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 •  Interview • Patrick Gale talks to Nick Alexander about living and writing in Lands End • 

Patrick Gale
Patrick Gale has written over ten novels, the most recent of which, Notes from an Exhibition, has become a bestseller thanks to its being picked up by the Richard and Judy Book Club.

Nick: So how are you today?
Patrick: I’m dead on my feet. I've just got back from my other, non-writerly life spending two weeks chairing the St Endellion Summer Music Festival. It was our Golden Jubilee this year which meant we had the BBC down to broadcast evensong, and the Sunday Times and Telegraph sent critics and I had to organise a five course marquee dinner for 240 on top of my usual duties so it was a bit like throwing a simultaneous wedding, old boys' reunion and sports day on top of learning a lot of new music in record time. Fantastic fun, though and I was lucky to be so closely involved in something so special.

Nick: When you say, learning new music – you play an instrument?.
Patrick: I play the cello but at the festival I only sing.

Nick: A singer too! I'm impressed. So what have you been up to this morning?
Patrick: Answering 650 emails, watching the drizzle and listening to the dogs sigh.

Nick: You live near Land's End, right?
Patrick: That's right. On my hubby's family farm.

Nick: What do you like about living there?
Patrick: Where to start? Staggering scenery, lovely people, silence, visible stars, a beach on our doorstep. It's like living on a writers' retreat.

Nick: It sounds like the perfect atmosphere for writing. And that weather beaten beach atmosphere comes through very strongly in your novels. Is there anything you dislike about Land’s End?
Patrick: The distance to the nearest opera house. The lack of an art house cinema in Penzance.

Nick: The price of rural living! Does living in the farthest corner of England reveal a secret desire to live somewhere further afield? continental Europe or North America even?
Patrick: Nope. I'm in love with weather and would miss it keenly if I lived anywhere more exotic. I'm an obsessive gardener and West Cornwall is pretty perfect from a gardening point of view because we have no frost to speak of. I could do with a few walls, though. With sea on two sides of us, the garden is regularly battered by terrific winds.

Nick: Do you travel much?
Patrick: Far more than I'd like, at least for work. I love meeting readers and I'm very lucky to have a lot of readers in places like Australia, but I'm not one of those lucky souls who can write in hotel rooms and airport lounges. I need silence and a carefully maintained tedium.

Nick: What have you been working on recently?
Patrick: A new novel. So new I'm wary of telling you much about it other than to say it's a straight love story with gay knobs on. It's inspired in part by an affair I had when I was a student. He was a lovely bloke, ideal for me in so many ways, yet astonishingly I was persuaded to split up with him by my friends and did so with hardly a moment's hesitation. Initially I thought the novel was going to be a happy story but it seems to be getting darker by the minute.

Nick: So you don't work out a detailed plan at the outset? You let it evolve as you write?
Patrick: To start with until I have a good-sized lump of material and then I do make a detailed plan. From which I invariably rebel at some point...

Nick: Yes, I know that one – characters stubbornly refusing to do what you had planned for them. It always happens to me towards the end, so my endings never end up the way I originally intended. You have a mix of gay and straight characters in most of you books. Is it easier for you to write gay characters or straight?
Patrick: I seem to find straight women the easiest to write. I have a lot of straight women friends which seems to help me intuit how a woman might respond in a given situation. I love writing gay characters but I get very wary when I find I'm writing one that's close to myself in his situation or outlook. I think you usually get better results when you have to work a bit harder on a characterisation. With gay characters, it's all too easy to take things as read and I have to remind myself to read them as if I was a straight man and constantly ask myself, "What wouldn't he know? What wouldn't he understand?"

Nick: Titles such as Friendly Fire are entirely straight (as I recall! I did read it a while back). Did you make a specific effort at that time to make your work more heterosexual in order to widen your readership?
Patrick: Actually Friendly Fire had one gay and one closeted hero, although it was written from a straight girl's perspective.

Nick: Sorry – I should have swotted up better! Maybe I’m getting my titles mixed up.
Patrick: Perhaps you're thinking of A Sweet Obscurity, in which the only gay or lesbian characters were sort of fairy godparents to the straight, central foursome. I don't plan these things at all but I think it's only natural for each novel to be in some way a reaction against the one that went before it. One of the problems in publishing fiction, I imagine, is that authors crave novelty and adventure whereas publishers and readers want more of the same. The authors who get rich tend to be the ones content to deliver more of the same! All my career I've been alternating between books that are basically gay or basically straight but I'd always include a gay character or two. My life isn't exactly straight and it certainly isn't closeted, but it has been led for so long so far outside anything like a gay community or ghetto that I wouldn't feel remotely secure writing an all out gay novel, at least not one with an urban setting.

Nick: Is that living outside the "community" choice or chance?
Patrick: Largely it's a matter of chance, however I realised very early on my writing career that I was going to be the sort of writer who needed peace and quiet (and a sizeable garden) of the kind you can only get in town if you're fabulously rich. Country life is inevitably less gay than urban but it's been a delight to discover, since the figures for gay and lesbian couples getting civil registrations have become public, that quite by chance I've settled in the one bit of English countryside that's second only to London and Manchester for its concentration of gay and lesbian couples!

Nick: That’s amazing. I had no idea that Lands End was the new Brighton!
Is your favourite novel always the most recent, or do you think specific titles shine out above the rest?
Patrick: I retain a soft spot for books that were written when I was intensely happy - Little Bits of Baby and Rough Music - but also for ones that never quite found their way in life, like Tree Surgery for Beginners. But yes, the most recent is always the one I feel most protective about. Though I've been talking about Notes From an Exhibition for so long now that I'm starting to resent it for taking over my life...

Nick: I have a real soft spot for Rough Music. What do you think of it with hindsight?
Patrick: I'm very fond of it, even a little proud. It was the first novel I wrote under the guidance of my wonderful editor, Patricia Parkin and she encouraged me to take risks in a way none of her predecessors had. Something she said at a very early stage encouraged me to embark on a very ambitious mixed-up time scheme - something I wish I'd been encouraged to do in my far more conservatively structured The Facts of Life.

Nick: Are there any of your books that make you cringe so much you wish they no longer existed?
Patrick: No, but some of the early ones embarrass me in the way that teenage photographs of me can - bad hair, terrible clothes and yet the very youth of them is somehow disarming. HarperCollins are about to re-jacket a lot of my backlist and I'm pressing to have them use author photographs of me at the age I was when I wrote each book. That way nobody can pick up Ease, say, after reading Rough Music and wonder if they were written by the same author.

Nick:You're hugely prolific. Do you write every day?
Patrick: Not at all. And I'm not that prolific really. I've never had a day job and I was lucky enough to get published very young. When I compare notes with commercial novelist friends like Val McDermid, I feel very lazy and unindustrious.

How do you the structure a typical writing day?
Patrick:I only write when I've got a novel on the go. In between novels I have a long period of up to three years during which I'll be travelling around doing publicity, giving lectures and so on. During that period a new novel starts its mysterious genesis, usually with a single, simple idea or an image - in the case of my latest novel, a woman finding her elderly mother sprawled, stark naked, in the garden. This idea then takes about a year to acquire substance before I start actually writing. I'll do a lot of reading around the emerging subject, a lot of picking other people's brains and an awful lot of just staring out of the window. Once I start to write I'm pretty quick and very obsessive about it. I write in the mornings, out of doors when I can so as to be away from the phone and computer, and in long hand. I'll write until I can't think of anything else to write or until I get hungry, so usually from about 9 to 1. If it's a good day and my brain is fizzing, I'll try to write again all afternoon but quite often I'll go off the boil and will do other things in the afternoon like write letters or read. The morning begins and the afternoon ends with walking our dogs.
They're both a bit elderly now so the walks aren't as long or as brisk as I would like but I find walking is a great way of mulling over ideas and of shaking off the novel that would otherwise cling about me like a bad mood when I re-entered the house.

Nick:W ith the exception of the dogs (I’m scared of dogs – too many childhood nips!) that’s identical to the way I do things. Long hand, in the mornings, out in the garden – and then I rewrite it on the computer early afternoon before going off and doing other stuff. Which of your novels has sold the best? I’m wondering in particular if the gayer ones sell less than the straighter titles.
Patrick: My breakthrough novel in terms of sales was Rough Music, which is pretty damned gay, in that half of it is taken up with a gay man having an affair with his brother in law and with the disastrous effects of his childhood crush on his straight uncle. However it was also a novel that rooted that gay material squarely in that character's family and was as much about family relationships as it was about sexuality and I think that was its appeal for a wider public. The next big seller was my most recent, Notes from an Exhibition. And yes, this is very much a novel about a straight woman but, again, it's a novel shot through with gay material and with gay viewpoints. It's wildly un-commercial - a novel with hardly any plot, about a bipolar genius who does nothing whatsoever but live in Penzance, paint and have breakdowns - so I have no idea why it took off as it did. Well I do. It took off because Richard and Judy waved their wands over it. But I have no idea why they and their team were so drawn to it. Unless it was the crude fact of its dealing with a big issue - bi-polar disorder - just as Rough Music dealt with one in Alzheimer's disease.

Nick: Are you able to live comfortably from your writing alone, or do you do have to do other things to make ends meet?
Patrick: I've only ever lived by writing but I used to have to do a lot of non-fiction writing to pay the bills. Book reviews (which pay hopelessly given the time the reading takes) and feature articles. I used to love interviewing people, because I'm naturally inquisitive and find it quite easy to draw people out. For the last ten years, though, I've been comfortable enough only to review books when I've an itch to. I'm a regular critic on Radio 4's Saturday Review, which I love doing. It gets me off the farm and up to London for a dose of high culture and I suspect they like having me on because I tick the gay and provincial boxes simultaneously...

Nick: In Notes from an Exhibition you have produced a moving depiction of the effects of bipolar disorder on the life of a family. Did you have first hand knowledge of this yourself or did you research it?
Patrick: I have first hand experience in that I was once deeply in love with a painter who suffered from it and there's quite a bit of depression in my family. However I researched it a lot too, mainly by reading the writing of people with it - like the poet, Anne Sexton - which was how I found my heroine's voice.

Nick: I found the painterly ambience totally convincing as well, which is quite an achievement - I come from a family of painters and I too grew up with a parent locked in a studio splashing paint around. Were there visual artists in your family?
Patrick: Only in an amateur way. Both my brothers were naturally gifted draughtsman, though they pursued other careers, and I've married into a family of artists. I have absolutely no ability myself.

Nick:Well, writing, cello, singing… the talents have to stop somewhere I suppose... Your gay characters are often very stable and faithful, living their relationships in an almost model heterosexual way. Is this also your personal experience of gay relationships?
Patrick: Not really, though even in my disco bunny days I was always a hopeless romantic and rarely able to convince myself I was looking for anything other than grand passion. I've had my share of miserable and painful relationships, probably because of the aforesaid inability to recognise a one-night-stand for what it was. So I suppose the faithful gay relationships in my fiction started out as dreamy wish fulfilment and have slowly morphed into my perceived reality. I do think it's terribly unfair that gay people have been branded with a reputation for infidelity. Historically we've produced some of the great enduring partnerships. If anything, we tend to have a natural flair for domesticity which of course sits uneasily alongside, erm, baser needs...

Nick: Do you consciously avoid describing the more promiscuous or marginal behaviours?
Patrick: No but I recognise where my comfort zone lies and what I write best about. There are other writers around who are much better at the wilder stuff and I'm happy to let them write about it so that I can read it while curled up in bed with the hubby and the cat...

Nick: Can you tell us a bit about the hubby?
Patrick: Absolutely. I live with him – he’s a Cornish farmer, and a gifted artist on the side. We've been together since the Internet brought us together nearly ten years ago and we got married as soon as it was legally possible. If men could breed, I'd have about six children by now. Instead we have two dogs, a cat and a herd of beef cattle.

Nick: Are you generally a happy person?
Patrick: Yes.

Nick: Can you name one thing that makes you angry?
Patrick: Lack of courtesy.

Nick: And one thing that makes you really happy?
Patrick: Seeing a child lost in the pleasure of reading.

Nick:Have you read any of my novels ;-)
Patrick: Of course.

Nick: Did you like them or hate them? Be honest now!
Patrick: read 50 Reasons to Say Goodbye with the students on one of my gay reading/writing holidays in Provence. I enjoyed it. I liked the structure - the way every chapter was going to involve some kind of a rupture - but I have to say I started to lose patience with the narrator and wanted to steer him towards a good psychotherapist! The end was a total shock.

Nick:I know what you mean about losing patience… When I re-read it nowadays I want to give him a good slap as well. Luckily he does get a bit wiser in the sequels! Still, I think the book provides many people with an echo for their frustrations with the gay scene – it’s still by far my best selling novel and the one people write to me about the most. Maybe it's precisely that frustration that speaks to people. Have you read anything really good recently you'd like to recommend to BIGfib's readers?
Patrick: Oh yes. A gay writer called Patrick Ness has changed direction to produce the first part of a science fiction trilogy. It's meant for young adults but The Knife of Never Letting Go is equally gripping for grown-ups. I don't want to give away the story but the starting point is a terrifying world in which there are no women, everyone's deeply religious and all the men can hear each other's thoughts...

Nick:Sounds interesting. I shall have to hunt down a copy.
Well, I think that’s about all my questions. Thanks for that Patrick, it’s been brilliant.

© BIGfib 2008.

Read more about Patrick Gale <here>

Patrick Gale's
most recent novel; Notes From An Exhibition was published by Doubleday on the 18th of June 2007. Buy it <here>.

Nick Alexander
's most recent novel: 13:55 Eastern Standard Time was published by BIGfib on the 7th of June 2007. Buy it <here>.

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