British author and screenwriter Patrick Gale was one of the international acts to join this year’s Open Book Festival. The Oxford-educated novelist is an avid gardener who lives near Land’s End in Cornwall, where he and his husband farm.
Gale, whose books have previously made it onto Richard and Judy’s list of summer reads, is currently promoting his 17th novel, A Place Called Winter. The novel, a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice, is described as follows:
To find yourself, sometimes you must lose everything.
A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.
Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.
In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.
In a panel talk on researching time and place, Patrick generously shared some tips and tricks with the aspiring writers in the audience.
On the limits of research
Patrick described how A Place Called Winter came about. When his mother decided to move into an old-age home, he inherited her set of Georgian drawers, stuffed full of old Vogue patterns, mismatched knitting needles, years of correspondence between his mother and grandmother… and his grandmother’s unfinished life story.
When asked why he decided to fictionalise his family history, rather than writing a biography, he said: “Fiction is very useful to get to the emotional truth of a situation that you won’t find with only historical research”.
He also confirmed that old adage that you should write from what you know, saying: “The glorious realisation you’re a novelist comes when you suddenly realise no experience is wasted”.
On the subject of researching when you’re a new novelist, Patrick said he believes a lot of the extraneous research is about the writer’s need to gain confidence. “But sooner or later,” he said, “you must trust your ability to tell the story”.
He also suggested that new writers follow advice he’d heard another author give: Try tell as much of the story you want to tell before you research it, even if only in note form, as “it’s easy to get overwhelmed by research with your first novel.”
On archiving your past, and your stories, for the future
Gale keeps all the notebooks from his old manuscripts, but he hands them over to an archivist for safekeeping. The first time he did this, the archivist was pleased he did things the old-fashioned way. Apparently, with technology changing so much, paper lasts more than documents on memory sticks (which you may not be able to read from in a few years), so archivists always print out any digital material authors hand them.
He also reiterated something my Irish great aunt Margaret told me: It’s really important to write the names of people on the backs of photographs for the sake of leaving an accurate record of your life as legacy.
On the value of writing in ink
Extending the writing-like-gardening analogy he mentioned at the start of the talk, Gale said the reason he makes his writing students have “inky days”, with no electronic note-taking or writing allowed, is because “the mess that comes with scratching out and so on is hugely fertile”.
His own preference? Gale writes in Toffee Brown ink (the one that “looks like dried blood”) as archivists say that’s the tone that lasts the longest.
On what writers talk about
“People think when writers get together, they talk art. We don’t. We talk about backing up,” Gale quipped. When I tweeted this, writer Jenny Colgan replied: “and VAT and writer’s arse and unfair car insurance premiums.”
Gale, still generous with his writerly tips, replied to say “I beat writer’s arse by investing in a sort of brain surgeon’s chair − the Hag Capisco: lets one lean forward”.
The Hag Capisco is environmentally sound (the seat is made from recycled car bumpers and waste household plastic packaging, and its plastic components are labelled to help sorting for recycling) as well as ergonomic. Here’s what the chair looks like, and where to learn more about it.