PATRICK DEWITT is a born writer. He has never wanted to do anything else.
However, leaving school early, eschewing college, and never attending a creative writing programme, it took him a long while to figure out quite what his chosen career entailed.
“I knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know how to achieve it,” he says, as we chat in Dublin about his third book, Under Major Domo Minor.
“All the books I was reading as a teenager were about individuals having adventures. So I thought that was what writers were supposed to do; to go out on the road.”
In his acknowledgments, Patrick thanks a host of writers for providing him with inspiration.
Foremost of them is JP Donleavy, whose novels Patrick devoured when he was 15.
“I loved them all, and was influenced by The Onion Eaters,” he says.
“The Gingerman was a masterpiece. I love the way Donleavy handles class.”
Under Major Domo Minor is a gothic love story, set in a castle in a warring corner of mid-Europe, with distinct fairy tale overtones; yet there are echoes of Donleavy in the humanity of DeWitt’s writing, and especially in the depiction of his various characters; the mad, the sad and the crucially flawed share a sense of basic decency.
Even the thieves are likeable.
“Civility is the primary attribute of everyone in the story,” says Patrick. “Except for the aristocrats; the rich characters seem to lack it because they have never been taught it.”
The story opens when the young and aimless Lucien Minor, known as Lucy, secures a job as under major domo at the remote castle of Baron Von Aux.
A liar and weakling, he’s alarmed by the strange goings on, and it takes a while for him to come to terms with his new life. Then he meets Klara, a local beauty.
“One of my primary goals was to tell a love story. Lucy has never been compelled to assert himself before. He has never been listened to, apart from telling lies in his home town, and now he has something to fight for.
“That is one of the things that love does. When you meet someone you love, whether or not they love you back, something occurs in you that makes you want to improve yourself,” he says.
There’s a lot of violence and debauchery in the novel’s pages, but ultimately, it’s a redemptive tale with a sound moral base. Not that the author stands over everything his characters preach.
When Memel, the elderly thief, is close to death, he gathers the children of the village together and tells them a story of his life.
Memel tells of the love he felt for his hardworking father, but the message of the tale is that mindless hard work is for fools and that the children should avoid it at all costs, and should take what they want from life.
“I enjoyed that sentiment, and admire Memel for holding it, though I don’t co-sign it,” he says.
Memel is probably the happiest character in the book. Indeed, most of the people in Lucy’s circle are downright miserable.
“Lucy’s parents were unhappy people,” says Patrick, who makes a study of UPs – his term for unhappy people. “I watch them in a moderately perverse way,” he says.
“Plane travel is a hot spot for UPs. They stand out because they are angry, or sorrowfully sighing, or walking slowly with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Or perhaps they drink excessively. It’s fascinating to me, the way they behave.”
“I’ve been a UP myself, so I am very sympathetic. I like to think of the better parts of us, but a doubt creeps in on me on a daily basis, so that bleeds into the work. People get more unhappy if, like Lucy’s parent, they don’t break free. If Lucy had stayed at home, he would have become one himself. Active existence is the only way to avoid the UP lifestyle,” he says.
Patrick was at his least happy before he managed to become a writer. And that was a long struggle.
“After school I got a job in a shop in Hollywood, and shared an apartment with a friend. I promptly lost my job and got evicted from my apartment, and that happened several times.”
A series of mundane jobs followed, from dishwashing to labouring, with Patrick working the minimum hours to survive, because he needed lots of time to read and write.
At one stage he went back to his native Canada. His parents worried about him as he struggled to learn his trade, starting four novels with no notion of how to finish them.
Then, when Patrick was back in Los Angeles, and working nights in a bar, collecting great tips, and writing throughout the day, everything clicked.
“I suddenly understood something that had been mysterious and murky to me. Suddenly it was all clear,” he says.
He acquired an agent, who liked the book, but wanted Patrick to beef it up a bit — so he moved in with his parents, along with his wife and small son, and helped out in his father’s construction business, while he tinkered with his manuscript. And in 2009, his first novel, Ablutions, was published by Granta.
Since then, life has been rosy for the 40-year-old.
His second book, The Sisters Brothers, published in 2011, won two prestigious awards and made the Man Booker shortlist.
This was the year when Julian Barnes won the award, and when the judges claimed they had chosen the books for readability.
This caused great controversy at the time.
“I remember being confused by the whole outcry. Were the detractors saying if something is readable it must mean it’s sub-power? I think of myself as more of an escapist.
“As a reader I want to be present and entertained. I don’t want to be taught lessons and I don’t want to be spoken down to. I want to be treated as a peer and to be made to feel welcome.
“I don’t think that’s too much to ask for, and I think when people bristle against accessibility in art, it’s a suspicious thing. The opposite of readability is un-readability. And that’s not for me,” he says.
Calming down, he says that post-Booker, he had moments where the pressure felt overwhelming.
“But only during a phase when the writing wasn’t going well. For a while I was struggling, thinking, what have I got myself into?”
On the whole, though, writing seems easier these days. Writing full time, Patrick’s days have evolved into a natural routine.
“I take my kid to school, or take breakfast if I’m alone, and I’m at my desk by 9am or 10am. I write for about three hours, and then come back at night and look at what I’ve done in the morning.
“I fiddle a bit, and in the morning look at that work, in a more studious frame of mind. It’s going back and forth between the two types of writing, and it seeps into your bones as part of your waking and sleeping life.
“Oftentimes there are holes in the book, and you don’t know how to fill them, then you overhear something in the supermarket, or see a story in a newspaper. The world is there for the taking.”
Where once, Patrick panicked, and didn’t dare distance himself from his writing for fear he would lose momentum, now he has the confidence to know the writing will regenerate itself.
“I love writing. My interest in it is increasing, and so is my love of language and my admiration relating to the strangeness of our lives,” he says.
Under Major Domo Minor; Granta, €17.99; Kindle, €11.68
Published in The Irish Examiner on 12th December, 2015
© Sue Leonard. 2015