By Jay Armstrong
Patrick Gale is busy – and he’s showing no signs of slowing up. The best-selling author is a passionate advocate of the arts in Cornwall; he is chairman of the North Cornwall Book Festival, this weekend returning for a second year at St Endelion with a mission is “to bring books and their authors to Cornwall”. And who better placed to do that than the popular and prolific Cornwall-based novelist?
Along with the festival, Gale’s energies are currently divided between screenplay projects – he’s developing an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and is writing a three part original drama series, Man in an Orange Shirt, for BBC2 – and promoting his fifteenth novel, A Place Called Winter, due to be published in March 2015.
Gale is known for a deep connection to his authentic characters, often sketched around personalities from his past, and this latest work delves deep into his own family history. It is loosely based on the story of his maternal great grandfather, Harry Cane, who left his wife and child in England to set up as a homesteader in the wild prairies of Canada.
“I honoured all the facts I could find about [Harry Cane], however it rapidly became clear that the few details I had from my grandmother’s unpublished memoirs weren’t going to be enough to flesh him out,” the author explains. “And in fleshing him out, I found his story taking on all sorts of extra significance for me. What began as a sort of Western, an adventure story, retained those heroic elements but also became a story of self-determination and self-discovery: a novel about platonic friendship between men and women and a pretty passionate love story.”
In previous works Gale has never shied away from themes often uncomfortably close to home. I suggest that his new novel is a further exploration of issues such as family secrets and explored sexuality, but with perhaps a greater personal significance.
It was challenging writing from the viewpoint of a man who cannot give voice to his feelings, he says. “To some extent I project myself into all my characters but this became overt with Harry. I found I knew so little about him that I was projecting my own personality back into his, imagining how I would have coped in the grueling situations he faced.
“And that in turn turned my probably totally heterosexual great grandfather into a secretly homosexual Edwardian, and in turn dictated the twists and turns of the plot!”
The author suspects that his own family’s story was in fact more sad and lonely than the adventure he describes in A Place Called Winter. There was one part of the tale – Harry returned to England in the 1950s to be reunited with his daughter “only to have him effectively banish him back to Canada, rather than take him in” – that he found too sad to include in the novel.
“The hope with any novel based on a specific true story is that one will end up writing something that reveals emotional truths even as it makes things up,” says Gale. “I hope that Harry’s story will strike chords in the hearts of readers who might begin by thinking it is utterly alien to their own lives. I think women readers, especially, will be startled at the ways in which the novel challenges them or makes them reassess their thoughts about marriage, companionship and friendship. And, indeed, what it means to be feminine.”
Gale’s intimate understanding of the complexities of family has been one of the many reasons for his popularity. And his use of the Edwardian setting in his new work further enables him to explore the profound repercussions of a family secret that today might carry little scandal. “We’ve become so familiar with the story of Oscar Wilde that we’re apt to forget just how frightening it could be for a man at the privileged heart of society to find himself an outcast, but we’re also apt to be too ready to think of such figures as victims,” he says.
“I was keen to have Harry’s trauma lead him to become a pretty brave and heroic figure, even though – so as to be realistic in the light of the facts as handed down to me by my family – his sexuality remains a secret right to the end.”
Spirituality and religion are prominent features of Gale’s work, which is also marked by a use of landscape as a physical counterpoint to the esoteric nature of what binds us to it, leaving the reader with a strong impression of the importance of a sense of place. Given the roots of the North Cornwall Book festival in the Endelienta charity, which supports arts and spirituality, I ask Gale whether he believes it is a deep-seated spirituality that feeds the strong artistic impulse in Cornwall.
“I don’t regard artistic endeavour or experience as being separate from spirituality; art IS a spiritual experience,” he explains. His novels are full of spirituality. Why so? “Partly because I had a very religious upbringing and it has rubbed off, and partly because I am interested in writing about the things that are hard to put into words.”
Gale also finds the time to run very popular writing courses. At the heart of his advice for aspiring writers is a love of words. He says he never stops reading – which teaches him more than writing classes or manuals. But he also suggests ditching the keyboard and writing by hand.
“It sets you free from the huge distractions of the internet but also it fosters a slow, fertile way of proceeding which I think pays dividends,” he explains. “I’ve also learnt that what ultimately matters is telling the story. Don’t fret about the style or the research or being clever, just concentrate on storytelling and clarity, at least for your first draft.”
In Gale’s writing that story takes the reader from the safety and certainty of home to the unfamiliar landscape of wilderness and secrecy. It’s a journey that depends on a well-honed craft and subtle cleverness, and is skillfully done without the distracting or overbearing presence of the author.
While he is very much a welcome presence in the Cornish literary scene, Patrick Gale gracefully steps aside as an author to allow his reader space to escape, explore and reflect.
- Patrick Gale will be appearing at the North Cornwall Book festival, interviewing the Costa shortlisted novelist Louisa Young on Sunday 26th October.