An Interview with F.R. Tallis

Posted by Matt Foley on July 04, 2013 in Blog, Interviews tagged with , ,

F.R. Tallis is a writer with a keen awareness of the Gothic tradition. Under the name Frank Tallis he has held lecturing posts at the Institute of Psychiatry and King’s College, London. He has written self help manuals, non-fiction for the general reader, academic text books and journal papers, as well as several novels, including The Liebermann Papers detective books. Installments of The Liebermann series have been translated into fourteen languages. The Sleep Room, his second novel as F.R. Tallis, is out this week. It follows 2012’s The Forbidden.


MF: Thanks for speaking to us Frank. Your new novel The Sleep Room is certainly a tale of terror in the school of M R James and I was reminded of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black also. Hill of course drew from James herself. Are these comparisons fair?

FT: Yes, they couldn’t be fairer! The Woman in Black and the short stories of M.R. James are firm favourites of mine. In fact, I re-read The Woman in Black and M.R. James’s short stories just before starting work on The Sleep Room.  I was keen to locate the book in a particular tradition and I’m delighted that you noticed. Moreover, Susan Hill and M.R. James (at least by implication) are writers associated with the East Anglian landscape, which is where much of the story of The Sleep Room unfolds.  Mists, whispering reed beds, and dank marshes – the East Anglian coast is irresistible to anyone possessing a Gothic sensibility.

MF:  Your protagonist James Richardson is a well regarded psychiatrist and yet he aspires for more, particularly to be as renowned as his mentor Hugh Maitland. Needless to say that when James senses a supernatural presence at his new place of residence – Maitland’s psychiatric hospital Wyldehope Hall in Suffolk – he is unwilling to confide easily in others. Is there a sense that James’s failure to challenge the discourses of Maitland points to wider issues in psychiatry? As you suggest, it’s not an exact science, but does saying so within the profession carry a certain career risk?

FT: When I was training as a clinical psychologist I saw lots of things happening on hospital wards that I didn’t approve of.  They weren’t abusive, as such, but extremely insensitive. I can remember raising certain issues of this kind with my clinical tutor, who advised me to think very carefully before expressing my views formally as it would not be good for my career. On reflection, I think he was right.  At that stage in my life it would have been sheer folly to criticize the practices of individuals who were then major figures in British psychiatry – the power differential was simply too great and I really would have achieved nothing. Moreover, it is precisely because psychiatry is not an exact science that it is almost impossible to be wholly confident when taking up a particular moral stance.  I still find ECT, for example, utterly barbaric – yet the evidence suggests that ECT is the cheapest, quickest, and most effective treatment for severe depression (See Shock Therapy:  A History of Electroconvulsive Treatment in Metal illness by Edward Shorter and David Healy). Does the end justify the means?  I don’t know.  It’s hard to say. Perhaps the only way to answer such questions is to ask patients what they think. I’m certainly more readily persuaded by personal experience than sterile data in learned journals.

MF: Hugh Maitland – as you suggest in your Afterword – is based in part upon the twentieth-century psychiatrist William Sargant. Could you say a little about why you were drawn to his work? Narcosis is certainly a rich practice around which to stage a Gothic tale. Particularly given the Gothic’s long association with dreaming.

FT:  William Sargant was an extraordinary figure. He was a media psychiatrist before professionals did such things, a best-selling author, a Royal Society of Medicine president, a founding member of the World Psychiatric Association, and the head of the department of psychological medicine at St. Thomas’s hospital.  He was also a pioneer and advocate of deep sleep therapy – which involved putting patients to sleep with drugs for several months and giving them three doses of ECT a week. The majority of his patients were women – which resonates uncomfortably with power-relationship and inequality issues. I had always wanted to write a psychological ghost story, and Sargant’s sleep room really suited my purposes: a cavernous space, lit by a single desk lamp, full of sleeping women. It’s an incredibly potent image and a number of exciting narrative possibilities swiftly suggested themselves. Needless to say, right from the very beginning, I knew that dreams and dreaming would be a highly significant element. How could one write a novel about a sleep room without touching on the subject? In the same way that women living in close proximity sometimes experience menstrual synchrony, I became interested in the idea of an equivalent phenomenon with respect to dreams.  I don’t believe there is any scientific evidence for dream-synchrony, although I have read anecdotal reports of it occurring in the Paranormal Review of the Society for Psychical Research.

MF: Is there a certain tension between the philosophical intellect and the medical? It strikes me that you seem more open to Freudian and Jungian ideas – which are drawn from more in contemporary philosophy than psychiatric practice – than some of your colleagues may be.

FT: Yes, there is always a tension between the philosophical and the medical – although it might be entirely artificial. Perhaps the two approaches represent nothing more than different levels of description. I am most definitely open to Freudian and Jungian ideas, even though they make relatively easy targets for those who perceive scientific belligerence as a duty and a virtue. Both men developed fascinating frameworks within which to examine psychopathology, developmental psychology, mental life, and broader cultural phenomena such as religion and art. Given the ambition and scope of their writings it seems self-evident to me that they were bound to be wrong about some things and right about others. Pontificating about their flaws and shortcomings a hundred years after their heyday (as many academics still do) seems rather petty and churlish. After all, it’s hardly cutting-edge criticism. Interestingly, over the past two decades, I’ve noticed that more and more neuroscientists have been willing to praise Freud for constructing such a magnificent theoretical edifice.  This is a welcome sign and a step towards more measured evaluation of the contribution of depth psychologies.

MF: The terror at the heart of Wyldehope Hall is something unnameable. It recalls the ‘id’ or ‘it’ of Freud; yet it is something more than that given its sentience and ability to detach and move beyond the psychic space (indeed, I was reminded here of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger and of Carl Jung’s notion of synchronicity). Is the unnameable in language by default excluded from critique by psychiatry? Can literature approach it better?

FT: I think there is widespread agreement that the first truly psychological ghost story was Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’. It works as both a traditional tale of terror as well as a Freudian case study. It is more psychological than say, Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’, because James ventures deeper into the unconscious and affords us keen insights into the character of the God-fearing governess narrator. We suspect hat there may be connections between the revenants  and her repressed sexuality. Although medical psychiatry – which operates at a biological rather than conceptual level – might exclude the unnameable from critique, psychoanalysis shines a bright light on the creatures of the id as they emerge from the unconscious.

MF: Dr Richardson is certainly more talkative with his patients than Maitland. Some, like Chapman, who is an Oxford graduate with obvious intelligence, seem to be in touch more with the otherworldly events at Wyldehope. This dynamic reminded me of the work of R D Laing and his insistence upon listening to even the most nonsensical speech of the patient. Do you think this is important? And does logorrhoea in an ‘othered’ patient somewhat scramble our own codes of logic?

FT: I think it is important to at least try to make sense of the nonsensical speech of distressed and disturbed patients; however, such efforts will not necessarily be rewarded by revelations and valuable insights. Sometimes the patient is so ‘disorganized’ that his or her speech is genuinely intractable. Even so, I think that Laing’s position was essentially correct. Listening with care is no bad thing and wholly necessary if a therapeutic alliance is to be forged between ‘doctor’ and ‘patient’.  The biggest therapeutic advance in recent years has been cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for individuals suffering from various forms of psychosis. Twenty years ago the consensus among mainstream psychiatrists and clinical psychologists was that there was little point in talking to psychotic patients.  I think this successful and beneficial approach has its roots in Laing’s work – although he is rarely cited or credited (largely because of his professional and personal excesses which eventually damaged his reputation). The idea that disorganized thinking might lead to creative insights and new ways of understanding the world has some legitimacy. Dreams (in which logic breaks down) serve as a good example. The molecular structure of benzene was revealed to Friedrich Kekulé in a symbolic dream and Tartini had the devil’s trill violin sonata played to him by the devil in a dream. Madness and the dream world are adjacent continents in the unconscious.

MF: You’ve written predominantly detective fiction previously. Is there a commonality, since Poe, between the detective genre and that of the tale of terror?

FT: Although detective fiction and tales of terror began life as close relations, throughout the course of the twentieth century they drifted apart, becoming more independent.  Be that as it may, I can’t help noticing that recently, they seem to have started to draw together again. For example, take a look at Seth Patrick’s Reviver (Published June 2013). It is essentially a crime thriller (with police and forensic investigators) but with strong supernatural elements. I welcome such miscegenation although I understand that it isn’t to everyone’s taste – particularly genre purists.  A number of my readers expressed quite violent disapproval when I followed my crime series (written as Frank Tallis) with The Forbidden – a homage to the late 19th French Gothic novel that features demons and vampirism. The two genres have always been parked close together in my own mind: they have in common a preoccupation with the darker aspects of human nature and they become almost indistinguishable if the ‘terror’ manifests on the page as a serial killer. Is The Silence of the Lambs a tale of terror or a crime novel?  Doesn’t Hannibal Lecter’s twisted genius endow him with near supernatural authority?

MF: Yes, an interesting case in point. More generally, is writing a therapeutic or torturous experience for you?

FT: Writing isn’t therapeutic. It doesn’t resolve my inner conflicts or ease the problems inherent in the human condition. The big existential issues remain – no matter how many novels I write. Writing isn’t torturous either. I don’t find it particularly difficult. Moreover, having practised as a clinical psychologist for 20 years it is now a relief to be free of clinical responsibilities. I was always worried that I might have said the wrong thing to depressed patients at risk of attempting suicide. The worse that can happen these days is that I’ll write a bad sentence. No one dies. (Although, to be fair, no one in my care did commit suicide – which may have had something to do with the amount of worrying I did). So how do I experience the process of writing? It’s an absolute joy and a privilege. Freud believed creativity to be a kind of regression to childhood. I’m inclined to agree. My novels are where I play.

MF: Are you now predominantly a writer of terror fiction?

FT: Although I thoroughly enjoyed writing crime novels (as Frank Tallis rather than F.R.Tallis) I have always wanted to write supernatural fiction. I think there are clear signs of frustration in The Liebermann Papers – my psychoanalytic detective series set in Freud’s Vienna. The weird keeps on breaking through. Things surface that are more commonplace in Gothic novels rather than police procedurals: séances, occult societies, the golem legend, a secret alchemist’s laboratory, and visitations by the angel of death. It was more or less inevitable that I would change genre – and I do feel more at home in liminal territories. There is currently a TV series of the Liebermann books in development. The plan is to have three 90 minute films ready for broadcast towards the end of next year. If it does happen – and you can never really be sure that it will with TV – then I might be persuaded to write more Liebermann novels; however, failing that, I intend to continue writing tales of terror. I have just completed HOUSE OF SOULS, another psychological ghost story, set in London in the summer of 1976, which features electronic voice phenomena (i.e. the voices of the dead appearing on blank tape). It was a great pleasure to write and I am really pleased with its oddity. I was told that it reads like a Stephen King novel but rewritten by Margaret Drabble!

MF: We very much look forward to it. F.R. Tallis, thank you very much.

FT: My pleasure.

The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis (Pan) is out now in paperback, £7.99

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