This week we’re in conversation with Patrick DeWitt. His latest novel, French Exit, tells the story of Frances Price, widower and “Upper East Side force of nature,” her layabout son Malcolm, and their ageing cat Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband.
Quill & Quire says “DeWitt’s absolute mastery over this approach is a thing of beauty: every nuance, scene, character, and snippet of dialogue is pitch perfect.” The New Yorker, meanwhile, calls DeWitt “a stealth absurdist, with a flair for dressing up rhyme as reason.”
Patrick DeWitt was born on Vancouver Island in 1975. He is the author of three critically acclaimed novels: Undermajordomo Minor, Ablutions, and The Sisters Brothers, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Stephen Leacock Medal. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
THE CHAT WITH PATRICK DEWITT
Trevor Corkum: French Exit is called a “tragedy of manners,” yet I found myself laughing out loud on nearly every page. Did you ever imagine you’d be writing a novel set in Paris?
Patrick DeWitt: I’ve been wanting to write about Paris since I first visited there, however many years ago. It took some time to find the right story for the setting, though. It’s an overwritten city. And it’s been written about so beautifully, and I was fearful of marring the legacy, somehow.
TC: You’ve won or been nominated for a slew of major literary awards, and expectations are high for this novel. Did you feel any pressure as you wrote?
PDW: I felt the pressure of expectation with my last book, Undermajordomo Minor, but none at all with this new concern. Perhaps the expectation is still there but I missed it, mercifully.
TC: Frances Price—widow and “Upper East Side force of nature”—belongs in the great pantheon of chic, aloof (and deeply wounded) ice queens. How did Frances first come to life for you?
PDW: The voice of Frances—arch, caustic, vulnerable, faithful—has existed in my mind for years, only I wasn’t sure how this voice could best be put to use. I’d thought of her as a secondary character, but in French Exit, her narrative makes up the bulk of the story.
TC: Frances’ adult son, Malcolm, is detached but studiously astute. Imagine you meet Malcolm at a hotel bar. What do you two talk about?
PDW: I don’t imagine Malcolm would have any desire to talk to me in the first place, but I could see us having a frank chat about the more corrupt/unsavoury traits of a certain America-exploring discoverer who shall remain nameless.
TC: Tell us about a scene or an idea you had for the book that didn’t make it into the final draft.
PDW: The funeral of Franklin Price was a far more dramatic affair in an earlier draft, with Frances weaponizing her wit to decimate her deceased husband’s proxy. It seemed too much like bad television drama, so the scene was trimmed down to its current, more manageable state.
TC: What do you love most about Paris, and what do you hate?
PDW: I feel like I’m a ghost when I’m in Paris—that no one can see me at all. This is what struck me when I first arrived there; and this is what I love most about it when I go back, that sense of invisibility.
Hate is a strong word. I dislike how wretched my French is, and how long it’s taking me to learn the fundamentals.
Excerpt from French Exit
“All good things must end,” said Frances Price.
She was a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone in New York City’s Upper East Side. Her son, Malcolm, thirty-two, stood nearby looking his usual broody and unkempt self. It was late autumn, dusk; the windows of the brownstone were lit, a piano sounded on the air—a tasteful party was occurring. Frances was explaining her early departure to a similarly wealthy though less lovely individual, this the hostess. Her name doesn’t matter. She was aggrieved.
“You’re certain you have to go? Is it really so bad as that?”
“According to the veterinarian it’s only a matter of time,” Frances said. “What a shame. We were having such a lovely evening.”
“Were you really?” the hostess asked hopefully.
“Such a lovely evening. And I do hate to leave. But it sounds an actual emergency, and what can be done in the face of that?”
The hostess considered her answer. “Nothing,” she said finally. A silence arrived; to Frances’s horror, the hostess lunged and clung to her. “I’ve always admired you so,” she whispered.
“Malcolm,” said Frances.
“Actually I’m sort of afraid of you. Is that very silly of me?”
Malcolm found the hostess pliable; he peeled her away from his mother, then took the woman’s hand in his and shook it. She watched her hand going up and down with an expression of puzzlement. She’d had two too many drinks and there was nothing in her stomach but a viscous pâté. She returned to her home and Malcolm led Frances away, down the steps to the sidewalk. They passed the waiting town car and sat on a bench twenty yards back from the brownstone, for there was no emergency, no veterinarian, and the cat, that antique oddity called Small Frank, was not unwell, so far as they knew.
Excerpted from French Exit copyright ©2018 by Patrick deWitt. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com.
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