Patricia Highsmith was born in Texas in 1921. After attending Columbia University in New York she worked as a freelance journalist until the publication of her first novel Strangers on a Train (1950), which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Her numerous psychological thrillers include The Blunderer (1955), This Sweet Sickness (1960, filmed 1979), Those Who Walk Away (1976), A Dog’s Ransom (1972) and People Who Knock on the Door (1983). The Talented Mr Ripley, the first of the Ripley series, was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll. The world she creates was described by Graham Greene as claustrophobic and irrational, ‘one we enter each time with a sense of personal danger’. Patricia Highsmith died in February 1995.
Here is my interview with her from my book, More of A Certain Age.
Your parents separated before you were born, at a time when separation and divorce were not as common as they are now. Did you feel different from other children?
Frankly, no. I was born in my grandmother’s house in Texas. It was a very warm, friendly atmosphere, and I was very happy until I was six years old when I was taken up to New York, but even there it wasn’t bad. It was suddenly different to be amidst all those people, but I remember getting along very well with the blacks in my school because they seemed to have the same accent. And New York is always interesting.
You seem to have had a highly unusual childhood…do you remember it as an unhappy time, or did you just accept your circumstances?
I had to accept them. My mother remarried when I was three or four, and she was rather a neurotic type to say the least, always picking quarrels with my stepfather, so life was a little bit difficult.
Do you believe that childhood influences and environment shape and mould the pattern of our adult lives?
I believe very much what the Roman Catholics say about a child up to the age of seven. Moral training has taken place by then, and my grandmother was rather strict on those things. She was not severe, but she knew what was right and wrong, and nobody ever tried to cross her. I’m quite sure that left its mark on me.
Did you ever regret being an only child?
No. I never missed having brothers and sisters. Even now, although I very much like people, I am happy to live alone. The main point is that I can’t work with anybody else in the house, so if I lived with somebody I’d have to give up my work, or else somehow create a small house on the lawn and just take myself off there.
You didn’t meet your real father until you were twelve years old. Can you recall your feelings at that time?
I was shy and also curious. It was in my grandmother’s house and I saw him for only five or ten minutes – we didn’t even sit down. He took a look at my hand, as if to say, yes, you’re my child, but he was almost a stranger, rather brusque and formal.
Did you see him later on in life?
Yes. After the first encounter, he walked me to school and back a couple of times. Later between high school and college I went to Texas again to visit my grandmother, and I saw a great deal of him then. We went out to dinner and I met a lot of his friends.
And did you begin to like him?
In my opinion, there was nothing to dislike about him.
Your novels are often concerned with anxiety, confused relationships and loss of identity, which would seem to be the outstanding features of your own childhood…would you agree?
I don’t see the loss of identity. I took the name Highsmith which was my stepfather’s name, but that is not a loss of identity. In any case, fiction writers tend to write about problems, not about happy families. I write about murders, but I never wanted to murder anybody.
How would you describe your relationship with your stepfather? Was he to all intents and purposes your father, or were there barriers?
He was not what you would call a strong father figure, or indeed a strong anything. He was a man of very good character, a mild man whom my mother bossed around. I was about sixteen when I began to realise that it was my mother who was causing the difficulties. But I don’t feel his influence. I had to make my own character.
It seems that your mother explained family circumstances to you when you were ten years old, but that you had worked things out for yourself before then. Did you feel betrayed by that, or angry that she hadn’t told you before?
No. I did not feel angry at all. She had simply been evading the issue, putting it off.
I read somewhere about your mother losing one of your manuscripts which you interpreted as an act of terrible indifference. You must have felt very hurt and disappointed.
Not really. By then I was already thirty-four years old – I know because it was the time of my grandmother’s death. My mother did not take care of things and she lost the manuscript along with a lot of other papers, my letters to my grandmother, my college exam results, and so on. But I did not think it malicious. She was simply disorganised.
Do you think that your experience, or perhaps lack of experience of men during your formative years – absent father, stepfather, etc. – led to a mistrust of men in later life?
No, because I had boyfriends from the age of sixteen. And, as a matter of fact, I regarded my stepfather as being very trustworthy.
The heroes of your books are invariably men. The women are less interesting – they are often sluttish or have disagreeable habits. Do you have a kind of contempt for your own gender?
No. Edith’s Diary, for instance, is entirely about a woman and her struggles, a woman who tried to do her best. She failed in the end, but I think I wrote about her with considerable respect.
Your Little Tales of Misogyny, in the words of the blurb, shows ‘the generic awfulness of the female sex’. Were they written tongue-in-cheek, or with an underlying conviction?
With a conviction about certain aspects of women, such as a kind of phoniness and trying to be oh-so-correct, but one could do the same kind of book about men, a similar exaggeration of masculine traits.
Do you feel a sense of solidarity with your fellow women?
No. I’ve never been in that position. I can be in favour of women’s causes, but I don’t join them. If it’s a matter of donating a little money, or signing something, I might, but not extra work.
You have been independent all your life, you are successful, your own woman, all of which would seem to make you a shining example of the feminist movement. Have you ever felt strongly about women’s liberation?
Not strongly, no, but I’m not in a job that discriminates against women. I might have become angry if I’d been working in an office all my life.
Your book Carol, published under a pseudonym, describes the love which develops between two women. Why did the subject interest you?
Because society was more against love between women in those days, and I thought it was a good story, especially with the ex-husband in pursuit, making things as difficult as possible. I wasn’t consciously trying to convey a particular message, but I wanted to give it a happy ending.
Why did you write it under a pseudonym?
I was already labelled as a mystery writer, even though Strangers on a Train was not a mystery, and I didn’t want to be labelled as a gay writer. My publishers wanted another book like Strangers on a Train, but as usual I wrote what I wanted to.
It was unusual in those days to give a positive portrayal of homosexuality. Were you trying, to shock, or make people examine their prejudices, or what?
Neither. I was trying to tell a story which I thought was interesting.
Your heroine Carol has to face the choice of losing her daughter or losing her lover, but there is no attempt to portray the situation from the child’s point of view, or to engage the reader’s sympathy with the child. I wonder if you perhaps lack a natural sympathy with children…
The child is only ten and I don’t think a ten-year-old would have been able to understand the situation then, or the feelings of society towards lesbianism. Besides, I don’t know much about children because I haven’t been around children since I was a child myself. Frankly I’m not particularly interested in children.
Have you ever wanted to have children?
No. Absolutely not. I think it’s very difficult to raise children properly, and I cannot live with people round me.
You live quite a reclusive existence. Is that how you planned it, or did it just happen that way?
To say I am a recluse is journalistic nonsense, as though I made an effort to stay alone, which is not the case. I like talking to people on the phone, I like people to drop by for a coffee. I do not consider myself a recluse.
You have always avoided literary circles or discussions with other writers. Do you think they might be too incestuous or is it perhaps a fear of boredom?
I’m not inclined to talk about my work before it is finished – I think it is very dangerous to do so – and then when a book is finished, why talk about it? To me another writer it not enough of a change mentally. I very much prefer painters and sculptors and photographers; they have a different way of seeing life.
In your books violence seems to take place almost as much in the head as in any overt way. Do you think this is a true reflection of the way it is, that most violence is cerebral, and seldom actually manifests itself?
I’m not interested in brute force, which is what prevails in the world today. The kind of people I write about debate with themselves beforehand – should they do it or not? This makes for more thinking about violence in my books than doing it.
You have said that you find the public passion for justice boring and artificial because ‘neither life nor nature cares if justice is done or not’. What exactly do you mean by that?
It’s a rather extreme remark, but even justice frequently goes wrong. There are cases of men and women falsely accused of murder. Also, only eleven per cent of murders are discovered now. Some people don’t count for very much so the police don’t try very hard to find out who killed them. In the majority of cases nobody cares enough to catch the murderer, especially in America where the jails are full and the police are very busy.
The world you portray is a very cynical one, full of emotional cripples. Is this for you a totally imaginary world, or does it reflect your experience of life?
The world is certainly full of very strange people. It’s a matter of degree. Sometimes people are just quirky which makes them interesting and funny, but sometimes their quirks are terribly serious.
In 1965 you said that you were sick of violence and butchery and psychopaths…yet psychopaths have followed you into the 90s.
Well, I made a mistake in 1965 then.
Graham Greene once described you as ‘the poet of apprehension rather than fear’. Is that a description you’re pleased with?
Yes, I regard it as a compliment. Apprehension implies that my books leave something to the imagination. The reader is made curious about what is going to happen.
He also said that your world is one ‘without moral endings’, in other words justice is often not done and the villains are free to carry on their evil doings. Do you see yourself as seriously challenging the normal moral scheme of things, or is it purely a game, an entertainment.
It’s more of a game. I’m principally interested in telling a good story.
But your novels often invite discussions of morality, fuelled by characters like Ripley who murder without conscience and get away with it. What message are you aiming to give to people?
None. I’m simply trying to create an interesting story. Some people might say Ripley’s attitude is impossible but I think his lack of conscience is entirely believable. My books are written to entertain. I don’t consider myself a deep thinker; I’m much more an intuitive kind of person.
Your book People Who Knock on the Door was dedicated to ‘the courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in the struggle to regain a part of their homeland’. Why did you make that political gesture?
Because I thought it was right that I should. I blame my own country to some extent for what is going on now. I know people blame England for the mandate which led to all this, but America finances it now to a great degree. They also have the press under control and people are more or less told to shut up. Well, I don’t feel like shutting up. I think statements about injustice should be made. It’s shocking the way people sit in Long Island saying that the Palestinians should get their act together. When Hitler used the gun and the boots on the Jews nobody told them to get their act together. Nobody is able to face up to the gun. The Palestinians can’t even form small collectives to grow vegetables in poor soil on their own West Bank and Gaza without the Israelis breaking them up.
But what first brought the Palestinian cause to your attention?
The atrocity of it, the absolute injustice of the situation.
I understand you won’t allow your books to be published in Israel. Do you think gestures like that have any effect?
No, only in a very small way. I’m sure the world couldn’t care less, but it shows that not every American refuses to see what’s happening. That is what the Israelis want, and that’s frankly what they get round the New York area. From a humane point of view America turns too much of a blind eye to what Israel is doing there.
Do you feel as you grow older that your writing gets better and better?
That’s very tough. Unfortunately, I feel a tremendous slowing up; everybody does at my age, I think. Also life becomes more complicated as one grows older. There’s more paperwork, income-tax returns for two countries – all this has become burdensome somehow.
You have described the criminal as a free spirit. Can you tell me what you mean by that?
It’s not very flattering to the criminal because he just does anything he wants. It’s not something that I admire, but he’s definitely free in that respect. The rest of us have certain constraints, which is normal. For example, there are one or two people in my life whom I absolutely detest, but to murder them is out of the question.
Your heroes are usually unscrupulous, amoral and sometimes schizoid. Is it simply that they are more dramatically interesting figures to write about, or does your attraction to them run deeper than that?
It’s not so much attraction. I find them interesting, puzzling. Nobody questions why somebody is good, but most people are curious about a murderer – they want to know why. Also there is entertainment value in somebody getting away with something. One may disapprove, but it’s still fascinating;
Ripley differs from your other heroes in that he appears to have no conscience. Other characters are much more concerned with their own guilt. Is Ripley the exception…in art as in life?
Ripley is abnormal in the sense that he doesn’t feel the same amount of guilt as other people. He feels guilty for the first murder and then is reconciled to the others. I have to say that he’s exceptional.
It has sometimes been said that you are in love with Ripley, the rather likeable psychopath. Does this strike you as an absurd suggestion?
It’s just an exaggeration. I like to write about him, yes, but that’s all. It’s a silly phrase, ‘in love’.
Have you ever been love with a man?
In a way, yes. When I was around twenty-one…
Nothing happened. It turned into friendship, and we were friends until he died.
Have you ever regretted not marrying?
Lucretia Stewart who interviewed you for the Telegraph wrote as follows: ‘Her manner, which is at once diffident and disdainful, precludes intrusive questioning. It is not a secret that she is or has been a lesbian, but it would have been impossible to ask her about her private life.’ How do you react to that?
It’s better than some things I’ve read. If she wants to put that, it’s OK by me.
What about the suggestion that you are a lesbian?
OK. Fine. But I don’t talk about it.
Have you been a lesbian?
One concludes from reading your books that happiness is a frail commodity, touched by anxiety and often guilt. Has that been your own experience perhaps?
Very often with regard to people, yes, but it does not apply to happiness in general. Many people of course want to say that I’m unhappy, that I’m reclusive, but I’m not going to be unhappy just because somebody tells me I am.
In all the attention given to death in your books, do you ever contemplate your own?
No, although I would really like to be sure about my will. I have made a will, actually written it in holograph which is what the Swiss want, but I have a feeling it isn’t finalised yet. The most important thing is to have everything well organised before one’s death; that is more important than the phenomenon of dying.
Do you see the world as a friendly place?
In principle, yes. I have an optimistic attitude. When I get up in the morning, I first of all make the coffee and then I say to my cat, we’re going to have a great day…