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Author Archive: "Patrick deWitt"

SUBJECT: The Importance of Subverting Habit

I heard somewhere that whenever you write a book, people will ask you One Question about it over and over. And while I'm no expert in these matters, this is proving to be true. My first book dealt with a not-that-pleasant degenerate-type, and the One Question was, "Is this an autobiographical story?" The new book takes place in 1851, and so the One Question is, "How much research did you do?" The answer: Not very much. This doesn't fully please the Asker, and so there's an inevitable Follow Up: "Why not?" The second question is trickier to answer than the first; or rather, there's more than one answer, and, yes, laziness is in there somewhere. But mainly I felt it best not to do research because, as everyone knows, if there's one thing a writer must do when writing historical fiction it's steep himself in fact and minutia , and my thought was that by forgoing this mandatory preparatory step I would have to rely on the intangible and so be ...

SUBJECT: Something Weird That I Do

I'm going to talk about something weird that I do. I've been doing it for about two years. I don't know why I started doing it, but I've come to believe it's helpful not just to my writing life but to my life in the general sense. I have no plans to stop doing it. I'm talking about it now because I don't know what else to talk about.

One morning I was home alone, writing, and I got stuck. I left my office and roamed the house, mulling and mumbling. I wound up in my son's room. The curtains were drawn; it was dark. I don't know what was in my mind at the time or what inspired me to do this, but I found myself placing my hands on my son's bookshelf and then standing very still, as though waiting for something. I closed my eyes, and all at once I had the feeling that something within my head came loose, came away, and there followed, just after, a strong pulse of what I guess you'd call energy entering the top of my skull and ...

SUBJECT: Underlining Text

I buy a lot of used books, mostly paperbacks. Before I'll actually pay for a book, though, I flip through it from front to back to see if it's been highlighted or underlined; if it has, even slightly, even with light lead pencil, that book goes back up on the shelf, because what happens is that whenever I hit an underlined passage, the work becomes unhinged for me, and I'm no longer alone with the words or narrative. There's another county heard from, which at the very least is interruptive, but often times it's maddening: "Why did they underline that?" People exercise their will wherever they can. Some train dogs to say, "I love you!" (as though the dog knows what the words mean), while others deface innocent paperbacks. It's a way of insinuating one's voice into the text, of tapping the author on the shoulder and saying, "This part here? You got that part right. The one part, at least."

Despite my aversion to the practice, I find I'm becoming one of those who underlines. I'm not proud of this. And I don't know why I do ...

SUBJECT: Bad ideas, or Ideas Which, for Whatever Reason, Will Not Be Used

I carry a small spiral notebook with me at all times and have been doing this for many years. There's a shoe box in my closet filled with these notebooks, each riddled with notes and impressions, ideas, schemes, and soup recipes. I am aware that this is unremarkable.

After finishing The Sisters Brothers, I upended the shoe box in search of a new project. Surely, somewhere in one of these 20-plus notebooks there was something that would put me to work? But no, I went through them all and didn't find a single usable idea.

Below is a sampling of what I did find, things that I won't be using, either because they're bad ideas, or else underdeveloped, or because I don't understand how to use them. At least, not yet.

Short story ideas:

  • A story about a charitable organization called Ski Bums that takes homeless people skiing. This is destined to fail because homeless people hate being cold.

  • A story about someone who is the opposite of an exorcist — someone who can make an unhaunted house haunted.
  • A


SUBJECT: Minor Characters Who Should Be Less Minor

Some years ago I was reading a New Yorker article about folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger. I'm not particularly interested in Pete Seeger, but I often read about things I'm not interested in in the New Yorker; the pieces are written and edited in a come-one-come-all fashion that allows the uninitiated or impartial to waltz in and instantly latch onto any random topic. So it was with this article, and the story was moving along at a good clip. It was 1955 and things were heating up for Seeger politically. He and his wife were living in a remote, wooded area 60 miles north of Manhattan when one day a lone man drove up to their log cabin, verbally confirmed Seeger's identity, and handed him an envelope. The envelope contained a summons; Seeger was to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Holding my breath, I read ahead — one sentence, then the next. Wait a minute, where had the summons server gone? Surely that wasn't the last we'd see of him? But yes, he'd vanished, never to return, and I found myself saddened by ...

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