Patricia Highsmith | Interview by Patricia Highsmith with Diana Cooper-Clark

This literature criticism consists of approximately 19 pages of analysis & critique of Patricia Highsmith.
This section contains 5,419 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)
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Interview by Patricia Highsmith with Diana Cooper-Clark

SOURCE: An interview with Patricia Highsmith, in Armchair Detective, Vol. 14, No. 4, Spring, 1981, pp. 313-20.

In the following interview, which was conducted on August 19, 1980, in Moncourt, France, Highsmith discusses such subjects as the philosophy of criminology, her portrayal of female characters, and critical response to her works.

[Cooper-Clark:] I recently read, and you can clarify or correct me, that you are not enamoured of the human race. Is that accurate?

[Highsmith:] Not really. I often talk with a sociologist friend, and her opinion is that most people are quite ordinary, that universal education hasn't brought the happiness and beauty that people had hoped. I think human beings are very interesting, however. It is like talking about "a better life." Not everybody wants it, not everybody likes aesthetic things. Why should they? It is a matter of taste. It is one thing to make millions of people literate, to enact labor laws that provide leisure. The individual then decides how he spends that leisure time.

This particular reporter was from the Observer, and the slant of the article was that you were misanthropic.

That isn't true. But like many writers, I like solitude. I have had two rather bad interviews with Observer people who shall be nameless. In fact, I don't even remember their names. I remember distinctly that I had a nice lunch, but it was a silly interview. Lots of my friends saw it and said it really wasn't like me. I didn't even keep it in my scrapbook.

You have said: "I like to entertain and to stimulate in an emotional way." Is emotion diametrically opposed to intellect, or are they part of the same thing for you?

It could be part of the same thing, but I know that I write to tell an entertaining story, and that I am not trying to make a point. I am not trying to be an intellectual.

So you really have no particular philosophy of criminology or murder as some people do who write?

No. I think unfortunately that most criminals, in fact, the vast majority of the people who are in jail, have not got a very high IQ. Therefore, they don't interest me very much.

So you don't agree with George Bernard Shaw's idea that the artist is very close to the criminal? Colin Wilson also picks that up.

I can think of only one slight closeness, and that is that an imaginative writer is very free-wheeling; he has to forget about his own personal morals, especially if he is writing about criminals. He has to feel anything is possible. But I don't for this reason understand why an artist should have any criminal tendencies. The artist may simply have an ability to understand.

In A Casebook of Murder, Colin Wilson wrote that he regarded murder as a response to certain problems of human freedom: not as a social problem, nor a psychological problem, nor even a moral problem, but as an existential problem. Is that what you meant before when you said that you really are writing to entertain, rather than for a didactic purpose?

Yes, I still stand by what I said. I would much rather be an entertainer than a moralizer, but to call murder not a social problem I think is ridiculous; it certainly is a social problem. The word existentialist has become fuzzy. It's existentialist if you cut a finger with a kitchen knife—because it has happened. Existentialism is self-indulgent, and they try to gloss over this by calling it a philosophy.

In Ritual in the Dark and some of his earlier novels, Wilson is exploring the idea of the criminal, the murderer who is trying to move away from the boredom of life, searching for the meaning of life, going beyond the taboos of society. I think it is in this sense that he means freedom. He finally comes to the conclusion that murder really is a perversion of freedom, but he is still sympathetic to it as an attempt for freedom.

Yes, Dostoyevski was toying with this idea too. It is extremely interesting if one writes a story about that, but I wouldn't want to imagine a world in which everybody tried this.

Would you associate Bruno in Strangers on a Train with some of these notions? He often speaks on this subject.

Yes, but he is also a psychopath. He is really mentally sick, and either doesn't realize or doesn't care about the consequences of these ideas if he carries out all these projects; he is without a conscience and without any understanding of what he is talking about. He is simply not right in the head.

Often the criminal is the hero in your novels. Is this because, for a while at least, this particular person is not bound by society?

Yes, in fact I once wrote in a book of mine about suspense writing, that a criminal, at least for a short period of time is free, free to do anything he wishes. Unfortunately it sounded as if I admired that, which I don't. If somebody kills somebody, they are breaking the law, or else they are in a fit of temper. While I can't recommend it, it is an awful truth to say that for a moment they are free, yes. And I wrote that in a moment of impatience, I remember distinctly. I get impatient with a certain hidebound morality. Some of the things one hears in church, and certain so-called laws that nobody practices. Nobody can practice them and it is even sick to try. I get impatient with that, and so I made a rather hasty statement that at least for a short period of time the criminal is free.

And many people picked that up.

Yes. Julian Symons has quoted it, and he said the equivalent of what I said, which was neither the law nor nature cares about real justice. I mean frequently in court the guilty person goes free, either through mistakes or a crooked court which is quite possible. In nature it is the survival of the fittest. You cannot call that justice, you just call it a scheme of nature, a jungle.

Many contemporary novels, those of Colin Wilson, James Dickey's Deliverance, Walker Percy's Lancelot, Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, Graham Greene's A Sort of Life, to name a few, explore the idea that human beings murder and seek violence in a search for meaning, as a relief from ennui, as a challenge to society in order to find the potential in themselves. Although Bruno is a psychopath, these ideas are touched upon in Strangers on a Train. Is it ever justifiable to convert murder into a philosophical and aesthetic experience?

I simply don't agree with it. Murder, to me, is a mysterious thing. I feel I do not understand it really. I try to imagine it, of course, but I think it is the worst crime. That is why I write so much about it; I am interested in guilt. I think there is nothing worse than murder, and that there is something mysterious about it, but that isn't to say that it is desirable for any reason. To me, in fact, it is the opposite of freedom, if one has any conscience at all.

I think that is important. Critics just don't pick up on that aversion to murder in your work. They seem to want to create categories of responses. Do they ever say anything that you consider accurate?

In regard to murder I can't think of anything. Just now, I am going over the past two years of reviews. I have neglected them for two or three books, and I'm interested in the negative things. The new book out, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, is an interesting case. By the way, Ripley very much resembles Bruno psychologically because Ripley has done about eight murders by now, of which the first was the most important to him. I mean, he thinks back on the first murder and he feels shame. In the later murders he is killing people who—except for one honest man who is about to spill some beans, Murchison—are evil themselves. But he is also singularly lacking in normal conscience. So naturally the critics are going to pick up the similarity or they will make the remark about Ripley that he has no conscience. That is true. But, on the other hand, this is not true in a book like The Blunderer, in which the man gets to the brink of killing his wife, when she takes the bus trip, and can't bring himself to do it, only to have the wife throw herself over the cliff. Mostly my heroes are rather like Walter in The Blunderer, I think, by which I mean that whether they kill somebody or whether they don't, murder is not a casual thing to them, it is of great importance, it is a very serious crime.

This is exactly what I find interesting, because it is so much at odds with what other people seem to glean from your books. I think that if someone reads all of your work, he or she should see what you are saying. Perhaps part of the problem with reviewing is that many of the reviewers have not read a large quantity of your work. If you read only one of your books, I think it is easy to pick out certain striking features that are quite antithetical to what you are doing on the whole.

Yes, I can hardly blame them now because I have about twenty books.

It is a large undertaking, but a fascinating one. I have read many of the reviews of your latest book, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and they do seem to stress the negativity. To go back to what you were saying about guilt, you have previously said: "I suppose the reason I write about crime is simply that it is very good for illustrating moral points of life. I am really interested in the behavior of people surrounding someone who has done something wrong, and also whether the person who has done it feels guilty about it, or just, 'so what'." Very often the people in your novels around the killer think that he is mad or close to madness, and very often he is: David in This Sweet Sickness, Syd in Suspension of Mercy (in Britain, The Story-Teller in the United States), Robert in The Cry of the Owl, Vic in Deep Water. What interests you about this particular reaction?

I suppose in the case of Vic it makes the story much more alive. One can identify with a so-called normal person who is looking at Vic and suspecting, because anybody can identify with a person who has a suspicion, you see, in fact more easily than they can identify with Vic. It is just like a "background" in writing, a necessary element or a very useful element.

Freud and Jung both felt that murder can exact its own punishment in that the murderer feels tremendous guilt and punishes himself. In Strangers on a Train, Guy says that "every man is his own law court and punishes himself enough." Guy certainly is tortured by guilt, but several of your characters do not feel guilt: Philip Carter in The Glass Cell, Victor Van Allen in Deep Water, Tom Ripley. Do you find the effect of non-guilt just as interesting as guilt in a murderer?

Yes, I do.


Ripley as I said before is a little bit sick in the head in this respect of having very little conscience. Vic is becoming deranged in the book, he is a bit schizophrenic at the end. I try to explore as much as I can the part of themselves that these murderers are keeping secret from the public and even their wives. I try to tell how they deal with what they have done.

And Philip?

Philip was changed in prison when he saw the riot and his best friend Max was killed. He became hardened, you might say, and detests the man he kills at the end.

In what way does amorality interest you in a character like Tom Ripley?

I suppose I find it an interesting contrast to stereotyped morality which is very frequently hypocritical and phony. I also think that to mock lip-service morality and to have a character amoral, such as Ripley, is entertaining. I think people are entertained by reading such stories. The murderers that one reads about in the newspaper half the time are mentally deficient in some way, or simply callous. There are young boys, for instance, who pretend to be delivering, or who may help an old lady carrying her groceries home, and then hit her on the head when she invites them in for tea, and rob her. These are forever stupid people, but they exist. Many murderers are like that, and they don't interest me enough to write a book about them. Somebody like Ripley however, who is reasonably intelligent and still has this amoral quality, interests me. I couldn't make an interesting story out of some morons.

It seems to be a sine qua non of crime fiction that order is restored and good triumphs over evil, but sometimes your murderers do get away with murder; again, Philip Carter and Tom Ripley.

This is the way life is, and I read somewhere years ago that only 11% of murders are solved. That is unfortunate, but lots of victims are not so important as the President of the United States. The police make a certain effort, and it may be a good effort, but frequently the case is dropped. And so I think, why shouldn't I write about a few characters who also go free?

You have often been accused of carrying your identification with your psychotic characters to the point where you actually seem to be preferring their interesting evil to the mediocre virtue of their victims. Would you agree with that assessment?

Yes. I think it is more interesting to talk about something off the beaten track than it is to talk about a so-called normal person. That's one answer to your question. Another might be, that in some of my books the victims are evil or boring individuals, so the murderer is more important than they. This is a writer's remark, not a legal judge's.

Is this why you might perhaps find amorality more interesting than immorality, because it is more unusual?

Yes. I suppose it is such a subtle question because it is such a subtle difference. Amorality such as Ripley's is rarer than immorality. People in the Mafia, or pimps, people in any kind of wretched occupation, know that they and their work are strictly in the gutter, that their activities are disgusting, and they don't care as long as it puts a little money in their pockets. This is immoral, but the Ripley type is amoral.

In The Tremor of Forgery, the hero is both detective and suspect, accused and accuser. He is faced with the question of whether or not he must recognize the violence within himself. Conventional values and ethics seem lost in Tunisia and he is faced in his own life by the novel's statement: "Whether a person makes his own personality and standards from within himself, or whether he and the standards are the creations of the society around him." Which do you think come first?

I am quite sure that the standards of morality come from the society around; a child within the jungle is not going to invent his own sense of right and wrong. In Forgery, he leaves America and comes to a place where murder is taken a little more lightly.

Your exploration of the criminal mind is ever-fascinating. There have been so many conflicting insights about the criminal mind: murderers are innately evil; Lombroso believed that criminality was a trait inherited from degenerate ancestors; sociologists maintain that criminals are victims of urbanization, family disintegration, poor schooling, unemployment, mental illness; and a recent study by Yachelson and Samenow stated that there is a criminal personality. Where do you believe the ability to murder comes from?

I happen to believe more in heredity than I do in environment. There is certainly such a thing as a no-good family. Families always have a history, and I have heard of families where the grandfather was an old crook, never quite in jail. Within one household, one can find sometimes an atmosphere of flaunting the law to a greater or lesser degree.

Do you believe in the "bad seed" theory?

Yes, I think there is something in that; it doesn't mean the individual would always turn out badly, but as I said, I do believe in heredity more than environment. The phrase "poor schools" makes me laugh. I went to several. What counts is individual motivation. Ambition and drive count.

Do you think it is a mistake to try to reduce the original impulse to murder to one thing or another?

An impulse to murder is surely based on anger. Premeditated murder is different. I think of the two young Australian girls. One was eleven and one was thirteen, and they murdered the mother of one of them on a garden path I believe, for no reason. They just got together and said, "Let's do it." That comes under mental derangement, and as I am not a psychologist, I can't make any intelligent statement about that, except that any court would probably say that the girl who was the leader of the two, was mentally deranged. Where does that get you? It's just a term. But there was something wrong with her brain, even though she was only about thirteen. There is something wrong with anybody who is so inhuman as to kill the mother of a friend.

In P. D. James's novel Death of An Expert Witness, the murderer states that a murderer sets himself aside from the whole of humanity forever. It's a kind of death. Do you believe that murder is a kind of death for the murderer?

It certainly would be for me, but I don't know if many murderers take it that seriously. I had two dreams in my life in which I had committed a murder, and only in one could I identify a certain person whom I disliked years ago. But in each dream I was very disturbed by the fact that I was ostracized from society, or at least I felt that I was. In the dream, if I went to a store to buy a newspaper, I felt that people were looking at me and saying, "there goes a murderer." It was a truly dreadful feeling, but I think the world is also full of people walking around the streets in Chicago and Marseilles who have killed somebody and they sleep quite well.

In Strangers on a Train, Bruno tells Guy that "any person can murder." Do you think that is true?

No, I don't. Maybe I thought it was when I wrote it, but at any rate it comes out of Bruno's mouth. I don't believe that at all. I don't believe that everybody can be coerced into murder. In war, yes, I guess it is different. But I don't think everyone can murder, not even for money. It is all relative, because if you were to go to some primitive place, the Far East or Africa, and offered a fantastic sum to some humble person to kill somebody he doesn't know, then you or your paid agent could do it. You could find maybe the same thing in America if you looked hard, but I think I have to ask myself what kind of people am I talking about; the poor, the middle-class, or people like you and myself. I don't think you could be coerced, you couldn't be persuaded, I dare say you would not be able to kill somebody even for a considerable amount of money or whatever else.

What if we eliminate the question of punishment, jail, so that one would not weigh the consequences against the act? Many people think that it is the spectre of jail and punishment that prevents people from committing acts of violence.

Again one has to ask what intellectual level of person is one talking about. Of course, the more primitive the person is, if you eliminate the punishment, then the more likely the person can kill somebody for money. But I mostly write about middle-class people, and they would have too much awareness of what they had done, just as I had in the dream. It is the awareness of it that is the torture rather than being put into jail. Koestler spent some time campaigning against hanging in England, and with success, because he proved that capital punishment is not a deterrent, but insignificant. Yet its advocates are again trying to call it a deterrent. It's revenge they want, and that's as barbaric as the Old Testament.

I agree. Graham Greene, in his introduction to Eleven, wrote that you create a claustrophobic world which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger. Do you see danger everywhere in life as in your writing?

No. I am inclined to be naive in my personal dealings, and I am not inclined to lock the door and have padlocks everywhere. I don't know what Graham Greene means, but in my short story, "The Terrapin," about the little boy with the tortoise, the story is seen through his eyes. I don't know why it is so claustrophobic any more than any story, considering that a short story has to be intense, and is usually seen through the eyes of one person. You are within the little boy's atmosphere. I don't know why that is claustrophobic.

Just to continue with that, danger can also lurk under the rules and regulations of society. Vic, in Deep Water, feels that "people who do not behave in an orthodox manner are by definition frightening." This juxtaposition of the ordinary and the respectable with violence, creates a chilling atmosphere in your books because we are dealing with people who are middle-class, who are respectable. Do you purposely create that kind of atmosphere because you know it is all the more frightening?

No, it is because it is the atmosphere that I know, because it is my own class more-or-less, a very ordinary American. My family was neither rich nor poor, and I couldn't write about peasants. In New York once, when I was a teenager, I tried to write a short short about an Italian family because I went to school with many many Italians. I found I couldn't do it because I had never lived in their households with ten or eleven people sitting at the dining room table. I never finished the story. In other words, I have to write, any writer has to write, about the class of people that he knows. Therefore the contrast between class respectability and murderous thoughts is bound to turn up in most of my books.

You often return to the theme of a pathological conflict between two men, in Strangers on a Train, Deep Water, The Blunderer, The Glass Cell, The Cry of the Owl and others.

The ideas come to me in that way. The idea for Strangers on a Train came as an idea for an exchange of murders. For the exchange, one needs two men, two people.

You don't really explore that conflict with women though.

No, the only female protagonist I suppose in my novels is Edith in Edith's Diary. But I have a lot of short stories that have women protagonists.

Are you more interested in the conflict between men as opposed to conflict between women?

No, perhaps I find men more violent by nature than women, or more able to use physical strength, but that is obvious. In the American schools, at least in my generation, around fourteen years of age, they separated the boys from the girls in the Junior High School. It wasn't to keep the birth rate down at all, it was because the boys were difficult to handle, they were disobedient and the teacher would have to slap them in the face in those days and pull their ears. It was much more fun when I was going to school with boys before the age of fourteen, because they have a sense of humor, much better than that of the girls, I must say, and it was amusing. And suddenly from fourteen to seventeen there was a bunch of girls before university learning things by rote. Pretty boring. Young women these days are less passive, thank goodness, but they've still a long way to go.

In a time when people are interested in the portrayal of women in literature, I found your book Little Tales of Misogyny really quite unique.

That was like a book of jokes.

Yes, but I find that in a number of your novels the women seem despicable in trivial ways. They are often cheats, Melinda in Deep Water, Hazel in The Glass Cell, Alicia in Suspension of Mercy, Miriam in Strangers on a Train. And the women are totally unsympathetic in Little Tales of Misogyny.

I must say that it certainly looks like that, but actually I have quite an esteem for women's strength. I think the women portrayed in my writing have rather bad characters, but I don't think that personally. I think that women can be quite strong. I can remember my grandmother who was the head of the household in a very pleasant way when I was a kid, and my own mother's character was stronger than my stepfather's. Unfortunately in Strangers on a Train, Miriam, the wife, happened to be a silly high school girl. The early marriage of Guy and Miriam was based, you might say, on falling in love around high school age. This was a mistake for Guy, and so the girl Miriam is the type who would flirt and make another stupid liaison of some kind. And then Melinda, who was Vic's wife, was always flirting and having two or three lovers. I simply needed that for the story because it gives Vic a motivation for murder. Unfortunately, the whole picture looks as if I suspect that women have narrow characters, which is not really true. It is not my personal feeling at all.

Julian Symons has pointed out that you are drawn to the attraction exerted on the weak by the idea of violence, such as in The Two Faces of January and Those Who Walk Away.

Well, I don't plan these things. When I start to write anything, I think of the story first. I think of the events. Is it interesting or is it amusing or is it unexpected or is it almost unbelievable? That comes first, rather than thinking one character is weak and one character is strong.

Critics often discuss your obsessions and fixations, and the one they usually mention is paranoia. Clearly from what you have said, you don't believe that you particularly have obsessions and fixations in your own life.

Well, maybe there is a bit of paranoia in David in This Sweet Sickness, but I don't find it in The Tremor of Forgery. Vic, in Deep Water, is just the opposite of paranoid; he is quite sure of himself. He kills one man, then the second man, and he thinks he is completely in the clear. As for myself, I don't think I'm paranoid, but as I said before, rather trusting and optimistic about personal and business relationships.

Maurice Richardson has said that you write about men like a spider writing about flies, and another reviewer has maintained that reading one of your novels is like having tea with a dangerous witch. Both are compliments, I might add; they weren't meant to be negative. We talked before about reviewers. Do you read, now or in the beginning, material about yourself?

Oh, Definitely! I read reviews as I was beginning to write. Now I finally read the critiques, sometimes after they've been lying around the house for months. It is the last thing I look at in the Sunday paper when I know I have a review out. I am not exactly eager to read my reviews, but I have always been interested in the negative comments.

Do you notice a change in the responses to your work, from your first novel, Strangers on a Train, to your latest, The Boy Who Followed Ripley? Do you see an evolution in the response? Is it the same, is it very different?

No, I don't find it very different. I don't notice any change in them.

Do you feel that your literary reputation has suffered, as some people think, because crime is at the center of your books? Or do you really worry about your literary reputation?

I don't care about it at all. The publishers always want to categorize you, and they think it helps them to sell books. Edith's Diary was rejected by Knopf in New York and because the publishers can't categorize every book I write, this is why in New York I must have been with five publishers by now. I would rather stay with one, but they get so fixed on a certain category, that if I write something out of line, then it is a rejection and my agents have to take it to another publisher which up to now I have always been able to find. In England, Heinemann is less rigid. I won't say they will take anything, but my work has a fair amount of variation, if I consider Edith's Diary, Little Tales of Misogyny and the animal stories, but Heinemann is content to publish them all, mainly because they can sell them. So this business of categorizing bores me. I couldn't tailor my inspiration to that.

You mentioned Edith's Diary, which was a departure from the murder that is in most of your books. It was a wonderful novel. Are you interested in writing more novels in the future that don't deal with murder?

Oh, yes, definitely. In fact, I might go to the States to live for a few months in order to freshen my memory and my information, in which case I might write another American-set book with quite a different theme. I am interested in morale just now, not morals, but how one keeps up one's morale. It doesn't sound like a very exciting theme, and isn't until I attach it to a story.

I think it is crucial to anybody who is alive today.

Sometimes one has the mental habit, well, really tricks, to continue to be cheerful and to continue to imagine that one's making progress when one really isn't. I speak not of myself but of many, many people.

Why have you never written a detective novel as such?

I think it is a silly way of teasing people, "who-done-it." It doesn't interest me in the least and I don't know anything about the police procedure or the detective methods of working; that is an occupation in itself. It is like a puzzle, and puzzles do not interest me.

I am interested in the movies that were done from your novels. What did you think of them?

The Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train, is very dated now but I think it is a good film. Purple Noon is an entertaining film even though Ripley gets caught in the end. The American Friend, I thought, came off quite well. That's Wim Wenders doing Ripley's Game with Dennis Hopper. I saw that twice; I like to see any film that I'm interested in twice. The American Friend is a good film. I like it all except the ending. I thought they did the train scene very well.

I know that some writers, once they have sold the rights to their book, don't care what the filmmakers do with the movie after that. Do you like to be involved?

I do care. My agents want to put into the contract that I have the right to see the script, and if I don't like it, I can remove my name. I care quite a lot because I like to have a reputation for not only writing amusing books, but books that are capable of becoming good films. Of course, that depends on the quality of the director and script writer.

Was it an augury that you have the same birthday as Edgar Allan Poe, January 19?

I don't believe in astrology. It is also the birthday of Robert E. Lee, so I used to have a holiday down south in school. They recently stopped having holidays on his birthday though—too Confederate. (Laughs.)

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