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A retired librarian is at the centre of Patrick deWitt’s new novel, The Librarianist.
The character choice is fitting when you consider the bestselling novelist counts time spent at the Vancouver Public Library’s main branch as the starting point on his journey to becoming a writer.
“When I was 18, 19, 20, the downtown library in Vancouver, I really think of it as the most formative library of my life. That’s where I recognized I wanted to write, but I really didn’t know what that meant,” deWitt, 48, said recently from his home in Portland, Ore.
“I knew that writers read a lot, and I was already reading a fair bit at 18. On my days off of work (as a set painter), I would just spend my days walking up and down the fiction and poetry sections and pulling out this and pulling out that book and looking at it for a minute. One of the many lovely things about libraries is there is no currency involved. And when you have to pay for something … you tend to be more cautious about what you pick up. But it was a free-for-all at the library.
“The building was there, and it was benevolent.”
Born in Sidney, B.C., and raised on Salt Spring Island and then in West Vancouver and Southern California, deWitt’s career includes the acclaimed and bestselling novels The Sisters Brothers and French Exit, both of which were made into Hollywood movies. DeWitt also wrote the screenplay for French Exit. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize.
The Librarianist, deWitt’s fifth novel, tells the life story of Bob Comet, a recently retired librarian in Portland. Bob lives a life surrounded by books. He’s a loner who is happiest in a chair with a novel.
“I think he says in the book that a room filled with printed matter is a room that needed nothing,” said deWitt. “I think most bookish people can agree with that to some degree … He relies perhaps too heavily on his novels. Rather than socialize, he has his books.”
Bob’s serene surface is cracked when, while volunteering at a seniors’ centre, he discovers a person who was a major player in his past – a past the reader soon discovers wasn’t so quiet and unencumbered.
“I helped out at a seniors’ centre before the pandemic, and I would read to them once a week,” said deWitt.
Through his visits, the writer struck up conversations that yielded several rich stories.
“Some of the people seemed to be embittered and some of the people to be at peace. And, if you dug a bit, you could find out why they were the way they were,” said deWitt.
“Part of the job of the author is sociological study – human behaviours, human interactions – so it was fairly rich stuff for me.”
A familiar character, Bob is also a sympathetic one, especially when deWitt shows us his backstory, which includes the near-universal story of a broken heart.
“That’s part of the joy of reading. You plug in your own experience to the text. It’s collaborative, or it can be, depending on the book.
“I really like it when people relate to the book on a personal plane. There’s no right way to read, but … my favourite books typically consist of scenes or characters that ring true for me in the sense I’ve seen things like this or felt things like this. It just gets under your skin that much more.”
It also gets under the writer’s skin, so much so that deWitt admits completing a novel has never been a comfortable or celebratory thing for him.
“Emotionally, there’s a feeling of, ‘Now what?’ ” said deWitt. ” ‘What am I supposed to do with my life now that the current obsession has been taken away and completed?’ It takes a minute to get to the next obsession.
“Often, I get quite peevish and I just sort of amble around in a daze. Then, something comes along that I work on. As soon as I am back on track with another project, or like right now I’m focusing on press and that makes me feel like I’m doing something. My days are spoken for, and that’s a good feeling. ”
Going on tour, as he is doing now, is also an anticipated reprieve.
“A book tour is welcome after three years of sitting in my room alone,” deWitt said. “To have some variation in the life, because the life of a novelist can be redundant to the point of it being problematic. So, to have these breaks in the routine I think is a healthy thing for me.”
Book tour aside, deWitt has penned a few episodes for a contemporary drama/thriller/crime series and he’s also in the early stages of a new novel.
Could a screenplay for The Librarianist also be on his to-do list? Yes, but deWitt is in no rush to pull Bob off the novel’s page.
“I think there is something said for letting a book be a book for a period of time,” said deWitt.
“But I’m totally open to it. I actually like the process of moving a book to screen. Not that it is a joy from start to end, but it is an interesting journey to me.”
Spotlight: Patrick deWitt appears with Charlotte Gill at Wordfest on Oct. 11 and with Deborah Willis on Oct. 12. Both events are at Memorial Park Library. Go to wordfest.com for details and tickets.