Ahead of the McCabe/McGrath/Murphy summit in Borris House on Sunday, our interview with Patrick McGrath, conducted in July 2008, soon after the publication of his novel Trauma.
Confessions of A Dangerous Mind
Since his short story collection Blood and Water and Other Tales was published in 1989, Englishman-in-New-York Patrick McGrath has proved himself the most distinguished practitioner of the modern gothic since Angela Carter.
More than that, one can read McGrath’s canon – particularly Spider, Asylum, Port Mungo and his current chiller Trauma – as a map of the murky fens of psychopathology, a dark continent populated by unreliable narrators, sociopathic painters, lone schizophrenics and ethically-challenged practitioners of the psychiatric arts. Put simply, McGrath has, over the course of his 20-year writing career, joined the dots between Poe and Freud.
“Well, there’s a way of reading Poe in which you see him as one of the direct predecessors of Freud,” the author says over coffee in a Dublin hotel on a warm July morning, “and a way of reading Freud in which he is continuing the project. You see it in Poe and Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde and the other great 19th century writers of gothic stories. They’re all, in a way, dealing with the structure of the unconscious mind: Stevenson with the double, and there’s flashes of it in Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, this fascination with obsession and guilt and the double self.”
McGrath is in Dublin to promote his latest novel Trauma, but we first met four years ago when he was on the publicity trail for Port Mungo. Over dinner, his perfect manners and avuncular disposition seemed entirely at odds with his chosen subject matter. But mental disorder is very much the McGrath family business: throughout Patrick’s childhood his father served as chief pyschiatrist at Broadmoor Hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire.
“My father talked endlessly about insanity,” he recalls. “I was his first born, and he was proud, and a bit of a show-off too, he’d taken on a big job there. He was the man who was going to come in and drive this huge asylum into the 20th century. It was basically custodial when he went in, I think there were 500 patients and one psychiatrist and the rest of the staff attendants. This was a place that, in the mid-19th century, the Victorians in their zeal and confidence thought there was no problem – engineering, colonial, social, medical – that they couldn’t solve, had set it out really properly, thinking through the problems of mental illness.
“And that confidence and enlightenment had long since faded and decayed, so that by the 20th century an institution that was probably the best at thinking about mental health until the 1860s had really just turned into a holding tank for people that they didn’t know what to do with. These people were clearly not criminal in the sense that they were mad when they committed their crimes, but as to the treatment of them, there had been no fresh ideas. But ideas were beginning to emerge in the ’50s, new forms of medication which meant you didn’t have to wrap people in straitjackets and keep them chained in their cells 24 hours a day.
“So my father as a youngish man was at the cutting edge of new thinking in psychiatry, and he brought that energy into making it his life’s work to reform this place. And he talked about it with great passion to his children, and long before I could really understand what he was telling me, I was absorbing details of his work, but also catching his fierceness and enthusiasm for this project. I think that made a deep, deep impression, because it was the first strong message of the world I was living in, what my dad was up to behind those high walls. And that was probably the best childhood that a novelist could hope to have, and when I did start to write, it shouldn’t have surprised me that up bubbled this fascination with extreme mental disturbance.”
Except this fascination manifested itself in the realm of fiction rather than psychiatry.
“As a teenager I wanted to write,” he says, “and somehow or another you get persuaded that it’s an irresponsible romantic dream, that it’ll amount to nothing, and you get to thinking about something else. So I did schoolteaching and various other things, and none of it worked out, and in my late 20s I went back to the dream. There was nothing to lose anymore, so I declared myself a fiction writer and just got on with it.”
How long did his writing apprenticeship last?
“It was probably seven years ’til I got the first collection published, Blood And Water, I was about 37 when that came out. It’s hard to know what you know at 23 really. I knew nothing. Nothing. I didn’t know that with any confidence I could take the reader by the lapel and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve made of my life so far, read this.’ Even when I started at 29, I remember telling a friend of mine, and he said, ‘You’ve got something to say have you?’ And I remember thinking, ‘Do you have to have something to say then? I don’t think I do yet, really, but I’ll think of something!’”
A little life experience proved grist to the mill. Around the time he started to write, McGrath also began a relationship with an artist that led him to New York, a development that presaged the opening chapters of Port Mungo.
“She was Hungarian and we met in Amsterdam in 1979 and moved to New York together a couple of years later,” he recounts. “And through her I got to know what little I know about art and also had some nodding acquaintance with the New York art world of the 1980s, the New York that was very excitable, there was a lot of money around, and this era of neo-expressionism (described in Port Mungo) would have found a home. Basquiat, a number of Italian and German painters swept into New York in the early 80s with big wide canvases.”
McGrath has returned to the New York cityscape many times since then, most recently for the short story cycle Ghost Town (2005) and the current Trauma. But one of my favourite McGrath yarns is ‘The Angel’ from Blood and Water, the fable of an encounter with an immortal old world dandy, set in the rank, garbage-strewn streets of late 70s downtown New York. It’s a tale that contrasts figurative decadence with the actual urban decay of the city in summer.
“I was very happy with that story,” McGrath says. “I was living on the Bowery at one stage and that’s very much how I was experiencing New York at the time, sweating through those hot summers, couldn’t afford to get out of the city, and there were all these curious creatures, men like The Angel – you saw Quentin Crisp every day on the streets.”
McGrath’s debut novel The Grotesque (published in 1989, later adapted to film by John-Paul Davidson), was a wry and wicked updating of the classic 19th century gothic template, but 1990’s Spider (filmed a decade later by David Cronenberg, starring Ralph Fiennes) was his first major work, reflecting a burgeoning preoccupation with the horrors of psychiatric disorder, particularly schizophrenia.
“Once I realised the story was being told by a man of such severe disturbance that he could only be schizophrenic, I then knew the problem that I faced,” McGrath admits. “And I quailed. I thought, ‘My god, I’ve got to write this first person voice of a man suffering from schizophrenia who’s unmedicated. This is only my second novel, I don’t think I’m up to it. Who else has done this? Nobody’s done this. It’s crazy to take it on.’
“But being young and foolish, I sort of squared my shoulders and said, ‘Well, how do you attack this? How do you render the psychotic experience, which is by nature chaotic, incoherent, non-sequential, illogical, into the form of a novel, which is the opposite of all those things. A novel has to be coherent, you have to have some idea of what’s happening.”
How did he go about researching the character of Spider?
“I had some experience, I’d worked in a mental hospital in Canada, and I began to read some case histories and memoirs of people who suffered from schizophrenia and so on. And at that point I knew what my character looked like, I’d spotted him shambling along on a London street, he looked like Samuel Beckett, and I said, ‘That’s the man.’ It then became then very much a technical problem of keeping this whole mindset of symptomatic terrors, delusions, obsessions, fixations and so on, so I constructed a delusional system to do with gas, gasworks, bits of string and rope and webs, and slowly put together the elements in the process of having him tell his story.”
Spider is quite a harrowing read in parts. What was McGrath’s state of mind while writing the book?
“In a curious way it was less emotionally fraught than you might think. I wasn’t feeling his pain so much as I was working hard to render his confusion with as much plausibility as I could, and yet ensuring that it remained comprehensible to the reader, so that the reader wasn’t thrown back in despair at having to confront Spider’s chaos. And that really was a technical rather than an emotional ordeal.”
Still, the character so affected actor Ralph Fiennes that when he received McGrath’s own screenplay adaptation, he attached himself to the part before any of the financing deals were in place.
“I’d written a rough draft, quite a different thing from what David Cronenberg finally took on,” the writer explains. “But Ralph read it in a night and committed himself to it about five years before it was filmed. He kept in touch with Catherine Bailey, a producer, and she was as doggedly committed to it as he was. He would phone her every few months and say, ‘Listen, I’m about to go off and do Schindler’s List,’ or, ‘I’m about to go off and do The English Patient – don’t make Spider while I’m gone!’ So when we were ready to go, he was there. He knew that he was the only person who could play that role, and I think he was right.”
Cronenberg, a director who seems to relish filming apparently unfilmable books (Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Ballard’s Crash) seized on the story as soon as he read it.
“He took my script and did what he wanted with it quite shamelessly and unapologetically, and I was delighted about that,” McGrath says. “You very happily abdicate when David Cronenberg’s at work. He wasn’t translating a book to the screen; he was making his own freestanding work of art.”
A work of art that, surprisingly enough, eschewed the more obviously Cronenbergian body-horror elements for an almost theatrical atmosphere, set in the dank and musty streets of 1960s East End London.
“Isn’t that funny? When he came on board, I thought, well, of course, spiders in his insides, a foetus in a milk bottle and all kinds of grisly body imagery, body grotesquerie, body horror. And then to my surprise and delight he said, ‘This is a psychological movie, we’re going to have no special effects with Spider opening up his skin and showing us the appalling state of his innards.’”
Spider was a critical hit but did no more than arthouse business at the box office, a fate which seems to befall most screen versions of McGrath’s books. His 1996 novel Asylum – the story of the bored wife of a psychiatrist who begins an illicit affair with a psychopathic inmate, and the book many consider his finest – was also made into a 2005 film directed by David Mackenzie, starring Natasha Richardson. No less than Stephen King wrote an unfilmed version of the screenplay, the only unoriginal adaptation he’s ever done. Has McGrath met the maestro?
“I haven’t. I called him on the phone. He did me a great favour once when I was trying to get a Green Card and I was having a bit of difficulty because I was busted for grass years ago in Canada. I had this immigration lawyer and she said, ‘Do you know anyone famous in the literary world?’ And I said, ‘I’ve heard that Stephen King likes my stuff.’ So she said, ‘Write to him.’ So I wrote a letter to Stephen King explaining my dilemma, and back came the most wonderful glowing letter recommending that the immigration service welcome me into America because I’d be an asset, it was the most generous thing.
“So my lawyer was presenting this folder of references and transcripts and god knows what, and she put this right up at the front, before you even opened the flap inside the file, there was the letter. And she said, ‘They won’t know anyone else, but they’ll all know who Stephen King is. That’ll get you a Green Card.’ And I believe that’s what did. It says a lot about America and about Stephen King.”
McGrath’s fascination with America was a major influence on his 2001 novel Martha Peake – A Novel Of The Revolution, an ambitious work that migrated from Cornwall to colonial Massachusetts. But 2004’s Port Mungo was a return to more modernist territory: the tale of an artist, Jack Rathbone, who drags his family from New York to the tropics, where he becomes obsessed with ‘malarial’ paintings while his wife and daughter all but run wild.
In that book’s acknowledgments, McGrath wrote: “No man is an island apparently, but by the middle if a book most writers get to feeling distinctly peninsular. In this we are deluded. We go into the room alone, and we stay in the room alone, but what happens there to a great extent depends on the web of support we enjoy outside the room.”
“I think as you get older you try and suppress the ghoulish aspects of your behaviour and remember that there are other people who live with you in this house,” McGrath explains, “and if you sustain this anti-social, obsessive, self-absorbed state because you’re creating something, then you become a nightmare to live with. And I think I, and a lot of the other writers I know, manage in the end not to be a complete nightmare when they emerge, they learn how to cut off the work outside the room. But Jack is somebody who never troubled to learn that, and allowed that self-absorption to smoulder into a narcissism that became pathological and produced the most terrible consequences for those about him, most particularly his daughter.
“I think it’s often the case that an artist that isn’t really cutting it will behave like the mad genius, possibly because the frustration and failure fuel the impulse to behave irresponsibly, to assume the right of the artist and trample roughshod over the people around them. Jack behaves as though he’s had the dispensation that genius brings. Society says we give you dispensation to behave beyond normal moral standards, but what you have to do to earn that is produce some good work. If you assume the dispensation and don’t produce the work, you’ve not fulfilled your part of the agreement. And it’s by no means the case that the great artist is necessarily going to behave with cruelty to those around them.”
And so we segue from narcissistic artists to physicians incapable of healing themselves, never mind their patients. Trauma, McGrath’s seventh and current novel, is narrated by Charles Weir, a damaged and dissociative psychiatrist who bungles the treatment of his brother-in-law Danny, a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Thematically, the new book investigates the disruptive potential of suppressed memories, and much like its predecessor, suggests that one’s own family might be more terrifying than any supernatural agency. It also explores the charged dynamic between doctor and patient. The spark for the story, McGrath says, was the realisation that many shrinks have a history of dysfunction in their own families.
“What really got the book going was meeting a psychiatrist who talked in exactly these terms,” he says. “Most of the psychiatrists he knew had gone into that line of work because they’d felt they’d failed their mothers. I didn’t trust that idea at first, and I checked it out with another shrink, and he said, ‘Oh yes, it’s the case.’ And what happens when the psychiatrist, who is presumed to have knowledge and sympathy and objectivity and wisdom, doesn’t? Incompetent would be the word for Charlie Weir. But in the past I did a psychiatrist in Asylum, whose agenda was a lot less benign than mere incompetence, and his own needs were manipulative and destructive.”
Trauma often seems to depict the psyche as a sort of haunted house containing malign objects – repressed memories – that need to be hauled up from the dank basement of the subconscious and aired on the front lawn before they can be reintegrated into the structure of the household.
“Well, that would be at the very heart of the treatment of trauma,” McGrath points out, “to get that memory out from under where it’s festering, as you say, out onto the table, where the next step is to try and assimilate it into the operating consciousness of the patient.”
Except one of the impediments to this process is that the damaged are hardwired to seek out and replicate situations they’ve experienced during childhood, no matter how unhealthy.
“Yes. A book I’m reading at the moment is by a German psychoanalyst, Alice Miller, The Drama Of the Gifted Child, and she’s very good on exactly this. And the image that she comes up with is that of a mirror; the infant is looking for a mirror of itself in the mother’s eyes, and in most cases finds it, the mother has as much tenderness and love for the child as the child requires, and so the child becomes validated and confident as a result. But if it’s not there, she says, then the child will spend the rest of his or her life looking for that mooring, and that will be a difficult quest, because nobody can provide what the mother provides in those early years.”
Did she posit a solution?
“Psychoanalysis basically. Bringing the person back to that initial experience of loss. Trauma, even. And allowing the patient to become clear that that is why they do what they do, and then, presumably armed with that insight, can stop going round in circles and repeating the same fruitless patterns.”
If the shrink occupies a position in secular society analogous to that of the priest in religious communities, one is naturally led to speculate as to what happens when that position of trust and authority is betrayed.
“It’s quite shattering for those who’ve invested so much in that authority,” McGrath affirms. “And it’s interesting that the Americans I think are going through a similar thing now, in the sense that they’ve all awoken to the fact that the presidency has failed them, and what do they do now, apart from replace the president? There’ve been calls for a sort of Truth & Reconciliation committee to be set up once Bush is out of office, as was the case in South Africa and Czechoslovakia. As they moved to a more open regime it was necessary to examine what had gone wrong and who was responsible for it.
“Whether this will be taken up, I doubt it, Obama has made no suggestion that he’s interested in such a thing, but nevertheless it does speak to the extent to which the people were failed by an authority. They do want to trust the president, and it’s traumatic to find that that trust is misplaced and betrayed.”
And chief among the betrayed are the war veterans, characters like Danny in Trauma, or troops dumped in Iraq for up to three tours of duty with inadequate funding or training. Interesting that Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure and Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stared At Goats both portrayed Abu Ghraib in terms not far removed from the stuff of McGrath’s novels – a cursed space.
“Like one of Ballard’s psychotropic buildings,” McGrath observes. “It puts a chill up my back when you say that. And that would make sense of those calls that one has heard over the past few years about Abu Ghraib and Guantanemo – they should just pull them down, raze them to the ground, clear off all of the bad mouldering evil that is still lingering in those halls.”
In Trauma, Danny is haunted not just by the atrocities he’s witnessed, but those he’s committed. He feels his participation in such terrible acts have effectively banished him from humanity.
“There was one key book that I read about the Vietnam Vets and the therapy that they got when they came back,” McGrath says, “a book called Home From The War by Robert Jay Lifton, and I believe I picked up that fact in there, that soldiers who had become so dehumanised by the horror of what they’d experienced in war, there was no transgression they didn’t commit.
“We know that they would go berserk in battle and violate the bodies of their enemies, and there is a hint in Robert Jay Lifton’s book that they went further than that, that it went not just to destroying the body, but that primal and most primitive impulse, which is to ingest your enemy, so as to take on his strength or whatever. And it’s so deep in our hardwiring that it just takes layers and layers of inhibition and civilisation to be torn away to get to that primal urge to devour the enemy, and that had in fact happened.
“So it wasn’t merely passive horror, or a horrified reaction to stuff that was happening in front of them, it was as much what they had been driven to do, and then to come away from the heat of battle to sit wherever and reflect on what they’d participated in, and that’s where the trauma will come from, where the overwhelming suicidal guilt will come from: ‘I did that to innocent women and children, the bodies of the dead.’ So the soldier will be implicated in the horror, not merely witness to the horror. And that’s something that hadn’t occurred to me.”
Hence the high statistics of veterans numbing themselves with hard drugs or alcohol.
“Indeed. It’s one thing for them to come back and say, ‘That war should never have been fought’, or ‘I should never have been sent out to fight it’, but when you compound that with, ‘I contributed to the horror out there, I am guilty’, then it’s a much more complicated psychological problem, because the guy can’t simply displace the responsibility onto the US government, or bad foreign policy, or Richard Nixon. It’s coming right back at him.
“That does make it much more believable that such a high proportion of these men should be suicidal and medicating themselves with street drugs and booze and whatever else. Interestingly, what emerges in Home From The War is it was the vets who went looking for the shrink, not vice versa. The VA offered them nothing. I think something a little more is being offered to the Iraq vets, but I don’t think it’s much. So they’re going back to little towns in Appalachia, where they’re sitting brooding, there’s often some disastrous fallout of men turning their guns on their families and then themselves.”
Given that he’s essentially a supporting character, Danny is the most most resonant presence in Trauma. One suspects the act of researching this character has opened up fertile new fictional terrain for McGrath.
“I’m trying at the moment to write a book set in America now, about the collapse of authority and the disillusion and dismay and apathy and despair of a people who have lost faith and are living in an atmosphere of betrayal and lies,” he says. “It feels, as we get to the end of the Bush period, that there’s a possibility of emerging from shadows, a sort of Orwellian place where what is coming out of the White House is never credible.
“As I say, counteracting that is the people’s real desire to trust their president, to look to their president as a sort of father figure, and it’s very hard to let go of that. It’s easier for me who came from elsewhere, or for New Yorkers who are cynical and don’t have that simple faith that has been eroded severely. It would be interesting to return to this theme of the damage that’s done as it manifests. There’s a line in the book that seemed to sum it up, and it wasn’t entirely my own thought, but it was phrased something like, ‘The irony was that serving your country rendered you unfit to be its citizen.’ So that’s an idea that I’d quite like to come back to and develop some more. This is the time; it’s happening again.”
Ahead of next Sunday’s Borris House talk with Patrick McCabe and Patrick McGrath, I’ll be publishing a couple of interviews from the archives. First up, our interview with Mr McCabe from December 2006, shortly after the publication of Winterwood.
‘Winterwood’ is Patrick McCabe’s darkest book to date – and that’s saying something for a man who’s written ‘The Butcher Boy’, ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ (both Booker-nominated, both filmed by Neil Jordan), ‘The Dead School’ and a ream of short stories with titles like ‘The Bursted Priest’ and ‘I Ordained The Devil’. It’s also his best since ‘The Butcher Boy’, the 1993 classic whose scatological first person narrative welded black midlands humour to lurid comic strips, Irish balladry, Huckleberry Finn and ‘A Clockwork Orange’. That book’s impact was roughly analogous to ‘Trainspotting’ in the UK; it became the dragon any young Irish writer with a taste for the dark stuff had to slay – or at least circumnavigate –before gaining admittance to the literary crypt. If McCabe were any lesser a talent, he might’ve been condemned to spending the rest of his career trying to match it.
But ‘Winterwood’ opens up new territory for the Clones writer. His first book to explore the realm of the uncanny (a latent but never explicit element in his previous works) it tells the story of Redmond Hatch, a journalist and historian who becomes enthralled, obsessed and eventually possessed by the character of Ned ‘Pappie’ Strange, a yarn-spinning, shape-shifting hillbilly fiddler from the west. The insidiously creepy storyline tracks Hatch’s decline from devoted (if deluded) family man to a ghostly semi-alcoholic loner whose mental stability deteriorates even as his fortunes are reversed, and in the process takes the reader into some very murky psychological terrain.
Among other things, ‘Winterwood’ excels at contrasting the neon glare of money-drunk Dublin in the 90s with the neo-medieval geography of the misty Connacht mountains. It investigates the culture clash between the secular urban and the supernatural rural, examines the social exclusion of rogue male parents exiled to hostels, pubs and cab ranks, and trawls the tortured dreamscapes of child molesters and murderers.
Reviewing the novel in The Guardian recently, Irvine Welsh wrote, “McCabe’s sly, good old country boys are scarier than the city hardmen, their homespun joviality often on the edge of lurching into a blood-simple, reductivist cruelty. ‘Winterwood’ is at least as good (and as disturbing) as ‘The Butcher Boy’, and probably glows with an even greater social resonance. In charting the journey from the horrible silence of the paedophile priests and rural poverty into an economically booming, multi-ethnic society, McCabe has written a brilliant and disturbing profile of an individual and a place in often violent transition.”
Peter Murphy: I should start by admitting that I felt like taking a bath after reading ‘Winterwood’.
Patrick McCabe: I suppose that’s what your meant to feel – scales on your skin!
The book’s main character undergoes a sort of possession. The act of reading it feels like being possessed. Presumably writing it was the same?
No, funnily enough. It should be like that, and I can understand anyone thinking that. But for me it was such an exercise in style that I was kind of deeply untroubled by it. Now that could mean a couple of things, couldn’t it? (laughs)
How did the character of Ned Strange manifest himself?
When one of the movies came out I was at this party down in Eden I think it was, a lot of mad, conspicuous consumption going on, a lot of wine, a lot of blather. I was getting bored, and I got this really creepy feeling. And I turned to this big plate glass window and I got this image, not an hallucination or anything, but a kind of image of a fuckin’ big hillbilly with a dead child in his arms, like an offering, a sacrificial kind of thing. And it’s best with these things just to leave them alone, but then ‘Old Ned Of The Hill’ came into my mind, that Pogues song, an old Irish folk song, and then the whole notion of sentiment and the menace behind sentiment and the brutality, and I thought, “The language I want for this now is the high gothic sort of style.” Falling into sicknesses and excursions into the realm of the unknown from the borders of mortality. And because I was so comfortable with the language, it didn’t really trouble me at all.
‘Winterwood’ is the first book of yours to embrace the supernatural.
I’d never written a gothic book as far as I was concerned. You know what it’s like; journalists set up an agenda and say, “It’s bog gothic” and me coming back saying, “No, no, it’s Sam Fuller, it’s social fantastic.” But this time around I thought, “Fuck, I feel like telling a real ghost story like you’d hear when you were a kid.” So it was part of all that culture that was in my head, Stoker and all that shit. But I’d never been so brash in my appropriation of that style.
I always got the feeling the ‘bog gothic’ tag was from people picking up on a residual feeling that hung around the books, but was never actually made explicit in them. It was like a mirage.
I think you might be onto something there. I’ve a kind of problem with that, into which ‘Mondo Desperado’ and ‘Emerald Germs’ fell. I said, “These are lovely little coloured balls I’m throwing up in the fuckin’ air here! This is not about ‘The New McCabe’ or the next fuckin’ ploy for the Booker Prize or anything.” These were exercises in style, or an attempt to further the social fantastic carnival-esque reinvention of language. They were also about parodies.
After ‘Mondo Desperado’ and ‘Emerald Germs’, a lot of people were awaiting some sort of major statement. What they got was ‘Call Me The Breeze’, a riotous, purposefully messy book which, as it turned out, got it in the neck from the critics.
Yeah, I thought it was very, very unfair, I thought it was really fuckin’ lousy actually, trigger happy. Unfortunately the world we’re in… For example, everybody I’ve spoken to has been talking about this amazing Irvine Welsh review and how great it is. But similarly, when ‘Call Me The Breeze’ came out, the book was destroyed six weeks before it was published. Completely destroyed. And any journalist I came up to said, “It looks bad doesn’t it?” Well, what can I do then? ’Cos the more you protest the worse it gets, and then you seem curmudgeonly. I mean, there was never any question of changing my style or anything, but I thought I’d draw a bit of a breather and get into a settled position whereby nobody bothered me so I could write. Really all that concerns me about reviews is, “Will this damage the sales of my book?” ’Cos there’s not an awful lot reviewers are gonna teach me. I mean, they don’t spend as long worrying about it as I do. I carry this shit around me all day, every day, and have done for years! (laughs)
Music is integral to all your books. It’s not referenced in the story, but the first tune that came to mind when I read ‘Winterwood’ was ‘Mad Pat’ by Horslips. That song tapped into the archetype of a sinister travelling musician, storyteller and trickster in a way that Jethro Tull couldn’t.
They couldn’t do it in the same way, you’re absolutely right. They aped it or they mimicked it but they didn’t get it. But there were people before Horslips, like German Clock Winder, the Clancys would have got it. ‘Weela Weela Waile’ particularly – “There was an old woman who lived in the woods… She stuck the knife in the baby’s heart”, the woods, all that stuff. It’s in American deep south literature: once the fiddler comes around, shit is going to happen!
Ned is almost like a Connacht version of an Appalachian mountain man. He loves country and western songs and cowboy novels. It’s interesting that so many practitioners of American gothic had Irish names: Faulkner, McCullers, O’ Connor, even David Lynch. Reading the book, I was reminded of Leland Palmer being possessed by by Killer Bob in ‘Twin Peaks’, and the critics’ complaints that all this supernatural stuff got him off the hook, rendered him unaccountable for his actions.
I suppose the liberal rational agenda is always there, you must have social consequences for all these things and never allow for the irrational and inexplicable. But there’s almost a cover on this one in that, is he having hallucinations at all or is it in fact an exculpation of sorts? I mean, I leave that wide open. But ultimately I think it’s moral in the sense that the guy ends in hell whether you like it or not, he’s in the embrace of the devil, he’s punished for eternity. All these things have been around, you go back to the old songs and you’ll get all that stuff. Even ‘The Man From God Knows Where’ for example, that was going through my head. What is he? Who is he? In that case it was political, but supposing he wasn’t? Supposing he was a rapist? All that swirly kind of rural stuff.
Do you know the Hank Williams song ‘Ramblin’ Man’?
I do yeah. That’s Luke The Drifter isn’t it?
I always heard it as a serial killer song, whether Hank intended it that way or not.
Well, whether he knew or he didn’t, he was still writing in the tradition of some unease, of something pursuing you. There’s a lot of Hank Williams in ‘Winterwood’. (Indicates the cover of the book). That robin is from ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. “Did you ever see a robin weep when the leaves begin to die.”One of the debates I would have with Gavin (Friday) and various other people was, “What are you always running off to fuckin’ Weimar for?” It’s fine to have Brel, but it’s interesting that Dylan came here, and said it in ‘Chronicles’, that he found such profound myth-making depth in these songs that he just couldn’t get over it. I dealt with it a little bit in ‘The Butcher Boy’, but not as much as in this one; the whole epochal nature of those songs was what was driving me. But an awful lot of that penumbral kind of Irish… popular songs more than folk. Digging out Harry Smith is all very well, but there’s so many ordinary songs that people sing without thinking, they take on a resonance because you remember them from weddings and funerals and people whistling them.
I’m surprised there’s not more Irish writers working in this terrain of creepy old folk songs and ghost stories. Off the top of my head, there’s only really Conor McPherson and Mike McCormack.
Why do you think that is? It’s wide open. Maybe people don’t know them. Was there some break somewhere along the way? You know them, you’re 13 years younger than me, so there’s no excuse for anybody your age not knowing them. I supose it’s just going through this weird period of consumer-blasted amnesia. Maybe there’s so many other things for people to do now, they just don’t read as much. (When I was young) there was so little else. A big fuckin’ top coat, freezing to death, you’d kick in for two weeks, brilliant, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, a big fuckin’ boner on ya! But those two guys, you’re absolutely right. Conor definitely understood the whole thing, and he didn’t copy it from me, that was all his own work, that vampire stuff, the drink, and you can see he wasn’t afraid. He was fuckin’ prepared to go right in. He certainly would’ve been into that ‘Monkey’s Paw’ kinda stuff. Just brilliant storytelling, which recent folk memory was full of.
It’s probably more widespread in Irish film these days: ‘Dead Meat’ and ‘Isolation’ and ‘Middletown’.
Well, a lot of writers are urban. It’s more social realists. But Neil (Jordan) is very into it.
How was it revisiting ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ ten years later?
Like anything we’ve ever done, Neil does most of the architecture, he’s made so many movies, he knows instinctively what you shoot and what will work. I wouldn’t change a word of the book, it’s completely and utterly done, not a word I could add or take away that would improve it, and I know that for a fact ’cos I spent so long on it. But that’s not true of a movie script, you’re always adding to it right up to the end, actors and designers bring so much to it. Gavin Friday for example, the invention of Billy Hatchet, that’s him, he came up with all that. It’s almost 30% of the movie. I spoke to him a little bit about it, but he instinctively understood the character. And Bryan Ferry was like the Big Bad Wolf, all these figures had archetypes from folk tales. The only thing that worked against it was the link with ‘The Crying Game’, which was unfortunate. Imagine if ‘The Crying Game’ had never been made; it would’ve been startlingly original. But I thought Neil did a great job on it. I see the two movies together as one really. Flip a coin, either side is ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ or ‘The Butcher Boy’. But that’s it now, I can’t imagine there being anymore movies.
One of the most vivid passages in ‘Winterwood’ describes young revellers in Temple Bar. They’re shorn of religion and history, yet they still look as if their trying to purge themselves of ugly spirits by pouring booze down their throats. The suggestion is that secular society is not immune to its demons either.
I remember when I went back to Clones from Sligo, there was a big moon out, it looked like there had been an invasion of vampires, people lying on the street whacked out on something. Between 16 and 20 I’d say, these bodies lying around, hundreds of them. Like there’d been a neutron bomb. I don’t know what they were whacked out on, god knows, sulphates or…I don’t know anything about drugs, nor don’t want to know, but something was goin’ on. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ Almighty! Fuck!’ And then they were all gone the next day. This lemming-like indulgence.
It’s a sort of death wish.
Definitely a deathwish thing going on. These were 17-year-olds, the prime of their lives. Recently in Monaghan these four kids, 15 or 16-year-olds playing chicken or whatever, smashed two cars into one another and they’re all dead now. But there was a young priest – who you would listen to, ’cos anybody who becomes a priest now has to have balls – made an impassioned plea from the altar, and he was saying, “Why am I burying more young people than older people? Why do they not know? They’re just completely an utterly without moorings. And this is criminal.”
It’s a very big debate and a very complex issue, but the very fact that he issued this crie de couer from the altar… why isn’t the bishop saying that? Why is it left to a young priest on his own to respond to four dead kids in this mangled wreck, probably closed caskets they were so unrecognisable. If the church had any sense it would now be bearing witness in a really, really passionate way, saying, “What is happening here? This is a crisis of awesome proportions.” It’d be interesting if some kid picked up on that. What is their demon? Cos I’m too old to know what the nature of that demon might be. But it’s wide open for some 17-year-old to write about. What is the new demon? It’s a shapeshifter, it’s come in a different form now. But it’s definitely there.
Friends, on Thursday June 12th I have the honour of reading my bowdlerisation of James Joyce’s The Dead (world premiere!) at the Culture Vultures shindig in the Odessa Club. I’ll be in the very esteemed company of David Geraghty, appearing under the Join Me In The Pines banner, plus Flight author Oona Frawley, and more. Come on down. It’ll be a great night.
Re Dubliners 100: “Contributors include Patrick McCabe, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride and, perhaps bravest of all, Peter Murphy, who takes on “The Dead,” considered by some the best story ever written.”
Honoured to be asked to referee between two masters, Pat McCabe and Patrick McGrath, at the Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas, Sunday June 15th. The subject under discussion: That Way Madness Lies: Doubt, Fear and Horror in the Novel.