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Powell’s Q&A: Frank Tallis

Describe your latest project.
My latest book is Fatal Lies, the third of a series of psychoanalytic detective thrillers set in the colourful Vienna of Sigmund Freud. In St. Florian's military school, a rambling edifice set high in the hills of the city's famous woods, a young cadet is found dead — his body lacerated with razor wounds. Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt calls on his friend — and disciple of Freud — Doctor Max Liebermann, to help him with the investigation. In the closed society of the school, power is everything and suspicion falls on an elite group of cadets, with a penchant for sadism and dangerous games. When it is discovered that the dead boy was a frequent guest of the deputy headmaster's attractive young wife — other motives for murder suggest themselves. A tangled web of relationships is uncovered, at the heart of which are St. Florian's dark secrets, which Liebermann, using new psychoanalytic tools such as dream interpretation and the ink-blot test, begins to probe.

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What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I am a clinical psychologist by profession, and in the mid 1990s I was given a unique position at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London. I was asked to develop a form of psychotherapy to stop people from engaging in "dangerous" sex. The job was really part of the general HIV/AIDS programme; however, I also saw many patients whose sexual behaviour was just dangerous, irrespective of the possibility of infection. Some of their exploits were so bizarre, I used to go home in a daze — stunned by what lengths human beings are capable of going to in the pursuit of "pleasure."

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
If you like ghost stories — particularly of the classic kind — then J. Meade Falkner's The Lost Stradivarius is a must-read. It is a relatively obscure work and has been in and out of print since its publication in 1895. It is about a young aristocrat who becomes obsessed with the life and work of a black magician — with devastating consequences; however, it also a book about music, and the power of music to change our perceptual world. The Lost Stradivarius is best enjoyed if read in a remote location, at night, and on one's own.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I've made many literary pilgrimages, but two stand out. First, going to Vienna and standing in the room where Freud wrote pretty much all of his books and articles. Second, travelling to Laugharne (a tiny fishing village in Wales) to visit the house of the poet Dylan Thomas. I loved the poetry of Dylan Thomas when I was at school, and I thought I'd like to see Laugharne at the time. It took me 35 years to organize the trip!

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Viennese pastries — sampled with a fine coffee. My books are set at the height of Viennese Coffee House culture, and as part of my research, I have had to eat large amounts of cake in beautiful fin de siècle surroundings. (Yes, a writer has a tough life.) Sometimes, I reproduce the experience in my writing. Curiously, these passages are very popular, and journalists and readers often refer to them. I can only conclude that this vice is more universal than I had imagined.

Why do you write?
As a child, I wasn't exposed to books or stories. Subsequently, I wasn't interested. Then, at about the age of eight or nine, I was sitting in a classroom, and the teacher started reading from a book called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. After two chapters, I was completely lost in the world Lewis had created. I went home, wanting — somehow — to be a part of this "story telling thing." Being a writer seemed a good place to start. I picked up a pen and, so inspired, started to write a story. When I pick up a pen today, it still feels just as fresh and exciting.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
When I was a kid, my older brother took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. I loved it, and a few years later was completely blown away by A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick was endlessly inventive, chose challenging subjects, and his shots were composed with the skill of a Dutch old master. When I was about 16 — by the most extraordinary coincidence — I got to know one of Kubrick's daughters and spent quite a lot of time hanging out at his house. He was, of course, a famous recluse, and film aficionados and scholars would have given several pints of blood for the privilege. Unfortunately, my admiration for Kubrick was so great, if he said anything to me, I could barely formulate a reply. I was just too in awe. My writing is supposed so be very descriptive and, in a way, I can see a Kubrick influence in the visual emphasis of my scene setting.

Make a question of your own, then answer it.
Q: What is the meaning of life?

A: I've thought a lot about this — and have even followed mystics and sages who claimed to have the answer. They didn't. Here are my musings on the matter. If there is a reason for existence — which seems unlikely — then it is both arrogant and absurd to think that something as limited as a human being can understand it. Why life in the first place? Why evil and suffering? Why the incomprehensible vastness of the universe — or the multiverse, for that matter? When afflicted by such questions, it is probably best to recognise that trying to answer them is a profitless pursuit. A good way to proceed is to watch consecutive episodes of The Wire and order a pizza.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud: Really tough going — but immensely satisfying. Although it is supposed to be a medical textbook, Freud succeeded here in creating a new literary genre. A hybrid of biography, case study, and philosophical treatise.

The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud by Ernest Jones: The definitive biography by Freud's most devoted disciple. Utterly biased, but crammed with fascinating detail.

The Discovery of the Unconscious by Henri F. Ellenberger: An exhaustive and scholarly tome on the history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. Fabulous stuff — but strictly for enthusiasts.

Hollywood on the Couch: A Candid Look at the Overheated Love Affair between Psychiatrists and Moviemakers by Stephen Farber and Marc Green: A very entertaining look at the symbiotic relationship between psychoanalysts and movie-makers.

The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days by Mark Edmundson: A clever book demonstrating that, just when you think Freud is washed up, the old man still has something relevant to say about the modern world. In this case, the threat of fundamentalism.

The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas: A novel, written in language that manages to find poetry in the concepts and terms of psychoanalysis. Brilliant and also very harrowing.

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Frank Tallis is a writer and practicing clinical psychologist. He is the author of two previous Dr. Max Liebermann novels: Vienna Blood and A Death In Vienna.

Books mentioned in this post

Frank Tallis is the author of Fatal Lies (Mortalis)

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