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Books Patrick deWitt’s follow-up to The Sisters Brothers is an affair of the heart

Patrick deWitt quit a book about a Bernie Madoff-like investment adviser to begin his new novel, Undermajordomo Minor.

Doreen Kennedy/Alamy Stock Photo

In 2012, after the hype surrounding The Sisters Brothers began to die down, the novelist Patrick deWitt moved his family to Paris. "I'd gone through the entire circus," he says. "And when you leave the circus, you're in a daze. It takes a while to recalibrate." They sold their car, rented out their home in Portland, Ore., moved across a continent and an ocean, and settled into an artists' residence in the 10th arrondissement that had previously housed a Franciscan monastery, a hospice, a military hospital, and an architectural school. He'd come to France to finish his next novel, Presto Change-O, which, he'd said in several interviews, was about a Bernie Madoff-like investment adviser.

"Almost as soon as I got to Paris, I recognized that the book was boring me to tears and I didn't want to finish it," says deWitt, who'd been working on the novel for over a year. He didn't like Wall Street as a backdrop, nor the largely contemporary time period, and "the idea of dissecting the mind of a man obsessed with the accumulation of money, which I thought would be so fascinating, was just dead boring. And when your protagonist bores you, you're in trouble."

While in Paris, he'd bought a couple of volumes of European fables from an English-language bookshop; he soon found himself "infected" by the tales. "I was enjoying reading these stories so much more than I was enjoying working on my own book," he says. They were "so strange, often times so violent, but also quite sweet, in some way." He quit the novel he'd been writing and, feeling inspired, began work on a new project, completing the first 40 pages in a quick burst.

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"I found myself writing for the reasons that you begin writing in the first place," he says. "Which is a love of language, a love of story and character. And I never looked back."

Undermajordomo Minor, which was published this past week and almost immediately found itself on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, is vintage deWitt, if the label can be applied to a writer with only three books under his belt. Droll, beguiling and slightly wistful, it begins with a young man, like many fables do, heading off into the world for the first time. Lucien Minor, known as Lucy, leaves his village to take a position as the "undermajordomo" – think assistant butler – in the mysterious Castle Von Aux, some ways away. (You can draw a direct line between the castle and the artists' residence where deWitt resided in Paris – called the Récollets, it was built in 1603, and is probably haunted: "Doing the laundry, which was in the deep, deep basement, was terrifying," says deWitt. "I would make my son come down with me. I was protecting him, but I needed another body there.") The novel takes place in an unnamed, probably European country – think Austria, pushed further east on the map – during an unnamed period that could be any time between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, and is stuffed with an odd assortment of major minor characters, including a pair of thieves, a group of amorous aristocrats and a man with the nasty habit of feasting on the flesh of small rodents.

Unlike the fables that inspired it, "I don't think there's any moral to this book," says deWitt, nursing a coffee one morning during a recent trip to Toronto. "Or, if there is, it's remained elusive to me." I suggest the moral might be something the Baron Von Aux, the castle's odd proprietor, tells Lucy late in the novel, and which I'd jotted down in my notes: "Love leaves us like luck leaves us." There is, after all, much unrequited love in the novel; characters pine after one another, fall in love with one another and are abandoned by one another, not necessarily in that order. He thinks about it for a moment.

"The last three years of my life I've given a lot of thought to the origins of love, and [how] some loves last and some don't," he says. "Even if I hadn't been working on this book, I think it's something that I would have been considering … It's just a mysterious phenomenon to me – falling in love and falling out of love. And I think that's true what the Baron says. I think often times there is a limit to love, much in the way there's a limit to luck. At a certain point you push it too far, or you ask too much of it, and it can't necessarily stand up to what you want of it, what you expect of it.

"One of the nice things about writing is you can take essentially painful things in your life and turn them into something that might be useful, or at least entertaining, to somebody else," he continues, then apologizes: "I feel like I'm just being cryptic, but love has been on my mind a lot the last couple of years."

In many ways, the novel feels like a companion piece to The Sisters Brothers, which follows a pair of bounty-hunting cowboy siblings from Oregon to California searching for a prospector who may possess the secret to finding gold. It, too, was populated by off-kilter characters – men who don't fit into the modern world, introverts, hermits and recluses. Neuroses seem to course through deWitt's characters like blood.

"All of my close friends are emotional train wrecks," he says by way of an explanation. "This is what makes our lives interesting – constantly doubting ourselves, worrying, wondering if we've made a mistake. Could we have done better? Are we good people? Are we bad people? It's not so much that I'm keen to fill my fiction with characters like this as [it is] my life in general. I'm not interested in alpha characters. To me, that's the dullest thing in the world – a confident man. If you're not riddled with doubt, you've probably done something wrong."

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In Undermajordomo Minor, Lucy is suddenly thrust into a bizarre setting and unlikely situation, one he doesn't truly understand and one that quickly careens out of his control. There are parallels to deWitt's own experience after publishing The Sisters Brothers, in which he went from being a rather obscure novelist (his debut, Ablutions, didn't even have a Canadian publisher) to the author of a novel that sold 150,000 copies in Canada alone and was, it seemed, nominated for every major literary prize in the English-speaking world, from the Giller to the Booker. (Its accolades included a trifecta of awards: the Governor-General's Literary Award, the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.)

"Writers typically aren't equipped to deal with that sort of thing," he says. "I remember going to London for the Booker shortlist. I was going through customs, and they asked why I was there. I was explaining to the customs agent that I'm a writer and there's this book prize called the Man Booker Prize. The customs agent was just completely blown away and knew what the Booker Prize was. I just thought, 'What weird world am I in, that a customs agent is aware of a literary prize?' And it began to sink in. I remember that week in London, it was just something else. This was not a reading at a local bookstore. The cab drivers knew about it. It was in the newspapers every day. There was a scandal attached to the prize that year because the books were too readable. And this was all so foreign to me. … It was all beyond my realm of experience, so you just hold your breath and go along with it."

It's different this time around. House of Anansi, his Canadian publisher, has invested a considerable amount of money into the new novel, and expectations were sky-high, even before the Giller Prize longlist was unveiled. They brought deWitt to Toronto for a pre-publication tour earlier this summer, then again in August, and he'll be back in town later this month. His life may have become a circus, but he seems happy to have run away with it.

"The only thing I ever wanted in life was not to be bored," he says. "So to find myself at the age of 40 doing the only thing that I ever did want to do, and to still feel engaged, and to still feel an affinity for words in the same way – I wouldn't change a thing."

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