Interview: Philippa Perry - Writer

AS Philippa Perry comes toward me, something about the jaunty way she wears a trench coat screams "naughty", while her clear-eyed intelligence, obvious even at this distance, makes me think she'd be the sort to wear a defiant stare that challenges: "What are you looking at?" throughout a striptease.

Add to that the way therapists do it with mirrors ("Good morning." Pause. "Do you feel that it's a good morning?") and an hour's discussion of Perry's first book, Couch Fiction, feels a bit strenuous. Not unlike a session of analysis, then, except in this instance I'm supposed to be the analyst and Perry – wife of Grayson – the analysand, and I'm not sure it worked out that way.

Couch Fiction is a graphic novel charting the story of a narcissistic yuppie called James who seeks help from Pat, a therapist whose office is lined with books and whose jumper bears evidence of breakfast. James is a kleptomaniac, but of course this is merely the outward manifestation of inner turmoil.

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Using both thought and speech bubbles, and footnotes that clarify the therapeutic process and its terminology, Perry delivers that rarity: an edifying page-turner. Yet psychology wasn't her first professional port of call. She's worked as a legal clerk, ran a McDonald's, and earned a degree in fine art. Why that, of all things?

"Weeeeeel," she says, "You've got to do something during the day, haven't you? An aunt had left me some money and I thought it would be nice to go to acting school or art school, and I got into art school. I got a 2:1 in fine arts. A bit short of excellent. But my husband didn't get a first, either, and he's a very proper artist. He got a 2:1 too."

Presumably everyone is asking if your interest in psychology developed before or after you met one of the most famous transvestites in living history, I say. "Oh, before," she laughs. "Nobody's actually asked that yet. You're being very candid."

Well, in for a penny ... Given that she knew about Grayson's frocks before they married, might I also suppose that fame proved more disruptive to their lives than transvestitism?

"Absolutely! That's a correct guess. Fame is an interesting dynamic. Before fame it was you, your husband and your friends. After fame there's you, your husband, your friends and this strange person called Grayson Perry – in quotes. But life is about change and adjusting to it. Someone said that one difference between sanity and insanity is the ability to adjust to change."

Her own decision to change into an author came about for that most perfect of reasons: she wrote the book she longed to read.

"When I first started out I would have loved having a book like this. The format is really a personal choice, because when I was little Asterix was my favourite. I am dyslexic, so I liked comics because the pictures help me understand what the words mean."

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She asked Junko Graat to do the art because she was already in the Perrys' inner circle. "For me, life is a series of relationships. Junko was a graphic designer in Japan and she came over to Britain to study horticulture and was working for Grayson and me, so she was around and she could draw. She was always very up for discussing psychology and philosophy, and seemed like a really natural choice."

Versus the other natural choice? "Oh! I see what you mean. Well, Grayson is incredibly busy. I'd still be in the queue rather than having a book. I would have liked him to do it, but there are advantages to this other way. Up until now, I've had all the advantages of fame with none of the exposure – and exposure is potentially shaming. I could have a lovely time and enjoy meeting really interesting people, without having to stick my head above the parapet. And now its 'Oh God, people are going to see what I'm like.'"

A year ago she gave her clients notice, "in order to concentrate on the final push of the book and to work on all the publicity. You have to tell people the book's out there, and to do that I lose the anonymity necessary to be a therapist. When I go back in again this will have all died down. I mean, I'm already Grayson Perry's wife, but people don't usually know that when they come to see me. Why would they?"

Surely having such a distinctive look – dramatic hair, vivid spectacles, for instance – already sends a lot of messages? She fixes me with a steely gaze and in tones suggesting I'm thick, asks, "Maybe I don't look like this when I'm working?"

While she has never been short of patients, she concedes that many in the UK are leery of therapy. "It's not that I want to convert people. I'm just showing you what it is and that it can be really useful in some circumstances." I tell her I like Pat's humanity, and the way she makes mistakes during James's treatment. Perry replies, "I wonder whether we have, innately, a need to find somebody that's perfect, because that would take us back to the safety of being a baby when we think that mummy and daddy are the whole world and make us safe and perfect. I wonder whether whole religions aren't built around that yearning. People tend to look for perfection in others, whether a doctor or teacher or therapist, and I talk about the danger of colluding in it.

"And when you meet someone, maybe you're projecting your own iridescence onto the other person. Falling in love might be a little bit of 'I want you to be perfect, I want me to be perfect, and let's see how long we can keep the illusion up.' It's a very happy moment finding out the other person isn't perfect. Living with illusion, living with fantasy, it's not as much fun as real, true contact. Getting nearer the truth is always my goal because it is more enjoyable than living in cloud cuckoo land. It's an ongoing quest. The absolute truth can never be known, we can just keep asking questions."

Did Grayson really say winning the Turner Prize improved the dynamic of their relationship, because he finally out-earned her? "It sounds like something I might say rather than one of his. Money is a metaphor for people's relationships. I can remember my insecurity kicked in when he did start to earn more than me, because I always thought: penniless artist needs me."

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Smiling from ear to ear she says, "Apparently, he married me for love, so I didn't need to worry about that! That's what I mean when I say living with truth is so much more fun than a negative fantasy."

• Couch Fiction, by Philippa Perry, with artwork by Junko Graat, is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced 12.99. Perry will be appearing at Waterstone's on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, on 3 May at 6pm (tickets 3 but redeemable against purchase of the book on the night: phone 0141-332 9105) and at Blackwell's in Edinburgh at 6:30 pm on 4 May (free but ticketed. Phone 0131-622 8222 or e-mail [email protected]).