Writers & Company

Pat Barker on how her grandfather's war wound inspired her powerful World War I trilogy

The Man Booker Prize-winning English novelist talked to Eleanor Wachtel in 1997 on writing fiction about the physical and psychological impact of war.
Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy brought the English writer to critical and popular attention. (Ellen Warner)

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of England's Man Booker Prize, Writers & Company is airing a special summer series of Booker Prize winners from our archives. You can see all the episodes here.

English novelist Pat Barker won the Man Booker Prize in 1995 for The Ghost Road, the third novel in her acclaimed Regeneration trilogy. As they unfold during the First World War, the novels — including Regeneration and The Eye in the Door — centre on the story of the real-life anthropologist and psychologist William Rivers, who treated front-line soldiers for "shellshock" — what we'd now call PTSD. 

Barker was born in northern England in 1943. She was raised by her grandparents, and wrote her first novel when she was 11, deciding then that she would be a writer. Her first published work, Union Street, was praised for its wit and authenticity in depicting the lives of working class women in England's industrial north. But she found herself drawn to the stories of the First World War.  

Pat Barker spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 1997. 

Twist of fate

"I was brought up by my grandfather, who fought in the First World War. He didn't speak much about his experience but he had a bayonet wound from his time in the war. As a child I asked him about it. He told me that an Allied officer had shot the German man who had bayoneted him before the enemy solider could do the 'twist and withdraw' part of the cycle which makes bayonet wounds so horrendous. Because of that it was a straight stab wound and he attributed his survival to that. 

"I suppose that it was part of my family history. My first three books were predominantly about women and I was always aware there was this other strand in my family history that I had not tapped into at all, which was the experience of the men. While the trilogy of books isn't about my family history, learning more about my grandfather's experience during the First World War was the germ that got me started writing about that time."

Paradox of curative treatment

"The William Rivers of the trilogy regards himself as someone doing his patriotic duty in treating these shellshocked soldiers, which is likely what the historical Rivers and my Rivers have in common. They have no doubt at all that in wartime, it is the duty to contribute anything you can to the service of your country. 

"But Rivers also likely regarded himself to be on a slippery slope. The whole of medical ethics is based on this coincidence of aim on the part of the patient and the doctor: that both desire that the patient become fit in order to live life as they wish to do. And in wartime, by treating soldiers with the aim of getting them back to the front line, that coincidence is no longer there. It's not in the patient's interest but rather of the country and the army. As a doctor employed by the army, Rivers was inevitably going to precipitate a crisis of conscience within himself." 

Keys to writing historical fiction

"It took me years to finally write about this story. I couldn't think of an original way of doing it at first. I had tried several times and it always turned into a patchwork quilt of original sources that were disguised as historical fiction, which is often the problem writing in this genre. 

"I found the solution by taking a step back and being very clear about the sources by using actual historical characters. But also by making William Rivers the centre of the book's consciousness. He was someone who had never actually been in the trenches himself. So, from the beginning, this was a book that was filtered through the mind of someone who hadn't been there. That was important to me, and I found it possible to move forward from that point."

Pat Barker's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: To Drive the Cold Winter Away performed by Barry Phillips.