Webchat with Patrick Gale


Patrick GaleThis is an edited transcript of a live webchat with author Patrick Gale on 16 June 2009.

Notes From an Exhibition | Other novels | Inspiration and characters | Other novelists | About the author | Useful links


Notes From an Exhibition

Letter QChuffinell: I loved Notes From an Exhibition and may consider becoming a Quaker after your fab descriptions of the peace and quiet of their meetings. I would like to read another of your books, which would you recommend?

Letter APatrick Gale: Well Chuffinell, when people enjoyed Notes From an Exhibition I usually tell them to read Rough Music next as it inhabits a similar territory - fraught family full of secrets, Cornish setting, seriously difficult mother etc. But my publishers would tell me to recommend my latest one, The Whole Day Through, because it's a five-hanky job and will be perfect for your next afternoon off. Not that mothers get many of those.

Letter Q Maryannsingleton: Can I ask about Notes From an Exhibition and about Rachel ? Did you like her?

Letter APatrick Gale: Did I like her? I suppose I like all my characters in the end. I knew from the outset that I wanted to write the most difficult and challenging mother I could without making her downright abusive, but I also was keen to show that she was also rather amazing, not just as an artist but as an inspiration to her children. I decided that, for all that she could be scary and neglectful, Rachel could also be enormous fun and hugely exciting to be with. I think Anthony is not nearly such a saint as some readers make him out to be. I think he really damages the children by always putting his adored wife's needs before theirs. If only he had put them first a little often, they'd have had the confidence to face up to her better. Especially poor Morwenna. I still worry about Morwenna. I hope she's OK somewhere.

Letter QPollycazalet: Hello Patrick, I have only just discovered your books - read Notes From an Exhibition, which I picked up from a secondhand bookshop, and have just read The Whole Day Through. I loved them both although the latter was too short for me! Read it in almost an afternoon in the park (my kids are Very Very Good). My questions:

  • What sort of feedback have you had re: the brother with Down's syndrome in the latest book? I thought it was brilliant that you made him 1) gay and 2) sexually active (I adored his train-driving boyfriend). Does it challenge some readers?
  • Have you been credited with converting many people to Quakerism? Am not particularly religious but you make it seem so attractive in Notes From an Exhibition.
  • Is Hedley too good to be true? Is he a portrait of your ideal man (he could easily be mine)?
  • And finally (trivial), did Rachel and Antony live in Regent Square in Penzance? Some friend of mine lived there years ago and I imagine that's where their house was.

Letter A Patrick Gale: Sorry the latest was so short. It just happened that way and then I decided not to fight it because I realised all my favourite love stories were short ones that left me sort of hungry and sad when they finished. I sincerely look forward to some feedback about Bobby, the gay brother with mosaic Down's syndrome but as yet have had none. But yes, I hope it does challenge people. I like to write about characters other people avoid as I think fiction is a fantastic way of broadening people's empathy. That said, I hate issue fiction as it tends to be dead in the water, so I had to work quite hard to make sure Bobby was quite hard to pin down.

Re Quakerism, yes, I'm amazed to say that Notes From an Exhibition has been responsible for a lot of new attenders at Quaker meetings, if not members. I can recommend a visit to your nearest Quaker Meeting if you're not religious but are simply hungry for something quiet and thoughtful and discreetly challenging in your life. They also tend to have brilliant Sunday schools.

I don't think Hedley is ideal at all but that's probably because he's pretty much a self-portrait! Like him, I was always pretty hopeless at being a teenager and like him I always felt that my role in the family was to be the 'good one'. I think this is true of quite a lot of gay people - we don't rebel as teenagers because we feel the mere fact of being gay constitutes such a huge rebellion against everything the family seems to stand for. Of course, we then grow up and realise that we belong in our families as much as anyone else and can even start families of our own, but that's another novel.

And, finally, yes, Regent Square or a house very near it is just where I'd imagined Rachel and Antony living. Only I had to make it less specific because I needed house with a lookout and those tend to be between Regent Square and Morrab Gardens. I love Penzance and can heartily recommend a visit there to anyone on holiday. It has a quiter charm than St Ives but is full of enchanting 'secret' corners for you to discover. It's also a lot easier to find a parking space.

Letter Q

Oregonianabroad: I really loved Notes From an Exhibition, and thought the way you used the 'notes' at the beginning of each chapter as a way in to the family history was really clever. I was wondering how you came up with that idea?

Letter APatrick Gale: Funny you should ask about the art gallery notes because they were the very last idea I had. I had more or less finished the novel but realised it still consisted of what were in effect a load of short stories with no very definite order. I needed something to pull them all together and, looking at my character notes for Rachel, I realised there were lots of details I hadn't managed to fit into the main narrative text which I could slip in on the sly through these gallery notes, or Wall Text as they're known in the trade. It also struck me that the framing device was a neat way of implying that Rachel's art has survived into an unspecified future, which is comforting when read alongside the grim facts of the life that went into making it. God, I'd love to see those paintings!

Letter Q

Sophiaverloren: I have just discovered Patrick Gale - specifically Notes from an Exhibition, which I adored. Was really quite surprised with the familiar description of Quaker House Brussels - I lived and worked there many moons ago! Would like to ask how come he ended up there and when? It brought back great memories for me.

Letter APatrick Gale: Dear sophiaverloren, I'm thrilled I got the description of the Brussels meeting house right because I never dared go inside! I was awarded a marvellous fortnight on a literary retreat in the heart of the city by the Flemish government. They have an apartment for writers on Oude Grasmarkt near the Bourse where I finished writing Notes and where I spent every afternoon walking and walking and falling in love with a city I'd been told was ugly and uninteresting. I had a lovely guidebook that split the place into a sequence of walks, so took a different walk every day as part reward, part exercise, before heading back to my desk. It ended up bubbling over into that rather strange haunted chapter where Morwenna flees the offer of domestic bliss to head back to Penzance.

Letter Q

IwoulddoDrWho: Would you write a sequel to Notes From An Exhibition? I just want to spend a bit more time with those people.

Letter A Patrick Gale: Ooh but i've been tempted! Mainly because I worry about Morwenna so and wonder what has happened to her. And Hedley, too. I rather hope Morwenna got swept up by the nice unexpected aunt from Canada and taken back there to have a healing and wonderful love affair with someone (whose gender I can't quite decide) before finally writing an amazing and purgative novel and retreating into brave anonymity in a log cabin somewhere.

I never write sequels as such, but I have often brought characters back because I miss them or want to correct some wrong I feel I did them. So either of these characters might well be making an appearance before long. My next novel will certainly be set in the west of cornwall again and in the present, so watch this space.


Letter Q

Fruitshootsandheaves: I have to confess I'd not heard of you before Mumsnet announced you were coming on to chat (I must get a life) but I have since read some of your book reviews and they sound really good. However, a story about a mad artistic woman sounds a bit too close to home! Which of your books would you recommend I start with? 

Letter A

 Patrick Gale: Well, Fruitshoots, it's always nice to chat to someone for whom I'm a completely unknown quantity. If mad mothers are a bit close to the bone, my new one might be better as it features a totally sane mother, albeit a naturist with osteoporosis. It's a love story, a sort of modern day Brief Encounter, about a man and a woman who get a second chance at love after a 20-year gap. It's very quiet and gentle, compared to Notes, but plays similar games with memory and the way we kid ourselves about the past in order to make our futures bearable.

Or perhaps you'd enjoy something more comic, like A Sweet Obscurity, which is about the romantic mess spun by four people in charge of the same troubled young girl. Or perhaps you'd enjoy an old-fashioned boarding school story with a twist? Friendly Fire has been described as being a bit like Mallory Towers with added sex. End of advert.

Letter Q

Fruitshootsandheave: I am drawn to one of your older books, The Cat Sanctuary, as I love cats but I fear that something nasty may happen to them in the book. Do you like cats, as that will probably answer that!

Letter A

Patrick Gale: Alas, fruitshoots, The Cat Sanctuary does indeed have cats in it but something pretty nasty happens to them towards the end. I like that book, even though it was pretty early on. I dared to write a novel that was completely female and got my wrists slapped for daring to encroach on feminist territory. Odd, really. I haven't a misogynist bone in my body but because I like writing female characters it's inevitable that some of my female characters have a bad time and I regularly find that gets me accused of misogyny in a way that I doubt would happen if I wrote under a female name. Any thoughts?

Letter QConcordia: I've just read my first novel since conceiving my first child (he's three this weekend so iIhad a bit of time without reading any novels at all) and it was one left in our holiday cottage. Picked it up and read it until 3am a few nights till it was finished. It was Notes From an Exhibition. I haven't relaxed so much in ages. I was still thinking about the characters when we got home. I felt as if I'd actually met them. I don't think I'll be reading any more novels for a while as I need a bit of sleep, but i have earmarked another Patrick Gale for the next one. What do people suggest?

Letter APatrick Gale: Goodness Concordia, I'm honoured to be your first in three years! Actually I'm normally really pissed off when I hear people saying they read to relax. All novelists want their work to excite you so much you stay up all night - they don't want to be the literary equivalent of mogadon - although plenty are. I think you should read Rough Music next, so that you're ready for when your three-year-old is a plotting, brooding seven who might spill the beans on your passionate affair!


Inspiration and characters in Patrick Gale's novels

Letter QProzacpopsie: Hi Patrick, I'm a 'Morwenna' so MUST read your book with my namesake. Which one is it - I can't seem to find it named, on the chat so far? (Sorry for stupid question.)

Letter A

 Patrick Gale: Sorry, Prozacpopsie, I should have said. Morwenna's the daughter of the troubled family in Notes From an Exhibition. Well done on having such a lovely name. Are you Cornish too, or just pretend Cornish?

Letter Q

Prozacpopsie: Thanks PG. How very dare you - I'm Cornish through and through, my luvver.
I'll add your backlist to my Amazon wishlist and look forward to reading and neglecting my wee boy. PS: without being too nosy, is mental illness something close to home? I had PND so am convinced I'm a frustrated genius, rather than just a mad bint.

Letter A

Patrick Gale: Dear Prozacpoopsie, yes mental illness is something fairly close to home, though less now than in the last few years. One of my siblings had a really tough nervous breakdown during my childhood and more recently I had a boyfriend with bipolar disorder (also a painter, funnily enough) who killed himself. The latter was partly why I was so insistent Rachel would fail in all her suicide attempts. Read Kay Redfield Jamieson if you haven't already. She's brilliant on the links between creativity and 'madness' of various kinds.

Letter Q

Teafortwo: I find the biggest strength, for me, with your novels are always your characters. They are very complicated and 'real' and as a result of this they have complex reactions to the settings and plots you put them in. How do you go about creating your characters? I mean the physical process - do you have scrap books, note books, do they become real to you? Jane Austen is said to have spoken of her characters like real people. Do you mindmap? Do you draw them? And also mentally, do you have an idea how your mind actually creates them? Just what passes through your head to make your characters so believeable?

Letter A

Patrick Gale: I always start a novel with character building. I think the most lifelike plots aren't really plots at all but simply what happens when you bring two or more characters together. I build my characters pretty slowly, over about a year, before I actually start writing the novel they'll appear in. Ideally, it should feel when I'm writing that I'm simply giving the most accurate account I can of scenes that are playing out in my head. By the time I'm writing, it doesn't feel as though I'm making stuff up. But then I do have a theory that most novelists are basically, mildly mentally ill.

Letter Q

Ahundredtimes: Oh I love An Unquiet Mind - such a wonderful and clever book.
I love the 'light' in your writing. I hope you know what I mean by that - not sure I can explain it further. Is that influenced by Cornwall do you think, or do you think you'd write like that if you lived somewhere murky?

Letter A

Patrick Gale: Light is certainly in big supply where I live in Cornwall, but I suspect the light you mean is more an emotional/spiritual thing. I certain try to inject my work with a sense of possibility and I suppose I tend to err on the side of forgiveness, which perhaps injects a light into even my darker stories. 

Letter Q

 GrapefruitMoon: I've just read The Whole Day Through over one weekend - my children were very neglected! Without revealing the plot too much, I liked the way the book was structured and that it I was quite close to the end before I realised that the structure is not just what it seemed at the start. In that book and Notes From an Exhibition, the mother characters are very successful in their chosen fields and I suppose quite ruthless about putting their careers before their families - something that most mothers nowadays would still feel guilt about and must have been even more unusual in the era when these characters had young children. Is there a reason why this is a recurring theme?

Letter A Patrick Gale: I don't mean all my mothers to seem ruthlessly careerist. Please don't judge my attitudes on the showing of just two novels. If you read my others you'll find plenty of mothers who don't work, like the one in Rough Music, and quite a few who aren't ruthless or strong enough, like the one in The Cat Sanctuary who fails to save her daughters. That said, I'm aware that a lot of my fathers are hopeless by being absent so I'm about to correct the balance by writing a father who is hopeless and is there all too much. Never mind neglecting your children for novels. Remember, they will see you reading and be enthused for reading by your example. I came from a family where both parents were regularly completely unavailable thanks to the demands of books and I became a reader partly to find out what it was that held them so enrapt.

Letter Q

FrannyandZooey: Who are your favourite characters, please? Firstly, from your own books, and then, favourite characters from fiction generally. I would like to go and read all your books again right now but I lent most of them to another MNer oddly!

Letter APatrick Gale: From my own books, I'd have to say the hero and heroine of my latest novel, The Whole Day Through, because they're so new that I still feel very protective towards them. They're also rather hopeless emotionally, which I respond to because I'm pretty tough by comparison, I suspect. As for other people's characters, I love Mrs Madrigal, from Tales of the City, and the heroine in the awful hat in Brief Encounter and I've always had a terrific crush on the rather uptight naval hero of Persuasion.

As for your comment about the author photograph, you're too kind and my publisher's marketing department are too flattering. The reality is distinctly greyer and more wrinkled but the sofa is much the same, despite the best efforts of one of our dogs to ruin it.

Other novelists

Letter Q

Shineoncrazydiamond: Please can you tell me what authors you read yourself? Apologies if this has already been asked.

Letter A

Patrick Gale: My favourite authors? I seem to like the quiet ones. I love Ann Tyler and Colm Toibin and I loved Carol Shields. I think Rose Tremain is pretty wonderful and so is my new discovery, Marina Lewycka, who I sense is a much more serious writer than her publishers are marketing her as. And of course, MaryAnnSingleton. I love Armistead Maupin's work. He was a bit inspiration to me early on in my career as was Iris Murdoch, and I'm lucky to count him as a friend.

If any of you are looking for novels to entice reluctant readers of the 12-14 age group, I can recommend The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Very scary but also really thoughtful adventure that throws up lots of interesting questions about gender and ethics while managing to be an edge of your seat thriller.

Letter Q

Saltire: I am going off to buy your new book today, I think. Other women covet shoes, I covet books. I'd like to know what you read when you aren't writing? Do you have a favourite author that you read over and over, or do you try different ones

Letter APatrick Gale: I tend to read non-fiction when I'm writing, often around the subject of the book, so have recently been reading a lot of venereology stuff. In between I devour fiction, often in a haphazard, unplanned way, either reading books by friends or books that have simply come my way. But, yes, I always read anything by Colm Toibin, Ann Tyler, Vikram Seth, Alan Hollinghurst, Damon Galgut, Armistead Maupin, Patrick Ness or Charlotte Mendelsson. I've just finished an adorable new novel from Tiffany Murray (not out yet but look out for her.) And I have certain books I re-read whenever I'm feeling sad or have a cold or whatever. Persuasion and Mansfield Park are firm favourites, as is Middlemarch and Love in a Cold Climate. God, I'm such a girl, aren't I? I'd say I read Will Self and Wilbur Smith but you wouldn't believe me.

Letter Q

Blu: Dear Patrick Gale. I am very happy that a new book is out. How will I resist reading it before my holiday? Can you suggest some slightly inferior but nevertheless satisfying books to keep my mind off yours between now and mid August? Thank you.

Letter APatrick Gale:  Dear Blu, always happy to oblige with a reading list. And it needn't be inferior. Read more dead authors for a start. They're cheap and they tend to be brilliant if they're still in print after a few decades. Try Sylvia Townsend Warner - published by Virago. the Flint Anchor is a wonderful story of a thoroughly difficult family and in particular two sisters who couldn't be less alike. She also wrote one of the best novels after Rumer Godden's Black Narcissus - the Corner that Held Them. Marvellous stuff.
I would also point you towards the short stories of Carol Shields, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant - tough, funny, brilliantly observed and packing such a punch you will rapidly forget you're not reading a novel. Happy reading.
You also ask about using personal experiencesand real life in my work. I've done this a lot since turning 40. In some ways I feel I can stop living now and just write about my life so far! It is pretty tough on my nearest and dearest but certain things are off limits. I'll never write about my hubby, Aidan, or my immediate family. Not while they're alive at least! What I tend to do instead is take elements of my life and elements of people's characters then jumble them all up. Real life and real people tend to be too weird and full of sticky-outy bits to work in the artificially logical world of a novel. It's all smoke and mirrors, my dear, but I'm happy if it works without you noticing the things propping the scenery up.

About the author

Letter Q

Mollyroger: Are you a Quaker, Patrick? If so, is it a lifelong thing?

Letter APatrick Gale: No, I'm not a Quaker, Mollyroger. I was just curious and then got really fascinated by it as a religion once I started researching the novel. I'm really a sort of genetic Christian because my childhood was extremely godly, as were both my parents, but I get so furious with the CofE over their childish attitudes to women and sexuality that the Quakers felt like a very welcoming and sane place to visit.

Letter QMaryannsingleton: Quakerism appeals hugely to me too, I sent off for their literature and was all set to go along to the Meeting House in town but my parents had the same idea and have been along - I rather wanted it to be my thing. Am a very lapsed Catholic and the peace and silence seem very attractive. Catholicism is full of ritual and an almost OCD-ish amount of repetition, which suits my personality but might not be good for my mental health - the guilt etc particularly.

Letter A Patrick Gale: Hmm. I know what you mean, MaryAnn, about Catholicism. But don't get the wrong idea about Quakerism. It may be quite quiet but it can also be very, very challenging because it leaves you nowhere to hide. With no ritual, no music, no man in a dress telling you what's what, you have to fall back on your own inner resources and your own thoughts. It made me realise how I'd always used religion as a sort of pacifier. In my latest novel I made a point of having two chapters side by side where the man and woman go to church, in both cases against their will, so I could deal with this. And I suspect my next novel is going to be about a really lousy father, who just happens to be a CofE priest with an adoring parish and a longsuffering wife.

Letter Q

Oregonianabroad: I'd also like to know more about your life as a writer: how/where do you write? How much per week? How many drafts/ edits? That sort of thing.

Letter APatrick Gale: I'm really not that disciplined. I rely entirely on the interplay of poverty and obsession. When I've a novel on the go I try to write every day, certainly in the morning. I write the old-fashioned way, with a fountain pen and a notebook, because I like to write out of doors. This is about to change a bit because my Richard and Judy present to myself, along with getting a lovely baroque cello made, was a writing room on the edge of our garden. It looks like an upturned boat and is so beautiful inside that I suspect the field where I used to write a lot may be seeing rather less of me this year. As for drafts, I usually write about four, involving an editor and my agent closely after the second one. 

Letter Q

TotalChaos: Did being on the Richard and July list change your life?


Letter A Patrick Gale: Richard and Judy changed my life completely! Try over 100,000 new readers for starters. The strange thing was that I never got to meet them to say thank you in person. Judy, if you're reading this, thank you for changing my life!

Letter Q

Laineyw: I wondered how you feel when you read all these comments from red-blooded women of a certain age who are swooning over your picture?

Letter A

 Patrick Gale: Believe me, LaineyW, I'm 47 (not 46 as the nice man from the Indie so kindly said I was) so swooning from red-blooded persons of whatever gender is always gratefully accepted! I've had such a good time chatting here and only wish I'd had a faster connection. Any Gloucestershire mums out there who want to come along to Tetbury tonight will find me doing my schtick at the Yellow Lighted Bookshop at 7pm. All good wishes, PG

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