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Philippa Perry: Couch Fiction | Interview

Her new book, Couch Fiction, is an attempt to demystify therapy - and tell some jokes too. Philippa Perry talks about 'excavations of the mind', domestic class war, and why she chose a transvestite club for her first date with Grayson

Philippa Perry lives in a beautiful house in a beautiful Georgian square deep in smartest north London. She has owned it for 25 years and knows many of her neighbours. "There's a bit of a row going on at the moment!" she says, in a hammy whisper soon after my arrival. "There's a split between the north of the square and the south." The schism is, I gather, the result of a planting arrangement – it has something to do with bulbs or possibly shrubs – and, according to Perry, it is "straight out of Mapp and Lucia". She looks delighted at the thought. Perry is mad for Mapp and Lucia, EF Benson's bitchy village ladies, and now I'm sitting opposite her, this passion makes perfect sense: somehow, I can just hear her shouting: "O reservoir!" at her clients as they exit the building.

Well, perhaps not her clients. But the window cleaner, certainly, and the boiler repair man. With her clients, I expect she has to damp herself down, throw a tea towel over the cheery, combative and slightly camp sparks that usually fly from her person. Perry is, you see, a psychotherapist and she sees her clients here in the beautiful square. She sits in one velvet chair, the client sits in another, and for 50 minutes, they get the best part of her: the warm, wise and questing part whose definition of sanity is: "How am I feeling? How do I express that? What are my needs? How can I get them met?" Jokes and catchphrases have no place in her consulting room: they are a distraction, a stinky red herring. "When I first had therapy myself, I always used to keep making jokes," she says. "My therapist would go [adopts universal eastern European shrink accent], 'I do not zink zat eez funny!'" She hoots with laughter at the memory.

In her new book, however, there are plenty of jokes. Couch Fiction, illustrated by her friend Junko Graat, is a comic strip. It tells the story of a case history in the professional life of Patricia Philips, a psychotherapist who lives in a house that looks remarkably like that of the woman who created her, though the Couch Fiction home, placidly rendered in black and white, does not perhaps have quite the same weird energy as Perry's. (Its narrow hall is painted such an intense shade of red, it's like standing in an artery; you want to press a cheek against its wall, the better to feel its pulse.) She wrote the book because she wanted to demystify therapy and so – for once – jokes were wholly appropriate.

"I wrote the book I would have liked to read myself 30 years ago, when I was still floundering around reading Scott Peck," she says. "I've always loved case studies, from Susie Orbach on, but I'm dyslexic and I got into reading myself through Asterix. So I love comics, too. And then I discovered Harvey Pekar!" She sighs happily. Pekar is the angst-ridden author of the comic book series, American Splendor. "It hit me like a punch: marry Harvey Pekar with psychotherapy!"

She drew the first draft herself, all ghostly outlines and wobbly furniture. These sketches she then passed to Graat who, when she used to work as Perry's gardener, would leave delightful sequential drawings for her to come home to, detailing how the cat had been sick or whatever. Graat put everything in order. Even so, it wasn't easy to sell the book. Perry is married to the Turner prize-winner Grayson Perry, with whom she has a teenage daughter, Flo, but all the name-dropping in the world couldn't get her a publishing deal. "I did try. I'm not stupid!" In the end, though, this turned out to be a good thing. Couch Fiction's appearance between hard covers is testament to its wit and good sense rather than the fame of her transvestite potter husband – though finding the right title helped, too. "I wanted to call this book 'Interruptions of Contact'," Perry writes in her introduction. "But the publisher quite rightly pointed out that it sounded obscure, negative and could be mistaken for coitus interruptus."

The case in question concerns a young, well-to-do barrister, James, who comes to Pat seeking help for his kleptomania (Perry chose kleptomania for the simple reason that this is a condition yet to present itself in her real-life consulting room). Naturally, his thievery is a symptom of a deeper malaise and it is one that Pat eventually traces back to his childhood, which was cold and dysfunctional. Thanks to the conventions of the strip form, however, not only do we hear their conversations, we also see (oh, the beauty of the think bubble!) what therapist and client choose to keep to themselves. At one point, for instance, James confesses that, unused to having such an intimate, non-physical relationship with a woman, he has started having sexual fantasies about his therapist. "Oh?" says Pat. He tells her that he pictures himself coming into her room: she is crying, he comforts her, they end up "on the sofa together". But this is not quite the truth. The next frame – a giant think bubble – shows a naked Patricia biting down on a volume of Freud while James gives her "a right old seeing to".

Beneath many of the pages are brief notes explaining some of therapy's terms and processes (transference, counter-transference, intervention). In these, Perry's tone is sometimes wry and ironic, sometimes sombre and straight. Below a picture of James arriving at Pat's house for his first appointment, she writes: "I wonder how much research has been done on the impact of recycling bins and their contents on the doorsteps of therapists' premises?" Below the picture of Patricia sprawling naked on her consulting room sofa, she writes: "It isn't easy to find a universally causal explanation for erotic transference."

Perry was determined not to make her therapist an all-seeing, God-like figure. Sometimes, Pat finds her client difficult, even dislikable and sometimes, in their conversations, she seems merely to be feeling her way. "Therapy isn't about the therapist knowing more," she says. "It's more about the therapist being used to evacuations – no! that's the wrong word! – I mean excavations of the mind."

Nor does she want, as an author, to come over as some proselytiser for therapy; she would never claim superior intellectual or emotional status simply by dint of the fact that she has been – is this a word? – therapised. "There is a form of belief that says the world is divided in two: into those who are in psychotherapy and those who need to be. I don't subscribe to that view. Some people can manage very well without it. Some people might be able to manage without self-awareness as well. Maybe they're not in the slightest bit fucked up. But it works for me."

She came to therapy relatively late: at 53, she has been in private practice for only 10 years. "I used to read Freud a lot. But it was just a hobby. I was really resisting it. Then I volunteered for the Samaritans and when I'd been there a while, I realised: I'm not being altruistic; I came here to see whether it was safe to explore feelings. I had a fairly stiff-upper-lip upbringing in which, if you didn't talk about it, it would get better. Through the Samaritans, I learned not only that it was safe; it really seemed to be useful. It didn't harm people; it turned them around. I was very taken with the power of it. I set up an agony page on the internet. It doesn't exist any more, I'm pleased to say. When the problems got too complex, I decided to train – and that meant having therapy myself."

In Couch Fiction, James is a bit obnoxious at first. Are there some clients whom Perry likes more than others? "What a question! No one is born annoying. You're trained to be annoying. Someone who might not be engaging socially might be a more interesting client because they have more faulty training to unpick. If you're a baby who was left to cry, you may never have learned to soothe yourself. You learn to soothe yourself because your mum picks you up and says, 'There, there!' That sort of person will need to find someone to help them self-soothe. That sort of person as a friend... well, you don't want too many of them on the phone. But as clients, they're interesting."

Can everything be traced back to one's parents? I sometimes think this is dubious and for this reason I liked the bit in Ian McEwan's new novel, Solar, when his central character, Michael Beard, who is a scientist, rants about the trite ways in which psychotherapeutic narratives bend to fit the facts (the orphan, fearing loss, grows up to be a commitment-phobe; but he could just as easily, and for the same reason, grow up to be a commitment-phile). "Perhaps it's clearer to say that things are down to one's relationship with one's environment," says Perry. "I think I was soothed by my mum. But I was an undiagnosed dyslexic and I was always being told I was stupid. That had a huge effect. Most people have got a script from their parents, or from their childhood, and it takes a lot of work to rewrite it."

Isn't focusing so closely on one's own feelings selfish? "It sounds selfish. But your feelings are always there and they will always come out. We're all familiar with the posh aunt at tea who says [she does another posh Mapp and Lucia voice], 'Now, does anybody want jam?' She's sitting there with a scone and no jam and she'd save everyone a lot of trouble if she just said, 'Pass the jam, please.'"

I've always wondered if being a therapist ruins one's social life. I don't mean that when people find out what you do for a living they immediately start dribbling their woes all over the asparagus, though I expect that does happen. But you must see symptoms – insanity, even – everywhere. Perry laughs. "Yes. Sometimes, I go too far in a social situation." She puts her hands in front of her eyes, sticks out her index fingers and moves her head from side to side, slowly, like a Dalek. "Grayson says, 'You've got the guns out!' If someone splits off into another character, other people might think he's arsing around. I think: that's interesting. He keeps turning into a five-year-old. So I'll ask: what happened to you when you were four? They usually tell me their mother died or something." Has her work made her unshockable? Not remotely. "I'm shocked by the way people treat other people. I'm shocked and I'm sad."

With her outsize lemon-lime spectacles and her groovy, asymmetric bob, Philippa Perry could not be anything other than a born-and-bred member of the arty/liberal north London intelligentsia. Or so I imagined before I met her. But, like a cat, she has had several lives. She is from Warrington originally. "My mother was from a cotton mill family. When I say 'cotton mill', they owned one. My father inherited an engineering company and a farm. I grew up in the country and I'm not scared of cows." Was it a nice childhood? "It was all right... when the sun was out. But I was sent to boarding school at 10 and I hated that. The school motto was 'That our daughters might be as the polished corners of the temple' and I just never understood it."

She left at 15 and was promptly dispatched to finishing school in Switzerland. "Everybody there was posher than me. They were from Scotland or the south, not from the [she enunciates her next two words crisply] manufacturing classes." Afterwards, she went to secretarial college – an even worse idea, given her dyslexia. Then she got lucky. Having already been sacked from several typing jobs, she pitched up at a solicitor's office where someone grasped that, in spite of her awful typing, she was bright and "good fun" and she became a litigation clerk. By now, she was living in Oxford. "All those lovely boys! So I got a husband." A rather more conventional husband than now? "I don't know whether anyone's conventional when you get to know them." The marriage lasted a long time – she married in 1978, aged 21, and divorced in 1987– but, deep down, she knew it was wrong. "Yes, I did. But I had quite an Edwardian upbringing. My parents would have been unhappy if we'd just lived together." Together, she and her husband the Oxford graduate ran the business she had by then set up, a company that serviced legal clerks.

The firm did well, but the work was boring. So she sold it. What next? "Out of the frying pan and into the fire. I went to work for McDonald's. The Oxford Circus branch. I was manager within two months." Crikey. Why McDonald's? She lowers her voice conspiratorially. "It was class tourism. I suppose it was my gap year. I learned a lot. I used to catch myself thinking: oh, that chap's quite clever. Then I'd have to say to myself: well, why on earth wouldn't he be? But the hours were terrible and after a year I was fed up with the smell of fat. I was responsible for a turnover of £2m, but still, working there was me not taking myself seriously, I think."

She went back to secretarial work. "I was at Linklaters, as a paralegal, and it was brilliant. It was the 1980s, there was a lot of money about. I had a lovely Amex card and a suit from Jaeger with matching navy accessories. The overtime was so good, Chris and I were able to buy this house. We divorced soon after, and I had to pay him off, but by then I'd inherited a bit of money from my family. So then I thought: I know, I'll go to art school! I was coming up to 30 and I realised I had to find a baby father. Did I want to be married to a solicitor? Not really. So I went to Middlesex Poly, where I did fine art."

She loved the course, but the other students drove her mad. They never turned up to 9 o'clock life classes, which made her furious, because she was always there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Worse, there was not a suitable "baby father" anywhere in sight. Determined to throw her net even wider, she enrolled at creative writing evening classes at City University and it was there that – phew – she met Grayson.

What was he like? "He was a show-off. I thought: you're the last person I'm going out with. But he was very good-looking. He had this shock of blond hair, and a red leather jacket, because he used to arrive by motorbike. He was very funny, too. We had to read our diaries out. Mine was all about failed romances at art school. His was about the neo-naturists or something." They have now been together for 22 years. "We got on and we've never stopped getting on. My experience of meeting Grayson was: there is something in you that I need and I need to hold on to it." What was it? "It's his ability to be himself. I like that and I've learnt from it."

You might be wondering what on earth she means by this: people sometimes speculate that Perry's transvestism – his tranny alter ego is a little girl, Claire – is just an act, or an aspect of his art. But read his memoir, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, or talk to the artist himself (I've done both), and you realise this is quite wrong: the cross-dressing began when he was still a troubled teenager and when he describes how it made him feel – sexy, elated, more free – his words crackle with electricity, just like the cheap polyester dresses he used to pick up at jumble sales. On the page, and in person, there is something so authentic about him you can almost smell it. He's a working-class heterosexual who just happens to like wearing pretty frocks. The only problem is that this particular aspect of "being oneself" is not necessarily attractive in a husband – or it wouldn't be for most women.

I want to discuss this but, at first – stinky red herring alert! – Perry ignores the dresses and talks instead about class. "It's a mixed-race marriage," she says. "Grayson finds my middle-class rules a little difficult at times. He's allowed to run around the house naked, but he's not allowed to run around the house in trousers with no top on. I won't have it! This is not a miner's cottage!" Did he confess his dress-wearing straight off? "Our first date was: do you want to come to a private view or do you want to come to a transvestite club? Ooh, a transvestite club! It sounded much more fun than a private view." Didn't she find his transvestism... difficult? "Not at all. We were friends for six months before there were any shenanigans, so I was well aware of it before we became an item. It might be tricky for some women. If they've been deceived, or find out a year in, that must be really difficult." Did she make rules about when he could and could not wear dresses? "NO!" She sounds like she thinks this is a really daft question. "That's never bothered me. That's not part of my class thing, my Hyacinth Bucket thing, is it?"

Not to play the therapist myself, but I'm not sure that I entirely buy this and, a few weeks after our interview, I email her, telling her how, on my tape, her voice tightens when I bring up Grayson. Should I take what she says at face value? Apparently, I should. "I think it is fantastic that Grayson is fully himself, even when that self might be considered unconventional. I fully support him dressing however he wants. It's fabulous, and it develops, and it's interesting to witness that. And I'm proud of him and proud to be at his side." In photographs taken with him dressed as Claire, she always looks so jolly. "Jollity," she writes back. "The result of many years on the therapist's couch. When you learn to access more of your feelings, you have more awareness of all of them and that includes laughing. Plus, Grayson is very good company and going out and staying in with him is fun. I think that could account for some of it."

One last thing. In his book, Grayson writes that he finally broke with his mother in 1990, when he took Philippa to meet her: "My mother attacked Phil and said, 'You must be desperate to marry a transvestite.'" How did that make her feel? "I can't remember. It was such a long time ago. A bit shocked, probably. But then why would she be happy that her son is a tranny? People on the whole don't want their kids to be too different from the norm. It's understandable that she's angry that his girlfriend supports her son's trannyism. I hope I have answered all your questions now."

After she and Grayson had been together for 10 years, he, too, started having therapy, an experience he refers to enthusiastically in his book. Was it her idea? "Yes. I was in therapy and I didn't want to be his therapist. 'You need it,' I told him. 'I'm fine,' he said. So I thought: right! And I withdrew my therapy services." Oh, that old trick, I say, not meaning anything in particular. Perry's marvellous eyes widen. "No, not THAT old trick! I didn't withdraw THAT! I just stopped asking him how things made him feel, and it worked, he got a therapist, though then I felt terribly jealous." In his book, he comes over as very sane. "He is reasonably sane. Wearing a dress is a sign of sanity. He feels like he really wants to wear one, so he does; it doesn't hurt anybody. It's a super-sane thing to do." She has never worried about him, least of all about his abilities as an artist: "He is a genius."

In 2003, others noticed this genius and Grayson won the Turner prize. Suddenly, he and his pots were everywhere. Did this change things? "Yes. Obviously, our life got very exciting. We'd get invited to lots of dos. And I took it as a personal compliment. I like to twist things round. I discovered him! I'm a good picker! But the downside was that suddenly everyone wanted to talk to Grayson. They weren't interested in me. That did knock me over. I'd be at a party and someone would say, 'I've always wanted to meet your husband.' This wasn't an insult, it was a compliment – so why did I feel so weird? The other thing is that when it all happened, being a slightly insecure person, I thought: oh, he won't want me any more. But he does, so that's nice."

Though outwardly unusual, the two of them live an ordinary, rather cosy kind of a life. She describes it to me. Philippa spends her day with her patients and then flops down in front of Countdown; Grayson spends his day in his studio listening to Radio 4 and then comes hoping to chat, only to find she is all talked out. At weekends, they go to their cottage, where they grow vegetables. Their daughter, Flo, is 17 and is hoping to read chemistry at Durham University and they are preparing themselves for empty nest syndrome. Together, they are growing older. A few weeks ago, Grayson celebrated his 50th birthday with a big party, at which he treated guests to some advice he received from an elderly gentleman whom he met when he gave the annual William Morris lecture. After 50, he told the assembled company, "a man should never pass a lavatory, never trust a fart and never waste an erection".

Philippa relayed this cherishable maxim to me in another email, which was a shame, really: I would have loved to hear her tell it in person, her throaty laughter bouncing off her consulting room walls like sunshine. I still don't know exactly what I think about therapy. But she is a tonic even if you're not her patient. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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