Book club webchat with Patrick Gale
Patrick Gale joined us in June 2012 to discuss his seventh book A Perfectly Good Man. He answered questions on the shifting structure of his novel, the importance of knowing your characters, the presence of faith in his writing and what he's working on next.
A Perfectly Good Man tells the story of Barnaby Johnson, a priest in a small West Cornwall parish. Each chapter is a snapshot of the varied personalities in the parish at different times of their lives, all of whom are connected to Barnaby. Slowly and deliciously the story unfolds like backwards origami, with secrets and triumphs and betrayals opening out in sequence.
Hullygully: Which of the characters, if any, did you see as the hero(es)?
Patrick Gale: Barnaby is plainly the central character (hero feels a bit morally freighted as a term) which is why his (lion's share) of chapters provide the book's spine. Like Rachel in my Notes from an Exhibition, I had him reveal himself to us in slow stages, leading us back to the sad scenes of his youth. But the real heroics I feel lie with the three women around him, because they all endure and, just like Rachel, he's not an easy person to love or live with.
ProfCoxWouldGetIt: I can't help but wonder if keeping Dot a small character was deliberate, because she seemed to have the potential to play a much bigger role in the story. Was this done so as not to distract us from Barnaby's story?
Patrick: I could so easily have written a novel about Dot. I love her and care about her and have far more patience with her, really, than with her rather hopeless husband. However, it was always going to be his story not hers and her role was always intended to be supportive and longsuffering - like poor Antony's was in Notes From an Exhibition.
Geeklette: My impression was that Dorothy was a well-rounded, engaging character with a lot to contribute to the story and that this changed completely after her last miscarriage. Was it your intention to present Dorothy/Dot as two separate characters? What was your motivation for switching from having a vibrant sidekick for Barnaby, to having a matronly wife as wallpaper?
Patrick: I adored Dorothy. I write my novels one character at a time and I wrote Dorothy's chapters before anyone else's because I instinctively liked her and felt I knew her inside out. The novel is hard on her but then marriage to a priest is often hard and I needed to reflect that.
I certainly don't think of her as two characters but I tried to show how the disappointments in her marriage, and the shock of Barnaby's infidelity, actually lead to her growing beyond the narrowly prescribed set of possibilities her mother gives her initially. She ends up having a life apart from Barnaby and a deep fulfilment, independent of him, within the church. Yes she puts on weight, as a lot of not-entirely-happy people do, but I never meant that to mean I had rejected her.
gazzalw: As a bloke I feel the male characters are a lot more shaded than the female ones - is that purposeful or just because as a man yourself you are more easily able to portray male angst, moral ambiguity etc?
Patrick: Your point about masculine characters is hugely cheering for me but unsettling too. I've always taken huge pains with my female characters, precisely because I'm not a woman. In fact with me the risk is always that it's the male characters who will be underwritten. I hope the women aren't really as pallid here as you seemed to find them.
A Perfectly Good Man was conceived as a masculine counterpart to Notes From an Exhibition, which centres on a woman (who is arguably as destructive a parent and spouse as Barnaby manages to be).
Blubberguts and NoraHelmer: Why does Phuc dislike his parents so much? Is it that he was angry because he knew nothing about his Vietnamese heritage, or that he sensed Dorothy didn't love him? Also, he didn't know about his father's affair with Nuala, unless we are to assume that he had found out somehow?
Patrick: It was mainly that poor Dorothy couldn't love him, but the dawning sense of how he'd been cut off from whatever security his Vietnamese heritage might have given him made matters worse. He never knows about the affair and neither does Carrie.
I researched this storyline pretty closely and it seems to have been a fairly common problem among the second wave of 'Boat People' immigrants and adoptees, many of whom lacked blood family contacts. A well-meaning, very Christian family I knew growing up in Hampshire adopted a Vietnamese baby but raised her in a totally deracinated way and the poor girl went badly off the rails for a while as a teenager. But the race/culture point shouldn't be overstressed; I think the failure of love in an adoptive mother, however good her intentions, is often devastating whatever the background of the adopted child.
Abcinthia: I found Modest a very creepy character. His stalking of Barnaby, the obsession with the red book, he just had a dangerous feel to him. It was almost like Barnaby was prey and Modest was a hunter circling overhead, waiting to strike. I was wondering if this was to make Barnaby seem all the more good and his faults seem insignificant when compared to Modest?
Patrick: Almost every novel I've written has a character who threatens to break out of the tidy plan I've laid for them and take over. In The Whole Day Through it was the heroine's indomitable mother, in Tree Surgery for Beginners it was the hero's ditto. Here it was Modest. There's a saying that virtue writes white, and I knew from very early on that I'd need some sin in the mix, something a bit nasty, to avoid the risk of blandness or piety. So Modest came about because I needed someone who passed for good but who only the reader would not be fooled by. I needed to give the devil a voice. And, true to tradition, the devil sang rather well and loudly!
Modest demanded more and more space and - because I write my novels one character at a time - I became extremely uneasy and disturbed at having to spend week after week under this horrible man's skin. It got to the point where I realised I was almost rooting for him. And then I got to the scene where he was physically pursuing Barnaby rather than just metaphorically doing it, and I honestly didn't know what was going to happen next.
But basically Modest's role is to make us think about virtue, and the difference between seeming virtue and the real thing.
valiumpoptarts: How did you research the character of Barnaby and to what extent did you find yourself being careful not just to write a caricature of a vicar? If you did do research on it at all did it change your view of the job?
Patrick: I know a lot of priests and always have, probably because my parents were so very devout (and my grandfather and great-grandfather were priests). So I had no trouble finding flesh and blood priests - and, just as importantly, priest's wives and children - I could quiz. I certainly didn't want to write a caricature - as a nation we seem pathetically prone to nervous joking on the subject of faith, as we are about sex - but was also keenly aware both of the heavy burden of comic tradition and the risk that a priest as a hero might put a lot of people off.
So I made sure I focused almost more on the work priests have to do outside church services, indeed away from church entirely, as on the interesting question of faith itself. My view of the job remains unchanged; that it's a simply awful one, increasingly, and I can't think why perfectly good men and women continue to lay their heads on the block to take it on as often as they do.
Hullygully: I think the current trend for piecemeal stories is interesting for sliding perspectives, different connections and points of view and I admire it technically for the jigsaw nature, but I didn't feel engaged with, or care about, any of the characters, I just wanted to know how it would all come out. Is the idea to make the reader do some work and fill in the gaps?
Patrick: The trend thing is so odd. Most of us work on our novels in relative or complete isolation so it can be really galling to come up for air at the end of it to find that the novel one thought completely original is actually picking up on something in the zeitgeist. Jojo Moyes and I had no idea we were simultaneously writing novels that were partly triggered by Daniel James's parents taking him to Dignitas to be killed, until, that is, we found ourselves reading at the same literary salon in Shoreditch.
I like fractured storytelling because it feels closer to the free-associative way our brains and memories work than the artificial A-to-Z approach of tradition. That said, I'd hate to get pigeon-holed as that back-to-front writer so I dare say my next one will be less broken up.
Yes, I like my readers to do some work by joining the gaps because I feel this makes them unconsciously give a bit of themselves to the piecing together of the story. The hope is that they, unlike your experience, will feel more deeply engaged emotionally with the narrative than if they were just sat back watching it unspool.
ProfCoxWouldGetIt: I found the jumping around to different stages in different characters lives quite disorientating. Was this intentional?
Patrick: Sorry to hear you were disoriented. It wasn't intended to be a lasting effect. I like to make readers work a bit but I don't intend to lose them entirely!
The main purpose of the jumbling up - as with Notes From An Exhibition and Rough Music - was to heighten the cruel ironies of the things people remember, or misremember, and the things they forget. I can't speak for other people but I find I rarely live entirely in the present; I'm forever remembering and reliving, so I find the traditional narrative approach to stories - starting at the beginning and running smoothly through to the end - while soothing, can be a bit too cinematic and artificial. And I like it when the reader is the only one in the story who knows the godlike truth, or at least most of it!
domesticslattern: Did you write the story chronologically and then divide it and mix it up?
Patrick: No, I didn't write it chronologically. I'm a bit weird in that not only do I write with pen and ink but I write one character at a time. So I did all Dorothy's chapters then all Modest's then all Carrie's and so on. Only at the second draft stage do I then have the huge headache of weaving it all together.
southlondonlady: I'm not sure what to make of the ending, the wedding scene is lovely in some ways but I kept thinking, there are still these secrets, so the happiness isn't built on strong foundations. I felt for Carrie particularly, having never known about Lenny. Did you write the ending to be happy, sad or otherwise?
Patrick: Otherwise is a good place to aim for I think. I'm a sucker for happy endings but I need them to feel real for my readers, which usually means having a thick thread of sorrow or insecurity running through them. What touches me, time and again, is our capacity for happiness, our will to make it happen despite the odds. I think Carrie and Morwenna will be happy; they have earned it and are clear-eyed about the way things are. I'm not so sure what will happen to Nuala and Barnaby...
Interesting you should think of the wedding as being the novel's ending when, of course, it actually ends years and years before that, in the back of Barnaby's father's car! As with Notes From an Exhibition, the novel has two endings, the chronological one, and the - <wince face> at sounding pretentious - spiritual one.
DowagersHump: I've noticed that religion or faith (or lack of) is a recurring theme in your novels. I wondered why that was? It's entirely outside my own experience so I find it fascinating.
Patrick: I seem to write about religious experience as often as I write about sex, which is probably cause for concern now that I've turned 50! I've always been drawn to the experiences which are hardest to put into words - the effect of art or music on us is another recurring element in my work. I had a deeply religious childhood from which I retreated as an adult and with which I've now arrived at a comfortable, if cowardly, accommodation. I'm certainly not a regular churchgoer but I find the residue of my childhood faith seems to be stitched into the fabric of my being and I can't ever quite unpick it. It gives me solace or moves me at unexpected moments, on walks or in concert halls as often as in church.
It's odd because, as with psychotherapy, I don't think you can be any good as a novelist unless you have a thoroughly examined life; you need to know yourself inside out and back to front and be constantly re-examining your own thoughts and behaviours since these, willy-nilly, provide the template for the thoughts and actions of your characters.
And yet there's this great bit of me - the god-shaped bit, if you will - that lies entirely beyond the powers of my intellect. And, of course, I find that completely fascinating and keep circling back to it like a cat to a dying bird.
BiscuitNibble: The misogyny that overwhelmed Notes From An Exhibition was much more subtle in this book, but still came through strongly in the way the Dorothy character was treated.
Patrick: I'm saddened that you feel I'm a misogynist. Unnerved too, because I so love writing from female viewpoints just as the wonderful likes of Patricia Duncker and A L Kennedy love writing from male ones. I've only been accused of that once before, in a rather cruel review by Joan Smith for whom, as a naïve and very young ex-public schoolboy, I provided a handy target for practice. I wonder if you'd feel the same if the same stories had been written by a woman?
These are novels, after all, not political manifestos or polemics, so I try to have them reflect the range of attitudes and behaviours I see around me rather than portraying ideals or observing political correctness. Thus not all my women are feminist icons and not all my gay characters are perfect - even though I have a weakness for loading the dice in favour of both groups.
Dorothy has a terrible time - as plenty of women stuck in remote rural communities do - and she puts on weight (ditto) but she remains strong to the end, and I hope any cruelty in her fate is balanced out by Nuala and Carrie. Sorry. You struck a nerve there, as you've probably guessed by now. I'd be interested to hear if any of your fellow readers - male or female - found either this book or Notes misogynist as well...
NoraHelmer: You obviously know Cornwall very well, in particular the area surrounding Penzance. Do you feel that Cornwall is integral to your novels? Or do you think that you could have written the same novel setting it elsewhere? Reading it I felt the strong pull of the close-knit community that notices an outsider and isn't always welcoming to them.
Patrick: I know Cornwall well and use it a lot, but I think I'd use anywhere I happened to be living. I'm strongly influenced by landscape and a place's atmosphere to the point where it can have an unconscious effect on what I'm writing. In this case it was utterly conscious; I wanted Pendeen to feel like a strong character because it has shaped at least Dorothy, Carrie and Lenny as powerfully as any parent. But what always grips me ultimately are the characters and their relationships, so I think I could have set this book equally in a village in Wales or East Anglia.
gazzalw: I note you were brought up in prison environments with your father having been a prison governor. I note too that Patrick McGrath had a father who was a doctor at Broadmoor Hospital. Do you feel there are any parallels in the way you two write or do you see any similar themes in your works?
I got a real feel of personal, emotional claustrophobia among many of the characters in A Perfectly Good Man - is this a recurring theme of your novels (sorry I haven't read the others but intend to do so now) and is this influenced by the oppressive, contained environment in which you were brought up as a child/adolescent?
Patrick: I was so very young when we left Wandsworth prison that I don't think it marked me nearly as deeply as Broodmoor must have done Patrick McGrath. I love his work, especially its more Gothic bits, but suspect the only parallels emerge when I write short stories and let my dark side out. I feel my novels are pretty touchy-feely compared to his, though I think we share an interest in psychology and the ways childhood damage can emerge in our characters' adult relationships. If prison life interests you, you might enjoy my Rough Music, which is based on our experiences as a family in HMP Wandsworth.
Interesting you should note an emotional claustrophobia in the novel. I don't think this had anything to do with my childhood but wonder if it's caused by the novel's structure; my writing tends to feel very 'internal', dealing as it does with the workings of the characters' thoughts and feelings more than with their actions.
Perhaps in this case the extremity of Pendeen as a setting, its unrelieved quality, combined with the sense of Barnaby's voluntary imprisonment in his job and marriage also brought on a sense of airlessness. Don't know. Part of the fun of writing is that I have no control over the effects my writing will take on different readers, so it's fascinating to hear reactions like yours.
Hullygully: Which novelists do you like and/or admire?
Patrick: Ann Tyler, Colm Toibin, Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Armistead Maupin, Alan Hollinghurst, Damon Galgut, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra. Lots really. I'm a bit passive in that I tend to read whatever comes my way - good or bad. I never stop learning about writing from reading, and I find I can learn as much from the failures as the successes.
I'm also childishly allergic to cults, so if everybody is raving about a novel I'll probably avoid reading it for a year or two until the fuss dies down. That's one of the good things about Kindles. I try to make a point of regularly reading a dead author, if only to keep the marketing departments in their proper place.
TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
Patrick: I was a Puffin Club member and devoured about a Puffin a week for a year or two, but the novels I repeatedly re-read were Tove Jansson's Moomin novels, Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth and Lewis Carroll's two Alice books, all of which I still return to when in need of comfort.
Hullygully: I think there is a tension with writing stuff as it really is. For example, people are conflicted, alienated, cowardly, ambivalent, amoral etc and simultaneously fulfilling the needs of fiction for the majority of readers: engagement, caring and warmth. Do we read fiction for 'real' life?
Patrick: As a novelist, I want to create characters who feel like real people, with all the ambivalence and conflict real people carry in them, yet I'm always aware that many readers look to fiction for a kind of comfort they can't find in real life.
I suspect the answer lies in narrative structure. The right narrative structure can deliver the comfort - and I don't necessarily mean happy endings, I'm thinking more of emotional satisfaction, justice if you like - while the characters can cause a lifelike lingering discomfort or worry.
It's good when readers get angry about a character or worry about what will happen to them next; I think that presses more satisfactory buttons in a reader's emotions than simply giving them sympathetic people to spend time with. I reckon the important thing in characterisation is to offer up details we can all recognise, feelings we have felt, impulses we may have been tempted by.
TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
Patrick: Don't start any actual writing until the story in your head feels so real to you that it keeps you awake at night. And when you start, try writing in longhand or only working while disconnected from the internet.
MaryAnnSingleton: I long for your next book - is there something in the pipeline?
Patrick: My current job is to write an original, three-part, gay-themed drama series for BBC2, which is a great challenge and enormously exciting.
After that I'm itching to start a new novel. Early days - it's still at the compost heap stage - but it will have something to do with my disgraced great-grandfather, who was banished to the Canadian wilds by his faintly terrifying gang of in-laws and made to leave his young wife and baby girl behind.
A big departure for me, this, in that both its settings will be well in the distant past - 1910 and 1965. I can already tell the research for the telly series (also partly set pre-Woolfenden) is going to feed into it.