Book club webchat with Patrick deWitt
Patrick deWitt joined us in November 2012 to discuss his novel The Sisters Brothers. He answered your questions on his research, the book's violence and his influences.
The Sisters Brothers is set in the 1850s, Gold Rush California, where the famous killers Eli and Charlie Sisters are on a job for a big boss, The Commodore. Eli is not your average hired gun. He unsuccessfully tries dieting, he's evangelical about his new toothpaste, he has complex loyalties to his horse, Tub. He's tenderhearted, protective and philosophical.
He also has to watch out for his volatile brother, Charlie, whose regular bouts of brandy-sickness and violence make their relationship somewhat fraught. But by the end of their madcap road trip, a strange kind of honour and truth emerges, far more precious than the gold that bewitches them.
Q. Southlondonlady: Because of Charlie's injury, both brothers will need to make a new life. But if that hadn't happened, do you think that Eli would have had the strength to go his own way? As he seemed very tied to/easily influenced by Charlie.
A. Patrick de Witt: In the beginning the characters of Eli and Charlie were very similar in their temperaments. But at a certain point Eli came into focus as the more sensitive of the two, as the more busy-minded, and so he was an obvious choice for the narrator. It would be a completely different book if Charlie narrated it. It'd be an unpleasant pamphlet. Charlie isn't a searching sort, the way Eli is.
Q. Ponya: What are the intermissions sections all about and what is the purpose of the peculiar girl?
A. Patrick: I don't know, and I don't know. I tend to work from a place of instinct rather than intellect. I like mysteries, in the work of others and in my own work as well. It's common for me to write sections that don't serve a specific purpose but feel necessary to me, and the intermission sections are good examples of this. I can't say that they propel a narrative or 'do'anything, but I find them crucial in fleshing out the landscape, illustrating its strangeness and "dangerousness".
Q. Shellybobbs: Patrick, could you explain the relationship between the mother and Eli and Charlie?
A. Patrick: Explain it? I'm not sure what you mean. I think it's pretty clear that Eli is the favored son, and that his failing to live up the the mother's moral standard has damaged their relationship very seriously. Charlie's actions have also hurt his mother; these disappointments have made her hard, cynical. The spectre of the father seems to hang over their every word, and has colored their lives in a toxic way. Not a very happy family, in other words.
Q. PlusCaChange: Hello Patrick. I loved this book, especially Eli's narrative voice and the black humour. My question is quite pedestrian I'm afraid: why did you choose to call the protagonists the "Sisters" brothers? Thankyou and please write more books!
A. Patrick:There's no great answer for this question. Names come and go; often times I wait a long time for them to appear. One day I knew their surname was Sisters. It seemed correct, and so...
Q. Shellybobbs: I thought there was maybe a hint of incest between Eli and his mum, there just seems to be something that you can't make out (think it could be the wanking thing).
A. Patrick: The Wanking Question. Yes, it's an oddity for one's mother to encourage her son to masturbate. I don't know why I did this.
I'm open to the idea that there's something wrong with me.
Q. UntamedShrew: Did you always have that ending in mind, or were you ever tempted to have things turn out differently for Eli? Who do you see playing Eli and Charlie?
A. Patrick: I knew at a certain point that they would go home, but I didn't know what 'home' would look like - whether or not the house would be there, whether or not their mother would be there, whether or not she'd be happy or sad to to see them. I'd like John C Reilly to play Eli. Charlie changes in my mind. Viggo Mortenson? Sean Penn?
Q. ShellyBobbs: Why did you choose this nice neat ending?
A. Patrick: The ending isn't working for some readers, and I knew it wouldn't when I was writing it, but I stuck with it because, for me, it simply is the ending: it strikes me as factual, as if it actually happened, and I felt I couldn't turn my back on it.
Q. CockBollocks: Well, I think I am going to read it again! Loved the idea and style but felt unfulfilled by the content, I wonder if maybe I didn't get into the story properly. I just couldn't get any feeling from it, I read and just found myself wanting to get to the end so I finished it. Some of the elements that didnt really go anywhere were quite distracting. The little girl and the boys' mother, for example. For me they seemed to skip through the journey too fast giving the reader only tiny snapshots of the characters they met - I wanted to know more. What were your reasons for moving through the encounters so fast? The book is quite short, I was certainly left wanting more from it.
A. Patrick: I think we're dealing with a mismatch in taste and aesthetics, here. Sometimes I'll meet a reader who really dislikes my work, and the attitude they tend to adopt is that I've failed them in some fundamental, personal way. On the one hand this can be disconcerting, but I have to admit that I understand this attitude, because I feel the same thing, in reverse, which is that this person has failed me as a reader.
This type of back-and-forth is ultimately counterproductive in that nothing can be done about it. So, it's something I try to avoid.
Q. Simbo: I think the principal message of this book is that there is no redemption for men except through women. Left to their own devices the men sink to base levels, killing, accumulating wealth, which they do for it's own sake rather than earning money for a positive purpose eg to feed their family; none of them even has one.
Each man is in some way a caricature. To the outside world Eli is one half of The Sisters Brothers, only through his internal monologue do we see him as a person. At some point Eli realises that there is more to life than the way that they are living. He wants to have a relationship, have a meaningful life, and failing to do so (the bookkeeper being his only prospect in the story), returns to the only place where he can be loved unconditionally.
I wonder about your own relationships with women, and whether they coloured this book intentionally or subconsciously?
A. Patrick: Well, I would disagree that that is the book's principal message, though I'm tempted to agree with the sentiment, at least in relation to a certain type of man: ambitious to a fault, self-centered, etc.
I'm not sure what to say about my relationship with women, other than to point out that I prefer the company of women to men, and always have, and always will.
Q. Ponya: What is the book's principal message?
A. Patrick: That's the thing, there is no principal message. A lot of themes come and go - loneliness, the perils of ambition, etc - but I didn't want to drive home a particular message, which is something I bristle against as a reader.
Life is fascinating enough on its own without searching for larger meanings. Or, the smaller meanings have always been more interesting to me.
Q. afussyphase: Someone's already asked about how you researched the book - there were definitely some grim times, and in a way, there have been recent echoes of the gold rush in the rush for oil, in Alberta, and the resulting boom... I'm wondering: is there any chemical basis for a formula that could make gold glow like that?
A. Patrick: I looked into this - actually my (much more intelligent) uncle looked into it and he discovered that gold in totally inert, and could never be made to glow.
Q. TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
A. Patrick: Tough question. I loved Roald Dahl and still do. A nice combination of bile and humor.
Q. sunshine panda: Whilst writing the book were there any violent scenes that you were unsure whether to include and, if so, how did you reach a decision either way?
A. Patrick: There were some I cut, yes. I didn't want it to be violent for the sake of being violent. But, when you write a book about hit men, the bodies do tend to pile up.
Q. fairy armadillo: I'm interested to know what background research Patrick did. Life in that part of the world, in those days sounds so grim!
A. Patrick: I did minimal research. I tried at the start but found it a slog and wound up making things up. After the book sold I did a cursory factcheck run through, but I didn't adhere to the results unless I felt this suited the book.
Q. Back2Two: I hope there is a film; Coen brothers maybe?
A. Patrick: Thanks very much. I hope there's film, also. I'm actually in Los Angeles right now working toward that goal. The option's in good hands, and I'm optimistic.
Q.TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
A. Patrick: Just to read, is all. To read constantly, and to search out lesser known authors, living and dead.
Last updated: 7 months ago