Patrick deWitt Deconstructs the Fairy Tale in Undermajordomo Minor

The author’s latest is a subversive (albeit respectful) take on familiar fables

If you’re hankering for a good (read: stellar) contemporary love story, look no further than Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor, a reimagining of the traditional folktale that goes against readers’ expectations thanks to absurdism and sadism. DeWitt’s third novel, released September 15, centers on Lucien “Lucy” Minor, an impoverished 17-year-old who loses his father but gains a position serving a purportedly respectable Baron. In his new charge as assistant to the Baron’s Majordomo, aka as Undermajordomo, Lucy evolves from someone dissatisfied with life—he has a track record of inactivity and ennui—to someone of great ambition. Why? True love, of course.

Lucy’s world, at its best and its worst, is always one in which terrible things happen, one in which there are virtually no rules—but there are still fateful consequences. Think of it as a fairy tale for adults; the moral is elusive, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find one. DeWitt, who broke onto the literary scene with Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers, cites the likes of the Brothers Grimm, Thomas Bernhard, Bram Stoker, Italo Calvino, and Roald Dahl among his influences for this latest offering, which unsparingly blends adventure, romance, and comedy. His concoction is a subversive (albeit respectful) take.

Before deWitt left for L.A. to embark on his book tour—he’ll be at Skylight Books tonight, September 17, for a book signing and Q&A—we caught up with the Man Booker shortlisted-author about the allure of fairy tales, the importance of the love story, and one of his favorite-ever sentences.

Your last book, The Sisters Brothers, was a spin on the Western. What made you want to deconstruct the fable/fairy tale this time around?
It stems largely from what I was reading. I was reading a lot of fables to my son, and then I took over and was reading them on my own. It just seemed like a world I could spend some time in and put my own stamp on. Fables, and I’m thinking of Jewish fables and Central and Eastern European fables, they’re appealing in that their storytelling is very traditional and oftentimes very straightforward. From the point of view of a reader, I was admiring the craftsmanship that went into constructing them. But also fables are often very odd stories that digress into violence or any number of perversions.

What was your research process like, if there was one? How do you prep to write in a new genre?
I could tell pretty early on that it wasn’t going to be a straight-laced version of the fairy tale or the fable; it’s more in the tradition of modernist authors who approach a genre from a skewed point of view. In terms of the research, there was very little beyond the initial exciting period of reading. The big challenge with the last book and this book, too, was trying to figure out how the narrator speaks the language that he or she is using. You can only answer that by fiddling and tinkering. Once those questions are answered, you roll up your sleeves, and the real work begins.

Lucy’s job is sort of second fiddle in this story; the real fascination is with Klara, the girl he rapidly falls in love with. Why was the idea of a love story important for this book?
Lucy’s not a model employee, but it’s not really a model position either. He just takes the job at face value; he’s essentially left to his own devices, and fortunately for the book and for him, he does find something to focus on. When you’re dealing in true love, when it arrives—at least I felt this way—you’re filled with the desire to do a better job as a human being. To improve yourself. Klara does bring out a better side of Lucy than we’ve seen before. She’s more or less fully formed when he meets her, but Lucy still has some evolving to do. She speeds that process up for him—it occurs to him that he can be a better man and now he has a reason to be. We can all improve ourselves, but if there’s no motivation then what’s the point?

I did want to hit a lot of the traditional notes that occur in fables and fairy tales. Obviously, one of the primary themes of those types of stories is love: love as a cautionary tale, unrequited love, love that is achieved and comes to fruition. I thought it would be a nice change for me, because it’s not necessarily something that I’ve addressed, to add a non-ironic love story to the landscape of contemporary fiction. I feel like that sort of story right now is in short supply. This is my take on love and what it feels like and how dangerous it can be.

UndermajordomoThere’s a hilarious video of Kurt Vonnegut charting the shapes of story. He winds up talking about fairy tales, specifically Cinderella and how she starts at the lowest of lows and then achieves off-the-charts happiness. I feel like you can kind of call Lucy’s a twisted Cinderella story, but I’m wondering if you think Lucy is capable of achieving off-the-charts happiness? He seems to enjoy being melancholy, as well as torturing himself.
I think he is, but obviously that sort of thing is more elusive for some than others. I think of myself as somebody who, in a moment-to-moment way, I’m quite happy. But I think I am a bit doubtful and wary of true happiness, and, like a lot of my friends, there’s been a good degree of self-sabotage. A psychiatrist would say this is stemming from one’s desire for true happiness that doesn’t exist as strongly as it does in others. I think Lucy suffers from this to a degree, but at the end of the story, we see him actively pursuing happiness, which is, for these types of people, the best that you can hope for.

Since the book purposefully plays against the readers’ expectations, were you frustrated at all by your own characters when you were writing the book?
I became frustrated at a certain point writing this book, which was harder than my first two books, because the text was oftentimes pretty stubborn and didn’t want to really perform in the way that I’d hoped it would. It took a long time for me to get to a point of satisfaction with this book.

No, I don’t have a problem with that. The story was continually getting away from me; it’s one of the perils of telling a grand tale. It can go galloping off in any direction, and it’s hard to rein it in. Writing from the third person was difficult, and I felt a degree of pressure for this book to perform after the success of my last book. There were a lot of elements working together to derail me, but I knew it would correct itself eventually, and it did, but I did have to resort to schoolboy tactics, like three-by-five cards and all sorts of embarrassing things like that. I needed to map it out so I could see it as one big piece in front of me. I typed out each scene I had, chronologically, and then I’d pin these to the wall so I could see where the gaps were and where the rhythms went awry. It was helpful, but it wasn’t fun.

What were some of the runaway trains in this book?
Initially, when Lucy meets Klara, in the first draft of the book, Klara was nine months pregnant. This obviously changes the tempo and the length of their love story. This was one of the primary problems that led me to the story boarding because a love story with someone who’s nine months pregnant is much more difficult to translate to the reader so that it’s believable and makes sense. I lost a lot of stuff through mistakes like that, but the book is better without all that stuff.

Well fortunately, you kept in “The Strange and Terrible Ballroom Goings-On,” which was completely surreal. Is this the kind of perversion, as you mentioned earlier, that you were excited to explore? And how did you justify putting it in the book
Yeah, that moment [a very literal sexual romp] forces [Lucy’s] hand, and acting on the level of instinct, he does something quite heroic, which is completely out of character for him. That scene, I felt sort of saddled with it. I recognized that that scene would exist and had to exist; it was very complicated in terms of how to approach it and what it would mean. Initially, I think I meant it to be a filthy distraction, like pornographic slapstick, but it became much more significant to me when I wrote the scenes preceding and proceeding it so that it wasn’t an awful sight gag; it became more complex. Before then, we see Lucy and Klara engaging in a sexual act, which is completely respectful mutually and really deeply loving, and Lucy is moved, extremely, deeply by this. He’s then forced to watch this alternate scene, the flipside of what has just happened for him. It’s important that Lucy witnessed that, to clarify things for himself.

In a move that would make Mr. Vonnegut very proud, this is a sadistic story in which terrible things happen to everybody. Three nobodies, essentially, end up in a literal hole, The Very Large Hole, because of love. What was the impetus for such harsh treatment of otherwise harmless characters?
Originally, it was the desire to write the line, The Very Large Hole was very, very large. I really wanted to write that line, and I waited two years before I got to write that line, but I knew I was going to write it. It was very gratifying. What occurs in the hole, I like the idea of these three men having been banished from society because of their having fallen in love. Love is dangerous; it’s not something to be trifled with. As good as it feels on the way in, it feels that much worse on the way out. I wanted there to be both sides of that equation in this story.

In a review of your first book, one critic wrote: Ablutions is not meant to be an enjoyable book, or a loving book, or even a beautiful book (although it has moments of beauty). It is ugly on purpose. It flays open its ugliness as if to say: I’m here too. Look at me. See me.”
Sean, can you hold on one second—

Did you hear that?

What happened?
A woman just came to the door and brought me a bottle of really nice Irish whiskey. Oh shit, was I supposed to tip her? I asked who she was and she said, ‘I’m a Task Rabbit.’ And then she left.

Who was it from?
It’s from my agent, which is very sweet. We’re both a fan of Redbreast 12-year Irish Whiskey. That was so weird. Task Rabbit, she said, and then she walked away.

I like that you’re stressed out about the tipping.
Well I think I was supposed to, but I’m on the phone. I never have cash anymore anyway; it doesn’t really exist anymore. Wow, Task Rabbit…

Is that your agent’s way of saying get ready for the tour?
Yeah, I got to get in shape. [Laughs.]

Back to the question: Oftentimes, when Lucy was at his lowest, usually because of love, this [what the reviewer wrote] is exactly what I thought Lucy was saying, wallowing in self-pity.
I think that it’s very much a part of the traditional fable. The beginning of the story is somebody who wants more for himself and knows that there is an interesting world out there; he just hasn’t yet met it. The protagonist in Ablutions is extremely cynical, and there’s nothing you can tell him that he doesn’t already know, and the world is shit, and that’s his religion. And this is reflected in his behavior. Lucy doesn’t seem to have that intense self-loathing. Lucy suffers more than anything from feeling that he hasn’t been taken seriously and that his life hasn’t really begun yet. This is someone who wants adventures. He’s sick of waiting for the world to come to him, so he decides to meet it half way.

I know you’re technically a Canadian writer, but I was told you also grew up in SoCal. I was curious, because we are an L.A.-based publication, did SoCal or L.A. in any way color the pages of this book?
It certainly colored my outlook, and my attitudes—in some ways for the better and in some ways not, I feel. I don’t consider Los Angeles home anymore; ultimately, it was pretty negative, but I did spend my formative years in the Valley and all around L.A. proper. Through my teenage years and into my young adulthood, up until the age of 30, I spent a good amount of time there. It’s still very much in my blood. I don’t know that I would ever live there again, but I have an affinity for the landscape and the people.

Yeah, I was wondering about it specifically in the ballroom scenes, where classism feels very much alive and glaringly obvious.
Yeah, that could be an L.A. after party, you know? [Laughs.] It is a place of extremes.

What’s in store next?
I think I have another novel kicking around in me about an explorer. This would be a diary, a novel in the form of a diary, the adventures of an explorer whose job it is to map the world and seek out the unknown corners of the world.

DeWitt will be at Skylight Books, on 1818 N. Vermont Ave., tonight at 7:30 p.m. for a book signing and Q&A