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Meeting Patrick DeWitt: R.M. Clarke

Writing.ie | Magazine | General Fiction
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In the clamour of a trendy Dublin coffee shop that is likely not too far a stylistic cry from his local in Portland, Oregon, I meet Patrick DeWitt. He is a striking figure: tall enough to bring on a squint, with an intense, almost haunted, gaze. He is softly spoken and gentle and at times his steady stream of talk gets swallowed up by the screeching laughter of the college students passing the hours at a table nearby.

He’s tired. DeWitt has been on a drill of a book tour that began in America and is now somewhere around the middle in Dublin. But for DeWitt, Dublin is a place that “puts … a traveller at ease.” It’s the people that do that, he says. “They’re accessible and sweet and curious in a way that’s non-invasive.”

Scrutiny is not something that he relishes. After the success of his last novel, the Booker shortlisted The Sisters Brothers, DeWitt is now writing into a waiting spotlight. He set to work on UnderMajorDomo Minor, his third book, without the buffering of anonymity, conscious that a thirsty audience was waiting to see if he could follow his own star act.

“There was a phase in writing the book,” he says, “when I was hyperaware of the expectations, and it was a bit of a distraction. But then that feeling faded away and since the book has come out I’ve been pleased with the reaction and I feel like I can step away from it to a degree.”

Success as a writer asks a strange compromise. It brings with it a new set of fears and anxieties, traded up against the old. It’s no longer ‘will anyone read this?’ but ‘will any of the readers like it?’ DeWitt is no longer writing in the dark, or in ‘the void’, that he knew before he was published. Critics are waiting, as are an established readership of The Sisters Brothers fans. Was it was difficult to reconcile the writer he was then to the writer he is now after the success of his second novel?

patrick dewitt“It hasn’t changed my work or point of view or process, I don’t feel,” he says. ‘I think the work is still coming from the same place, which is nice. But there is this new element to it, which is the expectation. And it’s like if I make a mistake it’s going to be a public mistake rather than a private mistake. So the stakes seem somewhat higher.’

But there are no mistakes to rue. The reaction to the difficult ‘novel after the novel’ is largely positive and DeWitt can relax and enjoy his pen-down time. The “unpleasant feeling” that came with the awareness of public expectation is now gone, and it affords him a certain measure of distance to be able to figure out what the book “means to (him) personally.” Like The Sisters Brothers, UnderMajorDomo Minor rests upon the pre-painted stage of an established world. If The Sisters Brothers was DeWitt’s wry-eyed take on Don Quixote, then UnderMajorDomo is, arguably, his reimagining of Voltaire’s Candide. This re-invention of genre seems to be a reoccurring theme in his work, but DeWitt insists it’s not part of a scheme of his.

“It’s all coming from a place of wherever your interests lie, that’s where you work. There was a contemporary book before UnderMajorDomo that I abandoned because it just wasn’t connecting for me. There seems to be something freeing for me in stepping back in time. It refuels my interests in a way that the contemporary (novel) just wasn’t.”

DeWitt’s not a planner. He writes from the place of not knowing, of being surprised by what comes, and where his characters bring him. It is a sort of expanded state of invention, or devising, which taps into the unconscious mind and lets the critical mind rest. That connection to the unconscious might be one of the reasons he often doesn’t make the connections between his books that those on the other side of the page do. When I ask if there is any significance in both the Sisters brothers and Lucien Minor in UnderMajorDomo sharing a similar, quasi-Oedipal backstory (both the brothers and Lucy were either directly or indirectly responsible for their father’s deaths and were subsequently rejected by their mothers), he shares a rare smile.

“It’s happened over and over again that connections between my novels are pointed out to me by somebody and I wouldn’t know. So those are two very similar storylines that I hadn’t considered ‘til just now.”

The unconscious mind bringing up some things he needs to address perhaps?

“Well I didn’t kill my father, he’s alive and well, and my mother does love me. So I don’t know where these things are coming from. But I always have this feeling that I shouldn’t ponder why I do what I do so I don’t upset the process.”

Perhaps DeWitt doesn’t want to fix something that isn’t broken. Working unconsciously has brought him success, and a spotlight that he does his best to sidestep. It is a mark of his strength as a writer that he has managed to avoid making UnderMajorDomo Minor a deliberate piece that neither bows down in homage to The Sisters Brothers nor makes a conspicuous departure from it. “I just think there are some things that are better left unknown,” he says, with characteristic modesty. “Like, I won’t go to a psychic because I think it’s better not to know whether or not the psychic is telling me the truth…”

…Or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?

“I believe that’s very common. I was considering hypnosis because reading (in public) is making me very anxious and so I thought, well, I’ll go and try hypnosis and maybe that will make me feel calmer, but ultimately I just think it’s unwise to tinker with that stuff.”

The supernatural is a recurring theme in DeWitt’s work: the dream-like intermissions in The Sisters Brothers; the ballroom and the man in the burlap sack in UnderMajorDomo. Is this another unconscious aspect of DeWitt’s writing process? The draw of the taboo?

“It’s something I’m very much afraid of,” he says. “Something I have strong beliefs in. Ghosts and things like that.”

DeWitt admits he’s seen “a couple of ghosts” in his life, and has a certain “reverence” for the occult as a result. “It’s just natural for an artist to address the things that he or she fears,” he says. In UndermajorDomo Minor it’s not just people who are haunted or who haunt, but places. The set piece of the Castle Von Aux – particularly the ballroom within it – is depicted as holding onto intangible dark energies. I wonder if this is a familiar phenomenon for DeWitt in non-fictional life?

“Yeah there are happy rooms and unhappy rooms. And it’s something that people who probably have no beliefs in that sort of thing can recognise, that some rooms feel better than others. And that’s fascinating to me.”

The fascination for DeWitt, it seems, lies in that which cannot be pinned down and known, what cannot be neatly dissected. His work follows this vein: it eludes categorization, resisting genre even as it toys with it, standing both inside the geography of familiar worlds, and stepping back from it, and laughing. There is a sort of disembodiment to the writing that is captured in a reflection by Lucy in UnderMajorDomo Minor: ‘He listened to his own laughter with what might be described as inquisitive detachment. Much in the same way he had never been able to reconcile the connection between his reflection and his mind, Lucy could not recognize his voice as relating to his person.’

It is that tentative detachment that gives us the unique perspective of Patrick DeWitt, the dark, sad, haunted humour of a man who knows a few things about the disconnect between the body and the soul. As DeWitt himself puts it, “I’m just uncomfortable in my skin, I guess.”

(c) R.M. Clarke

About UnderMajorDomo Minor

Lucien (Lucy) Minor is the resident odd duck in the bucolic hamlet of Bury. Friendless and loveless, young and aimless, he is a compulsive liar and a melancholy weakling. When Lucy accepts employment assisting the majordomo of the remote, forebidding castle of the Baron Von Aux he meets thieves, madmen, aristocrats, and a puppy. He also meets Klara, a delicate beauty who is, unfortunately, already involved with an exceptionally handsome partisan soldier. Thus begins a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behaviour is laid bare for our hero to observe. Lucy must stay safe, and protect his puppy, because someone or something is roaming the corridors of the castle late at night.

Undermajordomo Minor is a triumphant ink-black comedy of manners by the Man Booker shortlisted author of The Sisters Brothers. It is an adventure story, and a mystery, and a searing portrayal of rural Alpine bad behaviour with a brandy tart, but above all it is a love story. And Lucy must be careful, for love is a violent thing.

UnderMajorDomo Minor is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

R.M. Clarke is an author and voiceover artist. When she’s not in the studio recording animations or TV and radio ads, she’s writing. Her tiny play, The Ice-Cream Robbery of Sherkin Island, was published by Open Pen Literature Magazine, and an excerpt from her first novel, The Glass Door, won the Discovery Event in the Dalkey Book Festival in 2012. This attracted interest from publishing scout and writing.ie founder, Vanessa O’Loughlin, and landed her an agent, Simon Trewin of WME. She has written two currently unpublished novels, The Glass Door and The Horologist, and is working on her third. She lives in Dublin.

Twitter: @rmclarke_

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