Dazzlingly original, darkly funny, striking and strange: such are the words critics have used to describe the novels of Patrick deWitt. His 2011 book The Sisters Brothers, a picaresque Western starring a pair of bickering assassins, burst upon the literary scene like a gunfighter exploding into a sleepy bar, attracting a wide and devoted readership and ending up on the Man Booker shortlist.
What The Sisters Brothers did for the cowboy novel, deWitt's new book aims to do for the fairy tale. Undermajordomo Minor is the story of Lucien Minor (known as Lucy), who gets a job as assistant to the majordomo (hence the tongue-twisting title) at a remote and forbidding castle. There follows a delightful swirl of mystery and misdemeanour, including some Alpine aristocrats behaving very, very badly, and Lucy falls in love – which may or may not be a good thing.
In person, the author is as singular as his novels. Tall and gangly, deWitt is softly-spoken, eloquent and benign. With this book, he says, he wanted to write “a proper love story. I had never tried it before. I was curious to see what my love story would look like. And beyond that, it seemed like it was something that people weren’t necessarily addressing anymore. It seems unfashionable, and I am oftentimes drawn to unfashionable things.”
One of a clutch of appealing characters in Undermajordomo Minor is the majordomo, Mr Olderglough, "an elegantly skeletal man of sixty or more". He is grumpy and distracted when we first meet him because, as he explains to Lucy in a typical deWittism, he has had a nightmare about eels.
A nightmare about eels? Where did that come from? DeWitt smiles. “I don’t know where it comes from, to tell you the truth. I don’t know where these things come from. It just bubbles up – and then it becomes a question of what you use and what you cast aside.” When he first wrote the scene, he says, he included more details about the content of the nightmare. “But it seems to me maybe just to say it was a nightmare about eels was enough. Eels being frightening animals, first of all. But secondly, it’s descriptive of Mr Olderglough’s personality. It’s like him to leave out the details of it.”
In fairness, the majordomo has other things on his mind. There’s the ongoing war outside; terrifying, lethal, randomly recurring eruptions of violence which are never explained and always unresolved. There’s the disappearance of the previous undermajordomo. Worst of all, there’s an unspeakable something (or someone?) roaming the corridors of the castle at night.
The man who dreams up these unnerving scenarios lives in Portland, Oregon, a city we have all come to think of – partly thanks to the sitcom Portlandia – as hipster heaven. Is it really as good as we imagine? "It's pretty wonderful," deWitt says. "I don't have any complaints. People are very kind and there's lots to do. It's still relatively inexpensive."
Though he has “some Dutch” in his genealogy somewhere, it doesn’t really register on his family radar. “I’m Canadian born. My folks are Canadian born. I’ve been in the States for a good long while.
“My father, when he was a young man, had a romance with Los Angeles, having moved from Fort Eyrie, Ontario to Los Angeles in 1962.
“It was really revelatory for him – and he never really recovered. So every couple of years he’d get the bug, and we’d move down to southern California. And then back to Canada, after missing all the aspects of life there that weren’t available to us in the States.”
This cultural boomeranging may well have contributed to the development of deWitt's fecund, free-ranging imagination. His literary style, though, is all his own - with a little help from the many writers whose work he has absorbed and admired over the years. Undermajordomo Minor includes a list of literary influences that ranges from Roald Dahl to Robert Walser - and our own JP Donleavy.
"I think of The Ginger Man as being one of my favourite books, and I read it at a young age," deWitt says. "My father gave it to me. But in terms of influencing this book, I think I had in my mind The Onion Eaters. I just really like the way he handles humour. His dialogue is wonderful. There's a certain sting to him – he's not mean-spirited, but he gets a little nasty sometimes, which I admire because he does it in a very humane way."
Another early inspiration was John Steinbeck. "I remember reading his Monterey novels which are, you know, 120 pages and very spare. It's mostly dialogue, and extremely easy to read – you can read them in an hour or two. Being young and foolish, I remember thinking: 'How hard can that be?' And then you get into it and realise that it's more difficult than it seems."
His goals as a writer are, deWitt says, often obscure to him. “But that’s one of the ones that I am aware of – simplifying the reading process so that you can get to the deeper issues.” Is that a matter of paring back? “Simplifying, yeah. Keeping things unadorned.
“A lot of my favourite authors don’t necessarily write in this way; their text will be extremely thorny and difficult to navigate, and you have to really concentrate all the way through. But I’m not that kind of writer.”
DeWitt’s search for simplicity is complicated by the high value he places on elegance. “It’s very important,” he says. “As a reader, when I’m looking for my personal brand of entertainment I think elegance and musicality are very important to me. There’s nothing worse than a homely sentence that’s stating something that is elegant – an elegant intention, but then the craftsmanship isn’t there. I think of it as an opportunity lost. It’s a shame when it happens, and I try to avoid it with my work.”
The Sisters Brothers struck a chord with critics and awards juries – when it was pipped at the 2011 Man Booker post by Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, many argued that deWitt should have taken the prize – but also with an unusually broad spectrum of readers, from 14-year-old fans of graphic novels to women in their 70s who wouldn't normally want to read about hired assassins.
Can deWitt explain its appeal? “I think that people found the protagonist to be charming – and his problems and his questions resonated with people in some very basic way,” he says. “I think Eli’s conundrums, and his feelings of isolation and loneliness and his desire for love, are easily relatable.
“But it’s odd to me. I think some projects are just lucky in that way. If I knew how to make that happen every time, I would. So much of it has to do with luck. Yeah. It was just a lucky book. Just one of those things.”
What will he write about next? “I have an idea for a book about an explorer who’s charting an unmapped world,” he says. “It would take place in the distant past, and it would be a diary written on board a ship. I haven’t begun it, but I have a good feeling about it.”
Good feelings aren't always enough. After his debut novel, Ablutions, deWitt wrote a book set in the world of investment banking, which he was sure would be his follow-up.
“It was a complete book – 300-odd pages and up – but re-reading it, I discovered that it wasn’t up to scratch.”
So he binned it. All of it? “I think,” he says, “that the danger is not necessarily writing a bad book, but writing a book that’s just okay.”
He pauses, as if to scrutinise the horror of such a thing, then nods. “A C-grade book. You want to avoid that.”
Undermajordomo Minor is published by Granta Books, £12.99
Modern fairy tales: Five for our times
The Sleeper and the Spindle By Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
A sumptuous riff on Sleeping Beauty: dark, dangerous and definitely not for kids.
Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest By Amos Oz
In a village far away, all the animals have disappeared. A graceful, heartbreaking meditation on extinction which manages to embrace both the Holocaust and environmental degradation.
Eucalyptus By Murray Bail
The man who can name every species of rare tree shall marry the farmer's daughter: but there are hundreds of species, and the farmer's daughter is no pushover. This magical fable from the Australian bush is really about the power of storytelling.
The Princess Bride By William Goldman
Not the movie, but the 1973 fantasy novel: silly, serpentine, sublime.
Kissing the Witch By Emma Donoghue
No question of living happily ever after at the prince's gaff in this mordant collection of fairytales with a feminist twist.