Canadian writer Patrick deWitt's (1975) Governor General's Award winning second novel, The Sisters Brothers is a story of two killers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who travel from Colorado to California at the time of the Gold Rush. Their job is to kill a certain prospector at the order of their boss, the feared Commodore. They have no idea what this prospector has committed, and as the story unfolds, they seem less and less inclined to murder him. Funny, violent and tender, this novel has everything for the lover of westerns—murder, alcohol, revenge, gold and sex—but differently... We talked to Patrick deWitt in Budapest on the occasion of the publication of The Sisters Brothers in Hungarian.
My first question stems from my being the Hungarian translator of The Sisters Brothers: did you make faces when you were writing this book? I found myself making faces and adopting strange postures all the time while translating it, because it was much easier that way to empathize with and find the right voice for Eli, the narrator-protagonist. Do you do that while writing?
With dialogue specifically I find in editing and rereading it that I actually act out the parts. Not physically emoting perhaps, but I read it out loud and adopt what I imagine the physical traits of the person who is speaking. So yeah, you try to inhabit the character when you are working with them, and somehow it helps. If you are reading a line that doesn’t feel correct, if they speak words that they would not use in real life it can really be jarring.
How did you come upon the style that Eli uses, this innocent, well-articulated, sober style? It is certainly not the way a killer in the Wild West would speak in real life.
Initially I tried to have the characters speak like people used to speak in those days, which is much more halting and jarring. Eli’s voice emerged over a period of time. In the beginning they were both like Charlie: very rude, crude and gluttonous, and then Eli came out like this much more searching and curious man, and I preferred this voice so much to Charlie’s, who I am also sympathetic with. I wanted the protagonist to be busy-minded, essentially like a poet. He just sort of showed up as this poetic, romantic character, constantly hurt and wanting a better life for himself, which is a voice you do not typically see in a western.
How do you mean that this voice emerged over time? Did you rewrite the book once it emerged?
Yes. Often times I start with the idea of a character, but I don’t necessarily know who they are, so after ten or twenty pages I start to see what they are really like and what they would do in a particular situation. So once I knew who he was I had to go back and rewrite everything. When I write about someone I don’t know I must spend time with them, doing research in that way. It is time-consuming but it seems worthwhile. As for Eli’s style, his manner of speaking is indeed a curiosity, and likely historically impossible. Two killers in 1850 would never speak in these fully formed and poetic phrases. The idea is that, though their speech is very controlled, and they themselves very rarely curse, the world around them is very wild and vulgar. Almost like they're the calm in the eye of the storm. And while the language itself is quiet rigid, what they're saying is often times not. It's like they're very serious about everything, but all around them is chaos and black comedy.
Why do you think genre bending westerns are so popular nowadays?
The Western is a sort of a constant. I don’t know why people like it so much, I guess it is because people like to take part in tradition. They like to read new westerns partly because it makes them think of all the other westerns they used to enjoy. But I don’t quite understand what the ongoing appeal is about, somehow it seems comforting for people. It might have to do with escapism—people like to think of that time as a romantic period. A big motivation for me in writing The Sisters Brothers was to do things you don't normally see in the western genre. Typically, for example, the killers in a western are nearly mute, and sort of stupid, or cruel. So, I made my killer protagonist a talkative, smart, poetic neurotic.
Were you influenced by anyone in particular? Your name is often associated with that of Cormac McCarthy, but apart from the thematic concerns I don’t quite see the parallel.
I don’t understand the comparison either. It is a lazy habit and I wish that people did it less. I think someone who is a great fan of Cormac McCarthy would not necessarily like my book. I read Charles Portis’s True Grit when I was young. I admired it very much, and I think it is probably similar to my book in tone, in voice and in playfulness and in dealing with human idiosyncrasies.
There is an underlying quest narrative in The Sisters Brothers. All the characters are obsessed by the Gold Rush, and as the story proceeds and as there is more and more real gold in the story, it also becomes more and more allegorical, and in a way gold eventually comes to stand for the unnameable, for the ultimate meaning of life. How conscious was this underlying ’Holy Grail’ narrative?
There are a few themes throughout the book, and they all emerged organically. If something is fascinating to me I bring it up again or it will appear on its own, but I don’t think about why something is working.
So it was not an initial idea?
No, never. Of course, I am constantly making the book more compact. Themes are something I avoid for the most part, but if they emerge and they are not harming the book, I keep them, but it is not that I intellectualize over them.
There is a very peculiar balance of high and low in your novel—horrific and disgusting scenes vary with beautiful scenes of tenderness, admiration of nature and spiritual elevation. You mentioned that you don't like extremes: you hate heroic characters because you never met one, and it is the same with evil characters.
Yes, I certainly prefer the middle ground. That’s a more honest portrayal of life—I just think life is more complicated than good and bad, the middle ground is to me the richest ground. I like vague, unfinished things, because that’s how we really live. You never have a great day, your day is always a little bit of this and a little bit of that. So this is reflective of my view of the world, how I feel being alive.
Even in scenes of extreme tenderness, you are careful to avoid sentimentality—a very typical example is that when Eli’s beloved horse Tub dies, he feels relief rather than sorrow; or there is this very strong scene when Eli holds Charlie’s hand for the first time, which happens when Charlie’s hand is cut off by a doctor and Eli is throwing it to the bin.
Measuring the scenes is sometimes like making maths equations—it either adds up or it doesn’t add up, and if it doesn’t, you just have to go back and redo it. But a lot of the time I’d written a different scene, for example one in which Eli was much more wounded by Tub’s death, but it seemed false, so I had to go back and rewrite it. I tried to empathize, so it occurred to me on some level he would be relieved with Tub’s death because of Tub’s unreliability. So the art of it all is measuring it out.
Did the same thing happen with the supernatural elements? There are two short chapters called ’intermissions’, typeset with different fonts, dreamlike scenes which stand out of the rest of the novel. Were there more of these originally?
There was a lot more in the original finished draft. I showed a version to my wife in which there was a lot more of these kinds of scenes which were threatening to become a focus of the book. It all stemmed from the witch’s cabin in the beginning of the book, where Eli was cursed. My wife said she was enjoying it so much until he was cursed and I stopped focusing on his feelings. I was really proud of those parts, so I was very angry with her, but she was right, so I started cutting those parts away. When I started editing I suddenly realized that it was the proper thing to do, but I kept the supernatural in to a degree because I think it is an important part of the story. I much prefer a vulnerable protagonist to someone who is not afraid of anything.
Whenever I meet a non-Hungarian writer I am curious to know if they have read any Hungarian literature...
Well, I am largely ignorant, but I just bought Nádas’s Book of Memories that was recommended to me very highly. I am saving it for the moment when I go back to Paris and will be able to savour it. But I have to say I am not that concerned about authors’ national identity, I read people for their voices rather than their location.
Tags: Patrick deWitt