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Patrick deWitt Is Here for the Jokes

The acclaimed author behind the newly adapted novel ‘The Sisters Brothers’ likes when people compare his work to famous shows and films. But he doesn’t even own a TV.

Getty Images/Annapurna Pictures/Ringer illustration

“There can never be enough comedic banter for me,” says Patrick deWitt from his home in Portland, Oregon, when I ask him what, if anything, he feels is missing from the film adaptation of his beloved novel, The Sisters Brothers.

Dark humor is deWitt’s stock in trade: His distinctive deadpan voice and idiosyncratic sense of humor unites all of his fiction across genre, from Westerns and medieval romances to modern-day riches-to-rags stories. The Sisters Brothers stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of notorious hired killers whose moments of neuroses and sheer tenderness do for Western outlaws what The Sopranos did for mobsters.

“I tried to watch it as a viewer would watch it, and to try to eliminate my role in the story,” says deWitt. “I found I got lost in it really quickly, and I could give myself over to the experience of watching it. Although it strays from the book, the heart of the book is represented.”

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers
Annapurna Pictures

Set in Oregon and California during the Gold Rush, The Sisters Brothers is a cinematically gorgeous, sweeping film that feels more like a traditional Western—a morality story about greed and vengeance—than a comedic one. It also contains plenty of violence, and the kind of gore that is slightly unsettling to read about but very difficult to watch. DeWitt credits director Jacques Audiard with the film’s more solemn tone: “Jacques had a version of the book that he wanted to tell,” he says. “He wasn’t setting out to re-create it page-by-page. I felt that the film seemed like a really personal movie, which is a strange thing for me to experience, but that was the sense I got.”

Much of the novel’s heart comes from the narration of Eli, the more bumbling yet sensitive and less bloodthirsty brother. In the book Eli says, “Many of the things I had come to find humor in would make your honest man swoon,” and John C. Reilly’s performance resonates with that same sensibility. With less dialogue than the character gets in the book, on screen Reilly conveys a similar sense of levity even when things get dark. A passion project for the actor, Reilly and his wife secured the rights to deWitt’s novel before it had even been published. “He saw something in the character of Eli that resonated with him personally,” deWitt says, “and it was moving for me to see how he seemed to inhabit the character so deeply.”

The Sisters Brothers appears in theaters just a month after the release of deWitt’s latest book, French Exit, a novel so dark that it stretches the limits of comedy, so much so that his publishers call it a “tragedy of manners.” It’s the story of a cuttingly sarcastic grand dame of Upper East Side society and her hapless adult son, who flee to Paris when they learn that their recently deceased patriarch has left them with no money and tons of debt. It’s deWitt’s first contemporary book since Ablutions, his debut novel, but he says he needed a break from writing historical fiction—both The Sisters Brothers and 2015’s Undermajordomo Minor: “I had an overwhelming desire to not write another book that takes place in the past. My books are known as being different, one from the other, but they’re not that different to me. The difference is intentional and partly because I’m looking for a new world to inhabit. That sense of not knowing and being in a strange place is beneficial to any artist.”

DeWitt had earlier conceived of a novel about the patriarch himself. “I thought it would be fascinating to look into the mind of a man who was obsessed with the accumulation of wealth,” he told BuzzFeed in 2015. He junked the manuscript when he found the man too shallow.

“When it came time for me to start working on French Exit, I wrote a similar story but from the points of view of the auxiliary characters in the book,” he tells me. “So, a woman and her adult son who have had a long relationship with the character who’s eerily similar in temperament to the character from the novel I’d abandoned.”

DeWitt insists that he didn’t connect the dots between his older manuscript and French Exit until much later. “I began a book about a corrupt businessperson who lives in Manhattan who expatriates to Paris to avoid going to prison. But I didn’t realize their connection until I almost finished the book. This is a testament to an intense focus on my part, or a total lack of focus.”

Although French Exit contains as much verbal sparring as you’d expect from a deWitt novel, the author says there’s a big difference between writing historical and contemporary fiction.

“If you’re writing in an antique language, you can say these very poetic, sweeping, floral things and it’s not cloying,” he says. “That sort of baroque language lends itself to these declarations so you can get away with highly stylized turns of phrase. It’s a lot harder to do that when you’re writing in a contemporary tone of voice. So I did feel restricted, because I like being grand and poetic and ridiculous, so to temper that I felt like I had to be more disciplined. So it’s a little more spare—the sentences are shorter.”

French Exit has withering dialogue, a self-aware sense of the absurd, and tons and tons of booze. When I tell deWitt that I’ve compared French Exit favorably to Arrested Development, he laughs. “I’ve seen a fair amount of the show and I think it’s wonderful. I’m aware of it and I adore it, but I don’t have a TV. That medium is very much in the background for me.” He does find contemporary pop cultural comparisons helpful in finding new readers for his work, but they have their limits. “I think it’s nice in a way that it’s a jumping-off point for the book,” he says. “And if they like Arrested Development, chances are they would like my work. But I would never cite a TV show as something that pushed me to write this book.”

The same goes for Wes Anderson, to whom deWitt has been compared more than once. “I like him, but I would never think of his work being influential to my own.” DeWitt says that he enjoys Anderson’s films and feels entertained when he watches them, but there are limits. “I don’t feel that same sense of kinship I feel when I spend time with a person’s work I relate to. For French Exit, I was thinking of Yuen Wah, and Jane Bowles and at times John Cassavetes. And it was a mishmash of these very different mathematics, and then my own mixed in with it, like a soup I made with it.”

DeWitt is the first to admit that he is a solo artist.

“I come to collaborations a long way around,” he says. “I like to work alone. Fiction is very solitary and you’re in complete control. I think I’ll always prefer that but I’ve come to appreciate collaborative work.”

And so, while French Exit comes from a very specific place in deWitt’s own mind, the film adaptation of The Sisters Brothers is, of course, a different story.

“In film everything is interpreted—the clothing, the lighting,” he says. “So if you’re an author sitting around waiting for your vision to be re-created for you without being a director, which I’m not interested in doing, I think you’re going to be confused or disappointed.”

Read French Exit if you want to experience the wonderful peculiarities of deWitt’s brain, but see The Sisters Brothers for a brand-new take on a modern classic that even the author has learned to love. “Ultimately I liked it so much. It’s not a strict re-creation of the book, and I knew that was gonna be part of the deal. That takes a minute for any author to wrap their head around.”

Maris Kreizman’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Esquire, BuzzFeed, and more.