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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
While working on his first novels Patrick Gale eked out his slender income with odd jobs; as a typist, a singing waiter, a designer's secretary, and as a ghost-writer for an encyclopedia. His first two novels, The Aerodynamics of Pork and Ease were published on the same day in June 1986.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Notes from an Exhibition?
Patrick Gale: My first inkling was that I was simply going to write a novel about a family weathering a spectacularly difficult mother then I hit on the idea of her an artist. Women artists are tidy paradigms for the situation of the modern working woman, torn in two or three directions at once and guilty every time they want to dedicate themselves to their work rather than to traditional housewifery and motherhood.
MT: Rachel Kelly is a formidable character -- how did you come up with her!?
PG: The real heart of her character jumped off the page at me when I was reading some Anne Sexton poems. Sexton wrote with astonishing honesty (for a 50s housewife) about her ambivalence towards her mother and children and, most importantly for me, about her resentment of her children when she wanted to work. She was bi-polar, and wrote about her poetry – not least in two poems I quote at the book’s front – which led me to develop Rachel’s character further with what I learned from the writings of Kay Redfield Jamieson about the fascinating inter-relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity. I’ve said that Rachel is my scariest mother to date but I hope she also leaves readers with a sense that all the damage she causes around her might just be worth it for the wonderful paintings she creates.
MT: How long did it take you to write your novel? Is this the usual time-frame for you?
PG: I tend to think slow and long then write fast. This book was pretty typical in that what I call the compost heap period – when I read and think and take notes but don’t actually write any of the text – lasted about two years while the collected days of writing the thing probably took about eight months.
MT: What were the major challenges in writing Notes and how did you overcome them?
PG: I am not a painter, so writing as a painter and about a painter felt even more of a stretch for me than writing as a woman. I’m very musical and music has a way of creeping into my novels but this time I consciously barred all music, or pretty much all, in an effort to make myself emphasize the visual elements for a change and reveal the characters by the way they look at things rather than the music they listen to. Writing about Rachel’s illness was tough too because I was keen not to make it melodramatic but also not to make it sound easy. I’ve had close friends with Bipolar Disorder, including a boyfriend who killed himself because of it, so I was sharply aware that I probably ended up soft pedalling some of the nastier aspects of the disease’s effects so as not to lose the reader’s sympathy.
MT: What does it mean to you to be on the Richard and Judy reading list?
PG: I feel as though my fairy godmother has finally noticed me tugging on her skirts after 20 plus years of writing. It’s quite astonishing and very very exciting suddenly to find a book of mine being sold on station platforms and airport counters. The hope now, of course, is that this Richard and Judy effect will lead to all these new readers discovering all the other titles in my back catalogue!
MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them?
PG: I always read the critics, even though it can hurt. Luckily I do a fair amount of book reviewing myself so I never forget how subjective the process is, that a book can simply be the wrong book for a certain reader. However this time around I felt really lucky as I not only had a handful of truly stunning reviews but I found myself getting lots of really moving and perceptive responses from “ordinary” readers visiting my website, galewarning.org.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
PG: I write in longhand. I love computers and new technology but find it’s all terribly distracting. I’ve also always jumped at any chance I get to write out of doors, partly because it feels healthier than being slumped in a chair, but mainly because I’m so easily lured away by things like the phone, cryptic crosswords, sudoku, cooking, the garden etc etc. I’m very lucky to live in an idyllic, seaside location with all sorts of fabulous writing spots. My favourite is a field of ours near the sea that has a great big boulder in it I can lean against. I take the dogs down there and they stalk rabbits in the long grass while I beaver away. My old mum gave me a brilliant rug with a waterproof backing so I don’t get too chilled even if I go out there first thing. I also love writing on a bench in the garden but I have to be very strong minded then not to start tweaking weeds up or deadheading. The next stage is typing the manuscript up, which is an editorial process in itself, not least because I frequently find bits of my handwriting I can’t decipher. Then I do a print out, with really big line spacing, and write the next draft in longhand again all over that. And so on. And yes, I like lots of editing from my editor too. She’s can be pretty demanding but we’re good friends so she knows how far she can push me before I start to whimper!
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
PG: I do a lot of musicmaking. I play the cello in local orchestras in Penzance and in a baroque ensemble and I sing. I chair a lovely classical music festival at St Endellion on the North Cornish coast every summer, which hoovers up a lot of time but is marvellously rewarding even though it leaves me a crumpled husk by mid August. I’m an obsessive gardener and a keen cook. But then, of course, I live with a farmer so am also kept pretty busy at certain times of year helping with the cauliflower harvest, the barley harvest and with caring for our beef herd. It’s a pretty lovely life really.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
PG: Absolutely not. I write for myself and always have done. I reckon that if I can entertain or move myself then I can do it for other people. My readership seems to be a very broad church, to judge from the letters and e mails I get, so it would be pretty destructive to start aiming my books at a specific bit of it. Even Friendly Fire, which could have been promoted as a young adult book because it’s all about a bunch of teenage schoolchildren, seems to have struck chords with plenty of adult readers...
MT: What are you working on now?
PG: When I finally get home from this book tour (around China) I’m settling down to a middle aged love story in which the lovers are granted a second chance having been persuaded apart by bossy friends when they were students. I think it’s going to be a lot funnier than Notes from an Exhibition, but with an underlying note of sadness.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
PG: I’m drawn to novels where the technique doesn’t show and where the style is like glass, letting you become immediately drawn into the characters and plot beyond it. I’m especially fond of the writing of Anne Tyler, Alice Munro and Barbara Gowdy, all of whom inhabit a similar territory to mine in that they write about families and relationships but I’d also read anything to come from Vikram Seth, Colm Toibin, Alan Hollinghurst, Haruki Murakami or Marina Lewycka.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
PG: Read! And then read some more. Reading is the best and possibly only real tutor for writing. I’m very wary of creative writing courses except as short term aids for getting writing done or breaking a creative block. When you find a writer who really excites you be shameless about imitating them to start with. You’ll soon find your own voice and your own way of doing things. I think an old fashioned English Literature degree is a lot more valuable to an emerging novelist than a creative writing one.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
PG: Visit my website: galewarning.org to find out more about me!
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