But it was his next novel, about a pair of gun-for-hire siblings during the California gold rush, that turned deWitt from an obscure literary writer into a bona fide superstar. To this day, the author is at a bit of a loss to explain exactly how or why The Sisters Brothers caught on the way it did. “The success of that book is still a bit of a mystery to me,” he says. “I’m not surprised that a small group of people liked it, because I think it’s a very specific itch to scratch. But it’s puzzling to me that so many people come up to me and they say they’ve bought the book for their grandfather, and their children are also coming up to me and saying they read it.”
If the fact that people react to The Sisters Brothers puzzles deWitt, so too does the way people react to it. Perhaps because 21st-century readers are relatively unfamiliar with the western as a genre, and therefore reach for the only referent they can think of as a touchstone, much of the critical response and commentary around the book likens it to the work of Cormac McCarthy, a writer deWitt frankly doesn’t share much in common with. “The McCarthy comparison was just lost to me,” he says. “No offence to McCarthy, I just never thought of him as one of those authors that … he never really got into my bones.”
Much closer to the spirit and intention of deWitt’s novel is Charles Portis, author of True Grit, whose signature combination of humour and violence deWitt readily acknowledges as a huge influence. “Portis is someone I’ve been reading since before I knew how to drive a car,” deWitt says. “I’ve only come to appreciate him more and more. I just think he’s a master.”
The rampant popularity of The Sisters Brothers led to acclaim and – not incidentally – a certain degree of financial security. It also brought some controversy around the issue of a writer who has not made his home in Canada since he was a child being given money by the Canadian government (in addition to his GG, deWitt also received a $12,000 Canada Council grant to work on the book).
“I’m not quite sure what’s expected of me,” deWitt says when asked about the prickly subject of cultural nationalism. His frustration is understandable, given the rapidity with which many Canadians are willing to claim ownership over other artists who have made the choice to live elsewhere – fellow GG winner and New Zealand resident Eleanor Catton, for example, or the late Mavis Gallant, who spent most of her adult life in Paris. “The fact of the matter is, I live in the U.S. because that’s where my son is,” deWitt says. “It’s not as though I’m there because I admire the government. I maintain my Canadian citizenship; I don’t have U.S. citizenship at the moment. I do think of myself as a Canadian.”
DeWitt professes not to let the criticisms worry him, or to affect his writing process. He is already sketching out his next book, another historical piece he hopes will complete a loose trilogy with The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor.
In the meantime, deWitt appears sanguine about the place he’s in, and relatively unconcerned about the outsized expectations surrounding his latest novel. “I’m aware of a readership now,” he says when asked what he feels is different this time around. “But it’s something I keep as far away from my mind as possible.”
This is probably a good thing. Undermajordomo Minor, which is being published simultaneously by Anansi in Canada, Ecco in the U.S., and Granta in the U.K., will be scrutinized carefully, and will inevitably be compared to its predecessor. DeWitt is aware of this, and seems prepared for it. He also seems prepared to defend a defiantly idiosyncratic novel that reads as though it was written to please no one other than himself. “Whatever exists in the book exists because I believe it makes [it] stronger,” he says. “I know that my decisions won’t line up with everyone’s sensibilities.”
So what, ultimately, is his hope for Undermajordomo Minor? “If this book allows me to write another book, then that’s the best-case scenario,” deWitt says. “I do hope that the readers I’ve made enjoy it. And that the rat lovers of the world forgive me.”