Ottawa Writers Festival: Patrick deWitt makes a French Exit

Patrick deWitt. Photo: Kelly Reichardt

This has been a good year for Patrick deWitt.

The movie version of his 2011 bestseller The Sisters Brothers has been given the Hollywood treatment starring some A-listers John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal. The movie even got a pretty decent review from The New Yorker magazine.

And now his latest novel, French Exit, has been shortlisted for a Giller.

“So many things in the past 12 months have been sort of surreal,” deWitt said by phone from his home in Portland, Oregon. He described a visit to the set of The Sisters Brothers in Romania “and seeing it all realized in front of me, it sort of doesn’t make sense. It is not as if this was a plan that has come to fruition.

“So much in life is happenstance and luck. When luck seems to be on your side, there’s nothing you can really do about it, but enjoy it and live in the moment.

“There is a question of what does it mean and I can’t seem to answer that even for myself. You like to think that it has something to do with the quality of the work, but I have no proof of that. But that’s the hope.”

As far as deWitt is concerned some stories are fortunate from the start such as Sisters Brothers.

He also had a very good feeling about French Exit’s central figure, Frances Price, “from the moment she showed up. This was somebody I wanted to get to know better. She had a sense of possibility.”

Frances is a member of the one per cent — the very rich who inhabit an unreal world for the most of us.

She famously discovers her husband Frank dead in his bedroom and goes skiing without telling anyone of the death. The book opens some 20 years later when Frances is broke.

She and her son Malcolm, (mid-30s, still living with mom), decide to pick up stakes and move to Paris with a suitcase full of cash and a cat named Small Frank because, apparently, he channels Big Frank from beyond the grave.

“I have a running list in my head of characters I would like to engage with, spend time with and see if there is a story that wants to occur around them and Frances was one of those characters.

“I have been wanting to tell a story of someone like her for a few years now.”

He added Malcolm in, to begin with, as a sort of foil for Mommy Dearest.

“She needed someone to bounce her vicious bon mots off of and he seemed to be a good fit.”

DeWitt also had been wanting to explore what happens to the parent-child relationship when the child has grown up.

“I have also wanted to write about Paris for a number of years. These different pieces all came together to form this book.

“This book deals with wealthy people who aren’t particularly generous in spirit. If I were reading it I would think the author has some sort of chip on his shoulder or disdain for the wealthy. But it’s not really the case.

Rather, “I think there is an element of voyeurism on my part. The Lifestyles of Rich and Famous was part of the appeal of writing about these people and imagining: if money was not an object, how would one live? I think ultimately the book’s not so much a commentary on how some people live. These are character studies about very specific people. I don’t know if there are people who behave like this in the real world.

“I suspect this is not how the one per cent behaves or lives today. This style of living is sort of past its time. You can’t really live this way any more.”

That prompts a question about Downton Abbey and a surprising answer.

“I don’t watch much TV,” deWitt said, “but I fell down a Downton Abbey wormhole and ended up getting the DVDs from the library. I don’t know what it says about me, but I loved the show. There is an element of that sensibility (in French Exit) mixed in with something more dire or caustic.

“This is sort of more my natural habitat, the uglier aspects of humanity.”

In a way the book also recalls Evelyn Waugh, the British satirist, novelist and journalist.

“Waugh was certainly in my mind, Jane Bowles too and the filmmaker John Cassavetes.

“I don’t necessarily work with influences in a book, but there are moments that I can point to in this book. (These influences were) overt this time around.”

There are a few different entry points to the story, he says, which are overt cliches, such as American ex-pats going to Paris.

But there is a logic to it.

“I have wanted to write about Paris for a long time. I enjoyed the city from the moment I first visited. I was surprised by my reaction. I went there with the understanding that the city had been ruined. I got there and I just felt really good.

“I am somebody who is often dealing with some level of anxiety and travel tends to exacerbate this. Yet the moment I arrive in Paris I feel really calm and happy to be there every time I go. I visit as often as I can.

Frances Price is such a strong character you might miss Malcolm. But he became much more than a foil.

“Malcolm started as a foil or as an illustration of empty indolent people. Then you actually get to know somebody better and I found one day I was more invested in his story. I came to care for him in a way that surprised me. He doesn’t want to offend anyone so he often ends up hiding.”

Small Frank is typical of deWitt.

“I keep coming back to animals. I don’t have a great answer for the appearance of animals but I do like to take a break from humans from time to time. I am an animal lover and by nature I’m curious about their internal lives.

“They live without language yet they have similar experiences to us. What’s going on in their.

“Cats in particular are mysterious. There is a long history of people supposing that cats know more than they let on. They are inscrutable.

“I have had several, but right now I don’t have one.” He recently separated from his girlfriend and she took the cat.

Small Frank is also a connection to the great beyond. That investigation of what lies beyond the grave is something that also is part of deWitt’s quiver of interests.

“There are elements of it in each of the four books. There is always some funny stuff going on. I return to this without really considering my motivation. You fill up a book with the things that interest you and please you and I have an on-going interest in questions I have about what happens after we die.

“And I’m also interested in what is going on around us … the things that we can’t see. I like to have a break from reality from time to time. I do have an interest in religious practice but I also have an interest in witchcraft.”

DeWitt lives in Portland, Oregon for about nine years now. He moved there after the publication of his first book Ablutions allowed him to concentrate on writing full time. It was cheaper than living in the Seattle, Washington area.

He had left Los Angeles and moved back in with his parents in the Seattle area. He wasn’t in great shape, he said. But he started working construction and got physically fit and “felt calmer.”

“When the first book sold, I got enough to quit construction and try to make a go of it as a writer. My wife at the time had mentioned Portland.”

It has become home.

“I don’t know how long I will stay. My son is 13 and I’ll be here until he is of age. At that point I don’t know where I will go but somewhere in Europe” seems likely.

French Exit
Patrick deWitt (House of Anansi Press)
In town: The author will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 26 on a panel with Lisa Moore. For more information

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.