t think it’s necessary at all.
Bukowski used to say that…
If you want to write like Bukowski it certainly helps.
For a more autobiographical style?
Well my first book was autobiographical and it seemed necessary at the time to write that sort of a book and that’s just what I had available. But once it came out I made a conscious decision not to write about my life, as overtly, again, if I could help it. And I’ve avoided it with the second and third book. The sort of writing I want to do, I don’t want it to have very much at all to do with my actual life.
Do you think things from your actual life will always end up sneaking in there though?
They certainly do. It’s really just a question of how you mask these things or the size of the role the autobiographical plays in the work. I was just uncomfortable with the degree of the autobiographical in the first book, after the fact. Not to criticise the book, which I’m proud of still, but I just didn’t want to be that author that relied on his or her exploits.
When did you start writing your new book Undermajordomo Minor and what was the inspiration?
I was about a year into a novel that was about a corrupt investment advisor – an evil money-grabbing type – and I’d done research trips to New York and the idea was that this businessman would be tipped off that he was about to be indicted/arrested and he would flee to Paris to live with considerably less money. So I got a residency in Paris and I uprooted my entire life and spent many months living there to write this book and a year into it, during my time in Paris, it started to sink in that I was bored. I was bored by the subject matter, the protagonist, his desire to accumulate money, which I thought was going to be fascinating to consider. Around the same time I was reading Jewish fables to my son and I was having a lot more fun reading these. I was staying in a very old building in Paris – which was built in 1603 and had been a monastery I believe and a hospital during the First World War. The passage of time was very heavy there. So this castle-like environment lining up with this interest in fable-type storytelling came together and I said goodbye to the other book and focused on what would become Undermajordomo Minor.
Your last book was very American and now this one is set in Europe. Did you feel like you had to get into a European state of mind?
I think Sisters Brothers has a very American voice. But it’s almost like I’m donning a suit of clothes – it’s a masquerade in some way – it’s not a natural voice, it’s a very studied, gussied-up voice. And it’s the same with Undermajordomo Minor. I’m essentially mimicking a lot of my favourite authors – people like Robert Walser. It’s ventriloquism in a way. I wanted it to have a European sensibility but I didn’t want it to have a specific European sensibility. The period of time and location I’ve left vague intentionally. It’s meant to be somewhat exotic and antique, but not specifically.
The sense of humour seems European.
I think the dialogue between Olderdough and Lucy is definitely influenced overtly by British comedy like Monty Python – these sort of ridiculous, lengthy, very formal conversations.
Both this book and your last book Sisters Brothers are set in the past. Why wouldn’t you want to write about now?
I’m not that fascinated by the now, I’m coming to realise. After I finished this book I thought, ‘Okay now I have to return to a contemporary setting,’ but now I find myself writing a book about an explorer, even further back in time than these last two books… I have a strong and natural impulse to write outside of contemporary culture. And I think that this stems from my ambivalence. I’m just not that interested in the world around me. I feel very disconnected. I don’t have a television. I don’t keep internet at home or on my phone. I don’t read newspapers. I find myself increasingly ignoring the world except for what’s right around me – my friends and family, my books, my work. I don’t think that’s particularly healthy but I don’t see that it’s doing any great harm. And I find it’s wisest, in terms of the work and the output, to follow your instincts.
Reading your books is like watching a movie. Do you visualise the story when you write?
I think I think more in terms of the words on the page and how it reads, the mechanics of it. But I believe that I have been corrupted by television and film and I do think in visual terms. And if I hit upon what I think to be a fascinating or striking visual in my mind I am very keen to translate it in a way that the reader can see it as clearly as I can. People refer to my writing as cinematic; some people mean it as a compliment, some people mean it as a criticism. But I don’t see it as an insult. A lot of my favourite authors conjure visuals.
Your work celebrates the antiheroes. Do you think antiheroes are more interesting than heroes?
I’m not particularly interested in heroes and villains. It’s just sort of unrealistic to me. I much prefer the grey tones of humanity, rather than the black and white. And I’m much more comfortable writing about people that are more than one thing. I do have an affinity for underdogs and people who are dissatisfied in some fundamental way. My next book is about an explorer, and he’s an inept explorer.
Are you a moralistic person?
I think of my parents as moral people, and they helped to raise moral children. I suppose it’s not something I think of. I think it’s something that every person struggles with, or doesn’t struggle with. Certainly in the past I’ve been very gluttonous, and I’ve recognised over a period of time that it leads to unhappiness. Or it can. Or it did for me. Certainly when my son was born I started thinking about how I am now accountable to someone. Before when I wasn’t I was certainly a different kind of person. And I’d say that I’m happier now – living a somewhat more chaste life. But I think there’s certainly something to be said for excess and gluttony and lust and all that stuff. It’s a part of life on Earth and it’s a really pleasurable aspect to it, it’s just a case of measuring it out.
Your characters are always ambitious, though, I think.
Yeah I suppose they are. And I’m always sympathetic to people who want to change; who want to improve their life. The phrase, ‘Fortune favours the bold,’ I’ve found that to be true. It’s such a clichéd thing to say but the people I know who’ve had interesting lives have had interesting lives because they’ve fought for it.
Being an author seems like a rare occupation these days. Any advice?
The hardest thing is just to learn to construct a decent sentence. It took me so long to find the authors I thought were writing specifically for me. But once you find them, they’ll introduce you to others. When you stumble upon these magical authors that are suited to you, as individual, then it all comes clearly into focus. It’s amazing to read a book and think, ‘This is exactly what I want to do, this is exactly what I want to accomplish.’ So my advice to young authors would be try to find those authors, as early as possible, that speak to you as an individual. And try to sort of crack their codes. As much as you can. If a segment of writing really moves me, oftentimes I’ll try to reread it and find out how the author got me.
We’ll see what happens with this book about an explorer. I bought a bunch of diaries of famous explorers. On these trips they’d have all sorts of different characters; an illustrator, a botanist, a priest. So it’s the perfect scenario. Just as a jumping-off point. Sometimes these ideas seem full of energy and they peter off. So we’ll see.
Undermajordomo Minor is out now on Granta Books.