The View From Here Interview: Part 1
Patrick Gale has a long and successful writing career, but the inclusion in the UK's 2008 Richard and Judy Book Club of his last book, 'Notes from an Exhibition' further added to his widespread appeal. It sold over 273, 000 copies in 2008. His latest book, 'The Whole Day Through' is due out this week, on May 28th. (And you can win a signed copy in the competition later this week!)
The Aerodynamics of Pork is the most unusual title of your first book. How and when did you begin writing? Why were the first two books published simultaneously?
I’d always written fiction almost too easily all through school. I think I was very lucky to be encouraged but not specifically taught much about the process, so that I sort of worked it out for myself. My school made me read enormously and so did my English degree and I maintain that reading is the best possible training for writing! I didn’t think I was going to become a writer, though. I thought I’d be an actor or, at a pinch, some kind of music teacher. Somehow my hobby became my living. The first two (very short!) novels were published on the same day purely because Penguin had bought out my first publishers, Abacus, and didn’t want to retain me as a writer. They were simply clearing their backlog of books but I was the beneficiary because it secured the novels a lot more coverage in the press than they probably deserved.
Longhand or PC? What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
Longhand for me. I started off on a horrible electronic typewriter with a tiny memory then an Amstrad PCW9512 which had a horribly noisy daisywheel printer. By the time neat sleek pcs came along, I’d already been driven into writing by hand and fallen into the habit. I do think it works better. The process is wonderfully organic and messy – just the way creativity should be – so that you keep having extra ideas and the writing process never quite stops. Whereas writing on a pc, the way I’m doing this now, feels artificially neat and tidy and – judging from all too many novels on the market – convinces writers they’ve finished when they haven’t! The only tools you need are a nice pad and pen and somewhere quiet and comfortable. I write out of doors a lot. I also manage to do a lot of work on the Penzance/Paddington trains.
It appears that character is more defining in your work than plots and planning. Many of your stories feature difficult women and fathers who ‘get away with it’. What appeals to you in these characters?
Ooh. Lots of questions in one. I try to let my characters suggest my plots rather than the other way around. I think if you do that then you’re more likely to come up with a plot that’s lifelike – always assuming your characters are lifelike to start with. As for difficult women and naughty fathers – I suspect there’s a strong element of wish fulfillment in my fiction. Characters, like dogs, can express the things their owners are too polite or inhibited to express.
Several of your books include mental health issues - Alzheimer’s, Bi-polar disorder. How do you research these subjects?
With some difficulty. I don’t like fiction to be research-heavy so, again, the characters come first then I do the research where I have obvious gaps to fill or where I need to know about a disease or whatever that has shaped a character. For writers at the back of beyond the way I am, the Internet is a great boon, as is having a sister who’s an eminent epidemiologist and a friend in psychiatry.
Can you take us through the steps behind one of your books getting published? How long does it take to write a book from opening line to final word, the editing, and final submission?
It varies. When my publishing stock was low, e.g. back in 2000 when Rough Music was yet to be published, there were nearly 18 months from delivery to publication. I’ve just delivered my latest one, however, and that’s due out in less than six months. The writing process varies in length too. I’m a quick an obsessive writer once I get stuck into a piece of work but being expected to tour to book festivals, especially ones overseas, completely disrupts the process. My latest book turned out to be very short – about 150 pages, which was a joy because I was able to work on it uninterrupted for three or four months and then, on the rewrite, for another two. A bigger, more complex book, could never have been put together so quickly.
Tell us a bit about daily workings with your agent, editor or publishers.
Less of the daily. I only have dealings with my agent when there’s a new deal under negotiation or a new book about to be published. We’re good friends but he’s a very busy man and his job is just that – the deal and getting the best one possible. My editor is a really close friend, which is lovely. We holiday together every autumn and she’s a constant source of support and stimulus. There are then lots of different people at my publisher’s I have dealings with at different times. There’s my official in-house editor, my hardback publicist, my softback publicist, my softback editor, the jacket designer and so on. But basically whenever there’s a new book in production or just published, I’ll have regular e mails and phone calls from them and between books life gets wonderfully quiet…
Publishers want more of the same and writers want to do something different each time. How do you deal with this clash?
Ignore the publishers! Actually, that’s not quite true but I have to follow my instincts primarily and be confident that whatever I produce, however weird or unexpected in marketing terms, will still feel like a Patrick Gale novel. I am painfully aware these days, however, that whatever I write will have to be marketed – the new novel is being heavily sold into Sainsburys despite nobody from Sainsbury’s having read it or known much about it in advance. I’ve done my best not to let this influence the subject matter of the book but I was at least able to reassure my editor that what was emerging was a weepy love story, and we all know that love stories are eminently sellable.
As a writer, one is often told, read widely, write every day. But what would your recommendations be to aspiring authors, starting out in today’s world of publishing.
Absolutely. Never stop reading. I regard reading as the writer’s equivalent of the dancer’s daily class – it keeps your mind limber, it stimulates you whether it’s good (envy!) or lousy (comforting!) but most importantly, if you read analytically, it doesn’t just remind you how it feels to be enfurled in fiction but can teach you how certain emotional effects can be triggered in a reader.
I understand that you are part of the staff of the Oxford University Creative Writing Diploma. Do you think aspiring authors can learn to write or are good writers born?
I’m not really on their staff. I’ve just been a visiting lecturer there occasionally. I always feel really inhibited when asked to lecture or teach because I have no training at it. As to the nature/nurture question, it all depends on the sort of writing under discussion. I tend to think that if you can talk well you can often write well, or fluently at least. And elements of both talking and writing can be efficiently taught – which is how journalists are trained. But for really good fiction you also need elements of empathy and a willingness to lose your self, your ego in effect, that is probably harder to teach. I’ve met some really rather nasty novelists, however, whose novels are still terrifically stylish and win prizes etc. But there are about fifty stylists to every Carol Shields, which is why I prize the empathy element so.
Did your study of English, including any particular writer or book, have any great influence on your own writing?
Yes. Iris Murdoch was a big influence, as was the King James Bible, my father’s beautiful spoken prose and Jane Austen. But so was my early music training, I think. I’m always very aware of the rhythm of a piece of writing and I test my writing on myself in my head like a piece of music.
What have you learned in the course of your writing life, that you wish you had known at the start?
That the fiction that works best is actually very quiet in its surface effects. Somebody early on should have said to me, “It’s fine. You can write. Now calm down and stop showing off.”
Part Two will follow on Wednesday when Patrick talks about his experience surrounding the inclusion of Notes from an Exhibition in the Richard & Judy Book Club, his upcoming book and who he would invite to a celebrity summer barbecue .
1985 The Aerodynamics of Pork
1987 Kansas in August
1988 Facing the Tank
1989 Little Bits of Baby
1990 The Cat Sanctuary
1996 The Facts of Life
1996 Dangerous Pleasures
1999 Tree Surgery for Beginners
2000 Rough Music
2003 A Sweet Obscurity
2005 Friendly Fire
2007 Notes from an Exhibition
The Whole Day Through - publication date: 28th May 2009
Gentlemen’s Relish, a second collection of short stories due out at Christmas.
Author photograph credit Mark Pringle