Graeme Macrae Burnet | 'In order to immerse yourself in a novel I think you have to feel that it is real'

Graeme Macrae Burnet | 'In order to immerse yourself in a novel I think you have to feel that it is real'

Graeme Macrae Burnet was picked out by the literary spotlight when his second novel, His Bloody Project, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. Published by small indie Saraband, it tells of a brutal triple murder in the remote Scottish Highlands in 1869 via witness statements, a memoir written by the accused and a documentary account of the trial. While critics praised the “experimental narrative structure... Burnet is a writer of great skill and authority” (Financial Times), readers enjoyed discussing the book at length, furiously speculating on what was true and what wasn’t.

Burnet’s fourth novel, Case Study, a thrilling investigation into the nature of sanity and identity, is equally intriguing. It begins with an introduction from the author, explaining his interest in the controversial, now long-forgotten 1960s psychotherapist Arthur Collins Braithwaite, a contemporary of R D Laing. A series of notebooks follow, apparently sent to the author in 2020 to aid his research. The notebooks are written by an unnamed young woman in London in 1965, who believes the charismatic Braithwaite drove her sister to suicide. To confirm her suspicions, she assumes a false identity—Rebecca Smyth—and becomes a client of the psychotherapist herself. Her five notebooks, detailing their encounters, comprise the novel, interspersed with the author’s own biographical material on Braithwaite. Readers will, once again, need to come to their own conclusions about the “truth” of the situation.

Over the phone from the village of Lochcarron in the Highlands where he is on holiday (he lives in Glasgow), Burnet explains that Case Study grew out of his youthful interest in real-life psychiatric case studies from Sigmund Freud to R D Laing. Over time, he started to think about the fact that “when you read a case study you are only ever presented with one point of view, one version of events, which is that of the therapist.” Nobody, he observes, questions the sanity of the therapist and he became increasingly interested in the view from the other side of the therapy room. Case Study, he decided, would be told in the form of someone writing an account of her encounters with a therapist. He began with two characters: “the author of the notebooks and Braithwaite, the psychotherapist. And I had this situation where she thinks that Braithwaite has driven her sister to suicide. But we don’t know the truth of any of these things.”

The voice of the notebook narrator—who initially registers as a slightly prim, upper middle-class, English schoolgirl but becomes vastly more complex over the course of the novel—came easily. He read lots of women’s magazines of the period—the Mitchell library in Glasgow holds the entire back catalogue of Woman’s Journal—for the language and the attitudes of the time. “The narrator goes into these encounters with the psychotherapist in quite a naïve way. As we learn
more about Braithwaite, particularly in the [biographical] section where he’s at Oxford and he behaves in these really obnoxious ways towards women, malicious, misogynistic ways—as I’m writing it, I’m thinking, ‘God, he’s such a monster!’—I wanted there to be a tension between those two accounts so the reader is maybe feeling more jeopardy than she does herself.”

Reading as an active process
As with the memoir and trial account in His Bloody Project, the notebooks of Case Study are presented as found objects, written by someone else, and I am very interested in why Burnet chooses to construct his fiction in this way. He starts laughing when I ask the question, apologising that he finds it impossible to answer, but then has a good go. With His Bloody Project, he says, the documentary format provided different points of view of the same event, “and then the reader becomes the detective, or member of the jury, and must [decide] for themselves what version of events they most believe. I think then that the reading process is a very active one. You’re not told at the end, ‘here is the definitive version of events, so you can turn off the light and go to sleep happily’. I want people to be lying awake after they’ve finished the book, going ‘what?!’” At events, people tell him that his books have stayed with them: “I think it’s because the loose ends aren’t tied up. Of course, readers can find that frustrating as well, but you write the way you want to write.”

In Case Study, actual people come into the story and interact with the fictional characters, notably R D Laing, which gives the novel a “sense of connection with the real world”, reckons Burnet. “I think people will Google Collins Braithwaite and think he is real, because I write about him in a documentary style.”

“When you write in a documentary format it signifies truth to the reader, or reality. Whereas when [a book is written] in the first person, there’s a much stronger feeling that you don’t need to believe what you’re reading and that the [character] may be misleading you.” He likes to “mix up” different styles and says he enjoys readers questioning what is real and what is not. “It’s fascinating to me, because when we read novels, we know it’s not real; yet what we seek from a novel, or what I seek from a novel, is a feeling of reality. In order to immerse yourself in a novel I think you have to feel that it is real, even though we know that it’s not true, it’s all made up.”

Serendipitous meeting
Case Study will be published by the same indie as his previous three novels, after Saraband, now based in Salford, won a five-way auction. The relationship has been long and fruitful, and began with his literary crime début novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. He approached Saraband directly, without an agent when, serendipitously, the then-Scotland based publisher was about to launch the Contraband crime list. When the follow-up, His Bloody Project, made the Booker longlist there was a flurry of interest from agents. But Burnet, who was by then writing his third novel, An Accident on the A35 (a sequel to The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau), saw no need for an agent at that point, as it was “right” that Saraband publish that too. But with Case Study, and newly-acquired agent Isobel Dixon, he “felt it was the right junction in my career to have the book submitted widely because if I didn’t, I would always wonder about what that experience would have been like with a larger publisher”. 

There were strong offers from three publishers altogether, he says, “any one of which I would have been delighted to accept”, but in terms of the pitch, “Saraband just knocked it out of the park.” He praises the passion Saraband had for the book, and the great marketing strategy. It all, he says, “just ramped up from my previous experience with them which had always been totally positive”.

There is much to admire in Burnet’s metafictional style, but the author is clear that what really matters to him is that readers engage emotionally with his fictional worlds. “I want people to feel absolutely drawn into the world of the book, the minds of these two characters, the intrigue and the not knowing what has happened and what has not happened. I want them to feel that it’s a very readable, accessible book but it’s still got a bit of intellectual heft to it as well. I see no contradiction between the idea that you can be entertained and intellectually engaged at the same time.”