Novelist Patrick McGrath on Writing, Setting, and Psychology

06/10/2013 02:15 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

Patrick McGrath is a convivial sort. Pushing hair from his eyes with a smile, he'll have you seated, snug, and sipping tea on the couch before you've had a chance to say hello. He's a man who loves a joke and laughs easily; it's difficult to imagine him underdressed. One does, however, imagine sightseeing with Patrick to be a chore. Point out a placid canoe-filled expanse of lakefront brimming with delightful lily pads, and he is as likely to point out an excellent place to dump a pallid and bloated body.

But McGrath's morbidity is only one glinting side of the many-surfaced stone that is his body of work. At times, reading him calls to mind sitting in on a friend having their fortune told by a psychic, the outlook not being particularly good. His ability to slowly betray a character's secrets and obsessions feels dangerously close to a devil's compact.

His latest novel focuses on Constance Schulyer, a chilly woman in 1960s New York who marries early, and is troubled often. Her new husband, Sidney Klein--a professor of romantic poetry--has great hopes for Constance and revels in the opportunity to "improve her," and his marital track record. But with a disclosure from her father that confirms Constance's deep, longstanding fears, the façade of careful grace built in opposition to her family begins to fracture, along with her delicate psyche.

We discussed the work from Patrick's apartment in the financial district, drinking tea while a wet, unpredicted snow fell beyond the windows onto the empty New York City streets fourteen stories below.

How did you come to Constance?

By a very circuitous route. I started the novel about five years ago and it was a very different creature then. All I had in my imagination was a house up the Hudson River. So it's one of those books that was written from the basis of location. I've done that occasionally. I wrote a book that was inspired by Belize City, Port Mungo. This time the Hudson was the inspiration--I find it rather magnificent.

I think this came about because of the Hudson Valley painters, the artists of the Hudson River School. I admired their work enormously, and thought I'd like to spend some time up the Hudson, situate a novel there.

What sorts of stories, I wondered, get told in the Hudson Valley? I thought of ghosts. I thought of Washington Irving. It's apparently a much haunted part of the country. So I invented a house, and then a family, a father, two daughters, the elder being Constance. Then I looked for the incident that would move this story forward. It was a discovery by Constance regarding her paternity.

Then the decision was made to have that revelation come when she was already grown up, when she was in her mid-twenties. Constance was not a very secure young woman, largely because of the very uncomfortable and distant relationship she'd had with her father.

And I thought then that if this development occurs, if the father, who is beginning to suffer the first symptoms of dementia, and becoming a little uninhibited, and making mistakes, if he lets something out which has always been a very closely guarded family secret--this throws Constance into turmoil and has damaging effects on her marriage and her relationship with her sister. So the story began to come together in the wake of her discovery regarding her paternity.

Are you comfortable writing about the US at this point? How do you decide where to set a book, in work like yours where mood and milieu are of such critical importance? How well do you have to know a place to write it, if at all?

I wrote five books all set in England, but all written here in New York. And I just grew weary of imagining an England. I wanted to reflect on America and on New York City--this was when I was writing Martha Peake--I was also applying for citizenship at that time and reading widely in the history of the American Revolution.

I'd loved New York practically since the minute I set foot here. I wanted to express those feelings. I talked about America first in Martha Peake, then I began to set more of my stories in New York, as I had the opportunity, as I did later with the Hudson Valley and Belize City, to describe the world in which I lived and in which I loved living. I was able to get out and do streets and cabs and crowds and restaurants and so forth.

With this one--I don't know where this idea came from--but the destruction of the old Penn Station had always felt to me like one of the great tragic mistakes in the history of New York. So again, it was a fortuitous thing that I could set the novel during the period in which that great railroad station was destroyed because, of course, all my characters would need to pass through it in order to go up the Hudson River.

And as I began to read about the demolition of Penn Station, I discovered that it was never closed, that even as they tore it down people were still buying tickets, waiting for trains, getting on trains, arriving off of trains. This portal, the point of entry into Manhattan, was a demolition site. And it was a terrible act of demolition, it was an act of vandalism.

I realized that my characters would be constantly in that station and the demolition would reflect their own psychic breakdown--and here's that gothic dynamic again--the ruin of Penn Station would mirror what was occurring in the breakdown of relationships amongst the characters.

And, of course, once I'd started thinking about trains and railway lines, and the Albany train that runs up the Hudson, right by the river--for somebody like me it's hard to think of a railway line without thinking of someone walking in front of a train. It's hard to for me to think of a great river without somebody falling in it and drowning. So I thought my god, I've created a place that's great for death. I'm going to kill off a lot of my people without going anywhere else!

There is a quote from Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger, that I first came across in your friend Lynne Tillman's Haunted Houses. I think of this often, sometimes in relation to work that examines pathology. The quote is: "Only a beginner believes that those who create feel."

Because of your background, growing up with a father who was the medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital--and growing up near the grounds of that psychiatric institution--have you struggled with readers who assumed an element of autobiography? Those who were disgusted, or contrarily, too delighted in your representations?

Let me see. Most people who write about my books bring up the fact that psychiatrists are always involved. This may actually be the first book of mine without a psychiatrist in it. But readers make that connection, and it's a fair connection to make. If you've grown up with a psychiatrist for a father, it's very easy to keep drifting back to these men and women who spend their lives doing what novelists do. That is: trying to figure out why people do the things they do.

I'm thinking, as we talk, about people's response to this book, and of one remark that came in a recent review. The reviewer said that Constance was a deeply unpleasant woman, and that it was incredible that a character like Sidney should attempt to save her, because she's not worth saving. I have to say that I read that and thought: how did I get under that person's skin so very deeply? To say such a thing about a fictional creation is, I think, sort of odd.

There are all sorts of ways to come at a book and criticize it and dislike it, but to say that a character is not worth saving strikes me as indicating that you've become morally engaged to a dangerous degree.

Which is great for me! I think she really hates this character; she sat there reading with real anger. I'm assuming this writer was a woman but I don't know why I should think that. But I imagine her turning the pages and growing more and more furious. How could Constance carry on like this? She ought to be whipped!

As for "only a beginner believes that to create you have to feel"--yeah, how true. We're very cold. We're craftsmen. We just want to make it right.

There is a quite lovely passage in the book; it might be my favorite sentence. "It's not the dead who haunt us, but the empty space they leave inside us with their secrets, the crypt." Sort of pulling off of the last question, the book is filled with mysterious unrevealed, but suspected elements of childhood. In other words, secrets, and how to make sense of them.

Did you grow up with secrets? I'm now unjustly assuming autobiographical influence.

Yes. The big secret that has come into my work concerns the novel Asylum. There was a short period--I was about ten years old--when something happened at Broadmoor that I was never informed about.

I remember going into rooms and the grownups falling silent. Which of course is guaranteed to provoke the curiosity of a child. All I could find out however was that whatever it was it involved the wife of a psychiatrist and one of the patients. I never learned any more about it and I somehow forgot to get the full story from my dad. He's dead now, so there's no hope of ever finding out.

In about 1995 I was casting around for a story for my next book and it came back to me. I thought, I was never told that story; whatever happened around that time was kept a secret from me. But I can now deal with that secret by creating the story that I was never told because I was too young.

Presumably some sort of impropriety, sexual impropriety had occurred. The minute that occurred to me, I thought my god, that's an incredibly powerful kind of triangle: a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist's patient, the psychiatrist's wife. The implications go way beyond just a simple case of adultery.

So that was the secret, it wasn't a family secret, but I suppose it was a professional secret. But in regard to any more intimate or personal secret, no, not that I'm aware of.

What I've been reading about lately is a branch of psychoanalysis that looks at the trauma that can occur when there's a child from whom secrets are kept, vital information that has traumatized the parent--when that information is withheld. I believe a lot of work has been done with the children of Holocaust survivors who don't speak of what happened, and yet their children suffer some of the same symptoms of trauma their parents do. The theory suggests that a dead space forms in the child's mind where that suppressed information ought to go. Within this strain of psychoanalytic thinking the terminology is very interesting.

The dead space is referred to as the crypt. The phenomenon is referred to as haunting--trans-generational haunting--and that which is being withheld, the secret, the family secret--is called the phantom. So it's an entirely gothic terminology that attaches to this phenomenon.

I was learning about this over the last few years while writing the story of Constance, and I began to see that it could well explain what was wrong with Constance. Something vital was withheld--so I decided I should expose the family secret in the middle of the novel--which I do--and it's connected to the whole paternity issue. And Constance recognizes her trauma in these terms, she refers to that part of her mind as a crypt. Men think she's aloof, mysterious, intriguing. No. She's empty, at those moments. She's in the dead space, she's in the crypt.

You mentioned your citizenship, the attraction of America, have you found being an expatriate valuable as a writer?

Yes, I think so. That's a good question. I think there are advantages and disadvantages.

One of the disadvantages is you never actually really know what it's like to be a native. I can try and try, but I'll never know what it's like to grow up in America. So that is not available to me. I'll always be in some sense an amateur American. That's what I am, an amateur American.

But on the other hand it's liberating. I've found that I feel more free to tell stories about America--and Americans--because I'm somewhat marginalized by being from elsewhere. I think if I was, let's say, living in London, and writing stories about London, and from London--and I was born in London--I feel that I'd be inhibited in some way. It would all be a little bit too close at hand, too suffocating.

I think I tend to set my stories in the past for the same sorts of reasons. I don't want to be held accountable for some picture of life as we know it in the here and now, I like to get that bit of distance so I can work my canvas without somehow having to account for the realities of the world in the 21st-century.

James Joyce, he was going to "forge in the smithy of his soul the conscience of his race"--and the way he was going to do it was through silence, cunning, and exile. I do think exile is a large part of it. Joyce wrote about Ireland from elsewhere, from Trieste, Paris, all over Europe--he shifted around constantly--but having left Dublin, he never returned. Yet he wrote modernist masterpieces largely set in Dublin in the early 20th-century.

I think exile will certainly work for a writer, by allowing him the distance, the detachment, to work without being distracted by the uproar of the present.