A Drink with Patrick deWitt

Posted on April 10, 2009

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Darran Anderson interviews Patrick deWitt.

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Darran Anderson: You worked in a bar for six years Patrick, was there a specific incident that made you think there’s a book in this, or was it a more gradual realisation?

Patrick deWitt: I owe my wife a debt of gratitude for this. After regaling her for the hundredth time with some sorry barroom saga she more or less demanded I begin adapting these events to the fiction format. She was sick and tired, I think, of combing over my other work, which at the time – I was 27 or so – was a little overambitious. She recognized I needed something solid to work off of, something earthbound that I was familiar with.

DA: As much as the cast of gifted and debauched characters propping up the bar, Ablutions seems to be about escape and the impossibility of it I guess, that they come to escape but find themselves mired in another world with its own consequences and pressures. It’s like they can run as hard as they can but you can’t run away from yourself. Did you come any closer to understanding why they came there, what was going through their minds or was each individual’s reasons unique?

PD: I’ve found their reasons to be unique, though usually stemming from one type of loneliness or another, the need to share space and time with other people. More specifically: some wanted to be entertained, some wanted to be the entertainers; some wanted sex, some wanted violence; some wanted to lie, some wanted to be lied to; and some simply wanted to become drunken without the interruptions or interferences of home. I felt a good many were hoping to re-create an environment of group friendship, and though this was largely false, it was similar enough to satisfy the urge.

DA: Did you ever worry that you’d spend so much time there that you’d end up becoming one of those characters on the other side of the bar?

PD: The thing that concerned me wasn’t that I’d become one of them so much as that I’d have to serve them for the rest of my life. The six years I worked at the bar went by in a flash, and I know people that have been there fifteen, and counting. The thing is, bar work is hard to come by in the states, and the pay, because of tips, is excellent. So for someone without any degrees or practical training it’s a prime position. I was thirty years old, with a wife and newborn son, and hadn’t a clue what to do next. Looking back, I wish I’d quit sooner, but it was a difficult job to give up. The alternatives were dismal bordering on terrifying.

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DA: One fascinating recurring character is a female ghost who haunts the bar. Was this taken from real-life and if so did they know who she was/what happened to her?

PD: The initial ghost scenario, where the protagonist is shoved by an invisible force, is my recollection of an event at the bar, with no embellishments or changes made. She put her weight on my shoulder and rattled some of the tequila bottles at me. Other employees have had experiences with her, also; one bartender was entering the storage room just as the ghost was hurrying out, as though she were running some important errand. I never found out who she was or how she’d died, but it’s an old bar, and it’s only right it should be haunted.

DA: You’ve been quite vocal in opposition to those who are gleefully predicting the death of the novel. It does seem there are a lot of media types getting a kick out of pissing on the literary bonfire so to speak, you seem much more optimistic?

PD: I think a lot of what the media are addressing and what I’m talking about aren’t exactly the same thing. They’re saying the business side of literature is struggling. I don’t know if this is debatable, and anyway this isn’t what I’m bristling against. It’s when the medium itself is declared DOA, with so many examples to the contrary, that I feel compelled to say something. I just finished Steven Millhauser‘s Dangerous Laughter, for example, and it’s perfection. I’m reading Jesse Ball‘s new novel, A Way Through Doors, and I can’t put it down. There’s loads of great stuff out there; how could I be anything but optimistic? And perhaps it’s a childish attitude, but each time I see one of those articles I see space that could be used to run reviews or excerpts or get some kind of dialogue about fiction going.

DA: I salute the narrator’s preference for drowning his sorrows in Jameson’s whiskey, a fine tipple by any standards. I’m intrigued though, given the years you’ve worked in the industry, what’s the worst beverage you’ve knocked back?

PD: In high school, my friends and I drank whatever malt liquor was available, usually Olde English 800, in forty-ounce bottles. In my heyday I could down two of these at a go through a beer bong. That’s eighty ounces of the lowest quality liquor available ingested in around ten seconds. And that would be the worst beverage I’ve ever knocked back.

DA: Despite listing an eclectic mix of influences (including Raymond Radiguet, Knut Hamsun, Malcolm Lowry and J. P. Donleavy), some critics have tied your writing to the relative millstone that is Bukowski. Your writing seems to come from a completely different place though?

PD: I like Bukowski, but the similarities seem fairly surface to me, I agree. His writing is much more masculine than mine, more swagger and bravado, and despite the occasionally macho topics covered in Ablutions, I think of my work as basically sexless. Also I feel his stuff’s very direct and straightforward, whereas mine’s more remote or detached or obscured. You know, though, if you write a book about drunks in L.A., you’re going to get the comparison. It’s something I anticipated. But I had something to say about drinking and working in Hollywood, and this overshadowed every other consideration.

DA: The animations that have accompanied your books are superb and a innovative use of the medium, how did they come about?

PD: For the Ablutions spot, my brother Nick did the music and a fellow named Carson Mell animated and narrated. Nick had done a short piece with Carson a few years back and I liked it so much I basically bullied my way into their field of vision and wouldn’t leave until they agreed to work with me. I’m hoping to do something longer and more ambitious with these people at some point, though I suspect they’re both about to become very busy. They have that ‘I’ve decided to stop returning your phone calls’ look about them.

I’ve had the experience a couple times of people bristling at the idea of a commercial for a novel, as though I were sullying something, pandering or lowering myself. I guess they imagined I’d be shucking and jiving on camera, like an infomercial. But the spots can be anything. The spot for Ablutions is like a little film. It was so exciting watching it for the first time that my hands were shaking.

DA: One of the most refreshing parts of your book is the fact you show alcoholism as this ever changing protean thing, something that for all its horrors and depravities (to my knowledge, no one in Cheers ever dripped hepatitis blood into a drink or assaulted a horse) can have its own wit and comedy, it’s a bravely honest approach to show that things can be so fucked up that they’re harrowing and funny at the same time. You were obviously keen to avoid the pitfalls of clichĂ© or lecturing about the demon drink?

PD: I don’t know if I was keen to avoid the lecturing so much as the idea of lecturing is totally alien to my personality. The protagonist never judges the regulars for their alcohol or drug intake. This part he understands. It’s their human desires and neediness he can’t fathom. And though the protagonist and I aren’t inseparable, I’d probably follow his lead on this one. I can’t imagine judging or preaching to anyone based on drug or alcohol intake. I might not want to be around them, but their addictions make sense to me.

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DA: Your earlier book Help Yourself, Help Yourself [Teenage Teardrops, 2007] is an offbeat self-help book (thankfully not exactly Dr Phil territory – “Do you know how disgusting you are? For a fee and the promise of future friendship, I will tell you. And I like you right back; after all I’m disgusting too”); any recent advice to impart for our readers in these uncertain times (banks collapsing, stock markets plummeting, the sound of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s hooves in the distance)?

PD: I think if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last ten years it’s that waiting around for your life to improve itself is a waste of time, and that happiness and satisfaction are things you’ve got to work for. When you think of someone who’s had or is having an adventurous life, it’s easy to feel jealousy or bitterness, but that person was proactive and created the adventure; he/she was bold enough to pick up and move to another country or start a band and go on tour or whatever. Boldness creates good fortune. Luck can be cultivated and sustained.

Try to figure out what your strengths and loves are and organize your life accordingly. Try to get to know yourself, instead of just inhabiting your body, like a renter or squatter. And: be kind to people in the service industry.

DA: What’s next in terms of your writing Patrick?

PD: I’m working on another novel called The Warm Job. It’s a western about two brothers, killers, trying to find a man during the Gold Rush in San Francisco. Also I’m adapting some of my writing to screenplay with the director Azazel Jacobs.

Ablutions: Notes for a Novel by Patrick deWitt is published by in the UK by Granta and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and is available now.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

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Posted in: Interviews