Local author Patrick deWitt's first novel, Ablutions, was the lavishly grim second-person account of an alcoholic barman and the heavy drinkers and drug users who congregated at his Hollywood bar. His followup, The Sisters Brothers, couldn't be more different: Best described as "historical" fiction, it's set in Oregon and California in the 1850s, and it follows two hired killers in their pursuit of a man with a mysterious formula that just might hold the secret to gaming the Gold Rush.
You can read my full review of the book here; after the jump, deWitt answers a few questions how how much pressure he felt to be historically accurate; whether you can hang a man with his own intestine; and what hangovers were like in the 1850s.
deWitt is reading tonight at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne, 7:30 pm
Based on my internet-ing, the book’s titled was originally The Warm Job. Why the change in title?
It was a practical decision. The Warm Job proved distressing to the publishers, who thought it evoked a San Fernando Valley massage parlor more than 1850’s San Francisco. The Sisters Brothers was suggested first by a friend, then independently by my editor at Ecco, Lee Boudreaux. I think it’s a better title, a clearer summation of what the book’s focus really is. Also, it’s less gross.
For all their murdering, Eli and Charlie [the titular Sisters brothers] have what is in many ways a conventional sibling dynamic. What about that dynamic interested you?
Having grown up with brothers, it was something I could get behind with a degree of understanding, which was crucial because there was so much about the story where I had to fill in the blanks — parts that were beyond my experience. To have this one element that I could relate to really propelled the book. I don’t think it would have worked for me otherwise.
You’ve said in other interviews that you didn’t do much research into your setting—what about dialogue, or even humor? How did you go about tapping into the consciousness of a man living in the 1850s, or did you even think about it in those terms?
At the start I had an idea that their speech patterns etc. should be specific to the period and also to their stations, but this was a dull constraint to me. At some point I remembered that I could do anything I wanted to, and after this the brothers’ conversations became more ornate and stylized and comical. Whether it was accurate or not didn’t matter; I was enjoying hearing these people speak to each other.
At one point, Charlie says that a length of intestine couldn’t even carry the weight of a child, much less a man. I have been unable to verify this fact via the Internet. Recognizing that there's not much in the way of historical detail, to what extent is the book actually grounded in fact?
That’s a tough one to fact check, it’s true. Who’s going to disprove it, though? My approach was to write everything out however I wanted, then afterward to check if it was plausible or not. Sometimes I made up details, like the wall horn Eli and Charlie speak into. I wouldn’t be surprised if that existed, actually. But no, I never felt any pressure for the book to be factually bulletproof.
The only similarity I could find between Ablutions & your new novel is that both deal with substance abuse. Were hangovers worse in the 1850s? Because Charlie’s brandy hangovers sounded terrible.
I imagine they were, because the product wasn’t regulated, and often times homemade, and likely more caustic. Also, there wasn’t any running water, so you couldn’t slug back a couple of glasses with a multi-vitamin before turning in. And there wasn’t any Excedrin for the morning.
Can you describe your next project a bit?
It’s a novel about a corrupt investment banker who expatriates to avoid imprisonment. There’s a dual narrative: his escape and immersion in a foreign culture, and also his looking back at his childhood in New York City in the late 1940s and early 50s.