Connecting Conversations: Patrick Gale

P GaleNot so much a ‘gay novelist’ as a novelist who happens to be gay, at this event he was talking to Claire Harris, a psychotherapist. It was in a series of events exploring the world of the arts with the concerns of psychotherapy. There was a very large turnout, which shows how ‘mainstream’ this writer has become. (Walking down Park Street, my gaydar was working overtime, spotting someone and thinking ‘He must be going to the same event as me.’ And getting it wrong!)

Gale said that writing appealed to him because he was shy; it is almost a neurotic activity. However, he enjoys meeting readers and getting their feedback. He also enjoys the collaborative work that happens wher making as film.

He sets aside a lot of time for solitude, for his creativity to flow and he can be cold towards people who call or otherwise interrupt. He has to get on with the work although he likes gardening and music to keep him grounded.

He was born into a bookish household – people read during mealtimes unless there were guests. He was lucky in his teachers and would write pages for prep. And his mother kept all his old exercise books. He became able to write from the heads of other people instead of just from his own viewpoint. (Rough Music gave different versions of the same experience.) Boys were not expected to talk about emotions in 1972. Women tend to articulate better so it makes writing about male characters more difficult.

His father was a prison governor, ’which isolated us. We were not allowed to play with officers’ children.’ In junior school, drawing their own houses, most children had finished while he was still finishing off various wings of his house on extra paper. There were lots of unfurnished rooms in this big house where you could play out all sorts of fantasies. He and his siblings were able to climb on to the roof and look down on the prison well below and see all the prisoners exercising. Maybe in his novels, he is looking down on life below. It made him amenable to boarding school, another institution. His mother had become exhausted with all these children. His parents had been driven by social duty.

He was exuberant and gay at an early age (‘mothers always know’) but his mother had a serious road accident when he was aged ten and he became her carer. He also had to cope with a sibling’s breakdown and suicide attempts.

His earlier novels were comic and kept his readers at arm’s length but at the age of forty he started to explore the darker side. ‘My books are getting darker. I put off the introspection.’

In ‘Notes on an Exhibition’ there is a Quaker drive to tell the truth but you realise that the characters don’t always do so. (To research Quakers he went to four different meetings and has even been asked to act as a Quaker spokesperson even though he isn’t a Quaker. He thinks it should be the fastest growing religion because Anglicanism is imploding.

A novelist is like a psychotherapist in that you start with a crisis and then proceed to unpeel the layers which have preceded it.

He begins a book with a question to which he doesn’t yet know the answer. He writes by hand with lots of material which might not be used. Word processing wants to make things too neat and finished too early.

Although he doesn’t do sequels, he was haunted by Morwenna in ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ so she turns up again in his latest novel ‘A Perfectly Good Man’. (And it is in this book that his ‘most evil character’ appears and has more chapters spent on him than he intended. – I found this character to be more ‘sad’ than ‘evil’.)

‘Cornwall claimed me’ as it is his own place, not anyone else’s in his family.

I liked his observation that someone told him that he couldn’t paint or draw because he became too articulate too early as a child.

Asked what advice he would give to an aspiring writer, he said that he was lucky in that he was published when young. Publishers would pay £2 ½ k for a novel and take a risk. His early works wouldn’t be published now, Modern publishers want advances, deadlines do lots of publicity and it is very hard to break into the market. However, self-publishing doesn’t have the stigma that it once did, where you used to seen ass desperate after so many rejections. Nowadays, Amazon publishes work electronically and publishers scan such works to see how many ‘likes’ they get and the n sometimes recruit a writer.

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