"The Internet Was Fucking Me Up:" Patrick DeWitt On Books, Bubbles, & Bullshit
The author of The Sisters Brothers doesn’t have a TV, or the internet. What he does have is a new novel, and perhaps a few answers.
Patrick deWitt is receding. Not visibly. He looks well, in fact: relaxed and rested. But he’s withdrawing, disengaging. It's very much on purpose. “More and more I find myself turning away from everything relating to contemporary society,” he says. “I don’t know how healthy it is, but I am creating a very private bubble that I live in.”
By the look of him, it’s pretty healthy. DeWitt, 40, is entirely angles. A rectangular face, handsome and bespectacled, perched atop his long, thin frame; like someone took Peter Fonda and stretched him, but not detrimentally.
We're sitting in the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, London, where the restaurant is empty and the music, currently Eurythmics, is loud. He is measured, his speech tempered and thoughtful, as soft now as it was during the reading he gave in Soho last night.
We're talking about culture, and how he came to separate from it – less a divorce than a conscious uncoupling, for reasons of his own sanity. “It was during the writing of this book,” he explains, “that I recognised the internet was actually fucking me up.”
Not that he has anything against the internet. He likes it too much. It's a problem. “I always look at the stupidest shit. The most frivolous. And I really love it,” he laughs. “It’s like eating candy. And I don’t have the self control to turn away from it.
“Television I don’t have, for the exact same reason. I love television. Having one here in the hotel room, it’s on the whole time. I’m actively seeking out the stupidest, lowest-common-denominator shows I can find. And I love them, you know?”
I do know. I nod accordingly.
“I can’t be trusted with these devices, so I’m better off without them. I just stay away as much as I can.”
He looks at my iPhone. Thankfully, he isn’t one to speak in absolutes.
“I know a lot of people who use the internet really wisely. It enriches their lives in some way,” he says. “That’s just not how it works out for me. I have an impulse to wallow in bullshit. It’s a real perversion of mine. It’s easier to take myself out of the game.”
His speech is always considered, and he always offers caveats. You get the impression he’s spent a lot of time thinking of his answers in advance. You also get the impression that he worries, mostly because he tells you this, explicitly, several times.
“Travelling around the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching television, seeing the things that are happening in the world, it’s not…it doesn’t make me feel good. If I open the door and look, it’s like 'ah, fuck', and I close the door again.”
“I’m always quick to point out that this is just how I choose to live; I wouldn’t recommend it. And thank god that more people aren’t feeling the way I’m feeling.”
Judging by his new novel, his lifestyle is serving him, and his readers, just fine.
Undermajordomo Minor is the tale of Lucien “Lucy” Minor, a melancholic 17-year-old in a vague 19th-century eastern European state, who takes a job serving the mysterious baron of a crumbling castle. There he meets a mentor, tangles with thieves and soldiers, and falls in love with a local girl. So far, so fable. But this isn’t your average fairy tale.
Part folktale, part comedy of manners, part other, it exists at both ends of deWitt’s spectrum at once: pitch black and morning light, as quietly unsettling as it is tender, as sad as it is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
It also exists as counterpoint to the prevailing culture of violent anti-heroes. It’s perhaps in this regard that deWitt’s exile from the contemporary is most successful. Because above all, Undermajordomo Minor is a love story, and in its earnest and tender portrayal of that love, unabashed and irony-free, it’s welcome relief from the current mood.
“A declaration of love in this cultural climate is not necessarily welcome,” he says. “But I do think that we’ve overdosed on irony.”
For someone with such an aversion to irony, deWitt is behind enemy lines and deep into ironic territory. This doesn’t seem to faze him any, but then I doubt Shoreditch stereotypes have permeated his bubble. And if they had, he’d likely still be unfazed.
Though there is much that is undeniably hipster about his lifestyle – the Portland home, the lack of TV or internet, the vinyl collection – his earnestness prevents it becoming the kind of parody shows like Portlandia portray. In fact he's something of a misfit in the Ace, with it’s coffee bar co-working space awash with MacBooks and moustaches.
But he likes it here. That's enough.
This earnest current runs through the book. What might be parody in the hands of another writer is well balanced, steered away from potential pastiche. He toes the line, treads on it, but never steps over. It’s a masterful act, one played with genuine affection.
“I’ve fallen in love in my life a few times. It’s the most exciting part of being alive, that I’ve experienced anyway. I wanted to try and convey that feeling.
“A friend of mine, whom I admire very much, was concerned that it was too tenderhearted. I realised in talking to him about it that I was at least partly, semi-consciously, reacting to a prevalent nihilism amongst our generation.
"I didn’t want it to be an ironic love story. I didn’t want it to be a bleak love story. I wanted to write a proper love story. I feel strongly that that attitude, that nihilistic and dismissive attitude, that very cool attitude, I think that we’ve seen just about enough of that."
“I think that now’s a good time to tell a love story. Partly because it’s a timeless trope, but also because I think it’s needed, right now.”
It's hard to disagree.
Had deWitt not engaged in a physical recession, we’d be here to talk about a financial one, in the form of a book – the other one he wrote since his Booker-nominated second novel, The Sisters Brothers, dropped in 2011. A novel he abandoned along with his TV.
“After The Sisters Brothers I tried to write a contemporary story, dealing with an investment adviser in New York City who moves to Paris. I did all this research, but after about a year and any number of pages written I was bored stiff."
While that story slipped away, a new idea was seeded by the Jewish and European fables he found himself reading.
“I thought it would be fascinating to look into the mind of a man who was obsessed with the accumulation of wealth, and it was very shallow for me. Maybe I just didn’t have the empathy to crack that code. I just don’t care, ultimately, about rich people getting richer, or losing their wealth. Jumping into the fable story felt absolutely just correct.”
He wrote the book in sequence, he says, “more or less”. The first 30 or 40 pages fell on to the page very quickly. “Boy leaves home to enter into the world, it’s a very basic jumping-off point for any fable or fairy tale type story. It just seemed the most clichéd beginning.
“I love the idea of cliché intermingling with more contemporary things. Engaging in cliché is really fun,” he says. “As long as it’s counterbalanced by something else.”
He pauses as the iconic drum break from Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" kicks in.
DeWitt is a writer very concerned with his art. He wants to make good art. To release work he’s proud of. He’s still proud, he says, of Ablutions, his first novel, but not much before that. “Fortunately my apprenticeship took place during the pre-internet years,” he says. “If it existed on the internet it would be a deeply shaming thing for me.”
He could have finished the banker novel, could’ve released it, “it would have been decent," he adds. "But I just don’t think the world needs any more decent novels.”
He’d much rather hold off and wait, he explains, until he’s got “something that I do believe in, all the way.”
Undermajordomo Minor is certainly that thing. But more than that, it’s the philosophy he’s found, the way he’s shaped his life, that he believes in. In turn, it’s shaping his work.
“I’ve come to realise, in the last year or two, that I am an escapist. I don’t want to be part of any zeitgeist. I’d much rather write in the long term. And you don’t have to write in the distant past to do that, but I already have an idea for another book that takes place in the distant past, and it may well be that I work in this mode for the rest of my life.”
Tender and sad, funny and heartbreaking, warm and violent. The book – and the author himself, one suspects – exists on spectrums. For the lightness at play, a dark vein runs through it. DeWitt flirts with the macabre. But he's no fan of horror. “I feel anxious enough in regular life,” he says, “without engaging in anxiety in my free time.”
And yet the creeping dread he conjures is intense and vivid, the flashes of violence sharp and jarring. It is a quiet horror. It creates a very real sense that beneath the veneer of decorum, his characters are in pain.
“The frightening parts of the book, I think, represent real fears for me, and I’m very sensitive to that sort of thing. I have really vivid nightmares. It’s not my idea of fun. But a part of me wants to go in that direction, so I don’t fight it.”
Be thankful then, for spectrums. The horror is almost always comedic. Blackly so. “Everything I do," he says, "is always tempered with humour at some point or another.”
Much of the humour arrives in the dialogue, streams of unfailingly polite verbal sparring, supplemented with sparse description and action. The characters don’t so much argue as joust, their veiled barbs wrapped in silk, unwavering in decorum.
“I was overtly inspired by Ivy Compton-Burnett, particularly Manservant and Maidservant. There’s something about perverse conversation under the umbrella of this very decorous, polite banter. I could have written in that tone for many more pages.”
The Sisters Brothers also contained many of these poetic, philosophical discussions that don’t necessarily move the plot along. Here it is dialled up, drawn out, and deployed to roaring effect.
“I’m obsessed with the way humans interact with one another. I’ve become a sort of unabashed eavesdropper, sitting on an occasion like this, stealing people’s words, writing them down, appropriating them. It’s just an endless source of fascination."
“I like sitting down and writing a conversation between two men, which essentially serves no purpose,” he continues, "other than to illustrate the idiosyncrasies of the mind. This book is filled with these stories where not that much is necessarily revealed. It’s more just a recognition of my love of language, of conversations held between two human beings.”
Much of the dread comes in quiet moments that punctuate conversations or chapters. When the Baron Von Aux lies in the bathtub, screaming underwater, quite silently, you feel it. It’s the anxiety, the frailty, that lies under almost every surface in the novel. Yes it’s a novel about love, and love is rarely simple and unfettered.
“I think of the Baron as a cautionary tale of what can come from giving yourself to someone else. The potential harm that can come from falling in love, how vulnerable you become. It's an unpleasant situation to be in, and most people have experienced that to some degree or another. With the Baron we’re just dealing with that extreme example.”
DeWitt smiles. He is affable, polite, and considered. He’s been in love. And he knows pain. It’s sitting there, just under the surface of both man and book.
The writing process exists on a spectrum, too, and as easily as those early pages came, it soon moved to the other end. “The first section was really simple to write, and the rest of it was just a struggle, every page.”
He ended up a year late on his deadline, though his publishers were accommodating, offering him two six-month extensions. "Everyone was very sweet about it actually," he says, The Smiths intruding from the speakers above.
“I find that I tend to forgot the bad parts. I think this is how it is for every book. I remember Ablutions as being a joy to write, I remember The Sisters Brothers as essentially having written itself. I tell people this, and people that knew me then tell me that that’s not true at all. I’m always pulling my hair out. Somehow all the negative experiences fade away and I think of it as this purely pleasurable experience.”
At this point, he still remembers the difficulties. “About a year after I got back from Paris, I became really self-aware. I realised that this book was going to be scrutinised to a degree that I wasn’t used to, owing to the success of The Sisters Brothers. If I failed, I was going to be failing publicly, on a large stage. It was really crippling for a while.”
DeWitt is candid about placing himself, and his struggles, into his fiction. But also about how writing, and writing humour particularly, is catharsis.
“There are any number of things in my work that are self-referential or meta. Being alone for long periods of time you need to entertain yourself. I gravitate towards humour, because if I were to sit and write expressly melancholic works, it would affect my world view, my happiness, my sense of calm. Humour improves the quality of life, makes life easier to digest. The fact of the matter is I’d rather laugh than cry.”
Slowly, frustratingly so, the novel began to take shape. The ending, however, proved elusive, or, as deWitt puts it: "The ending was fucked." It remained so until days before his final deadline in December of 2014.
Thankfully, at the eleventh hour, he managed to find it.
“I really enjoyed writing the ending," he says, donning his trusty rose-tinted glasses, "because it came after such a long struggle. I wasn’t sleeping, I was really kind of a maniac by the end of it. There was a lot of hair pulling, and then a real burst.
"It’s very gratifying, to be presented with a problem and then to solve it. It reminds me why I got involved in the first place.”
Patrick deWitt needs a hobby. He tells me this explicitly.
“I’ve been thinking I need a hobby.”
“I have reading and writing. I have my family and my friends, but I need something else to do. It’s increasingly obvious to me that there’s a gap to be filled there, particularly in the afternoon.”
The solution may already be in front of him. Inside his bubble. Earlier this year, he bought a house. “It’s getting more difficult to do in Portland, but I sort of squeezed in before it’s beyond my means.”
As a younger man, deWitt worked in construction with his father and uncles. The men in his family are carpenters. I ask if he’s planning to renovate the house himself. “Yeah, I’m already thinking of knocking out part of the roof, building a proper master bedroom. My father and I will be doing that together, in the coming year.”
In the meantime, he's working on new idea. A new book. An adventure. “I think I’m going to write a book about an explorer,” he says. “It would take place on a ship, largely. I’m thinking it’ll be written in the first person as a diary, but who’s to say.”
I wonder if this is the next book, or the next other book, one we’ll never see. I’m sure he wonders this, too. He’s said it aloud now, so it exists, if only as a question in an interview some years down the line.
Our chat comes to an end. He walks me out, shaking my hand and thanking me, twice. I get the impression he means both of them.
For all his escapist leanings, he’s written a very realist book. It’s dressed up in rags and transported by train to a land of castles and barons, but as stories about the human condition go, it’s a wonderful achievement. It’s one he accomplished by putting some distance between himself and the world, just enough to find space to breathe, to write.
In saying nothing about the world we live in, about the financial crisis, about our addiction to wealth and to smartphones, he has said so much.
Is it possible to write like this while living a contemporary life? Maybe. But not for Patrick deWitt. Maybe not for anyone with an impulse to "wallow in bullshit," as he puts it – to binge-watch TV shows and check their smartphone a hundred times a day.
He's found a way of existing that works for him. One that has furnished us with a funny, tender, human novel. But he doesn't have it all figured out.
"As I said, I do need a hobby," he tells me. "But I’m working on that.”
"Maybe home renovation will be the answer."
Who’s to say?