Original-Cin Q&A: The Sisters Brothers' author Patrick deWitt on pressure, attention and mental casting

Patrick deWitt is on a roll. The Award winning Canadian author has just been shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his new novel, French Exit. And this Friday The Sisters Brothers (based on his best seller) hits the big screen, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix.

The Sisters Brothers  is a western-inspired story that takes place in Oregon and California in 1851. It focuses on two notorious assassin brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters who get caught up in the California Gold Rush during their attempt to carry out a hit. Though there are some clearly funny moments, deWitt’s story doesn’t shy away from violence. But the book and the film find a brilliant balance between both. 

Read our review of The Sisters Brothers

Our Bonnie Laufer spoke with Patrick deWitt about how he felt about seeing The Sisters Brothers come to life. 

Eli (John C. Reilly) and his horse Tub. Turns out this is the real romantic subplot in the novel/film.

Eli (John C. Reilly) and his horse Tub. Turns out this is the real romantic subplot in the novel/film.

 Original-Cin: I read the book when it first came out in 2011 and It really stuck with me. Not just because of the unique story, but for its incredible black humour.  

 Patrick DeWitt: “Thank you. I thought it was an interesting topic when I began writing it. But I didn’t want it to be an entirely dark novel. So it was a challenge to lace it with some humour.”

 OC: Well, it definitely struck a chord with readers because it became an instant best seller. Were you ready for the attention that was going to come your way? 

 PD: “No I was completely unprepared. You know they don't really prepare you for such things, there’s no guide book on how to deal with that kind of attention.  I was lost I didn't know what to make of it all.”

 OC: How do you deal with something like that and then move on to the next book? 

 PD: “That was difficult actually. The next book was hard to write. It was much harder to  write than it should have been, maybe because of the sense of expectation, or the potential for public embarrassment.” (Laughs). 

Patrick deWitt

Patrick deWitt

 OC: I’m sure there’s a lot of pressure that goes along with it. 

 PD: “Yes, but  I felt that I was immune to it, and then I found out that I wasn’t.  I just finished another one, and it never gets easier - at least not for me anyway. However, I didn’t feel the sense of pressure I felt with my other books. It’s hard to write under those conditions, worrying about the future.” 

 OC: This adaptation of The Sisters Brothers is really well done, but it is a bit different from the book. When you write, do you even think about actors who  might play the lead roles if the book is adapted for the screen? 

 PD: “That actually comes after the book is competed for me.  When I’m working  on a novel I’m really only thinking of the language and the characters, just trying to do the best job that I can do within the confines of the novel. Once it’s done, I like to indulge in thoughts of, ‘If this were a movie, what would it actually look like?’” 

 OC: When were you first approached to turn this into a film? 

 PD: I’ve known John C. Reilly for years. We had worked together on a film called Terri, which was directed by Azazel Jacobs. Azazel read the novel and manuscript for The Sisters Brothers and he handed it off to Alison Dickey, John’s wife. She loved it and made John read it, and that was the beginning of it.  They came to me and optioned it from me, and I was happy for them to have it.” 

 OC: John is so great in this too. He’s perfectly cast as Eli, the brother with a conscience. 

 PD: “Yeah, I couldn’t agree more.” 

 OC: It’s a bit of a love story between these two brothers, would you say? 

 PD: “Yes, definitely, but also a love story between Eli and his horse. There seems to be a recognition that they are similar in some way. They’re both misfits and that was hard for me not only to write but to watch.” 

 OC: When you watch something come to life based on something you have originally written, how does it make you feel? 

 PD: “I get asked that a lot and it’s really hard to put into words. It’s really difficult to sum it up in a few sentences. It’s a bunch of different feelings at the same time, but I guess the overall feeling is of relief and happiness. I’m relieved that it landed with these people and the actors who decided to come on board. I am thrilled with the casting and I think everyone really brought these characters to life in a way I could never have imagined.  I feel very fortunate.”

 OC: You didn’t write the screenplay and I was wondering if it was like giving up your baby and letting someone else take over the writing?

 PD: “Yeah, it’s not something you do breezily, and there is a phase of coming to  accept the loss of control. A fiction writer has complete control, so to give that up feels counterintuitive. But that’s just a part of the process.”

 OC: At the core of the story is the theme of what drives people?  What makes people do what they do even when they know it's wrong. Why did you want to explore that in this story?

 PD:  “I think that there are different kinds of ambition, and some ambition is healthy and some is toxic. I think this is more than evident in United States politics right now. There’s a specific type of American man  for whom ambition is at the top of his agenda, so that would be an interesting character to take on I think.” 

 OC: I think you need to write a book about that! 

 PD:  “Yeah, maybe.”