Patrick McGrath Interviewed by Neil McRobert

Posted by Neil McRobert on July 13, 2011 in Blog, Interviews, McGrath Symposium tagged with ,

Patrick McGrath was born in London in 1950 but has lived primarily in New York since 1981. As the son of the medical superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital for the criminal insane, it is perhaps unsurprising that McGrath has grown to be one of the most perceptive detailers of human psychology in contemporary fiction. The term neuro-Gothic has been coined largely in response to McGrath’s melding of medical insight and Gothic atmosphere. McGrath is recognised as one of the most important contributors to contemporary Gothic writing. Early work such as Blood and Water (1988) and The Grotesque (1989) are, amongst their other strengths, playful engagements with the Gothic tradition of madness, incarceration and deviant sexuality. Recent works such as Martha Peake (2000), Port Mungo (2004) and Trauma (2008) have relocated from a mid-twentieth century Britain setting to examine the development of the new world. Whilst the Gothic may have become more subtle in these recent fictions, it nonetheless remains indivisible from McGrath’s style. As Philip Hensher’s review for the Observer claims “McGrath may be the best Gothic novelist ever.”


Much of your writing is considered to be Gothic. Your work is frequently included in genre collections and you are often promoted as an important voice in the contemporary gothic.  First of all, do you regard your work as Gothic? Is this categorisation something you appreciate and pursue, or is it something you find confining?

Being called a gothic writer gives me what Sue Zlosnik calls reception anxiety. That said, at least two of my novels are deliberately gothic: The Grotesque and Martha Peake. The rest contain imagery and tropes that I suppose do belong under the large gothic umbrella but don’t seem to me to be dedicated to what I regard as the central gothic idea. But I’m probably not a good person to ask about this.

You say that, but alongside being considered a Gothic novelist, you have also been somewhat indoctrinated into the critical arena, giving a talk at the International Gothic Association conference and writing introductions to classical Gothic texts. What, therefore, do you consider to be the ‘central Gothic idea?’

I don’t know that I’m indoctrinated although I do very much like the company of serious academics whose passion is gothic literature. I can’t really contribute to their discourse however because it’s specialized and I’m not properly up to speed on the theoretical background. So my introductions to gothic novels are more a common-reader response than anything else. I was afraid you’d ask me what the ‘central gothic idea’ was. I suppose I’d start with horror. I understand horror to be an emotion compounded of fear and disgust. I think there is vulgar horror and highbrow horror, the latter requiring subtle psychological revelations and recognitions to be properly effective. I’m interested in that but at the same time I feel that it comes as a kind of bonus, a nice wee morbid twist, after a long, serious investigation of complicated interconnected human relationships. That’s where the meat of the story is, but the little morbid twist is what provides the shudder.

The Grotesque, Asylum, Dr Haggard’s Disease, and Martha Peake in particular engage with the traditions and heritage of the Gothic genre, yet they seem to also retain a degree of critical distance, an awareness of the genre that sometimes verges on parody. Is this intentional?

I don’t really think in terms of subverting the genre when I’m at work. I pursue a story with a small cast of characters and am concerned to tell it with as much zest as I can muster. I employ craft, imagination, industry and so on, but questions of genre subversion don’t come into it. It’s clear to me that the critical approach is very different to that of the practitioner. We have complementary but non-identical objectives.

Your edited collection, The New Gothic, focuses much less on the traditional trappings of haunted houses and spectral visitations than it does on the uncanny elements of contemporary life – a concern that is shared by your own fiction. Do you regard the traditional Gothic motifs as being outdated and unsupportable in contemporary fiction?

No, I don’t think anything is off limits if you can find an original angle. Haunting and phantoms for example have great relevance to trauma narratives, and can be employed in a purely psychological context with not a whiff of the supernatural.

Ok. In much of your work, that sense of haunting is evoked via madness or misconstruance. The closest you have come to a conventional haunting is in “The Year of the Gibbet”. Would you ever consider writing a lengthier piece on an unambivalently supernatural theme?

I’ve never considered writing anything unambivalently supernatural. It would feel like cheating. I like to keep my stories within the bounds of psychological plausibility. As somebody said about magic realism: if anything is possible, nothing matters. I think that applies to the supernatural.

Following your oft-mentioned childhood in the Broadmoor estate, you spent your adolescent years in a Jesuit boarding school. Much is made of the impact of your childhood experiences on your fiction, but eschewing for a moment the interest in psychiatry, much of your fiction (particularly that set in Britain) deals with highly claustrophobic settings. Do you think that the institutional regimen of your early homes has anything to do with this? Equally, does a residual Catholicism play any part in your writing?

What a good question. Certainly Catholicism established in me early on a model of the person as a duality comprising a body and a soul. Much gothic fiction of course exploits that duality, in particular the great doppleganger stories of the late 19th and early 20th century. The body’s unruly appetites, and the problems they create for a mind in possession of a moral conscience, this is a rich vein and I’ve exploited it frequently. To me it suggests an inherent tension, or conflict, within the psyche, and conflict is of course the juice and engine of storytelling.

As for the claustrophobic settings, I don’t know. Certainly my early exposure to asylums–total institutions, in Erving Goffman’s sense–the mental hospital and the English public school–alerted me to power relations between guards and inmates. That theme is central to my psychiatric novels, particularly Asylum, where poor Stella is oppressed by patriarchy, marriage, the law and the asylum, all at the same time. I think constriction in general, not just incarceration, is a feature of much gothic fiction, and I’m thinking of the great short novels of John Hawkes here, such as Travesty, as well as the coffins of Stoker and Poe. The most claustrophobic of settings is of course one’s own mind, if that’s not too trite an answer, and minds are what I like to write about.

Perhaps the most powerful ‘struggle’ between guards and inmates in your fiction is that between Peter Cleave and Edgar Stark in Asylum. The ending of that novel, with the revelation of the extent of Cleave’s megalomania is, for me, the most chilling moment in all of your fiction. It is also provides an overt contrast between the doctor and the artist–two recurrent figures in your work. What is it about these two ‘types’ that you find interesting?

Yes, the ending of Asylum. I wish every ending could come out as well as that one did. There is a God of Endings somewhere and she must be appeased with many and various offerings, eg the blood of one’s firstborn, future royalties, the wellbeing of one’s liver, wholesale sacrifice of endangered species, etc. Even then you only win her favour once every seven books.

The doctor and the artist represent a rich set of dichotomies loosely rooted in the opposition of science and art, reason and intuition, mind and heart and so on. In my own case, psychiatry and fiction: the former my father’s work, the latter mine. The doctor and the psychiatrist in addition to being dissectors (“We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth) wield real social power. They get not only to diagnose, but also to dispose, to dispose others to institutions of one sort or another, and also to treatment regimens. This power is ideally employed for benign purposes, but if it is abused then true cruelty and even evil will result.

The artist has his or her own besetting vulnerabilities. In the attempt to express vision, feeling or ideas, or to represent some condition of reality, disturbance in the perceiving instrument, ie the artist himself, can engender violence or madness or both. So doctors and artists are rich in possibility for the fiction writer. If you then factor in the private emotions attaching to a complicated relationship with a powerful father figure, and the narcissistic mirroring of the writer himself in the artist figure, it becomes difficult–I find it very difficult–to see the point of creating any other sorts of characters at all.

There is an obvious assumption that your interest in psychiatry stems from your youth– your father’s profession, and your own experience of working in mental health in Canada. On a literary level, however, it seems that you are continuing a tradition established by Poe, locating terror in the fallibility of human perception. Your most unreliable narrators, Cleave, Spider, Dr Haggard, seem like descendants of the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Is this an accurate assessment? Are there any other specific writers who have inspired your work?

In terms of unreliable narrators I would at once cite the unnamed narrator in John Hawkes’s brilliant short novel, Travesty. That book made me a writer. The narrating voice is that of a man at the wheel of a fast car at night in France. In the car with him is his lover and her father. As they travel at high speed through the countryside, the driver explains why he plans to drive the car into a wall and destroy all three of them. It is a lucid and complex rationale but at the same time it’s utterly mad. There is no escape for the passengers, or for the reader. All are trapped in that car, and that mind, until the moment of impact, which comes of course a millisecond after the novel ends.

There is also Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, in which another unreliable narrator tells a gloriously rich story, totally believable except that everything’s subtly skewed by the narrator’s misunderstandings of himself, and therefore of the other three characters.

Your recent novels have relocated to the US, with Martha Peake being a literal and literary moment of transition. Is there a specific reason for this change of locale, and is it in any way responsible for the pairing-down of the more overt Gothic elements in your writing?

The shift of locale to the US reflected my growing desire to express in my fiction feelings about the country and the city where I’ve lived for 30 years now. I wanted to say something about America in Martha Peake, and since then to give some kind of portrait of New York, which continues to absorb and delight and fascinate me. I felt maybe I’d said enough about the England of my childhood although it still exerts a powerful pull on my imagination, especially when I watch English movies of that period, the 50s and early 60s.

The paring down both of the prose and the effects came from a recognition that the way Americans speak and write is more plain-style, less florid, less hesitant and tentative than English usage. I heard an English gent interviewed on TV recently (the royal wedding I think) and in answer to a question, instead of saying a simple yes, he said, ‘well, one would certainly very much hope so.’ I love this but it ain’t American. So in Trauma I ruthlessly weeded out all such tendencies. I liked the result: short sentences devoid of modifiers and adverbs.

So is the Gothic, or at least the intentional engagement with the Gothic, something you feel is done with now. Would you return to active involvement with the genre or was Martha Peake your final say on the issue?

As regards the gothic, it will keep intruding whether I like it or not. My imagination tends to the dark and the grim. I like decay and disorder, things going wrong, and it’s hard not to be thought gothic when you express this, and when transgression, breakdown, trauma and so on recur as one’s themes.

What, specifically, are the films of the 50s and 60s that exert such a strong pull on your imagination? It would be interesting to hear some of the inspirations for your unique impression of mid-century England.

The films of the 50’s and 60’s… black-and-white films in which an orderly British (or Viennese or American) society is disturbed by evil of one sort or another. I think of The Third Man, Peeping Tom, The Blue Lamp, 10 Rillington Place, The Servant. Directors like Jospeh Losey, Tony Richardson, Carol Reed, Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock of course, actors like Dirk Bogarde, Alan Bates, Humphrey Bogart. The stories of Somerset Maugham: Of Human Bondage, The Letter, and Graham Greene, The Fallen Idol, The Ministry of Fear. Harold Pinter, Accident… Film noir, of course… Hard to say what’s so attractive. Well-made stories, lack of sentimentality, excellent character actors, superb writing and direction, darkly sardonic tone, and most of them films that I first saw as a boy in England when I was most susceptible to their charms.

Having scoured the web I have concluded that you don’t have your own website. Considering the temporal setting of your fiction it is tempting to imagine you as a particularly nostalgic author. Is the advancement of technology, particularly in literary circles, something you are comfortable with or opposed to? Equally, do the huge advancements in medicine and psychology tempt you to write about the dark avenues of contemporary technological life?

I’d like a website I just haven’t got round to it. I’m supposed to have one. I must find somebody. I’m a bit of a technophobe (read: hopeless with the stuff) and I try and get along with as little as possible. It just doesn’t fascinate me and I’m not very good at it. So I’m not really interested in using technology in the fiction. But having said that, I’ve got a great cloning story. I’d have to learn some bioengineering or whatever to write it but that’s okay.

Martha Peake certainly seems a tipping-point in your fiction, a casting off of the (gothic) old world, for the (possibly unwarranted) optimism of the new. Was the structure of the novel in any way designed as a way of shrugging off the Gothic overtones and commencing a new era in your writing? And if so, why does the optimism for the new world whither so quickly in Trauma? I would hesitate to call Trauma Gothic in any but the most tenuous way, but the same concerns that haunted your protagonists and narrators in your ‘English’ fiction seems to recur across the pond.

The turning point yes in that I decided to leave England in my imagination (as I had left it in fact some twenty five years earlier) and in some way reflect my adopted homeland the USA. I thought I might begin at the moment when the relationship of those two countries was at its most passionate and most conflicted, the War of Independence. I did think this was historically a moment of real optimism, but of course by the time we’re in the New York of Port Mungo or Trauma or Ground Zero, that optimism while present is permeated by the shadows and secrets and remorse and guilt that come to us all in time. I like the notion that the Pilgrim Fathers crossed the Atlantic to escape the Devil in Europe, only to discover to their horror that they’d brought him with them. (I think that’s the subtext of Alien, and The Thing, among other horror movies.) So my American characters are no less haunted than the Brits, but at least I’ve had a chance now to represent the USA, and New York City in particular, in the work.

Without risking cliche, how significant have the events of the last decade been in your literary vision of America? Have the World Trade Centre attacks made New York a more apposite location for anxiety, or has this always been the case? I’m thinking of such nightmarish cityscapes as presented in American Psycho or Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Trauma seems to share the airless, pressurised atmosphere of those novels, but then again, in many ways so does the London-set Spider? Does a contemporary New York offer a particular type of unease?

It’s a good question, how does New York look these days as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Oddly enough, and in contrast to the New York of the 60s, 70s, and much of the 80s, and despite the attacks, the city is cleaner, safer, richer and more complacent than it’s ever been. New York has prospered in the last decade, even if the rest of the country hasn’t. I think this is reflected in its fiction. Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges and Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall spring to mind. Both excellent novels of contemporary Manhattan, but each in its way about affluence. I plan to write at least two more New York novels and I’ll probably go back to the 60s and 70s, when the place was seamier, edgier, more dangerous, more conflicted, and more interesting at least to me.

So, are you working on a novel currently? Can you offer any hints about where you will be going next?

I’m finishing a novel called CONSTANCE about a New York woman who discovers age 30 that the man who raised her as his daughter not only isn’t her father, but that in fact he murdered her father before she was born–or so she believes. What interests me is (a) the psychological fallout of all this and (b) the destructive effect on her marriage to a much older man. Is this gothic? It’s not something I think about, I’m just trying to make the story come out right. There are gothic touches–an old house with a tower, a 1920s skyscraper with gargoyles swathed in mist, thunderstorms, hysteria–but it’s the portrait of a woman in crisis that interests me here.

Patrick McGrath, thank you very much for the interview, and for the fiction that continues to fascinate. I’ll be eagerly looking forward to Constance.

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