Shortlist Spotlight: Patrick McGrath

21st May, 2018

It’s the turn of Patrick McGrath, whose ninth novel The Wardrobe Mistress is on our 2018 shortlist, to answer some questions.

Q: What do you think about being shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction? Do you see yourself as a historical novelist?

I’m very honoured indeed to be shortlisted for the Walter Scott. I was quite taken by surprise. I am dimly aware that I am a historical novelist, but more so when setting stories in the 18th or 19th centuries. The 20th century doesn’t somehow seem quite so “historical” because I lived through half of it.

Q:  How did the people and times you write about in this novel first lodge in your imagination?

Characters appear first of all as shadowy beings possessing only a vague function in a tentative plot. Then as you actually write them they acquire tones of voice, attitudes, bodies and clothes, and at a certain moment there’s an “Aha!”- and you recognize them. After that they may not be predictable but they are a known quantity.

Q: What role does research have in your writing? When does the fiction take over from the facts?

Facts feed the fiction until a story grounded in a roughly plausible historical frame starts to take shape. Then you can take liberties within that frame.

Q: Do you think that writing about the past is important for society?

If you can make the past resonate in the present then the fiction may sound a sort of klaxon, but it’s hard to do. Maybe simply writing living breathing characters in other times helps open in the reader a historical imagination, which can certainly be a source of serious pleasure for life.