Richard T. Kelly interviewed by Glennis Byron

Posted by Glennis Byron on June 02, 2011 in Blog, Interviews tagged with ,

Photograph by Sarah Lee

Richard T. Kelly was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1970 and now lives in London. His debut novel Crusaders, hailed by the Financial Times as ‘a magnificent state-of-the-nation epic’, was published by Faber in 2008. Previously he had authored three acclaimed studies of film-makers for Faber: Alan Clarke (1998), The Name of This Book is Dogme 95 (2000), and the authorised biography Sean Penn: His Life and Times (2004, to be reissued in an fully updated edition early next year).

His second novel, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, is forthcoming from Faber and Faber on 2 June 2011. This ‘modern day gothic fable’ focuses on three Scottish doctors living in London, one of whom, Robert Forrest, a cosmetic surgeon, broods over the loss of his youth and the departure of his beautiful younger girlfriend. When he goes missing, his friends Lochran and Hartford begin to conduct their own investigation. Richard’s blog on The Possessions of Doctor Forrest can be found at http://drforrest.wordpress.com/. For a taster of the novel, see the short excerpt (the prologue) at the end of this interview.

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Hello Richard, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Perhaps I could start with a couple of general questions. To begin with, this is your first book in the gothic mode. Could you tell us a little about what it is about the gothic generally and late Victorian gothic in particular that appeals to you, and what drew you to this mode for your new novel?

It was a debt of love, really, to books I loved in my youth and still love today. Forrest bears a relation to my first novel Crusaders in that a journalist I met when I was promoting it told me she thought I was ‘a nineteenth-century boy’ at heart. That’s why Grey Lochran describes Robert Forrest thus… And it’s true that the novels of that epoch are dearer to me than most that have followed.

As you intuit, for me (with the addition of Frankenstein) it’s “the late Victorian gothic” I love most of all: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula. Like all horror stories these four seem really to be about our very natural fear of death, and our occasional, hopeless yearning for a life beyond this life, beyond our physical mortality. Loving those novels, those themes, I wanted – in the manner of the proverbial Mad Scientist – to transplant the gothic mood into a 21st century story.

I’m especially fond of the notion of the gothic novel as a collation of different documents, epistolary/recorded/diaristic e.g. Dracula’s many formats, the varied narratives of Jekyll and Hyde. And I love that ‘confessional’ mode that seems a particular hallmark of the Scottish gothic – Jekyll and Hyde again, and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, where the anti-hero surfaces late in the text to reveal the true face of the evil that’s gone before.

I should also say: I believe the gothic ought to chill and unnerve and disturb by its darkness – but there’s usually something about that darkness that is also luxurious, enveloping – ravishing, in a way. So I’ve tried to write a novel that could perturb the reader while also affording a certain pleasure.

Just as your main frame of reference in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is late Victorian gothic (although I thought I spotted, among other exceptions, a rather good update of Lewis’s Matilda), perhaps it’s true to say that our contemporary interest in gothic is driven primarily by these later texts rather than by such earlier gothic fictions as Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. Do you think there is something about the late Victorian manifestations of the gothic mode that particularly appeals to or is suited to our society today?

In the late Victorian books the reader enjoys, I think, that inevitable and necessary advance in narrative sophistication and psychological nuance. (For instance the quality of repression, the evocation of same, is pronounced but more subtle and intriguing.) I think it’s also because those later tales are very much located in the city – usually London, and so one gets to enjoy, for instance, the distinctive urban topography of Dracula, or in Jekyll and Hyde the portrait of a dualistic London, ‘split’ between the grand Victorian properties of Cavendish Square (the ‘citadel of medicine’), and the dinginess of Hyde’s Soho, its ‘muddy ways’, ‘dark like the back-end of evening.’

In Doctor Forrest I’ve tried to make menace out of new kinds of contrast in the landscape of London – such as the widespread renovation of Victorian psychiatric hospitals as ‘luxury apartment’ blocks or the disturbing manner in which online brothels staffed by way of sex-trafficking now lurk behind august mansion block facades. (Of course there is a real-life darkness in London that would appear to have little to do with devils, only with all-too-human appetites for corruption, exploitation, profit.)

By the way – you thought you detected an update of Matthew Lewis’s Matilda – presumably in the figure of the novel’s ostensibly female Mephistopheles, Dijana Vukovara – and you’re quite right. Obviously Forrest is a kind of Faust story. I feel a tad guilty in that the world of hi-tech surgery could easily lend itself to a gothic where the horror is explicitly born of science a la Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde. But then I’m one of those heretics who can’t believe in God but is fairly convinced of the Devil, and so with Forrest I wanted to step right into the abyss of the supernatural… Lewis’s The Monk is in toto a bit too lurid for my taste, but I do think the novel has one terrific sequence near the end of Volume II where the malevolence of Matilda becomes clear in her offer to ensnare Antonia for Ambrosio, and the monk recoils from her ‘bold and impious language’. Dijana – who is a genderless spirit in a stolen female skin – is meant to have a similar sort of effect on Robert Forrest. The visual model in my head, though, was probably Maria Casares’s performance as ‘The Princess’ or angel of death in Cocteau’s film Orphée – a more sympathetic figure than my Dijana, for sure, but having that darkly commanding, ‘regnant’ quality.

Dijana is also something of a dark Beatrice figure, I think, a ‘guide’ for a gothic Vita Nuova, and at one point she says ‘you are your body, Robert. Nothing else. There is no person apart from a body.’ There does seem to be something of a horror of the body emerging at many points in the book, of its inevitable movement towards, in a lovely phrase you use a couple of times, ‘necrotising rot’. Are Dijana’s comments, perhaps in the manner of the demon in The Exorcist, simply meant to produce despair, or is this a position that you think your narrative generally supports?

To me – or to any surgeon, I’d imagine – it would feel like folly to ignore how much of our identity, of our reality, is rooted in the body, the flesh and bone and blood. Every day we have to face ourselves in the mirror and, if we choose, we may “see death at work, like bees in a hive of glass” (to quote Cocteau’s Orphée again.) We know death is an organic necessity, though of course we’d rather elude it somehow. Who knows? Maybe in time the advance of gene therapies will transform the ageing process. (News reporting of the science always tries to play up that basic allure.) But as of today we all have to prepare for the death of the body, and the unimaginable expiry of our imaginations.

You mention The Exorcist and, yes, with Dijana Vukovara it’s just as Father Merrin says to Karras: ‘The demon is a liar.’ But those lies are always interspersed with some perspicacity. My favourite diabolical presences in literature are the dream demons of The Brothers Karamazov and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – the wily reasoners, who tie up clever men in knots made out of their own vanity. And I like your description of Dijana as a ‘dark Beatrice’ – that’s right, she’s almost an ‘Anti-Beatrice.’ Once Dr Forrest has seen her do her black magic he can accept that there is a spirit in his body and a life beyond this life. But he only considers one direction in which that life and spirit might tend, so to speak. Evil gives him evidence to work with and thus overshadows Good, which is never so vulgar. (As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Charity vaunteth not itself.”)

I hope Good is also a presence in the story, largely through Grey Lochran, who is himself very much a materialist all-body, no-spirit man. Still, once strange events begin to suggest to him that he’s mistaken then he does start to look for a way to explain the spiritual, even if it’s by way of quantum physics.

My own view? I hope I’ll be forgiven if I quote from Norman Mailer, whom I often think to be very right in these matters: “I had never been able to make a philosophical peace with the notion of spirits, nor come to any conclusion. That you might die but still remain alive in some vale of our atmosphere seemed no more absurd to me than the notion that every part of your person ceased to exist after death. Indeed, given the spectrum of human response on any matter, I was ready to assume that some who died remained near, and others went far away, or were altogether extinct…”

With respect to a horror born of science, your central character, Dr. Forrest, is specifically a cosmetic surgeon, and that puts even more of an emphasis on the idea of surfaces found in those late Victorian gothic novels. Mirrors also play a large role in Doctor Forrest (and your speculum scene is, I’m guessing, a variation on the mirror theme). The mirrors reminded me of Jekyll watching his transformations, and, perhaps, Dorian Gray viewing his portrait, but I also thought you were doing something more contemporary with questions of surfaces and identity. Could you say a little more about this?

Since the 1990s I’ve been a fairly regular visitor to Los Angeles for work purposes, and I must say that over those 20 or so years I’ve found the cultural ascent of cosmetic surgery ever more creepy: how pervasive has become this notion of ‘getting a little work done’, the Stepford Wives-like replication of ideas of female physical beauty that thus become awful caricatures: slenderness as stick-thinness, a full bosom as two lumpy silicon sacs, would-be ‘elfin’ features carved by a blade. Obviously that culture has crossed to the UK: we too now have surgical tourism, the lunch-hour nose-job, the supposedly light touch of Botox and chemical peels.

Personally I’d endorse Grey Lochran’s tersely expressed view that people are fooling themselves badly if they imagine their lives would be much finer if only their nose was just a few millimetres to the left. I interviewed various surgeons while I was preparing the novel, and Lochran’s views are definitely shared by some professionals who disdain cosmetic practice. The personal problem Lochran identifies is known as ‘body dysmorphic disorder’ and it’s a needless malaise in our society, no question. (A character in my novel called Eloise Keaton suffers from this somewhat, a fact that her surgeon-lover Dr Forrest contrives to gloss over.)

That said, I’m not utterly set against cosmetic surgery. Without wishing to sound like Edward Teller on radiation, I think a little can do some good… Lochran is right that reduction mammoplasty can be a huge and simply achieved relief for certain women. There are some boring elements of the aging process – ‘jowliness’, for one – that can be quite easily finessed by surgery, and I’d say that’s all part of the Devil’s share of creation.

But I admit I do think that what’s right for women in this case is not so for men. I pretty much agree with Orwell: after 40 a man has the face he deserves. Dr Forrest knows this to be true but ultimately cannot bear that much reality. In midlife he wishes to be a handsome, virile young man again, to fully inhabit and savour that privilege – a familiar, impossible urge – and that’s how the Deceiver ensnares him.

(I suppose Forrest’s urge relates to that of Wilde’s Dorian, who is appalled by the thought that his skin should ever be anything but the youthful hue of cherry blossom – to borrow the language of Japanese homoeroticism. All of Dorian’s evil ensues from that superficiality. Whereas Henry Jekyll’s desires don’t have an aesthetic edge – he rightly finds Hyde ‘ugly’ to behold in the mirror. Yet in a depraved manner the feeling of inhabiting Hyde’s body strikes him as ‘incredibly sweet.’)

To go back to what you said earlier about the city, I find what you say about how you are trying to ‘make menace out of new kinds of contrast in the landscape of London’ in Doctor Forrest particularly interesting : the book led me to think precisely about how 21st century writers might be creating a new kind of ‘urban gothic’ and how your London was connected to, and yet distinct from, the London of Victorian urban gothic. Do you have any thoughts about whether the menace produced out of new kinds of contrast might also be a new kind of menace?

I’m not sure the menace in question could be all that new – at least not in my hands, much as I’d like to imagine so. We’re talking about evil, I suppose, its presence and intervention in the world. And to me evil is as old as Man. In Doctor Forrest there’s shown to be a horror in the real shadows of the sex trade; but then in Stevenson Mr Hyde’s trampling of the little girl is generally read as a reference to Victorian child prostitution – and that brutal despoiling of innocence has been with us a long, long time. Similarly, where the novel speaks of asylums for the poor turned into high-priced luxury accommodation, tennis courts build over graveyards – I think we’re unhappily familiar with that lack of respect for places and their presiding ‘spirits’ when it comes to the price and potential exploitation of real estate.

What might be considered newish, I suppose, is the sense that the Devil coerces Forrest into assuming physical forms or outer shells that are particularly subject to prejudice in our society – as a disfigured homeless man, as a working-class Anglo-Caribbean man, as a vulnerable illegal-immigrant woman. That part might be reasonably fresh… but I’d put it no more strongly than that. (Of course in her biography of Mary Shelley Miranda Seymour wrote interestingly about the possible influence on Mary – and Frankenstein – of her having lived in Bristol after slave labour helped make the city rich; that the creature’s appearance and sufferings were inspired by the ill-treatment of people who had been brought to England as slaves from Africa and the West Indies.)

In one of your posts for the Doctor Forrest blog, you say that every writer probably ‘has a sort of secret ‘soundtrack’ that they compile for each book that they author’ and that   ‘a good deal of The Possessions of Doctor Forrest was written “on music”’.   I can see music is very important to you from the number of posts you have on musical topics. Can you say a little more about how music works for you when you are writing?

As I often admit on the blog, I’m incapable of saying anything useful about music beyond what I think we all know, which is that music is the most mysterious and miraculous art-form and probably the one without which we’d be least able to manage. Music can summon up complex moods where words only strive to, so in common with a lot of writers I often want music playing when I’m writing, or ‘trying to write.’ If what one’s writing is a work of the supernatural or macabre – well, of all the arts music is certainly closest to the spiritual, therefore also the daemonic, and those are the qualities I find in the pieces that were my friends on Doctor Forrest – Bartok’s string quartets, Ligeti’s ’sound-mass’ works of the 1960s, and Charles Ives’ rather unnerving ‘place’ compositions. Possibly all of this sounds a tad high-flown, so I ought to say that when I’m stuck in front of a blank screen or just feel the need to push on past an oppressive silence, I’ll quite often do as all sensible people should and just stick on Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin.

I’ve asked you quite a bit about older gothic fictions. What do you think about contemporary gothic? Have any contemporary gothic writers influenced you or are there any in particular you admire?

In my teens I was very impressed and influenced by Angela Carter’s collections of re-imagined fables and tales, The Bloody Chamber and Black Venus. Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly is a novel I love, a truly ingenious revision of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Similarly, Emma Tennant’s variations on James Hogg (The Bad Sister) and R.L. Stevenson (Two Women of London) give me great pleasure. Susan Hill’s ghost stories, such as last year’s The Small Hand, are highly elegant. I also very much admire Patrick McGrath’s disturbing novels – Spider, Asylum, Dr Haggard’s Disease. And I must pay homage to the novels of Charles Palliser, starting with The Quincunx, which did so much to revive and popularise the spirit of late Victorian fiction.

Finally, what are you working on now? Do you have plans for any other gothic novels?

It would be such a pleasure for me to write another novel in the gothic manner, but I think I’ll need to see what readers reckon to my first effort before I let my enthusiasms carry me off… I have been mulling over ideas for what would be a collection of ‘tales’ (of ‘mystery and imagination’, as it were.) Then I have to confess that part of the gothic attraction is that I’d very much like to write a sequel to Doctor Forrest… Certainly I’m already in the process of looking at ways to extend the narrative – one of which being that I’m currently at work on a screenplay adaptation for an excellent film/TV producer who’s taken up the option. And in the needful retooling of the novel’s narrative for cinematic purposes I’ve found myself altering and embroidering and developing the story anyhow. But in general I feel the gothic is so much a part of my sensibility that whatever I write in future will be inflected by it somehow. To paraphrase what Jung said about God, ‘Bidden or unbidden, it will be present…’

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The following short excerpt from Richard T. Kelly’s The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is the prologue to the book. This excerpt is reproduced courtesy of Faber and Faber:

Am I hearing myself think? Or is she whispering to me? Sometimes I can see her lips part, feel her breath at my ear, the poison start to pour. Sometimes not. Regardless, her voice is always in my headspace, probing and clinging like a tongue, insistent, irresistible.

Her voice is not mine. I ought to know the difference. And yet hers has grown so entwined with my own. We’re alike now in so many ways – like-minded, she and I, this dreadful intimacy of ours. I suppose I have been waiting, all my life, to be so very close to a woman. From no desire of my own, never, but only because ‘telepathy’, in some form, is what women claimed to want from me – claimed incessantly. They should have been more careful.

So, now, it’s her. My sister, my anima. She stands before the darkling surface of the cheval glass, reflective, as though she were made of the mirror. She awaits my decision, as if she didn’t know, as if she didn’t infest every thought in my mind.

And he, my enemy – the apex of the triangle we form in this room – he’s looking from her to me – perplexedly, some veil of concern on his face. If he had a notion of what might be about to befall him, that concern would be unfeigned and very urgent.

His lips are moving, for sure. ‘Robert,’ he’s saying, ‘this is all wrong, man . . .’ That mask of sympathy he’s wearing, is it for me? He’s no friend of mine. And yet, is there still time enough for me to show him some kindness?

For this feeling now rising up my spine and over my skin like some questing rat, some necrotising rot, is richly appalling but replete and commanding as supreme music – foul, monstrous, a heavy-headed beast swaying and stirring to its senses, gestated from my gut or my groin or cracked out of my head like a malformed god-foetus, the Evil infant, a spider-baby hatched from a skull, majestically fat with venom and filth.

And what am I but the worm, the vassal, the guilty man? I will obey all directives. She to whom power is given, I must rise and do her bidding. There is a pulse behind the din in my head, a chime, diamond-hard, vehement, telling me Do It. Take it. Take what you need. From him. ‘You are not permitted to dissect living subjects. Not yet . . .’ Doc Laidlaw’s old jest in Anatomy lab, back when we were boys. Now we are grown, for all it was worth. And this man before me, I am going to cut in half – be the cut from nave to chaps or ear to ear, I can’t yet say. But I do know it now, his fate is sealed – his fate, and mine. I cross the threshold, I step inside, and I fall.

From The Possessions of Doctor Forrest © Richard T. Kelly

Published by Faber and Faber Ltd

See Louise Welsh’s review of Doctor Forrest in the Financial Times

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