Eli and Charlie Sisters are brothers on a mission. And not a merciful one.
It’s the 1850s on the wild West Coast, smack in the middle of the Gold Rush, and they are hired to track down and assassinate an odd little fellow by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector with a scientific bent.
Warm is one of many irregular characters in Patrick deWitt’s novel “The Sisters Brothers,” an off-kilter Western and the current selection of the FYI Book Club.
On the way to Warm, for instance, the brothers encounter “the weeping man” and a “gypsy-witch,” who’s perhaps the only character they fear crossing. Plus plenty of lusty prostitutes, even as the cerebral Eli longs instead for real companionship.
See, Eli is on his own journey. He ruminates about concerns big and small, from his dental hygiene to his portliness to his path in life. Meanwhile, he and Charlie efficiently go about the business of fatally dispatching anyone who gets in the way of the current job.
Charlie, it seems, isn’t troubled by misgivings. He’s still having fun with it all, including the deliciously teasing banter on the road with Eli. It’s cowboy noir on wry.
Here are edited excerpts of our recent conversation with deWitt.
Q. I’m curious about your choosing the surname Sisters for these two killers. Is it historical at all?
There were no Sisters historically that I’m aware of. There’s a town called Sisters nearby here (Portland, Ore.), but I’ve never visited. Names can’t be rushed for me. They just sort of arrive one day. I was calling them Eli and Charlie, but at the start I didn’t know they were brothers. Once I realized that, then the surname materialized.
More important, they are siblings, brothers. Why explore that relationship?
I had never written from the point of view of someone so far in the past, and I found in the beginning it was a bit difficult to inhabit the characters. One way to get into their heads was to link them by blood, I learned. I have a younger and an older brother, and being in the middle I could sympathize with both Eli and Charlie. I realized that not much has changed with the passage of time. People’s lives are different now than in the 1850s, but we’re still made up of the same stuff.
I’m one of five boys myself, so I recognize these brotherly interactions. Was it difficult to portray the tender side of their relationship? It certainly helps when Charlie tells the story of how Eli got his freckles.
It’s through this anecdote that you see Charlie really does love Eli. Regarding the origin of the story, apparently when I was young my parents left me out in the sun too long on a hot day. I’m fair-skinned and got this terrible sunburn, resulting in freckles. Not to besmirch my parents’ good name, but it’s one of those family stories that’s told and retold.
This is what you do in writing, take odds and ends of truths and intermingle them with untruths and see what happens in the end.
I came to see Charlie’s telling of the freckle story as the axis of the book. For me, anyway, the book revolves around it.
The brothers perpetrate a lot of murders. They’re psychopaths, basically. Did you set out to examine such violence?
I know that I would never put myself through the ordeal of writing something if I didn’t find it interesting in some way, so it must hold some fascination with me.
But I didn’t particularly enjoy working on the more violent parts of the book. One scene comes to mind where Eli, in a rage, flattens a freshly killed man’s skull with his boot heel.
That’s a distinctly unpleasant thing to think about. How would it feel, not emotionally but the physical sensation of flattening a man’s skull? Not the nicest way to spend a morning, but I thought it served the story, so in it went.
I tried to keep the violence to a minimum. Every scene of violence is there for a reason.
Plenty of people mid-career, for better or worse, have said, “Well, I never really planned to be doing this. It just sort of worked out this way.” Is that how you see Eli?
Yes, and this is something again I could relate to. I’ve been writing full time for a while now, but it took about 15 years to get to that point, during which time I had one banal job after another.
Now that I’m on the other side of it, I feel glad to have had these positions because it put things in perspective for me, and it makes me appreciate the time to focus on my work now.
But I still remember what it was like to wake up for work, knowing I was going to lose a day to it. It was so frustrating. And it was easy enough to transfer that feeling into the character of Eli.
Eli is actually lovable, but maybe that’s partly because we’re privy to his thoughts. Charlie is likable but in a completely different way. How do you persuade readers to like these bad characters?
Eli came into focus fairly quickly, and I liked him enough that I wanted him to narrate the book. I knew Charlie would be far less sympathetic. He treats Eli so poorly, and so you dislike him.
But I learned to like Charlie as well. When you spend time with a person, even if they’re ungenerous, you come to recognize motivations and you can’t help but sympathize to some degree. Usually these kinds of people have been hurt themselves.
Also, Charlie says some pretty funny things. No matter how awful a person is, if they can make you laugh you tend to forgive them.
Maybe the California Gold Rush is partly to blame here, turning people ugly who wouldn’t otherwise be. What drew you to that setting?
I was at a garage sale around the corner from my house and found a book about the Gold Rush for 25 cents. The pictures were particularly interesting to me — daguerreotypes of these wild-looking men hefting their chunks of gold. And San Francisco, a harbor clogged with abandoned ships because the men had run off to work the gold fields.
I pinned these strange images above my writing desk, and they all figured into the novel in one way or another.
I liked the idea of the brothers, these hardened criminals who appear to be afraid of nothing, humbled by this economic happening beyond their grasp and experience. It frightens them a bit.
Some have called this a comic novel. There are some very funny parts. I’m thinking of the way Eli discovers the use of a toothbrush and tooth powder.
I had questions about the logistics of daily life in the Wild West. For example, when you watch a Western, you never see anyone drinking water. They drink whiskey. The hangovers must have been awful — no aspirin, no water. And you never see them brush their teeth. They must have had the worst breath. I began to think about oral hygiene on the frontier, and that begat the toothbrush scenes.
I also wondered about their clothing. When I see fashionably dressed people in a Western, I think, where do they do their shopping? So I knew I had to have a scene in the book where the brothers are shopping for clothes.
If I have a criticism of the Western genre, it’s that it’s too serious for me. As seriously as I take writing, I don’t like overly serious writing in general. I think it’s healthy to make light of tradition.
The FYI Book Club recently read “True Grit” by Charles Portis. One of the remarkable things about that novel is the formal-sounding language of the narrative and dialogue — no contractions, for instance. You’ve chosen that same style for your Western.
Oh, I’m a huge Charles Portis fan. “The Dog of the South” was one of the books that made me want to be a writer. Reading it as a young man, it occurred to me that this was the way Portis spent his days, fiddling around with words. I wanted to do that.
Of all his books, I came to “True Grit” last because it was a Western, and I wasn’t interested in the genre. Of course I learned it wasn’t a normal Western. It was a Charles Portis Western, and I fell for it. It’s a perfect book, it seems to me. I can’t think of a single flaw in one of the pages. I’m happy the comparison is being made. I owe him a great debt.
I think the language was inspired by that book. I don’t know if that’s how people spoke. I don’t really care to know. It feels proper or correct, whether or not it is.
Tell a little about your writing process.
I write for two or three hours in the morning and then again at night from 9 to 11 or midnight.
It’s very much a collaboration between the morning person and the night person. The daytime writer is studious and hard-working, more attentive to detail and grammar. The nighttime writer is much more mischievous and ridiculous.
I tend to get most of my ideas at night.
From “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick deWitt, published by HarperCollins. The narrator is Eli Sisters, and Charlie is his brother. They are hired assassins, and their boss is known simply as the Commodore.
Charlie climbed onto Nimble and we rode away, heading for the Pig-King. It had been only two months since our last visit to Oregon City but I counted five new businesses on the main street and each of these appeared to be doing well. “An ingenious species,” I said to Charlie, who made no reply. We sat at a table in the back of the King and were brought our usual bottle and a pair of glasses. Charlie poured me a drink, when normally we pour our own, so I was prepared for bad news when he said it: “I’m to be lead man on this one, Eli.”
“Who says so?”
“Commodore says so.”
I drank my brandy. “What’s it mean?”
“It means I am in charge.”
“What’s it means about money?”
“More for me.”
“My money, I mean. Same as before?”
“It’s less for you.”
“I don’t see the sense in it.”
“Commodore says there wouldn’t have been the problems with the last job if there had been a lead man.”
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, it does.”
He poured me another drink and I drank it. As much to myself as to Charlie I said, “He wants to pay for a lead man, that’s fine. But it’s bad business to short the man underneath. I got my leg gouged out and my horse burned to death working for him.”
“I got my horse burned to death, too. He got us new horses.”
“It’s bad business. Stop pouring for me like I’m an invalid.” I took the bottle away and asked about the specifics of the job. We were to find and kill a prospector in California named Hermann Kermit Warm. Charlie produced a letter from his jacket pocket, this from the Commodore’s scout, a dandy named Henry Morris who often went ahead of us to gather information: “Have studied Warm for many days and can offer the following in respects to his habits and character. He is solitary in nature but spends long hours in the San Francisco saloons, passing time reading his science and mathematics books or making markings in their margins. He hauls these tomes around with a strap like a schoolboy, for which he is mocked. He is small in stature, which adds to this comedy, but beware he will not be teased about his size. I have seen him fight several times, and though he typically loses, I do not think any of his opponents would wish to fight him again. He is not above biting, for example. He is bald-headed, with a wild red beard, long, gangly arms, and the protruded belly of a pregnant woman. ”
“Why doesn’t Morris kill him?”
“That’s always your question, and I always have my answer: It’s not his job, but ours.”
When it came time to settle I pointed to Charlie, “The lead man’s paying.” Normally we would have gone halves, so he did not like that. My brother has always been miserly, a trait handed down from our father.
“Just the one time,” he said.
“Lead man with his lead man’s wages.”
“You never liked the Commodore. And he’s never liked you.”
“I like him less and less,” I said.
“You’re free to tell him, if it becomes an unbearable burden.”
“You will know it, Charlie, if my burden becomes unbearable. You will know it and so will he.”
The FYI Book Club
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.
Members of FYI and the library staff chose “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick deWitt.
If you would like to participate in an upcoming discussion of the book, led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org.