Patrick deWitt was once asked whether he fitted into a particular tradition of novel writing. If he were, came the reply, it would be in the one of people upsetting tradition. Echoes there, perhaps, of Groucho Marx.
But that might not surprise anyone who has read his novels – idiosyncratic, melancholy, funny, satirical and with a slightly skewed tone. He sees himself on the side; he can't point to another writer today and feel the two are doing similar things. "This is not to speak ill of the contemporary landscape, but I do feel I'm working alone and when I think of authors that I have a kinship with, most are long dead."
Consider his previous novels. Ablutions is an episodic encounter narrated in the second-person by an alcoholic working in a Hollywood bar. Many sections begin "Discuss the ..."' and so we get his take on characters such as "Curtis, a disconsolate black man with a law enforcement fetish" who frequent or work at the establishment. Described as "notes for a novel", Ablutions was indeed written from scribbles deWitt made on Post-it notes as he did shifts behind a bar.
The Sisters Brothers brings us Eli and Charlie Sisters, guns for hire in 1850s Oregon on the track of Herman Kermit Warm, their latest target. Riding their steeds Nimble and Tub, the whole darkly comic saga is narrated by the increasingly reluctant Eli and was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. A screen adaptation made its debut at the Venice Film Festival last week and received a standing ovation.
Undermajordomo Minor is a deadpan and slightly deviant fairytale full of beauty and beasts set in a world not unlike that of Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel, with a hero, Lucien Minor aka Lucy, who works in the gothic monstrosity owned by a dissolute aristocrat.
And now French Exit, which sees Frances and her 32-year-old son, Malcolm, decamp to Paris. When 20 years earlier she had discovered the body of her husband, the egregious financier Franklin Price, after his heart "had exploded like a goddamned hand grenade", she promptly went skiing and began a spending spree that has now devoured his substantial legacy. Hence the exit to France, although the title has more than one meaning.
It is towards the end of the day on a late summer's day in Portland, Oregon, where deWitt lives. He was born a Canadian, brought up mainly in southern California, and is a recent US citizen. Bad timing, as he puts it. He has been out to meet his son's mother to talk about their 13-year-old son who is having the issues that many 13-year-olds have. He has also had a visit from his French tutor, both of which encounters have served to remind him of his own dismal track record at school, a failure that pushed him into writing.
"Here I am at 43 studying and finding that I really cannot retain this information and I'm back to thinking that maybe I am sort of stupid." Clearly not the case.
DeWitt began French Exit before Undermajordomo Minor. Or rather a book based around a character like Franklin Price. "That book was never completed because as a person to spend time with, there was a lot left to be desired. He was not particularly enjoyable comrade."
He did return to the setting of the earlier book – high-society Manhattan and Paris – but only when he had finished did he realise French Exit was populated by characters who had been intended as auxiliaries in the abandoned one. "I realised what I had done was tell the same story from alternate points of view and these alternate points of view wound up being much more interesting to me and those characters much more sympathetic to me."
Franklin remains in the book, however: his departing soul has entered the body of Small Frank, the "elderly to the point of decreptitude" cat that accompanies mother and son on their hasty trip and is to play a significant role. DeWitt loves a supernatural element in his novels, much as he always includes animals.
Once in Paris, people start turning up at the apartment in which they are living and then moving in. "I love a game character," deWitt says, "and Frances and Malcolm are game for anything and their lives are devolving further each day."
It shows the influence of one of deWitt's favourite novels, Jane Bowles' Two Serious Ladies – "a wonderful book" – and the classic scene in the overcrowded liner cabin in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera.
DeWitt is not sure how to describe French Exit. "I definitely set out that this was going to be a traditional comedy of manners. By that I mean a somewhat farcical take on the 1 per cent, with lots of bubbly conversation, which is sort of my stock in trade in a way, that sort of dialogue. Then the book took a serious turn, but not to spoil it for anyone, it ends in a somewhat melancholic place; there is something that happens that you couldn't call necessarily comedic." What he finds is that it is only when he finishes a book that he tries to identify it for himself.
DeWitt describes his relationship with his cast of characters as similar to "real world socialising. So you have phases of friendships or romances that come and go and I think of those characters in much the same way of other people who I have known who I don't know anymore. I don't sit around pondering it day and night, but they are real enough that I wonder how they would have felt about such and such."
At this point, of course, he's still living with Frances and Malcolm on a day-to-day basis.
The Sisters Brothers represented a radical change in style and tone from his first novel. "I did not want to be one of those authors who devoted his career to telling sordid stories from his own life. Every interview for that book wanted to know where I was in the narrative and where my actual experience ended and the fiction began."
So when he pondered a second novel he realised using his own experience was not a wise model to work from; he figured he would write from thin air, make things up – "that's what we're supposed to do". Going back 150 years was liberating, and the antique tone of voice fun to work with.
Tone and voice are central to all his novels, the "sort of trick" as he puts it. There's much casting around in the dark before he really gets stuck in.
"Looking at the notes I took [for Ablutions] I thought 'the tone is there, why am I trying to gussy it up?' With Sisters Brothers every time Eli would speak I would want to spend time with him so I switched [from the third person] to the first person and his character revealed himself to me.
"That's the hardest part: how do I want this information delivered, what's the voice going to be and then once that's figured out, in terms of the craft and the writing of the sentences and the paragraphs and how the words sit on the page that's just the constant aspect that I love so much."
DeWitt started reading seriously when he was 12 – the Beat writers and other books his father would give him. "I had this sense that they hadn't necessarily studied at length, more that they had a point of view, had very specific voices and had a story they wanted to tell."
By the time he was 17 he was working – the school authorities had told him he wasn't very bright – but had already discovered an enthusiasm for writing.
For the first few years he would copy people he'd read; he wrote an English class journal in the voice of Richard Brautigan, for example. He just enjoyed language and words and eventually established a voice and point of view of he called his own.
"For all the years I was just figuring it out and bumbling around, the quality of the work was very low. But this is the joy of youth. If I'd known how bad it was I'm sure I would have stopped, but at the time I thought it was good."
The other perennial in his fiction is family dynamics. He finds them relentlessly fascinating. The impetus for French Exit, he says, came out of "a somewhat uncommon scenario – I am very close to both my mother and father".
DeWitt says he has stopped thinking of them as parents and simply thinks of them as friends, as people he knows and likes. "I feel very fortunate for it. I don't think you see that represented very often in fiction and films, and I think that's because it's not that common."
His parents liked French Exit – his mother thought Frances "a piece of work". But the earlier and darker Ablutions was more of a challenge. They were impressed that he had actually finished a book, but because of its bleakness, they both wanted to know if he was all right. He was, and still is.
French Exit is published by Bloomsbury at $29.99.