Patrick deWitt at McNally Jackson for The Sisters Brothers

1. Friends and colleagues Martin Wilson, Abigal Holstein, and Lee Boudreaux of Ecco and Harper Collins. 2. Writer and Children’s Publishing Consultant Charlie Schroder was jubilant.

For the aspiring writer (or simply for the creative-at-heart) in need of that extra confidence boost, you can’t get much better than Patrick deWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers. In conversation with Electric Literature’s own Andy Hunter last night at McNally Jackson, the Man Booker Prize nominee revealed some unspoken truth about how he and other such success stories arrived there. “Much of my writing early on was quite bad…it was poor for a long while, and than it stopped being so poor, but I still have a long way to go.” A modest statement for a man who is, as Hunter truthfully quipped, “a rockstar in Canada.”

1. A shot of the amazing animation done by Joanna Nebarsky for The Sisters Brothers, which screened before the conversation. She also composed a One-Sentence Animation for Electric Literature’s publication of the Patrick deWitt short story, “The Bastard,” which can be seen here.

Born in British Columbia, deWitt is, by his own accord, not eligible for many literary prizes in America. In Canada, however, The Sisters Brothers won The Governor General’s Award (a $25,000 prize for the best in Canadian literature, for all of us non-Canuck’s) and Best Book of the Year on Canadian Amazon. A portion of his second, never-published novel was read and so admired by John C. Reilly that it became the basis for his 2011 film Terri. Reilly is currently adapting The Sisters Brothers into a film.

His success is easy to understand. Ten minutes of deWitt’s elegant rambling and self-deprecating jokes and I was ready to settle in to listen for the night. All the more for his constant thoughtful remarks concerning what is essentially his luck in the business. When asked what brought this novel into fruition, deWitt said, “I tricked someone, through drinking, into reading my book.” He claims laziness as his alibi for avoided research and went so far as to say, “If I did an IQ test, it would probably be average. I’m more interested in instinctual people rather than intellectual people.”

1. deWitt reads aloud. 2. Andy Hunter playing the attentive moderator, whiskey in hand.

DeWitt’s path, though likely not as simple as it seems, mostly involved believing that the work would get better. He constantly referenced times in which he was hurt by a work he put effort into, only to realize it wasn’t good enough (raise your hand if you’ve been there), and his phases of appreciation for the nuances of plain old good storytelling, a practice he has clearly mastered. The audience was treated to tales of the UK’s obsession (we’re talking daily newspaper coverage, off-track betting devotion) of all class members to the Man Booker Awards, his life as the middle child between “a Ferris Bueller-type personality and a true almost-genius,” and his time working construction and breaking up fights as a bartender.

Above it all of course, there is the prose. DeWitt was told by both his wife and Hunter (although he couldn’t recall saying it) that The Sisters Brothers starts off slow or, as DeWitt spins it, “like easing into a hot bath.” To get you readers hooked with what got me hooked, this is how DeWitt so skillfully ended his reading selection last night:

“He paused to study my words. He wished to check if they were sincere, I knew, but could not think of a way to ask without sounding overly concerned. The joy went out of him then, and his eyes for a time could not meet mine. I thought, We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness.”

You too can see Patrick DeWitt tonight at BookCourt. Join Electric Literature once again at 7pm.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt


— Sarah Lerner is the producer of Northside Film and the sales and event coordinator for the L Magazine. She is a publisher with Papercut Press and a regular Outlet contributor.

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