What inspired you to write this novel?
It began with wanting to write something that would have an eighteenth–century feel. Casting around for a story, I remembered notes I’d made fifteen years earlier, when I read Roy Porter’s Faber Book of Madness, a compilation of writings by and about the mad. The pieces I’d found most interesting were from Illustrations of Madness (1810), written by the mad-doctor John Haslam, Apothecary of Bethlem Hospital, London, concerning the delusional system of James Tilly Matthews, a patient in his care. What fascinated me was both the homely exuberance of Matthews’ mad system and the superbly, lovingly written account of it Haslam provides—in order to discredit him as a hopeless case. It was the combination of loving attention and hostility on the part of the doctor, a combination as bizarre in its way as the delusions of the patient, that interested me most. Haslam, I thought, would make an interesting character.
Can you talk about the language you use in Bedlam.
At first I intended to write something in the third person, with an omniscient narrator, like Peter Carey’s in Jack Maggs. But I couldn’t find a voice. I think this was because mine wasn’t a character but merely a device for communicating the eighteenth century to the twentieth. After fighting it as long as I could, I made the decision to tell the story in the first person. What was daunting was that I would need three distinct eighteenth-century voices: Haslam, Matthews, and Matthews’ wife Margaret, who spent nearly twenty years trying to get him out of Haslam’s hands. Also, the challenge of using older language is that while you don’t want its archaism getting in the reader’s way, you also don’t want the reader thinking, “This doesn’t sound very eighteenth-century.” But after reading Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie, I decided that the way to go was not with pastiche or imitation but a kind of intuitive impression of eighteenth-century language. In the early seventies I had spent five years in the British Library reading widely in eighteenth-century prose, and as a teacher I have taught the major, and many of the minor, eighteenth-century texts for many years. I knew I had a good store of eighteenth-century diction and rhythms stored in my brain. With Bedlam, I didn’t consciously imitate any particular style, I just tried to hear the character in my mind, and wrote. The only rule I set myself was that I could use only words, idioms, and slang identified by either the complete Oxford English Dictionary or Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang as being in use by the date my character is writing.
The great advantage of using the first person for an historical story is that you don’t need to spend a lot of time describing hairstyles, gaslights, and chamber pots, since your characters are already inside that world and have occasion to describe it only when they have dramatic reason. So their language itself, and their concerns, rather than a weight of description, can convey their reality.
What are the challenges of writing about actual historical figures?
You need to research everything known about them as human beings, as well as everything you can about their situation at the time you are referring to. You don’t want readers distracted by contradiction or impossibilities. Also, of course, actual figures often have descendants, whom you don’t want to offend needlessly by impugning their relations with no good reason. As with most artistic endeavours, the great restriction is the great advantage: while you are restricted by readers’ preconceptions about historical figures, those preconceptions can be worked with, and against, to great effect—but you must be well-informed about what they are likely to be.
You have won major literary prizes for both novels and short stories. Can you talk about the challenges of each literary form.
Short stories tend to be structured around a single crisis. I think of their energy as centripetal: focusing inward. Like a poem, they’re what I would call spiritual in inclination, in the sense that they’re devoted to capturing a perfect moment of drunken poise. As in a poem too, everything—language, image, character: everything—counts. In a novel, character is the primary issue, and the narrative is concerned with the moral intricacies of what goes on for that character over a stretch of time. In a novel the crisis is something that happens toward the end of a series of choices the character makes. Because novels are so much about time, and because they also take several sittings to read, the energy of each scene tends to be more centrifugal than centripetal, moving outward: back, forward, and out into the ordinary world of the reader, which is usually not so different in its essence from the world of the novel. By and large, the novel is a rather prosaic, and certainly secular, form of literature. The result is that the texture of the prose on any given page of a novel will tend to be very different from that of a short story.
In a short story the challenge is getting every detail right. In a novel, it’s that as well as surviving the prolonged stress of working on emotionally demanding material over three, four, five, or more years. Literary novels are far harder on a writer’s health than are short stories.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Gustave Flaubert, Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Thomas Pynchon.