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For Patrick deWitt, sensitive cowboys strike gold Add to ...

There’s a scene in Patrick deWitt’s cinematic, Los Angeles bar-set first novel, Ablutions, where one of the workers, noting how skeptical customers and colleagues are about his own inevitable Hollywood success, figures they’re just envious. “How would you feel after fifteen years of failure?” he asks his co-worker, the book’s narrator, rhetorically.

The protagonist-bartender responds: “Ask me in five years.”

It’s been six years since Patrick deWitt wrote the partially autobiographical novel, and nobody is asking him about failure these days.

His second book, The Sisters Brothers, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – a rare western up for the prestigious award – and is also short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor-General’s Award for fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. The film rights have been sold, too.

The Booker announcement happened the same day the Giller long list was revealed, a day deWitt was travelling to a film festival in France to promote the film Terri, starring John C. Reilly, for which he wrote the screenplay.

“That was probably the busiest day of my life,” the Canadian novelist said from his home in Portland, Ore. “I don’t mean to make it sound bad, but it went beyond stressful. It was into some other realm.”

DeWitt, 36, was born in Sidney, B.C., but his family moved to Southern California when he was 2, then back to Canada five years later, where they lived in West Vancouver. When he was 10, his family moved back to the United States, but deWitt returned to Vancouver after high school. Later he lived in Los Angeles, Bainbridge Island (off Seattle), and now he’s in Portland. Next year, he’ll put his stuff in storage and head to Paris for a three-month residency. A Canadian with a green card, he says all that moving around probably helped him become a writer.

“Whenever we changed schools, we had to make a new set of friends. At the time, of course, I hated it. But looking back now, I’m really glad I did, because it forces independence on you. I think I became accustomed to a degree of solitude ... and that just lent itself to me being comfortable spending the hours alone that writing requires of you.”

The Sisters Brothers is set during the California gold rush. Brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters are making their way south from Oregon City to California on horseback, to kill one Hermann Warm, who has in some way done their boss, the Commodore, wrong.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the assassination: Eli’s conscience starts getting the better of him, and he begins questioning his life choices. It’s the sort of thinking not typically associated with cowboy assassins. And that, for deWitt, was exactly the point.

“The impetus for The Sisters Brothers was it occurred to me that there was no neurosis in westerns, or there’s a minimal amount of it,” says deWitt, who scribbled down the term “sensitive cowboys” in his notebook years ago, which became the seed for the novel.

“If I’d written a strictly traditional western protagonist where he’s strong and he’s sound and he does the right thing at every turn, that wouldn’t have held my interest for very long.”

DeWitt was already working on another novel – a contemporary story about a young man who follows a girl he loves to a commune – when out on his bicycle one morning, he came across a yard sale, and, among the books scattered on the grass, an old Time-Life book about the California gold rush, The Forty-Niners. He bought it for 25 cents.

“If I hadn’t happened across that book, I think it would have been a much more stationary story,” says deWitt, who cut out pages from the book and plastered them all over the walls. “Looking at the old pictures and drawings and paintings was much more inspirational than the cold, hard facts.”

DeWitt avoided facts as much as he could in writing the story. “I didn’t want it to be one of those research-heavy books. Oftentimes you’ll read those books and facts will be in the books that don’t necessarily help the story, even though they may be interesting, and clearly what happens is when you immerse yourself in another time period, I think there’s a tendency to become somewhat drunk with all the facts. And I don’t know if I would have had the self-control to have kept all these interesting tidbits out of the book.”

Self-control may be an issue for deWitt. Ablutions is told from the point of view of a bartender who becomes too attached to his wares and his life goes into a tailspin. “There’s a good deal of me in there; I wish there was less of me in there, really,” says deWitt, who worked at a bar for six years.

“By the time I left the bar, I was 30. I was a dishwasher. They call it a bar-back, but essentially I washed dishes for a living. I had no high-school diploma, I had no agent and my literary successes were non-existent ... but it was the only thing I ever wanted to do, so I did feel trapped.”

He ultimately found an agent and sold Ablutions, but not until he escaped what he calls the “unhealthy environment” of the L.A. bar and moved with his wife and young son to Washington State, where they lived with his parents. DeWitt worked construction with his father part-time, spending the rest of his time writing.

“Somewhere in that period I came up with the sensitive cowboys note,” he says.

Then came the yard-sale find, the change in direction, and ultimately the unlikely western, now up for four prestigious literary awards.

“I had no plan to write a western novel and when I realized it was happening, I was pretty surprised by it,” says deWitt. “But you have to go with what feels right.”

Patrick deWitt will appear at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 29 (readings.org).

Follow on Twitter: @marshalederman

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