Graeme Macrae’s Burnet’s Case Study is among the most eagerly anticipated publications of the year. In 2016 his novel His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and it remains an incredibly influential and widely discussed Scottish text. Add to this his Inspector Gorski novels, and you have a writer who offers fiction with a style and substance all of his own. SNACK spoke to him about Case Study.
Case Study deals with some complex themes, including identity, duality, the concept of self, and even the nature of truth. Why did you want to write this novel?
I never think about themes when I’m writing. I don’t even really like the word. But I think themes are something that should emerge as you write, rather than constitute a starting point. My interest in writing this book really came from reading volumes of psychiatric case studies and becoming more and more interested in the dynamic between the therapist and the client, and the question of which one might be saner than the other.
It is also a playful book, with different texts woven together. Do you enjoy the idea of ‘playing’ with readers?
Well, I definitely like to use different kinds of texts to tell the story, as I did in His Bloody Project. For me, this is just a question of using the range of devices available to a novelist. I think the novel is a tremendously flexible form and has been since its very beginnings.
I never think of myself as ‘playing’ with the reader. I hate the idea of being deliberately manipulative. But if it seems like I’m playing with the reader, it’s perhaps because when I set out I don’t know where I’m going, so developments in the narrative are often as much of a surprise to me as they are to the reader.
One of the central protagonists, psychiatrist Collins Braithwaite, does terrible things but proves to be a complicated, even charismatic, creation. Are you ever surprised at how your characters develop?
I am often surprised and sometimes horrified. But it’s in these moments when I find myself writing something that I had no idea would happen that I feel a piece of work is coming alive.
Psychiatrist RD Laing is just one of a few ‘real people’ who are mentioned, and his shadow seems to loom large over the story. Is that fair?
It’s definitely fair! I re-read The Divided Self before I started writing the book, and found it astonishing, not only because of what I see as its insightful and humane view of mental illness but also because it’s a book which describes certain behaviours or traits that I recognise in myself and which I think seep into most of my fictional characters.
In Case Study, my psychotherapist character Collins Braithwaite sets himself up quite consciously as a rival to Laing – he’s out to steal his enfant terrible thunder! So yes, Laing casts a long shadow over the book, but hopefully one which might lead people to engage with his ideas.
The book also comments on the life of a writer, or at least Collins Braithwaite’s experience. Do you share any experiences?
Well, at one point Braithwaite refuses to alter a word of his first book, so my own editor might say we have something in common. Ha ha.
There is brief mention of Søren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death. Was this an inspiration for Case Study? And were there other texts which were important to you?
Kierkegaard’s was a book which I read purely to inform a section in which I describe Braithwaite’s own views on the self (a section which readers might be relieved to know that I cut significantly from the first draft!), so it wasn’t a text that really informed the book as whole. Aside from The Divided Self and other works by Laing, I deliberately sought out works written from the perspective of the patient rather than the therapist – first-hand accounts of madness – and those definitely informed the characterisations.
Aside from Case Study and His Bloody Project you have written two Gorski novels, following the cases of Inspector Georges Gorski. Are you splitting yourself as a writer, in the manner of Iain Banks?
In light of all this talk of divided selves, the idea of ‘splitting’ myself as a writer seems very pertinent. But actually I try very hard not to analyse what I’m doing as a writer. I have a terrible fear that if I become too self-conscious about what I do, I’ll kill it. So I don’t really draw any distinction between the Gorski books and these stand-alone novels. In fact, I find myself revisiting some quite familiar tropes, whoever the character or whatever the historical setting. It seems I can’t escape my own obsessions.