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Rod Madocks. When Art and Life Merge.

June 21, 2013

Ship of Fools Book Cover

Both No Way to Say Goodbye, Rod Madock’s debut crime novel and Ship of Fools, are both firmly embedded in the world of mental healthcare. They are books of fiction, that maintain a grip on reality or rather different perceptions of it, while attempting to explore the complex web of human interactions. In the case of No Way to Say Goodbye, it is as a taut psychological thriller, and in Ship of Fools, the difficult path on which many cannot be successfully guided. The thought processes of the main protagonists are as convoluted as the psychiatric patients they assist and seem at times to become indistinguishable from them. Neither book can be read without a sense of disquiet at where fiction might become reality.

You’ve had a variety of jobs in your life.

I’ve had over thirty different jobs. Many of them humble manual ones before I got into mental health. I started off as an academic though. I began in American Studies research and many of my literary touchstones are American. The literature of the United States appealed to me more than the more domestic domain of English letters. My models for writing were mainly transatlantic. I moved about a lot in my younger life and somehow I found the domestic manicured world of English fiction too stifling and constrained. At a stage in my early twenties I fell out of an exclusive love for American things and went on to study Russian literature and language instead. I’ve always had a restless magpie nature, snapping up this and that along the way. I went through a phase of soaking myself in Russian literature and completed a PhD on the work of Vladimir Nabokov and his Russian context. I was interested in how there is often a serious parable hidden beneath the glittering facade of Nabokov’s fiction. Although there is an overt narrative, there are also other layers of meaning. The reader discovers those hidden dimensions as the tale unfolds. The better the reader the more complex and vivid is the revealed world.

What particularly appealed to you about Russian literature?

I travelled to both Russia and Poland in the old days before the Iron Curtain was dissolved. I was tremendously impressed by the seriousness with which literature was embraced by the people there at the time. I’m not sure if it’s true now, but when I was there everyone would be reading on the metro and on buses and trams. They’d be deeply engrossed in novels and serious books as they stood there in their close-packed ranks. It seemed that literature mattered there. There was a passion in it that I felt was lacking in Britain. In the Eastern European writers themselves there was a sense of an intense voice which I felt had been lost in the reflexive ironic modern English novel of the 1970s and 1980’s. The West was going through a post-modernist phase where it was reflexing back on itself and deconstructing, whereas I wanted to hear a strong voice exploring and breaking new ground. It was frontier literature that I liked. After all I had been born and brought up myself in the frontier lands of Central Africa. I think that’s what Russian and American literature has in common, a sense of frontier and voyaging forth and unflinchingly bringing back a report and that’s what I still like.

One of the stories that influenced my book No Way to Say Goodbye is Edgar Allen Poe’s story ‘A Descent Into the Maelstrom’. In the story, the main character is swept into the maelstrom, a giant whirlpool. The story tells you how he saved himself by strapping himself onto the mast of his sinking ship and going down into the whirlpool. By intensely observing what is going on around he finds out how to escape his seemingly inevitable destruction. I still think of myself as being a bit like that Poe figure who descends into the maelstrom.

No Way to Say Goodbye

Do you think that Russian and American literature has retained that character even now?

I’m not so sure about recent Russian fiction, because I’ve not read anything I’ve really liked very recently. The Russian writers I most admire are the ones that were eliminated by Stalin. Writers like Mandelstam and Isaac Babel. Babel in particular wrote a wonderful set of short stories called The Red Cavalry. They are characterised by brevity and by a compressed poetic style that unblinkingly records a brutal world. My latest book, The Ship of Fools is, in a way, a homage to that method. Red Cavalry is a collection of fictionalised stories about Babel’s own experiences in the 1920 Russo-Polish war. He is fascinated by his comrades and admires and wants to be truly one of them yet is also repulsed by them and everything they do. There is a similar creative dualism at the heart of my mental health stories.

I’m not sure the post-Soviet era has thrown up anything very interesting. Émigré Russian literature flourished like a hot house plant for a few decades between the wars but died out. It threw up one of the best poets of the Twentieth Century though – Vladislav Khodasevich.

American fiction still has that feel of the writers being on the edge. For example my favourites Richard Brautigan, Annie Proulx and Cormac Mcarthy. Proulx, in particular I like very much. I think she’s tremendous and a good short storyist as well.

Which Nabokov story was an inspiration for No Way to Say Goodbye?

The story ‘The Vane Sisters’. It’s emblematic of Nabokov. The story he wrote is about an unlikeable university academic, who tries to make sense of the death of two sisters. He fails to make connection with the dead yet if you study the story carefully you can see that the two women are actually trying to communicate with him. The story swarms with spirit messages which the bumptious narrator does not notice but which prod the reader into a deeper sense of the mysteriousness of life. My novel No Way To Say Goodbye also has a ghost presence who is only vaguely sensed by the main character and narrator.

In both my fiction and in the work of Nabokov, it is the reader who really brings the work into existence. Reading in this sense is also an act of imagination. The author relies upon the intelligence of his readers. On every level Nabokov strives to present a complete Chinese box or set of matryoshka dolls each fitting within each other. Every way you look you’ve got a perfect object. It’s a kind of a re-creation of life within the artistic work. Some might think that this form of structuring is at odds with the sort of ‘frontier literature’ I have been admiring, but not a bit of it. ‘Frontier’ need not imply that the work is not complex and many-layered. It is artistic bravery and risk-taking that I admire. Besides it’s the prerogative of the writer to be full of paradoxes!

But Nabokov isn’t the only influence on No Way to Say Goodbye. A great deal of the novel has been informed through personal experience.

I’d always been interested in mental health. I’ve still got somewhere my youthful notebook where I first wrote down John Clare’s chilling poem from the madhouse – “I am, but what I am none cares nor knows…’. I used to read R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self when I was a teenager working in the Sunblest Bakery on Nottingham’s Hucknall Road, in the 1970s, although I’m not quite sure what my colleagues thought of my reading material. I entered the mental health field about 25 years ago and began to work as a therapist in day centres. As I progressed I became very involved with mental health and developed a career, much to my surprise, because I’d flitted on the edge of employability for years.

I took it on as an identity and believed in myself as a mental health professional. Even though the writer holds many masks I took it all very seriously, and my books reflect my sense of compassion for those that suffered, and a gratefulness at being given a job where I felt so useful. I functioned very well in that setting and it was by no means a vicarious career entered into in the search for writer’s materiel.

Later on, with hindsight, I can see other patterns and now question the whole ethos of care-giving. I know it’s controversial but I think there is a pathology in altruism. I not only worked as a professional in mental health but, for many years, I also became a forensic therapist in prison-like places where people were locked up. They were secretive worlds of which the public knows nothing. What was remarkable was how easy it was to end up working in them. Virtually anyone can do so if you really want to. The checks made on you were quite flimsy. You might think there would be many blocks set up to prevent problematic people taking up a forensic career but there aren’t really.

In No Way to Say Goodbye you do get the sense of what forensic psychiatry is, however would you describe what it is for people who have not yet read the book.

Forensic comes from the Latin forensis, which mean ‘of or pertaining to a court’. Forensic services are set up for those people who have mental health difficulties and who also get bound up in the criminal justice system. They might have offended against people or posed a risk to others. The oldest institution in this country of this type is Broadmoor Hospital. There is a whole branch of legislation and process of law in this country that has evolved to contain these people. They call themselves hospitals but they often resemble prisons. They have various gradations of security, low, medium and high. So I think of them as filters. If someone is really bad then they’re likely to be in high security, but in theory you can filter your way back out into the community. There is also a forensic community service for those who have been allowed out of those boundary walls. The person lives on the outside and is monitored by others. That was also my job for many years; poking around, monitoring and making sure people who had been let out didn’t do something, which they were not supposed to do. I suppose that sort of job must inevitably shape one’s view of humanity.

You must have had to do extensive case histories, because decisions with these sorts of people can’t be taken lightly. So does that enable you to get into somebody’s head?

Yes, you need to understand a person’s past in order to determine their potentialities for the future. Risk is weighed by what they have done so far. What’s past is prologue. The actual psychiatric examination follows a process, and mental health assessment generally is extremely formulaic. Most people think of psychiatrists as being as wise as Solomon and having a deep understanding of the soul. But not a bit of it. I found many psychiatrists to be mechanistic process servers. There were honourable exceptions though. The psychiatric examination starts with looking at someone in the present then dives down into the past to look at family, personality, losses and then rises up to coming back to the present again and to measure the person’s past against their current symptoms. Then a judgement is formed after the differential possibilities have been excluded. Psychiatric diagnosis remains solely a verbal process determined by the opinion of one professional. It’s quite crude really when you think of it like that. There are no real physical tests for mental ill health. In one team where I worked, we assessed 800 people a year like that. There something deadening about it, because you label people, but there is also a commendable discipline in applying the crude tools of psychiatry to the slippery entity of the human mind.

I had a job in high security, for some years, of reviewing the current cases to make sure that the assessments were up-to-date. So I read through hundreds of case files of the most dangerous people in Britain and that was quite a privilege. These files were the size of phone books. They contained every detail of the person’s life and the nature of their offences. I had an unparalleled access to the life histories of very problematic people. Reading all those unveiled stories did shape me as a writer in a way.

Your main character is interesting in No Way to Say Goodbye because he is far from straightforward; but then No Way to Say Goodbye is not a straightforward crime book. There’s a great deal of internal conversation going on in the book and there are also long tracts of internal observation. This is interesting because modern crime books tend to have a great deal of snappy dialogue and a rapid plot progression. So do you think this is a sign of the influence of Russian literature on your writing?

I think so. I’m also influenced by the Modernists who are still my touchstones. I still hold to the old gods, like Joyce. Although I have experimented with dialogue in my short story collection Ship of Fools and I may shift again and mix my style up. But you are right, I am on the literary end of crime fiction and you can see my kinship to the Russians and to writers like Proulx. So much of crime fiction is dominated by the compressed dialogue–oriented style of  writers like James Ellroy just as the short story in English seems to me to be also dominated by that colossus Raymond Carver but I make my own way.

No Way to Say Goodbye is a complex book and has the feel of a literary book, but at the same time it’s also very gripping read. Its complexity does mean that you would have had to plot it out so how did you do this?

I did plot it out very carefully. I wrote a detailed schema from beginning to end, yet it also bubbles with my own psychological issues. Like many first novels it is a settling of scores and it taps into my primal concerns and that lends an intensity to the work. In terms of structure my mind seems to be drawn naturally to triads. In virtually all my fiction I seem to fall into a three-part theme of the thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. Like the Greek syllogism in philosophy. You set out a certain picture of the world, you throw it over or reverse it by a contradictory picture and then you come to some sort of accord with the two contrasting themes. This whole business will of course be in turn overturned in the cruel, endless, binomial shifting of the world. That kind of triadic schema is at the heart of the structure of No Way to Say Goodbye. Nowadays I’ve become more cunning and do several ‘backflips’ and variations on the triad through the course of telling a story. You can tell I read a lot of Jacques Derrida when I was younger!

Your main character Jack Keyes, seems, at first, to be fairly straightforward character who is very upset about his on-off girlfriend’s murder. Then you do you see a sinister change occurring in him during the course of the book. How did you do you achieve just the right balance in this gradual change in your character so that it was credible and not over the top?

Basically I wanted the reader to initially feel at ease with Keyes then to gradually realise he is a more flaky and problematic person than you might have originally thought. The reason the book is credible is because there is far more distilled biography packed in there than folks realise. There are actually more bad than good characters in the book. I’ve seen enough of badness not have a problem with that and it’s probably more enjoyable to write that way.

One or two people have asked if Keyes is actually me. I think he’s a bit dumber than I am. In one sense he is a bad self. The reader imperceptibly grasps that they aren’t in the best of hands. Equally, what I try to show is that the path to understanding can be a rocky road. It’s not always a comfortable process. We sometimes have to trust people whom you know are wrong in many ways, to be able to understand the truth that only they know. It is a kind of paradox. This is what interests me. It’s like knot that if you untie it you’ve lost it all together. So you have to keep it gripped into a kind of mesh and the reader has to follow that mesh to understand what’s going on.

Your short story collection Ship of Fools, is quite different to No Way to Say Goodbye. What template did you use to put this together, because there’s a lot more dialogue than No Way to Say Goodbye.

Yes, I did decide to do something totally different. I started late in life as a writer, so I feel I have had to quickly master a number of genres. I wrote some short stories in the 1980s that some diligent academic may dig up in years to come. They are out there published in obscure magazines, but they’re not very good stories.

Ship of Fools is very different to No Way to Say Goodbye which took ten years to write. In contrast the new work just poured out of me in six months. Ship of Fools almost came out unconsciously, so the form you get is how it presented itself to me.

I didn’t really want to write the book, I was deeply involved in creating another one at the time and had to put that one aside because the voices were troubling me. I just finished my career in mental health and suddenly I started to dream I was back at work and I began to feel that my ex-patients were drifting back into my consciousness in a slightly accusing way. I started to have to pay attention to them and listen to their voices. I woke in the mornings thinking about them. I decided I had to sort this out by writing about them. The first story I wrote in that way was ‘Brilliant’, which was about a patient I remember who killed herself. Thus the story is formed out of nuggets of remembered experience which I then shaped into a satisfying short piece around the factual core. So they were oneiric stories, in the sense that they come from the dream or a half-remembered world, and have a different style of their own. Dreams and journeys to far-off lands share the same sort of deal. Only you know the truth of what really happened there.

What I deliberately did when writing Ship of Fools was to cultivate the apposite state of mind. As I wrote each story, I started to read the poetry of those who had mental health difficulties and whom I admired, for example Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, all Americans. They put me in the right frame of mind, because of their combined sense of energetic torment and dreamlike flexion. The stories came out in a new condensed style for me. I also experimented with humour in The Ship of Fools more than I had done before, even if it was a dark sort of comedy.

I’ve got quite a distinctive way of structuring work. I almost always use a Dictaphone. I go for long walks and pull out a strings of seemingly disconnected phrases, images and words; it can be anything. I don’t trouble too much about what I’m saying. I was quite influenced by the Surrealists when I was younger, for example, Andre Breton. Like them, I will use any old found objects, bus conversations, or snippets from the newspaper and string them out and type them up. Then I shape them into a piece. The narrative structure just forms the last part of it. So there will be dreamlike nuggets at the core of the story and I shape the whole process around it. Virtually all the stories in The Ship of Fools are shaped like that, using a half-aware stream of consciousness, which is then moulded into a satisfying whole. Where the unconscious materiel comes from remains a mystery to me. Like many writers I fear that one day the gift will just depart from me the way swallows leave for winter.

You talked about putting some humour into the stories, which is interesting because, with this particular subject, the wrong balance of humour could turn the stories into something that would look as if you were making fun of the characters. So how did you know where to pitch the humour and the dark parts?

Partly, the humour is always directed at the staff and it is about how they are more screwed up than the patients. So you’ve got that direction of humour. Writing it in this way means I’m not making fun of the patients. It’s more about the situation and the irony of a rather inflexible system trying to deal with the much more amorphous entity of the errant human mind. The patients were constantly trying to escape the diagnostic bonds we sought to place on them. The humour is also about that process. There is cruelty in my narrator’s vision. He’s not a very nice character. He says unkind things, almost always about colleagues.

I think the thing with writing (this is a thing I don’t really understand, and you don’t want to destroy it by over-examining it) is that it is really a ‘gift’. Something that falls on you if you find the right way of managing to do these things. So it seems like murder to dissect, but I do feel tremendously lucky that I can find the right balance and I’m not sure how it happens. Writing books is a risky business and my books are particularly risky.

Your experience in mental health obviously informs your writing, however there is an issue of ethics involved here, so how do you work around that?

It has troubled me. It’s also troubled some of my colleagues. Some feel that I have betrayed them and the patients. Graham Greene said that all writers had a chip of ice in the heart and maybe we do. One person at a public reading asked me, ‘What would you say if some ex-client sees themselves in one of your stories and comes up to you in a reading?’ I replied that I would ask them if what I had written had truth in it, and had I called it like it was? I think that the writer should not flinch from their vision.

I have hidden people’s real identities within the work. Sometimes a portrait of one person may actually be a composite of two or three people I’ve remembered. I think, at the end of the day, it’s just a guilt the writer holds, not only about the patients (because I’m sure there are hurtful elements in it), but it’s about the cruelty of necessity. What overrides me is actually wanting to create the work. That mysterious process involved in writing means more to me than the hurt that it might entail. That is a kind of tough thing to say, but that is the truth. There is no answer to it. In the end, time resolves the problem, because many of the patients I knew are now dead. It’s incredibly dangerous to get mental health problems and my colleagues have been whisked away likewise because it’s such a tough environment. In the end, it’s who is left to actually say anything about what happened?

I’m reminded of the phrase in the end of Moby Dick, when the narrator says, ‘I alone am escaped to tell thee.’ So, who is ever going to say what it was all about? I know that the hospitals I’ve portrayed have already disappeared and have become bijou housing complexes. Just as whole droves, myriads of people who used to live in those institutions have likewise vanished. So mine is the only report you will ever get. I guess I’ll still be justifying it in years to come, wondering about what was the right thing to have done. Although I have found that some people are actually thrilled to be able to picture themselves between the pages in my books.

I know Beeston station, near Nottingham, has certain connotations for you. Would you like to tell me about that?

Beeston Station near to where I live, with its drooping Victorian eaves and fancy timbering, is essentially the same building where James Berry, the most famous executioner in Britain (because he hung about 123 people), used to arrive in Nottingham from Bradford in the 1880s. He’d travel here to complete his latest executions at the prison. He even had a calling card, which had a little maidenhair fern symbol on it. He wouldn’t stop at Nottingham Central as the press might get wind of it. He’d call up a hansom cab and trot into town from the discreet suburb of Beeston to enact his deadly business.

The reason I know this is because of the extensive research that I have undertaken to complete a historical novel about the only man to survive a judicial hanging in modern Britain. He was called John ‘Babbacome’ Lee. He was a Victorian servant, who was convicted of murdering his employer in Babbacombe Devon, in 1884. In February 1885, James Berry tried to hang him in Exeter Prison, but the drop doors of the scaffold failed to work for mysterious reasons. My new novel tells of the strange life and crimes of ‘the man who could not be hanged’. I still think of Berry sometimes clip-clopping off down my local streets on his grim missions. In that way we writers hold onto the past whilst trying to scry out what lies out ahead.

Rod Madocks. Photograph by David Parry

Rod Madocks. Photograph by David Parry

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