Books·In Conversation

Patrick deWitt talks about his latest novel, French Exit, and the film adaptation of The Sisters Brothers

The writer discusses his latest novel and seeing his 2011 work translated to film.

'I think the most important thing for me is the way the words sit and sound on the page.'

Patrick deWitt is a B.C.-born writer. (House of Anansi/Canadian Press)

Patrick deWitt is having an eventful year. His latest novel, French Exit is now on bookstore shelves and the film adaptation to his 2011 historical novel, The Sister Brothersstarring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

deWitt spoke with CBC Books about writing French Exit and his thoughts on seeing The Sisters Brothers on the big screen.

French Exit is on the longlist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

How long did French Exit take to write?

"Once I sort of roll up my sleeves and get to work, it comes together very quickly. There were elements of the story that I wanted to address, such as the Paris experience and wanting to write about a mother and her grown up son.

"The story revealed itself after I realized who the characters were. That's typically how I work: get to know the people first and then figure out what it is I'd like to do with them and the scenes I'd like to see them play out.

"The story came after the fact, but Frances, Malcolm and Paris had been kicking around in my mind for some years."

You're known for writing quirky characters and dialogue. What's the trick?

"I think the most important thing for me the way the words sit and sound on the page. I never went in for plotting and planning the narrative beforehand. It's more fun to see where the story wants to go in a given day.

"This, of course, can be frustrating and I've spent far too many days chasing the wrong story and going down the wrong path. There's certainly been times where I wished I were more the type of writer who knows where he's going. But I'd prefer not knowing as it's a more pleasant and surprising for me."

What's the appeal of writing about characters behaving badly?

"The alternative would be people behaving peaceably and intelligently. What's the fun in that? But I do agree that characters behaving badly seems to an overarching theme for me. The books all are individual or unique, but I am and hopefully I always be fascinated by human behaviours and what occurs when we do the wrong thing, make the wrong decisions or elect to live in a way that doesn't necessarily make sense.

Characters behaving badly seems to an overarching theme for me.

"It's a well that that seems to refill itself relentlessly. It is a source of endless amusement and fascination for me."

How was the experience having The Sisters Brothers adapted to film? 

"Surreal. I think that's the best way to describe it. These characters I made up in my pyjamas are now jumping around on a screen. People who may not be familiar with the book will get to experience The Sisters Brothers story, which is exciting to me."

Have you seen it yet?

"Yes. I was greatly relieved to find that I liked the film; I think the acting is superb and it looks so beautiful. The process of having a book adapted to film can be complicated and nuanced. The nice thing about writing fiction is you're in control.

"It was hard for me to let go and to allow other people to interpret the story. Because the interpretations don't necessarily line up with how I've viewed the characters or the story. But ultimately when I look at the film, I feel proud and happy and very fortunate that all these wonderful people got together to work on the project."

Does writing ever get easier for you?

"I wouldn't describe the process as easy now but French Exit, especially in contrast to my last book, Undermajordomo Minor. This one was far simpler and generally more well-behaved.

"But I don't think this is necessarily a sign this is how it's going to be from here on out. I fully expect the next one to be a nightmare."

Patrick deWitt's comments have been edited and condensed.


The 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists

The winner will be announced on Nov. 19, 2018. Here's how you can tune into the broadcast.

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