Liz Axelrod

Poems, Essays, Reviews, Stories…

The Past, the Present and the Process: Patrick McGrath

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Patrick McGrath is the author of two short story collections, Blood and Water and Other Tales and Ghost Town, and seven previous novels including Asylum, Martha Peake, Dr. Haggard’s Disease and Port Mungo. His novel, Spider, was filmed in 2001 by acclaimed director David Cronenberg, from McGrath’s script. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the United Kingdom and a member of PEN America and the Writers Guild of America East. His most recent book, Trauma, is a dark psychological drama full of love and loss set against the back- drop of 1970s New York, just as the Twin Towers were going up. 12th Street met with Patrick McGrath at Cafe Loup on a Monday night before his seminar at The New School.

12th street: Your latest novel, Trauma, focuses on the New York City of the past—a city that’s gritty, drug-filled and economically barren. How do you feel about the city as it is today?

Patrick McGrath: I really don’t like that the city is so rich and clean and safe. It was none of those things back in the seventies. I have nostalgia for the New York I came to at the end of that decade, when it was dirty and dangerous; artists could afford to live in Manhattan then and you had to watch yourself on the street. I enjoyed New York very much in those days, and while I suppose in one way it’s a good thing that the place is rich and clean and safe, at the same time there is a sense that something—some edge—has been lost. I remember when the High- line was a ruin, something you avoided on Tenth Avenue.

Street: Was it a conscious choice to set the story amidst the building-up and tearing-down of the seventies, a setting that seems to parallel the main character’s psyche?

McGrath: Yeah, it worked that he was a man in some disorder and in a state of collapse; the city, in a sense, mirrored his general psychic condition. I had originally intended to see him as an old man—or as a man in his fifties, anyway—around the time of the attacks on the Twin Towers. At that time, he would be called upon to serve as a trauma therapist to his own estranged daughter, but I began to tell the story of how he became a trauma therapist, and it stayed in that period. It ends in 1979.


Street: From a writer’s perspective, that’s a really interesting angle on the progress of a character and story; when we start something, it can actually become something completely different.

McGrath: When I start writing, I know I’m going to go down a blind alley. But in the process of going down that blind alley, something will occur to me and I’ll strike out on a new path, which will inevitably turn out to be a blind alley also, but in turn will arouse an idea that seems more promising than the previous idea and the one before that. Eventually—after maybe a year—I will find the central theme.

Street: Trauma deals with some incredibly intense inner-psychological episodes; Charlie Weir, the protagonist of the novel, is a psychiatrist who is fairly ineffective at helping either his patients or himself. Do you think we, as writers and creative people, can overcome the traumas of our childhoods? Should we try therapy to overcome them and use them to our benefit?

McGrath: I don’t know. I am very reluctant to have any sort of psychotherapy. I have that rather superstitious notion that if I start tinkering with my mind I’ll lose whatever it is that spurs my imagination. But then I don’t feel that I’m particularly badly damaged. If my life were a miserable one and I was unable to work because I had psychological issues of one sort or another, I think I’d want to deal with whatever was wrong. But it isn’t.

Street: Charlie says, “I no longer regard my life as possessing unlimited potential, or any at all,” but as the tale progresses he seems to be constantly grasping for hope and redemption. Could you speak about your motivation here.

McGrath: He is a man who consistently fails to find joy or make a successful relationship. He’s an emotionally stunted man, and what I wanted was to give him the very symptoms of the people that he helped; in other words, I wanted to make him the portrait of the traumatized individual. He’s able to help others but unable to help himself, which is often the case in the medical profession.

Street: What is your method of creating a novel? Do you have the story and character in mind before you begin, or does that come about during the research process?

McGrath: I tend to start writing with the full knowledge that I’m going to be going down blind alleys, throwing away many ideas on the way. There seems to be a lot of waste involved, but it’s the only way I can move toward the idea that’ll enable me to construct a lengthy narrative. I can only get to it by those roundabout routes. I begin on the slimmest of pretexts.

The book I’m currently writing began only with the Hudson River. I just wanted to put a character in a house beside the Hudson and see what happened, so I did. I built a house that sat on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. I put a man inside that house, and I gave him a daughter; then I gave him a wife—no, then I took away his wife. I actually made his wife a ghost. She’d died, and she was haunting him in a rather pleasant way, and from that basis, I began to write. Nothing survived of that first notion apart from the house on the Hudson. The man disappeared, the ghost of his wife disappeared—and then something else came to life, and that became the basis of the novel. And the research constantly suggested ideas, but I tended to not find what I thought I was looking for. As I looked into the sort of old houses that you get up there, I’d find material that I wasn’t looking for. But it was often far more interesting than what I was actually looking for, and in this way serendipity provided me stuff I didn’t know I was looking for. That’s kind of how I go about it.

Street: You wrote a wonderful story in Ghost Town called “Ground Zero” about the fall of the Twin Towers and their effect on your character Danny Silver. Do you have any thoughts on the changes we’ve seen both socially and politically in the decade since the attack and how it’s affected writing?

McGrath: That’s a very rich and interesting question. The Hudson River book I just talked about actually took on the form, after a couple of years, of a novel set in the aftermath of 9/11. I wanted to show the collapse of a marriage resulting from the political differences that arose between the husband and wife. I was thinking of the idea that I developed to an extent in “Ground Zero,” where the psychiatrist, in response to the attacks, starts to move toward the right, politically, and her patient, the lawyer, moves toward the left. She becomes xenophobic and develops an acute fear of strangers. She also becomes racist in her approach to the Asian- American woman that her patient begins an affair with. The lawyer becomes much more sexually liberated after 9/11—as though he understood that we have no great control over the larger events around us and, therefore, he might as well get on with his life as joyfully as he possibly can. He’s liberated by 9/11.

What happens in the novel I then began to write—where I wanted to explore this notion of how our politics changed in different ways in the wake of 9/11—was that a husband and wife lose the ability to resolve their differences. He becomes more and more right wing, in the sense that he justifies everything that the Bush administration does in the name of national security. But his wife becomes angrier and angrier at what the administration is doing; she mistrusts them, and she doesn’t believe in the justifications employed for going into Iraq. She becomes intensely critical of the Bush people. Oh, there was scandal after scandal, as I’m sure you remember! Like when the state attorneys were being fired because they failed to toe the administration line, the Patriot Act, the searches and seizures, military officers with assault weapons in airports and train stations, the torture, et cetera. In that period I was quite exhausted by constantly being outraged. I’d watch Keith Olbermann on MSNBC nightly, and my wife and I would be shouting at the television, and at one point I thought, how fortunate that we are shouting in harmony here.

So I imagined a couple that had very different reactions, and tried to imagine how the events of that period tore them apart. I wanted to personalize two very distinct ideas: national security justifying the loss of civil liberties, and nothing justifying the loss of our civil liberties.

Street: Your novel Spider was made into a movie directed by David Cronenberg, starring Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson. What was it like to go from novelist to screenwriter, and what did you take away from that experience?

It was a very difficult book to adapt, because it is all about the private experience of a man suffering from schizophrenia. He spends most of his time alone scribbling in this little notebook. When the idea first came up, I thought, This is a fool’s errand. This is a quest that will go absolutely nowhere. But I wrote the script, and I used a great deal of voiceover and flashback. I was able to get some drama from the childhood. It starts in the home of an unhappily married plumber and his wife. The plumber is having a rather torrid affair with a local prostitute. So I was able to dramatize all that, but, in the end, I had the problem of a solitary man.

Somehow or other I got a script together. And what happened then was one of the most pleasant and rewarding episodes of my life. It lasted about five years. The script got onto the desk of David Cronenberg, and he immediately came to see me, and we worked on it together. He basically told me to take out all the voiceover. He had me cutting out scenes here, there and everywhere. Simplicity was better. He taught me so much about actual storytelling in terms of the screen- play. By the end, we had a very, very small script. It was about fifty pages.

Street: Ralph Fiennes was incredible in the film.

McGrath: Ralph had seen the script five years earlier and said to me, “Whenever this is getting made, let me know, and I will reorganize my life. That role is mine. Don’t forget.” So when we got Cronenberg on board, and they met each other for the first time. It was all a little bit intense because, you know, if they didn’t get along, it wasn’t going to happen. But after about two minutes, it was clear: all was well.

Street: Don’t scripts usually average around one hundred and twenty pages?

McGrath: Yes. It seemed really thin, but he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll film slow.” And then I got to watch him at work. I’d show up on the set, and he’d say, “Ah Christ, here comes the fucking writer again…” I do think he was joking. I hope so. I’d watch him, and he was so professional, so savvy. There was no sense of chaos or stress, conflict or urgency. As I watched him, I knew that I was witnessing a master at work, and I knew too that the film that came out of it would not be inferior to the novel, which is often the case. Most films don’t do the novel justice.

Street: Your book Martha Peake has a monster-like character, Harry Peake, the poet and performer known as The Cripplegate Monster. You do seem to get the gothic moniker every once in a while, and I wonder what you think of the current trend of literary monster mash-ups like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

McGrath: I recently went out and bought Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, because I thought it was a very funny idea. Actually, there are some very good jokes in it. I suppose it’s an amusing idea, but I’m a little disappointed that the gothic has permeated popular culture at the moment as widely as it has, and that vampires are so terribly chic. I rather liked it when the gothic was still sort of a fringe interest of a small, weird and rather disturbed minority.

Street: How do you feel when book clubs ask to compare the stylistic and thematic parallels between Martha Peake with books such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Bleak House?

McGrath: I’m rather flattered. I’m delighted. I knew when I started the book that I wanted to have lots and lots of narrative and tell a busy story with many characters and set it in the eighteenth century. Dickens started in the nineteenth century, of course, but he did have a couple of novels set in the eighteenth century. Barnaby Rudge, for example, was set in the 1770s. So I was in a Dickensian mood for the four years I worked on Martha Peake, and when I wrote my characters, I tended to do them in what I felt was a Dickensian manner, with just two distinctive traits. It was a welcome break from my usual twisted neurotic characters, who are deeply emotionally internalized. It was great fun to do, very enjoyable.

Street: Which of your novels would you recommend to our aspiring writers and readers to read in hopes of honing their craft?

McGrath: Concerning the craft, I would certainly say my novel Asylum for its exploration of relationships. The story came to me very quickly, and I was very happy with the way it unfolded. It happened in twelve chapters and over the course of one year. It begins with a dance; it ends with a dance. A great reversal occurs in the heroine’s fortunes; there is a passionate love affair and an interesting love triangle. And the narrator turns out to be the most unreliable of fellows. Everything I knew about writing novels managed to find its way into that one.

Street: At 12th Street, we think quite a bit about the writer’s place in the world. One of the questions we ask ourselves is whether a writer can also be part politician or part activist. Do you find writing to be a political act, a way to facilitate a connection between the writer and the world?

McGrath: The only writing I’m really interested in is writing that has some sort of moral significance. I’m interested in how human beings deal with one another, how they take responsibility for one another, or not. And what happens to the children, most vulnerable of all. I’m interested in how moral and amoral beings interact with each other. To the extent that that can be described as political, then I think writing is political.

As activists, I think writers have the same responsibility as everybody else.

We do our work in our studies, and when we emerge from our studies we bear the same responsibilities as every other citizen. I’m following Orwell here. He said of writers’ political motivations that they should have the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after… The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Just because you’re a writer, it doesn’t mean you don’t share the same responsibilities as everybody else. You participate in the social order, in sustaining democratic principles. If you start neglecting that, then the rights and the freedoms you enjoy are jeopardized.


Author: Liz Axelrod

Poet, Writer, Book Reviewer, Social Justice Advocate. Moon Goddess.

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