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]