To many, Patrick DeWitt is best known as the screenwriter behind this year's critically-acclaimed portrait of adolescent angst Terri. Literary types may know him as of author of the much-lauded novels Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers. But a few years ago, languishing as a bartender at Three Clubs Cocktail Lounge, his only goal was to make it out of L.A. in one piece.
“Working in a bar was a horrific idea for me,” said DeWitt, speaking by phone from his home in Oregon. When I ask him what he thinks about Los Angeles now that he has escaped, he pauses.
“It's complicated, you know? I'm glad to be gone.”
The literature of L.A. is rife with unease. Authors like Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, and Joan Didion built careers out of reporting on the city's morality-free depths. Before Bret Easton Ellis created Patrick Bateman, his characters tooled around Beverly Hills in luxury cars full of teenaged socipaths. For a certain type of person — none of whom you'll see on Bravo's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or MTV's The Hills — it can be hard to live here and not notice echoes of Didion's spare, black prose everywhere.
DeWitt would know. A British Columbian native, he spent his youth drifting up and down the West Coast. During much of his his post-adolescent life in L.A., he suffered from “common problems gluttonous people have in big cities.”
“Excess,” he added. “I just sort of…couldn't.”
At the same time, of course, had DeWitt never lived here, it's possible that he never would have made it as a writer. He found his agent, Peter McGuigan, through the L.A. musician Matt Sweeney, whom he met at Three Clubs. It was also during his stint there that he learned to mine his suffering for material.
“I kept trying to write these books that were sort of outside of my realm, and I kept failing. So I sort of resigned myself to writing about addiction,” he said. Ablutions traces the lives of the tragic regulars at a Hollywood dive. The rapidly deteriorating narrator zooms in on each member of the bar's clientele, a family of misfits whose only pleasure seems to be free well drinks. DeWitt freely admits that most of the novel is autobiographical.
“The bartender's got the blues, and I certainly did when I wrote it,” he said.
His most recent book, The Sisters Brothers, owes a different kind of debt to Hollywood. DeWitt says he watches films as often as he reads, and is influenced as much by cinema as by favorite authors like Robert Walser and Jean Rhys.”I haven't read a lot of Westerns. But I wrote a Western,” he said. “The influences were all cinematic.”
If Terri, The Sisters Brothers and Ablutions all seem to take on wildly divergent characters, that's on purpose. Post-Ablutions, DeWitt prefers to write about subjects unfamiliar to him. “That way I'm never doing anything by rote. I'm only on thin ice, and I think that that's a good place to be. I feel like when you push yourself like that, the rewards can be pretty great.”
Whatever strategy he's adopted, it seems to be working. Ablutions was a New York Times Editors Choice. Terri premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. In early September The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize. The novel has since been rumored to be optioned by actor John C. Reilly.
If the lazy but happy sound of his voice is any indication, DeWitt is taking it all in stride. His next novel, he says, is about an investment banker who grew up in a tenement slum in Manhattan. “It's a subject I know nothing about,” he said.
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