Patrick deWitt: Creating the neurotic cowboy
In his award-winning 2011 novel The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt takes on the Western stereotype of the hard, gritty cowboy and turns it on its head with the sensitive, neurotic hit man Eli Sisters. We reached out to Patrick to find out how he began this most unconventional of Westerns.
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What came first for you—the story or the characters?
Definitely the characters. The Sisters Brothers started out as a little bit of dialogue between these two men who became Eli and Charlie Sisters. At some point, it occurred to me that there was, in the Western genre, a certain lack of interior life to the characters, but also a lack of sensitivity. Everyone is always very crass and they’re not the most searching people in the world. The Western protagonist, he knows what he wants and he goes after it. So it seemed there was a void there and I thought that maybe I could fill it.
It began as some dialogue; I had no plans for it to become anything longer then this exercise and then perhaps a short story and it just continued to grow and grow and the characters became more and more real. I felt I had more invested in who they were and what they had to say, specifically Eli Sisters, and at a certain point I just recognized that it was blossoming into a novel.
The Sisters Brothers opens with one of the brothers, Eli, thinking about his and his brother's horses. What made you decide to start here?
When I thought of what was lacking in the genre—not lacking, but what was absent in a way—was a sort of neurosis. I remember writing that on a notepad: “Where’s the neurosis in the Western protagonist? Where is the self-doubt?”. All these things that we feel now in contemporary times seem to have been written out of historical novels, but they surely must have existed. I liked the idea of this very tough man feeling emasculated by his own horse—which is an inferior, slightly overweight horse— and then feeling acute envy over his brother’s superior animal. This seemed to set the scene, first of all for the dynamic between the brothers—Charlie being the one who seems to come out on top—but also set the scene for Eli’s frame of mind. This is someone who’s searching for something better in his life and is unhappy, feeling that he’s gotten the short shrift throughout his life. It seemed a tidy summation, a good place to start in terms of letting the reader know just who Eli is and that he’s dissatisfied in general.
Was there something you hoped to achieve with this introduction in terms of the tone and language (i.e. the lack of contractions)?
The thing with the contractions is it just seemed to lend itself to a bygone era. It seemed to render it somewhat antique, as though you’re looking at an old daguerreotype photograph or something like that. In terms of their language, I attempted in the beginning to have them speak probably more along the lines of how men really did speak then, especially seemingly uneducated men, violent men. It stands to reason they are probably much more crass, far less verbose than Eli and Charlie are. But, I didn't enjoy writing those voices, it wasn't fun for me and if I’m not having fun, then what’s the point? So early on I decided that not only Eli and Charlie, but basically every character you meet in the book, is well spoken and poetic and searching. This is probably not historically accurate, but I wasn't terribly concerned with historical accuracy.
Was there ever a time when this wasn't the beginning?
In the beginning it was bit of dialogue. I’m actually not sure if it ever made it into the book. It was just these two men having a trifling argument about something inconsequential, but it was more: there was something about this dialogue that made me very curious about the men, especially Eli. I remember at a certain point in this dialogue, they were both essentially Alpha males fighting. And then, for whatever reason, instinctively, one of the characters—who at the time was not yet named and who at the time was not the narrator, but who became Eli Sisters, the narrator—he has his feelings’ hurt by this other man that he’s speaking to. He’s just a little bit more aggressive, a little bit nastier than Eli is, and Eli sort of deferred to him. That was the beginning of my wanting to know more about Eli. I thought there was a lot of possibility there. And then once their roles in life became clearer, that they were going to be hit-men, it became all the more exciting to me to have a hit man getting his feelings hurt over and over again. It took me forty pages or so of just this dialogue before the characters became clear enough to me that I felt I could sit down and actually start a novel. Once they were clear to me, that first scene essentially wrote itself.
How important is the beginning of a story to you?
Well, I think for me it changes. With this book, I should say, it was important to me to try to hook the reader. And I hadn't necessarily tried to do that before. My first book is much more sort of a rambling affair and much less plot based. With this, sitting down to it, I knew there was going to tell a much more traditional story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. So there are certain rules that you do follow when you try to tell a story along those lines. So it was important for me to try to get the readers’ attention, certainly.
And from the point of view of a reader, what I read, it’s not necessarily story as much as the language the author uses and the musicality of his or her sentences. I’m not an enormous proponent of plot as a reader, it’s about other things, my reading has become specialized over the years. A lot of my favourite books, I should say, not much happens in the books! It’s much more about the points of view of the author, more than anything else.