Patrick McGrath was born in London and grew up near Broadmoor Hospital, where for many years his father was Medical Superintendent. He has lived in various parts of North America and spent several years on a remote island in the north Pacific. He moved to New York City in 1981. He is the author of Blood and Water and Other Tales, The Grotesque, Spider, Dr Haggard's Disease, Asylum and Martha Peake all of which are published by Penguin.
Patrick McGrath lives in New York and London and is married to the actress Maria Aitken.
From the outside, writing can often seem effortless. We, as
readers, are presented with the finished object - the beautiful
package and the polished content. Of course Patrick McGrath was
always going to be The Patrick McGrath. But what does it feel like
from the inside? Were you born a writer, do you think?
Was I born a writer? I may have had tendencies, from birth, in that direction. Certainly I grew up in a house with many books, where good writing was respected. A rebellious adolescence--a dreamy, creative temperament--a verbal facility--and an inability to settle to any other sort of work--all this set the stage for me to declare, age 29, that henceforth I would be a writer of fiction. Then the hard work began. How does it feel inside? Terrific. To be in a permanent state of invention is both a playful and a deeply serious condition. You possess an autonomy and control that few other workers enjoy, and the mere fact of the literature that came before you guarantees you're always aspiring, and never complacent.
What was your biggest break?
The biggest break was moving to New York in 1981. I found a community of writers in the East Village, many of whom became friends, lots of small magazines in which to get one's stuff published, bars and clubs in which to read one's stuff to an audience, and a spirit of robust competition, all in a restless dynamic city which has always valued its artists and writers, and actively fosters ambition .
Are there particular writers who you feel have inspired or
influenced your work?
An endless list, and one that shifts and changes with the current preoccupations. The American novelist John Hawkes, first of all. John Fowles, Angela Carter, Martin Amis. Conrad, Mann, Melville, Waugh, Emily Bronte, Wilde, Stoker, Stevenson, Kafka, Poe. Peter Carey and Graham Swift. Gary Indiana and Lynne Tillman.
Describe a typical moment of McGrathian inspiration ...
Perhaps late at night alone in some bar, perhaps running (or lurching) round St. James Park in the early evening: a connection occurs, a sudden fusion of two ideas, and the work in progress suddenly takes on a dramatic new layer of resonance. This tends to happen in the early stages of a novel, when the implications and possibilities of the story are still announcing themselves. It's intoxicating when it happens.
Do you share the popular view of your writing as Gothic?
I suspect the term 'gothic' carries pejorative meanings today, and I resist being lumped in with the horror merchants. I am far more interested in character than I am in horror or any associated emotion per se. The grand tradition, however--Monk Lewis, Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, Poe, Hawthorne, Stevenson, Wilde, Freud etc--one is proud to be associated with.
Frankenstein or Northanger Abbey?
Northanger Abbey for its scepticism, but Frankenstein for the great wild sweep of the story, and the endless possibilities of interpretation it still offers.
Your books are so often concerned with misfits and outsiders.
Is there something in you that relates to that sense of non-belonging?
Sure. Where does it come from, the identification with the outsider? From childhood acquaintance with the mentally ill. From rebelliousness and loneliness in adolescence. From self-imposed exile in North America, and a strong early sense of the artist as enemy of the bourgeoisie, a subversive agent.
In your new novel, Martha Peake, it seems at first that the outcast Harry will find redemption and a place in society through his daughter. Is it society's rejection of the different which is most damaging, do you think, or their inability to accept themselves?
The one breeds the other. To exclude--to scapegoat--is a feature of human communities at least since biblical times. The excluded--the other--the monster--whatever--functions as a conduit for tensions within the community that can be discharged nowhere else. The victim in time adopts, even embraces the community's negative perception of him, because it is in the end impossible, against a social consensus, to sustain any other view of himself. Thus Harry Peake's periodic collapses: his inability to sustain the idea of his own spiritual nobility.
Martha Peake sees you return to the medical theme you have explored in previous novels. Do you feel that there is something intrinsically dark in the practice of medicine?
Medicine, pathology, anatomy, psychiatry--all dark, yes, because all intrusive, all engaged in probing the private spaces of mind and body, all determined to get in under the skin. And all exercising a social power that authorizes such intrusions, that power very much open to abuse. Yesterday's papers carried stories of pathologists removing the brains of the dead without the permission of their families.
You've chosen to tell the story at third-hand: our narrator recounts a tale he heard from his dying uncle of a father and daughter he once knew. What advantages does this removed form have over straight narration?
The removed form has multiple advantages over straight narration, the most important being the possibility of creating further layers of story-telling within the very framing of the "base" story. This I think is essential. Every story raises the question, who is telling me this? What is the nature of their investment in this story? What has been left out, what distorted, what exaggerated? Why? The answers to these questions can throw up a narrative every bit as engrossing as the events themselves. This would seem to be particularly appropriate when dealing with historical material, where not only the personality of the narrator but Time Itself has obscured what really happened.
Why the American Revolution? And why the non-specific 'Revolution' of the sub-title?
The American Revolution because I was intent on exploring the first great conflict between Britain and America so as to better understand my own divided condition, as one who grew up in England but has spent most of his adult life in the USA. 'A Novel of the Revolution' was simply a phrase I liked, nothing more to it than that.
And where will we see you next? Back in the twentieth - or twenty-first - century?
Late twentieth century--i.e. yesterday--a narrative that pans back over a long lifetime--80 years--spent variously in England, Central America, and New York City.