Are you still friends with the tattoo parlour guy?
“I haven’t seen him since.”
It might be a stretch, but it seems to me that story says something about the world of Patrick deWitt, or at least of his novels, where characters are not so much driven as pulled along by mysterious forces, subject to a tug of war between what they think they want and what the world apparently wants for them.
There’s the alcoholic, self-destructive narrator of Ablutions, a book so clearly autobiographical and vicious in its assessment of the inertia that grips its barman protagonist.
“It’s quite a brutal book, quite ugly, and I couldn’t write that book now because I don’t feel the same way I did,” deWitt says of the slim volume, comprised of short chapters (many of them just a paragraph long, and written on Post-It notes while he was at work). “I was fairly unhappy, desperate in some ways, and I think that’s apparent in the text. But I am proud of the book.”
Then there’s hapless Lucy in Undermajordomo Minor, a young man drafted into service in a mysterious gothic pile somewhere in central Europe where strange things go bump and hump in the night. There’s Eli in his magisterial western The Sisters Brothers, forever dreaming of making a clean break from his life as a hired assassin in the company of his sadistic sibling Charlie, but always somehow drawn back into it.
And think of Frances and Malcolm Price, the 65-year-old widow and her adult son, in his most recent book, French Exit, their fortune dwindling, unable or unwilling to adapt to their diminished circumstances, their co-dependence fuelling a spiral that can only lead to destitution and/or death.
It might all be rather grim were it not for the fact that his stories are also very funny, incredibly empathetic, and rather beautifully written.
“I do deliver a lot of bad news to the reader fairly often,” deWitt concedes early on in our lunch, a superb five-course tasting menu at Kazuki, a French-inflected Japanese restaurant in Carlton.
It’s been said of deWitt that he is a writer who takes established genres and gives them a new twist. But that’s not a view he has much truck with.
“It really comes down to the characters and my affection for them,” he says. “The fact it takes place in a Western landscape or a fable landscape is a little bit interesting but it’s just set dressing for me. I don’t have anything to say about genre, really.”
Nor is French Exit a political book, he says, or even especially a critique of the 1 per cent frittering away their (and, by implication, our) wealth.
“It’s more a character study than a sociological survey,” he says. “I’m not saying anything about the 1 per cent.”
It’s not that he’s entirely uninterested in politics – the US under Trump is, he says, “beyond grim and in some new territory I don’t even know how to describe. We’re the laughing stock of the entire f—ing world.” He believes that “devoting yourself to art is a political act”, but adds that he has “never been one to think politically, ideologically. It’s just not my way.”
Something in his work, though, clearly speaks to our times. His books sell well by the standards of literary fiction, he is regularly invited to speak at festivals around the world, and three of his works have been adapted for the screen.
The first was an unpublished short story, which his filmmaker friend, Azazel Jacobs, turned into the film, Terri, starring John C. Reilly. Azazel then read The Sisters Brothers before it was published, realised it demanded a scale well beyond his means and passed it on to Reilly, who produced it with his wife, with the Frenchman Jacques Audiard directing.
That film, starring Reilly as Eli and Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed and Rutger Hauer among the supporting cast, was one of this year’s least-appreciated gems, and came as a relief to deWitt. “I’ve known quite a few authors who, in seeing a film made of their work, are aghast and filled with loathing, and I completely avoided that whole scenario,” he says.
Now filming has just finished on French Exit, with Michelle Pfeiffer starring as Frances and Lucas Hedges (Oscar-nominated two years ago for Manchester by the Sea) as Malcolm.
“I think my work lends itself to film because it’s so chatty,” says deWitt. “But writing is a very specific endeavour, and if I were to find myself thinking, ‘I can’t do this because it wouldn’t make a good scene in a film’, I would be concerned.”
While he’s writing, deWitt makes a point of screening out as much of the world as he possibly can. He holes up in his Portland home and divides his day into chunks of writing downstairs, devouring new authors on the couch and revising upstairs on a typewriter in the evening.
“A little weed at night while writing is really helpful,” he says. “I write in the morning sober, just with coffee, then at night I take a look at what I’ve written, get a bit stoned and make a mess of it all, then I tidy it up again in the morning. It’s sort of like two writers collaborating.”
What he doesn’t have is the internet.
It started when he was writing Undermajordomo Minor, “and it was six months late and I thought, ‘My God, I have to finish this f—ing book’. And one day I added up how long I’d spent on the internet and it was four hours, and it hadn’t even been a particularly robust day, and I began to think, ‘Well, four hours a day, every day, for the rest of my life – and I don’t get much out of it’. So I cut the Wi-Fi.”
He imagined he’d reconnect once the book was finished. “But by the time it was done, I just thought, ‘Actually, I’m quite a lot happier without it’. Wi-Fi feels like the death of solitude, of solitary thought. It feels like you’re in a room with people all the time. And I think if you’re going to write, you should have some quality time to yourself, daily.”
Still, he’s no Luddite. When he’s on tour and staying in hotels, he confesses, “I just go crazy”, bingeing on YouTube videos. And as he discovered recently, there can be downsides to opting out of the connected age.
He’d been struggling with his latest work, and then finally he had a breakthrough. “I got over the hump and I had five months of really inspired work,” he says. “But owing to a computer snafu and my own idiocy – and because I don’t have access to the cloud – I lost this draft. It’s just gone.”
For many an author, that would have been devastating. But deWitt tried to take it as a sign that the book just wasn’t meant to be. “But I really missed the characters and I was anguished I hadn’t seen the story through. And so one day I sat up and said, ‘Life doesn’t happen for a reason, everything is complete f—ing chaos, and I’m going to save my book’. So I went back to it and I’m telling it from a different angle now, the same character but from the end of his life rather than the beginning.”
French Exit, he concedes, was probably a little bit about his relationship with his mother. The new one might arguably owe something to his relationship with his father – a carpenter who also wrote. But we’ll just have to see. Though he describes himself as a creature of habit whose daily routine never changes, deWitt, like his characters, is never entirely in charge of his creative destiny – and that’s the way he likes it.
“I get lost all the time,” he says. “There’s a sense of flying by the seat of my pants, which is far more enjoyable for me than plotting everything out. Every day it’s a new day, and that pleases me.”
THE BILL PLEASE
Kazuki’s, 121 Lygon Street, Carlton. 9349 2223
Tues-Thursday, dinner only; Fri-Sat, lunch and dinner; Sun, lunch only.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.