Alex Pheby (as pictured by his 3-year old budding photographer son, Elliot) looks as pleased as punch. His debut novel, Grace, which tells the story of the dramatic escape of Peterman, from a secure mental hospital, was recently published by Two Raven’s Press, and, to cap his success (!) reviewed favourably here on Lizzy’s Literary Life. I would pour Alex a glass of champagne, but it is too cold on this snowy February morning. We have instead settled down next to the virtual log fire with tea and buttered toast as we discuss reading, writing and publishing.
LS: The novel is dedicated to your stillborn daughter and your personal feelings for her are obviously reflected in those of Peterman for the young girl, Grace. Was this the starting point for the novel?
AP: No. Xanthe died after the novel was written. Emma, my wife, was pregnant with her while I was writing and we both felt that she would be a girl, but otherwise she didn’t influence the writing at all. After she was born everything is a blur. I don’t remember much – we moved up to Norwich and I began working on something new. I tried to write about Xanthe at first. I thought I might write her life, as if she had lived, one book for every year but it was too hard. Writing is a very emotional process – you have to dig pretty deep – and it was just too much. When Grace got picked up last year I revised it and during that process I wrote with Xanthe in mind, including much of the final chapter, but it isn’t about her in any real way.
LS: Grace is strong in the vividness of its detail yet, at the same time, the reader is never quite sure about what is real. How did you set about creating this effect?
AP: It’s mostly technical – I use, for example, the form of the fairy tale to frame certain parts of the story and the conventions of the nineteenth century realist novel to frame others – the reader brings their own expectations of both these forms of writing (largely without realising it) and this can be very useful in subtly undermining or shoring up particular parts of the story. The extent to which I allow the voice of the narrative to be influenced by Peterman is another way – at times when I want you to doubt his version of events his illness creeps into the way the book is written, at other times I write it straight. Emotional tone is helpful too – anxious at some points, relaxed in others. The characters also play a part: people tend to believe and trust doctors, whereas inmates of secure hospitals are seen as less reliable. You can play around with people’s assumptions and prejudices and complicate things – people tend to believe children, so if a child believes and loves Peterman, we begin to believe him too. Doctors are trustworthy, but they are only human – can they make mistakes? Then there’s the use of stories within stories, point of view shifts, psychic distance, conditional tense usage – It’s a very tricky juggling act and it took me at least ten substantially different drafts, with literally countless variations, before I was happy with it.
LS: So just how many reliably unreliable characters have you created in Grace? I ask because I have not been able to determine whether I should believe the old woman’s (gratuitously sleazy) sadomasochistic history or even the reason for its inclusion in the novel.
AP:This question of reliability and unreliability is the core of the book. As is the question of balance. From a technical perspective, I wanted to write a story that balanced two opposing readings of the same events, to create a tension that I hoped would engage the reader in Peterman’s story, and to force the reader to think about where they want to put their faith. You can’t believe both Raffaela (the psychiatrist) and Peterman you have to favour one over the other and I think the story gets most of its drive through the balance between these two sides.
I tried to do this by pitting two different ways of seeing the world against each other – the irrational (Peterman) and the rational (Raffaela), or to put it another way, the emotional and the intellectual. Or even the fictional and the factual. So, we can read the story as two different ways of seeing the world that the reader has to hover between.
However, my aim was not to create a sterile exercise in balance. I wanted to create a story where the reader had to choose one side over the other. Does Peterman find his girl, or is it all a delusion? Now, of course, I can’t dictate what the reader will do, but I can create a situation where they have to do one thing or the another – and I’m not going to rig the story, I think I give them both persuasive cases – Peterman is mad, but he has the reader’s ear, Raffaela has medical science on her side.
What has this to do with the old lady’s gratuitous sadomasochism? Hidden in the her stories is the key to whether Peterman is delusional or not. Her life is a composite of the biography of the French Surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille. His main field of work? The boundaries between the rational and the irrational, sanity and madness. The key is hidden because I didn’t want it tipping the scales, but I signalled it by making the scene you pick out different in tone from the rest of the book (I tried not to be too graphic, but sadomasochism is fine line to tread).
LS: Grace is your debut novel. Your website, www.alexpheby.co.uk, cites two more finished with a fourth almost complete. How did you keep yourself motivated to continue writing without the benefit of a publishing deal?
AP: I wrote three other books while I was waiting for my agent to find a publisher for Grace. Everything takes a long time in publishing – people have to read your book, then they have to give it to someone else to look at, then they have to read over the contract, and then proof reading and typesetting etc, etc. Months and months go past. I need to be working on something all the time or I get anxious and while the book is with the publisher there’s no point in doing anything with it – so I was left with no choice but to start something else. On top of that I usually have at least two projects on the go at any one time. You can sometimes get too close to a book to see what is working and what isn’t and it’s a good idea to leave it for a couple of weeks or a month and in that time get to work on something else. Eventually you end up with a lot of finished stuff! As for motivation, I was buoyed along by having just got an agent and I was still used to doing proper jobs – ones where if you weren’t working, someone was looking over your shoulder and wondering why (usually before launching into a string of obscenities). I used to be a chef, for a while (when I wasn’t washing dishes) and I was so glad I wasn’t running between chopping board and oven until two o’clock in the morning that writing was like a dream.
LS: How did you find a publisher and what point in the process of becoming newly published did you find the most elative/stressful?
AP: The credit for that goes to my agent David Smith. After Xanthe died I concentrated on my academic work and really wasn’t in any state to pay too much attention to how Grace was sold. It’s not something I feel I should take much part in anyway. For one thing, I don’t know enough about the publishing business to be of any use to anyone and the more I find out the less I understand. For another, a writer needs to do whatever it is they do and not let any concerns other than the writing into the equation. If the book gets picked up, great, but I can’t write with that in mind. When David Smith found Two Ravens I was delighted they wanted to take the book and though we have our disagreements, I am still delighted. Whatever you say about Sharon Blackie and David Knowles (the directors) you could never accuse them of a lack of fire. They are passionate about writing, about literature and they work their hardest to get a certain type of writing – spiky, difficult and often brilliant – out into the hands of people who want to read it. That’s something you can’t say about a lot of people. We’ve had our run ins – distribution problems hit the launch of Grace (all now solved) and we argued over the manuscript – but that’s what happens when people care about what they are doing. I’d rather lock horns with someone who cares than have a smooth relationship with someone who doesn’t.
LS: As a reader I have become increasingly fascinated with the portrayal of madness in fiction. Would you give 3 recommendations for further reading on this theme.
AP: Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square – wonderful recreation of pre-war Earl’s Court, London pub culture, social alienation and madness. Anything by Kafka or Beckett, obviously, but there is also some brilliant writing by schizophrenics out there. Barbara O’Brien’s ‘Operators and Things’ is great, as is ‘Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl’ by ‘Renee’ (published under her analyst’s name – Marguerite Sechehaye) But the best of all is Daniel Paul Schreber’s ‘Memoirs of my Nervous Illness’. I cannot stress enough how important it is that people should read this book (and not only because my most recent novel is written about its author!) It is an astounding insight into the human mind at its most vulnerable. As lucid as it is possible to be for a man who believes he is drawing God down to Earth by the abnormal excitation of his nerves, Schreber, a former judge, wrote this book to explain his ‘religious beliefs’ to his wife and to secure his release from an asylum. It’s fascinating, horrifying and heart rending, all at the same time. Once you’ve read it, look out for my fictionalisation of his last years – I’ll try to make it equally good!
LS: I’ll certainly look out for that. It sounds like a must-read for me, given my Germanophilia. In the meantime, Alex, thank you for stepping forward to be my first interviewee and for so many generous and enlightening insights. I’m now about to revise my rating of Grace from to . Let’s call it the Georges Bataille effect!
Courtesy of Two Raven’s Press, I have a copy of Grace to giveaway. Please leave a comment (along with an optional reading recommendation on the theme of madness) if you would like to enter the draw that will take place on Sunday 15.02.2009. All countries eligible.