Patrick Gale was born and raised in a prison. His novels, said Jane Stafford, have “an extreme recognition of character.”Armistead Maupin says, “I wait for them the way some people wait for springtime.”
I reviewed A Place Called Winter last year, it is a wonderful evocation of place, and Harry Cane is a fascinating character. I had no idea, until this session, that it was a fiction based on fact. His upper middle-class great-granddad did in fact abandon his great-grandma and their children for a promise of free land in the Canadian frontiers. He only discovered a few facts about this thanks to his mother’s letters, found while packing her up to an old people’s home.
He has created the character of Harry Cane, including as much detail as he knew, in honour of his Grandma, whom he was close with. He had to create the reason that his great-granddad abandoned his happy-seeming life, wife and kids near London – so he came up with a gay love affair, which at the time would have been punishable by 7 years hard labour had it been discovered. He filled in the dot-dot-dots from there.
His great-grandfather’s purpose for escaping to the prairie turned out not to be a made-up occurrence – in discussion with a historian he realised that this was in fact more common that he realised. I have encountered this factor in living in far-away places during a summer in Franz Josef. The reason the town was a diplomatic nightmare is because everybody who didn’t fit anywhere else ran away to there. Thieves, computer criminals… that town had the lot!
Stafford asked Gale whether it was an advantage for him to use biographical material. He said “I had a breakthrough moment when I was 40 – I realised I had lived enough to mine my own life and family for information.” The most difficult thing for him when writing A Place Called Winter was to write like an Edwardian man “where the very idea of an upper-class education was to ensure you didn’t know much of any practical use.”
While writing A Place Called Winter, which is his first truly historical fiction book, Gale realised rather belatedly that he was going to have to include World War I, because his great-grandfather would have lived through this in Canada. Through the character of Petra, a close female friend of Harry’s in the book, he shows the way that WWI cracked open the shell for women in so many ways that it could never be closed again.
Recently Gale has discovered that he enjoys writing dreadful characters. The character of Modest in A Perfectly Good Man was meant to have only two chapters, but instead took over the book. In A Place Called Winter, the character of Troels is a sociopath, and a rapist – he is completely beyond help. He used Troels’ character to show the danger of the prairies – to create something out of nothing, it takes a certain bloody-mindedness – so you get left with a town full of psychopaths. What then?!
The Act of Writing
The way in which Gale approaches multi-viewpoint novels is interesting. He writes, in fact, one character at a time. He explains this in saying it is easier for your characters to maintain ignorance of others’ motives in this way.
Gale finds writing a novel gets harder with each book. He finds it hard to convince himself that it is worth pursuing. He hasn’t had writer’s block, but he has had an overactive inner critic – he has named it after Jennifer Woodcock, a nasty wee girl he went to school with.
He is now doing a lot of work for the screen and says, “The great thing about writing for the screen is economy. You don’t have as long as you want. Most writers thrive on control, a certain amount of restriction sets free your imagination.” He is currently serialising Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which was initially a literary serial – this is proving challenging, as she had many characters that disappeared without explanation.
Gale has never had a grown-up job, so the main research he does is into what people do for a job. He likes to talk to somebody that does that job – one instance being that of a venereologist (a Clap doctor). He took advice early on to write his first draft prior to researching the topic too deeply – something he lives by.
He believes that there is a need for gay sections in bookshops, simply because there will always be teenagers who need this. What is gay fiction is another question – Gale says there is now a prize in the UK for gay novelists or gay characters in novels.
This was a fascinating session, and I will certainly be reading more of Gale’s backlist. He was an engaging and natural speaker, and the chair Jane Stafford did a fantastic job. It would be well worth your while catching him tomorrow in the session ‘Novel Ways of Thinking’, with Muriel Barbery, Joe Bennett and Paula Morris.
Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster
Patrick Gale: The Disappeared
11am, Friday 11 March, The Embassy
A Place Called Winter
by Patrick Gale
Published by Tinder Press