Interview with Patrick deWitt

Posted by Goodreads on July 31, 2018
Patrick deWitt is known for his quirks in prose, characters, and plotlines. The Canadian novelist—who began his first novel, Ablutions, on Post-it notes—now has four novels featuring characters on unlikely journeys. His second novel, an unconventional Western called The Sisters Brothers, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. French Exit, his fourth and latest, is a darkly comedic look at how Upper East Side widow Frances Price starts her life over, even as she heads out the door.

Bound by the last of her dead husband's money, Francis sprints to spend it all. Her devoted son, Malcolm, a man happily living in permanent adolescence, comes along for the spree with their cat, Small Frank. The road to financial ruin is undertaken in style, with a first-class ocean voyage to Paris, extravagant booze-filled evenings, and the literal and metaphoric flushing of all that is left of her livelihood down the toilet.

Described by some as the Wes Anderson of contemporary fiction, deWitt normalizes the abnormal in everyday life. He wrote French Exit using a process that borders on literary improvisation. Nothing was outlined or planned, and the plot emerged as he sent the uncommon trio across the Atlantic Ocean, pulling in psychics, detectives, former fiancées, and old friends.

deWitt spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger by phone. Their conversation has been edited.

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Goodreads: The characters and story line of French Exit are so original. How did you come up with the idea?

Patrick deWitt: It all happened organically. I have been wanting to write about Paris for a number of years, and also to write about the mother/son dynamic, when the son has grown up. There were all of these different aspects I wanted to address, and I just jammed them together. Then as the characters came to life, the story came to life around them.

GR: You placed French Exit in a contemporary setting, yet the characters have many old-world, upper-class behaviors. This reminded me of an updated Edith Wharton novel, like The Age of Innocence, where you've got high society and also the dysfunction that comes with it. What books inspired you, or did any?

PDW: What I had in mind was a British comedy-of-manners style. I think the most obvious influence in terms of this book would be Evelyn Waugh. And another was Jane Bowles, her novel Two Serious Ladies.

In a more abstract sense, I was thinking of John Cassavetes, whenever he has these scenes of middle-aged people devolving through a night. Usually it's related to alcohol, and it goes from bad to worse. And goes on longer than you want it to as a viewer—you're a little bit uncomfortable. I love all that stuff.

GR: But the book is called a "Tragedy of Manners"—what do you mean by that?

PDW: Starting out, I was calling it a comedy of manners. It's just a tradition of storytelling that is seemingly light, but there's room for all sorts of darkness, and it's typically quite funny and chatty. But then as the story evolved and it took on some darker shades, I started thinking of it less as a comedy and more of a tragedy.

The tragedy of manners was some quippy little thing that I came up with to describe what I was really working on.

In the moment that I came up with that, I thought that I had invented it—that nobody had ever said that before—and I was proud of myself in some small way, but now I've seen it elsewhere. I think it's too good of a thing for me to have just come up with on my own.

This book, it does adhere to that tradition of storytelling, but there is something, I think, a little bit uglier at play. So I swapped out comedy for tragedy. But that in itself is kind of a comedic thing.

GR: Without giving too much away, Francis does some dramatic and surprising things. Were those planned for you?

PDW: No, no, not really…

When you spend all this time with these characters, even though they're not real people, an affinity gathers in your heart. I have an inclination to give all these people happy endings because I want them to be happy. But, of course, that's a dangerous way to approach storytelling.

The fate of Francis was a complicated one. I should just say that the ending of the book was difficult for me to write but felt necessary and earned in some way, and you just have to go with your gut on things like this.

GR: I thought it was delightful to have the spirit of Francis' dead husband in a cat. Did you intend to give him a chapter of his own, or was that one of the surprises that came along as you were writing?

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PDW: That was definitely a surprise. This cat disappears from the narrative for a while, and so other things are occurring, and the cat's gone. So I was focusing on what's occurring while he's gone, but then, while I was addressing those parts of the story, I was also thinking, "Where is this cat now, and what's he doing?"

The idea of a cat at large in Paris, France… There is a story that wants to be told there.

GR: Let's talk about your use of the psychic. I love the supernatural element with Small Frank and Madeleine, and this is a theme in Ablutions and your other books as well. Why do you use the supernatural?

PDW: I like the idea of placing something that's sort of fantastic next to something that isn't. So it's like this uncommon element of some banal or realistic landscape. This is something that pleases me, so I keep doing it over and over.

There is an element of the supernatural in each of my four books.

There's certainly creepy gothic stuff in Undermajordomo Minor, and in The Sisters Brothers, there's a young girl who has access to the other side in some way that's off-putting for the protagonist of that book.

I'm happy with its role in this new book, but there is a danger of redundancy. And so, I'm now officially aware of it.

GR: In terms of some of the pretty specific detail and activities that you have these characters doing, like Francis and the way she finds her husband and goes off, what did you draw on for those?

PDW: These are things that just arrived. You invent characters from thin air, but then you begin to wonder, "What was this person's childhood like? What were they like before they were married? What were they like before they had children?" There are all of these interesting questions, and sometimes these questions turn up interesting answers.

It's highly relevant that Francis had this bizarre reaction to the death of her husband. It's something that places her socially, and it informs so much in terms of the reader's relationship to this person. Everything she says is colored with the knowledge that she has done this somewhat ghastly thing, and that you realize she's really quite infamous for this thing that she's done, or hasn't done.

What made it in in terms of biographic detail is stuff that seemed to serve the larger story and propel the plot in some way. You put these characters together, you tell their story, then you look over their stories in total. Parts that are the most interesting and useful for the reader, you just sort of cherry-pick, then jam into the larger text.

GR: When you talked about wanting to explore the mother/son relationship, what about that relationship do you find interesting?

PDW: Typically, when you see the relationship of a mother and father and his or her sons and daughters, it's focusing on the formative years for the child, or for when parents are senior and devolving physically, toward the point of dying kind of a thing.

At a certain point as you age, you realize that your parents are just people in the same way that you are. My relationship with my mother and father seems more peer-to-peer as opposed to the way it is when you're younger and looking up to these people. That can be good or bad—in my experience, it's been really nice to embark on something much more like a friendship.

It occurred to me, from the point of view of an author, that this is a relationship that you don't see nearly as much as you see these other types of relationships. It seemed like there was a bit of a space to fill, which I'm always looking for. I know that this has, but it seemed like an area for me to explore as some uncommon territory.

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GR: I'm familiar with the love/hate relationship that writers have with titles. French Exit… Did you come up with the title of the book yourself, based on the whole plot, or did it come from somewhere else?

PDW: It's definitely more in the "hate" side for me. Just because, it's so important, and a good book doesn't always get a good title. And titles are just really, really hard for me. I turned in Undermajordomo Minor without a title. I turned in The Sisters Brothers with a different title that was rejected.

French Exit came up as a title after I'd finished a draft. It had no title, or I was calling it Francis and Malcolm.… I had all of these dull, placeholder-type titles…

Are you familiar with the phrase "French exit?"

GR: Isn't it like an Irish goodbye?

PDW: Right! A lot of people aren't. But to leave a party without saying goodbye, this is what's known as a French exit.

I had just done this in my actual life—left a party without saying goodbye. A friend called me the next day and said, "Don't think I didn't notice that French exit that you pulled last night."

And at this moment, I was looking for a title for the book. As soon as he said that phrase, I recognized that was the title.

And it makes sense in a couple of different ways. There's a dark aspect to it—but it's bleak, yet comedic, to me, so it's a good fit. I like that it's a title that already exists. It's familiar for a certain number of people who will see it.

GR: I read that you wrote your first book, Ablutions, from Post-it notes and came up with the structure of your first novel based on that. Is that still the process?

PDW: Well, the Post-its, this is stemming from the fact that I was writing a book about a bar while I was at the bar. And being at a bar, I was often drinking. And I would forget details, and so I just got in the habit of writing. Something would occur, someone would say something that I thought was interesting, or ugly, or worth sharing, or whatever.

I would write these notes down to myself, and for some reason, was writing in the second person. And so I had this shelf that was filled with these crumpled-up Post-it notes addressed to myself in the second person.

My process now is that when I have little ideas or something that I can't necessarily flesh out, I will type it out on little three-by-five cards. And for each project, I make a book. So I have a three-ring binder filled with all of these little typewritten cards—things that I oftentimes never get around to addressing. It's sort of like a master document, and when I'm done with the book, I can look at this three-ring binder and see the evolution of the project.

GR: Does that help you structure the story—physically moving pages around? To play with flow?

PDW: Yeah, yeah. Under my last book, Undermajordomo, for me, was quite a large story. There were a lot of characters and there were a lot of story lines, and it became very confusing for me because I am used to working on a smaller scale.

At a certain point, I took all of these notes and I put them on a wall, and I could see the book as a single piece. It became really beneficial to move things around and then to remove a lot of these cards. I found it to be excellent for simplifying a complicated picture. So I've continued to do that. I also like having a physical document to pore over after the fact. It functions almost like a scrapbook.

GR: And then, what are you reading now?

PDW: I just started a book from a woman named Caroline Blackwood called Great Granny Webster, which I've just begun, but so far it's excellent. This is put out by The New York Review of Books, which just does such good work. And I just finished the third book in the Rachel Cusk trilogy called Kudos.

I've been reading a lot of British women of the 1940s, '50s, '60s. I'm on an Elizabeth Taylor kick, she's just wonderful, and seeking out all the Barbara Pym books.

Barbara Pym is such a masterful writer—it's engaging just because of the way it's laid out and the language she uses. If you told me when I was 16 that I would be so deeply moved and enthralled by, like, a church jumble sale, I probably wouldn't have understood, but the mere mention of a church jumble sale, and I'm just over the moon.

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by David (new)

David Colton Now I know what 'French Exit' means. Wish I had the nerve. Great interview.

message 2: by Eric (new)

Eric M. Loved this piece. Thanks for introducing me to Patrick deWitt. Adding "French Exit" to my list now.

message 3: by Christian (new)

Christian Hamaker Am I the only "Sisters Brothers" fan for whom "Under Majordomo Minor" didn't take? I need to give it another shot, I suppose.

message 4: by Christina (new)

Christina Simons Christian wrote: "Am I the only "Sisters Brothers" fan for whom "Under Majordomo Minor" didn't take? I need to give it another shot, I suppose."

Nope, you are not the only one. I was very disappointed, but then The Sisters Brothers would be a tough act for anyone to follow.

message 5: by Taskel (new)

Taskel Christian wrote: "Am I the only "Sisters Brothers" fan for whom "Under Majordomo Minor" didn't take? I need to give it another shot, I suppose."

You are not alone. I loved The Sisters Brothers and felt kind of meh when I finished Undermajordomo Minor. I have Ablutions on my TBR pile and will get French Exit when it’s available.

message 6: by Jenni (new)

Jenni Joru I'm so excited of this book. Undermajordomo Minor was dark and hilarious. I still laugh, when I think of the large black hole on the ground to drop people in. That's bold plotting.

I also liked Sisters Brothers.

message 7: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Christian wrote: "Am I the only "Sisters Brothers" fan for whom "Under Majordomo Minor" didn't take? I need to give it another shot, I suppose."

Totally agree but I loved the first two so much that I'm willing to give him another chance, especially after hearing of his taste for British Women novelists. I wonder if he knows Anita Brookner?

message 8: by Nita (new)

Nita Fitzgerald Great interview. Have loved all his books so far, looking forward to sticking my head into this one. Such a talented writer.

message 9: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Christian wrote: "Am I the only "Sisters Brothers" fan for whom "Under Majordomo Minor" didn't take? I need to give it another shot, I suppose."

You're not alone. I read Sisters Brothers first, and absolutely LOVED it. I read Under Majordomo Minor afterwards, and was very disappointed.

message 10: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Loved TSB when our book club picked it - wasn’t for everyone except us few & am planning to see the film adapt dye this fall. haven’t tried his other books til I saw this terrific interview, thx

message 11: by Brian (last edited Aug 23, 2018 12:52PM) (new)

Brian Talgo Christian wrote: "Am I the only "Sisters Brothers" fan for whom "Under Majordomo Minor" didn't take? I need to give it another shot, I suppose."

No, I loved both "Ablutions" and "Sisters Brothers" but I couldn't even finish "Under Majordomo Minor". Hope his newest is a return to form.

message 12: by Zen (new)

Zen Great interview-sounds like an intriguing book-added to my TBR list. Thanks for featuring a Canadian author!

message 13: by Muhammad (new)

Muhammad Fiaz Great interview-sounds like an intriguing book-added to my TBR list. Thanks for featuring a Canadian author!

message 14: by Derrick (new)

Derrick De Kerckhove By the way to mean french exit, the French say: filer a l'anglaise...

message 15: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Barrows I absolutely love his writing. I've read Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers several times because I can't get enough. Patrick deWitt is a seriously unique and gifted writer.

message 16: by Selena (new)

Selena Want to read make me think of my LIONKING my son kiss kiss 🐶🐶💋💋🎁🎁🎁

message 17: by Desire'E (new)

Desire'E Snowden thanks for the welcoming back. Quite a read, nice choices. I appreciate Mr P. DeWitt's pen. Procrastinators have plenty of elements in the way. How to continue reading soon!

message 18: by John (new)

John Ollerton Super interesting writer, another of my son Andrew’s recommendations.

message 19: by Robert (new)

Robert Derrick wrote: "By the way to mean french exit, the French say: filer a l'anglaise..."

That's great. I learned from Graham Greene that what we (in British English) call a 'French letter', the French call 'un capot anglais'.

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