Patrick McGrath Interview

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I regard the novels of Patrick McGrath as probably my favourite body of work by any living writer. In 1995 I read his third novel Dr Haggard’s Disease, which made me do what reviewers often claim but rarely do: go back to the start and read it again almost immediately. McGrath writes tales of psychological maps distorted and shredded, of between-the-wars England and 1970s America, of doctors and patients and artists and lovers, where the greatest tension is between the story and the way it is being told. His new novel Trauma is out now in the US and will be published in July in the UK: you can read my thoughts on it here. Unusually for an English-language writer, the book was published first in Italy, where McGrath has the sort of popularity Ian McEwan enjoys here. He was born in England, and lives in New York.

Patrick McGrath by Marion Ettlinger

You’ve spoken before about how the initial impulse for your books often involves a reversal: in The Grotesque, “I love him” became “I hate him” became “he hates me”, and in Port Mungo, the sexes of Jack and Vera were swapped. Can you tell us something of where Trauma came from?

Reversals? Yes, in a way, with Trauma. I began with the idea of a New York woman badly traumatized by the events of 9/11 who flees to the Caribbean and moves into a seedy resort. A bit later her shrink comes down to see her. Then her shrink turned into her dad. So I had a NY trauma therapist who saves his daughter’s sanity after 9/11, after being estranged from her for many years. I became interested in this guy. As a young man he treated returning Vietnam vets, that’s where he learned about PTSD. Somehow, in the end, as you know, his story didn’t get as far as 9/11, nor did he get to the Caribbean.

Charlie Weir in Trauma has greater insight than many of your narrators: he knows there’s something wrong with him but he doesn’t know what. At the same time you have turned your attention to the family in this book as never before. Are these elements you were keen to explore from the outset, or did they arise as the story developed?

The family elements arose as the book developed. Key to this process was me being told by a NY shrink that most shrinks he knew were in the profession as a result of failing their mothers. That gave me a way into Charlie’s psyche, and I was able to create his family background, relationships with his parents, brother, etc. What he doesn’t know, of course, is what happened in the old Western Hotel when he was a small boy…

Trauma feels like a story which has been pared down to essentials from a larger mass of material, but remains rich in psychological detail and character. Can you tell us a little about the writing and editing process for the book?

Well, see question 1 for what got thrown away–a lot of stuff set in New York round 9/11, then in the Caribbean, plus a lot of stuff I wrote trying to find the ending of the story.

Your early novels were set entirely in Britain (mostly England), and then Martha Peake and Port Mungo straddled the Atlantic. Now with Trauma you have set a novel entirely in America for the first time. Does this reflect your own journey, and is it a conscious progression?

Yes, a conscious decision to move my stories to my country of adoption (some 30 years ago I got to the US–I began to write in NY), and then more specifically to set my work in New York. This was difficult, as I felt far more comfortable writing about England, despite having been away so long. But Trauma feels like a New York novel, at least to me.

You’re known for unreliable narrators, a strategy you have called “irresistible.” Do you agree with W.G. Sebald, who said that he found fiction “which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator … a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take”? In other words, is there something dishonest about an honest narrator? And does it become harder with each new book to remain one step ahead of the reader, when they are anticipating that the narrator is not telling them the whole truth?

Agree absolutely with Sebald on this. How could anyone’s account of a complicated set of circumstances and events be anything but partial, partisan, subjective, and to some degree informed by his or her own needs and biases? As regards expectations, I don’t think too much about them. It’s tough enough getting a novel to come out right to be worrying about its reception. That comes later, i.e. right about now, just pre-publication.

The label ‘Gothic’ seems to follow you around. At this stage does that feel like something that naturally arises from your writing style; does it feel like a tramline you are fixed on; or is a restriction you try to break free from?

More a restriction than anything, in that once the label starts getting bandied about people feel they don’t have to read you. They think they know what your stuff must be like. Only a couple of my books have been deliberately gothic, The Grotesque and Martha Peake. Others may have used gothic elements but had quite other objectives than to arouse dread and horror primarily. Old Main, for example, as a Victorian asylum does have a gothic tone to it, but I’d hate to see Trauma therefore classed as a gothic novel.

You’ve provided introductions to works with famous ‘monsters’ such as Frankenstein and Moby-Dick. Yet your only novel with a larger-than-life monster, Martha Peake, seems the least representative of your works. Would you like to return to more outlandish wilds in the future?

Good question. Not the sort of thing you can know in advance. If a story seemed to demand a monster then I’d do a monster. There’s usually a moral monster subtly skulking about in my books, but I’m not averse to something more on the nose.

Finally, the “if you ruled the world” question. If you could hand out to passers-by copies of one book you consider unjustly neglected, which would it be?

Darkness Falls from the Air, by Nigel Balchin. Probably out of print. Haunting story of a pair of extremely sophisticated Londoners during the Blitz, and the most perfect ending of any story I’ve ever read. Suggest a campaign to bring it back into print, spearheaded by you in your blog.

[Darkness Falls from the Air is indeed out of print, but was reissued a few years ago and is readily available on Amazon Marketplace. Click the image above for more information]


  1. Great stuff, Steerforth. I know Stewart from Booklit also picked it up this morning, so perhaps we can have a three-pronged campaign on our blogs in due course.

    And you’ll be trying some McGrath too of course! 😉 Or maybe you’re way ahead of me there.

  2. My late grandfather was a huge Balchin fan, and when he was dying in hospital he asked me to bring all his Balchin books to read them to him. I lugged a big box of his collection, some 1st eds, and spent a few months reading them aloud. I must dig around in his possessions and see if they are still there.

  3. Thanks Hazel, that’s a lovely memory; and it’s interesting how authors who were clearly highly regarded in their day can slip from public awareness so easily. After McGrath mentioned Balchin I checked him out and found that he wrote a novel A Way Through the Woods which was filmed a few years ago as Separate Lies and then reissued under that title (I’ll probably pick it up if I like Darkness Falls from the Air). The only other one I’d heard of was The Small Back Room, which was filmed by the great Powell & Pressburger (though it wasn’t one of their best).

    Do you remember much about the ones you read to your grandad?

  4. Yes, I picked up a copy from AbeBooks this morning, for a mere £0.50 so will read it in due course. After some rush research on Balchin and the book, it seems to be case of art imitating life. With Balchin being a psychologist (and the McGrath recommendation there) it seems likely there’s going to be some depth. And Balchin named the Kit Kat – what a guy!

  5. Interesting interview. The only McGrath I’ve read is The Grotesque, and my feeling was that I liked and admired it, but “it left me with a lot more questions than is customary at the end of a well-behaved book”. It seems from what I’ve read about it that most of his work is calculated to make you wonder what is really going on. I also saw the movie of Asylum, which was chilling in the extreme. I guess I’d better read some more.

    As to Balchin, there were many in my mother’s book case, and I must have read half a dozen. I remember Mine Own Executioner, maybe because of the movie.

  6. Unusually for an English-language writer, the book was published first in Italy…

    The same happens with Paul Auster, too. In Denmark, of all places.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to Trauma when it comes out and, based on how good you deem it, John, let’s hope the publisher has seen fit to submit it to the Booker jury.

    My favourite McGrath, like you, is Dr Haggard’s Disease, and it deserves an audience. (My copy is currently on loan to someone I work with – who’s just gettnig back into reading – and he reported recently that he love it, language and story. So another satisfied reader.)

    As McGrath says, “Suggest a campaign to bring it back into print, spearheaded by you in your blog.” – that has to be the priority for Dr Haggard’s Disease, never mind Darkness Falls From The Air.

  7. It seems from what I’ve read about it that most of his work is calculated to make you wonder what is really going on.

    To an extent, I think, gil. Certainly I’d say that of Asylum, whereas Port Mungo or Trauma are much more clear in their final revelations. Or so it appears.

    I also saw the movie of Asylum, which was chilling in the extreme.

    That’s interesting. Three of McGrath’s books have been filmed, and the only one I think which was widely acclaimed was David Cronenberg’s Spider. I am so fond of the book Asylum that I am convinced the film would disappoint; you, having enjoyed (I presume) the film, might feel the reverse. Incidentally McGrath’s wife Maria Aitken had a role in the film, but I’m not sure what part she played.

  8. Oh, now Spider. It was two-parts-you, one-part-the-film that got me interested in McGrath in the first place. I don’t know if I want to see the adaptation of The Grotesque, because I can do without seeing Sting naked.

  9. The same happens with Paul Auster, too. In Denmark, of all places.

    Yes! I remembered that after I posted the above.

    let’s hope the publisher has seen fit to submit it to the Booker jury

    Indeed, but I am not sure if McGrath qualifies. He may no longer have British citizenship. Then again, if Peter Carey does (who has lived in New York almost as long as McGrath has, and in fact I believe the two are friends),or Claire Messud (born in France to a Canadian mother, now lives in the US), then surely he must.

    Yes, I’d love to see Dr Haggard’s Disease back in print in the UK (I think it still is in the US): a Penguin Modern Classic in the making!

  10. When the bailiffs come to turn me out onto the street I shall cite your book recommendations as the primary cause Mr Self. I have just finished Sputnik Caledonia by the way, my thoughts will be up shortly. And thanks for your comment on Devotchka, it made me laugh out loud. I’ve given up on trusting music critics, my shelves are filled with purchases from puff-pieces like the one you mentioned and one common factor is mentions of Brian Wilson or Pet Sounds. Beware!

  11. Oh my, what a treat! I can’t wait to read Trauma now. I wonder which of his own novels has given him the most satisfaction as an author. Did you float amner’s theory about Dr. Haggard? 🙂

  12. Ah, two good questions I didn’t ask, Beth! If I remember right (and who could forget?), amner’s theory was that Dr Haggard represented the membrum virile. And then that masterly [sic] euphemism:

    I went back upstairs to my study and spent several hours quietly indulging the memories aroused by the evening’s conversation.


  13. Of course, reading books aloud mean that they stay in your memory especially so under particular circumstances. I remember mostly The Small Back Room, as that was his favourite, but we also read The Borgia Testament, Mine Own Executioner, and one about a Mrs Peterson. I can’t recall Darkness but I am sure that must have been in the pile because it was a b-i-g box of books.

    Ironically, I would much rather have McGrath read to me on my death-bed. Asylum preferably. Incidentally, Maria Aitken played Claudia Green in the film of Asylum. I love the film (almost) as much as the book.

  14. Thanks Hazel. I’m ashamed to admit I can’t remember who Claudia Green was. 😳

    Speaking of McGrath reading to you, I think the only time I’ve heard his voice was about ten years ago when he did a short film for the BBC Late Review show about an exhibition of sculptures by Alberto Giacometti. What immediately struck me was that Giacometti’s whittled-away pieces were clearly the inspiration for the work of Edgar Stark in Asylum. But what has lasted is the memory of McGrath’s contagious enthusiasm for Giacometti (whom I’d never heard of before then), and ever since I’ve always sought out his stuff when in the Tate etc. I’ve been looking out for a clip of the McGrath piece ever since but without success.

  15. Interesting interview, particularly his remarks about the uncertainty of the narrator and the restrictiveness of labels. The only book of his I’ve read is Asylum, which I liked very much. Must catch up with the rest.

  16. Logged in now (when oh when will I start to notice that I haven’t logged in?)

    Just ordered Trauma from the US. Sounds fantastic.

  17. Wonderful interview, John. As you know I read Ghost Town earlier this year and was very impressed by it. I put McGrath on my list of authors I must read more of. This interview — and your review of The Trauma — have only hammered that home to me.

  18. Just got the email saying Amazon have dispatched my copy of Trauma …. I couldn’t wait till July so unusually I’ve ordered a US edition …. I shall save this interview for post-novel reading.

  19. Thanks for the interest everyone. Lizzy, the US cover is much nicer than the UK one anyway. I look forward to seeing your thoughts on Trauma: I’ll probably re-read it when the UK edition is published.

    Colette (and others), I’m enjoying the Balchin so far!

  20. I picked up a copy from AbeBooks this morning, for a mere £0.50 so will read it in due course

    And then got an email yesterday from the vendor telling me they had mistakenly listed it. So no ultra-cheap copy for me.

  21. To be fair, it’s not AbeBooks so much as it is the vendor subscribed to the book exchange. But they gave me £2 off my next order (the vendor, not AbeBooks), which was nice, if futile. I’ll still pick up a cheap copy somewhere, as it’s not as if that was the only cheap copy going.

  22. Oh, how exciting. I love your interviews. Thanks for getting and sharing them with us. Its so good to gain a deeper understanding of what makes an author tick, especially when the interviewer is a fan. I especially liked the questions about unreliable narrators and the gothic label.

    Inspired by you, I said ages ago that I wanted to read more McGrath (only ‘Asylum’ so far), but I now have a ‘Port Mungo’ on my shelf, which will be jumping its turn in the queue.

  23. Thanks jem. I’m afraid I don’t have any more interviews lined up, as I really only want to do them with people whose books I like, and it’s not always straightforward for a mere blogger to get access! But I hope I’ll be able to do some more in the future.

    Hope you enjoy Port Mungo: it’s a real favourite of mine, though of course I recommend them all! (Maybe not Martha Peake…)

  24. Thanks for the great blog and huzzahs to McGrath. I love DR HAGGARD’s DISEASE and much of the rest, especially the short story collection BLOOD AND WATER, particularly “the Angel”.
    John, have you read Charles Willeford? I think you would especially like PICK UP which neatly parallels some of McGrath’s concerns with Art and narrative veracity. It features an equally earth shaking finale. Willeford gets classes as “mystery” but deals with themes much darker and murkier than simple murder and detection. His best novels actually shock me. Plus, sometimes they’re funny as hell.

  25. Thanks for visiting, Christopher. Interestingly (though perhaps not that interestingly), Blood and Water is the only McGrath book I haven’t read (in full).

    I have not read any Charles Willeford, nor even – I’m ashamed to say – heard of him until you mentioned him just now! I will look out for Pick Up, and thanks for the recommendation.

    I meant to add, UK readers may be interested to know that McGrath will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 19 August 08, in a joint appearance with Colm Tóibín.

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