Through the glass ceiling
Our publisher Guy Pringle meets up with the author in Winchester.
I've met Patrick Gale several times over the last few years. Usually when I’ve emceed a readers’ day and once when he was good enough to come to Winchester for one of our occasional author events. At that time he was promoting The Whole Day Through which was set in the city. It was his thirteenth novel, and came complete with details of a guided walk at the back which took you round the various locations. I always think this adds an extra dimension to a book; after all, Wessex never did Thomas Hardy any harm.
Back then, at the premises of P&G Wells, Winchester’s highly regarded independent bookshop, more than 80 people – almost exclusively women – squeezed into an upstairs room to be held in rapt attention. What Patrick said about The Whole Day Through – a novel cleverly structured around the events of one day but with diversions into back stories – gave the audience much food for thought. The questions flowed, including one asking what he thought of his book covers, ‘Like a Boden catalogue’, was his disarming reply bringing the biggest laugh of the evening. Which brings me to the most annoying thing about Patrick – he’s just so nice! Nicer even than Michael Palin, I dare say. Sitting alongside this fabulously handsome man, I watched the drooling looks on the faces of all those women, with thought bubbles above each and every head quite clearly saying, ‘Wrap him up, I’ll take him home.’ It’s small consolation to know – as some of them may not – that Patrick is a gay man in a long-standing relationship.
Once again back in Winchester, we were able to meet up this time at the recently refurbished and much-loved Discovery Centre, prior to an evening talk arranged by Hampshire Libraries. Later in the evening he’ll be talking about his latest book, A Perfectly Good Man which, like several of his backlist, has Cornwall as its backdrop. ‘I owe Cornwall a great deal. Cornish readers seem quite grateful that my books are about the real Cornwall... yes, they can be grim but they could be grimmer. It’s a fascinating county, so mythologised that a version has taken over – which I’ve also written about. Some books seem to enjoy bouncing off this version of Cornwall but I’m writing about the non-holiday version of Cornwall, the bits that I hope visitors will seek out.’
Gale On Character's Names
'I collect names. i can recommend a little book, The Oxford Book of Christian Names; a good source along with graveyards. I check them out in case there's an extra meaning,'
'Thank you, er?'
'It's what your name means. Mine's Son of Consolation which I always think's a bit like being called Better Luck Next Time.'
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Simplistically, there are two kinds of authors – those who find a home and don’t want to change it and those who see new opportunities over the hill and the chance to leave past mistakes behind.
‘I never got over the gratitude of being published... Jonathan said I’d not been properly published and he could see a way of making some money out of me. I’m quite a loyal person and as my backlist grew [I realised] moving it might put it in jeopardy. Plus, being with one publisher means they can do a uniform re-jacketing [to renew your appeal]. For the first time I had a sense of security and I felt I had come home.’
And his agent? ‘Well, agents are always keen on their clients moving as that usually means more money but I’m still with Caradoc, which is unusual for authors starting out these days. The first thing that happens when things don’t work out is that the author fires the agent!’
As a former employee of HarperCollins I admire his longevity with them, knowing that they re-structure on a regular basis. ‘Yes, but I have the best of both worlds with them. I benefit from the literary credibility of 4th Estate, I’m reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement but HarperCollins’ marketing clout means I’m sold in Tesco.’
Does he feel he would have made it were he starting out now? ‘That’s the big challenge in publishing now – spotting staying power instead of one-hit wonders, winning a big advance that doesn’t earn out.’ I think he’s being self-effacing but he goes on to describe how he was ‘pegging away. Publishers – apart from the advances – spent no money, nothing on marketing the books’ and not surprisingly didn’t make much money. He worries about the next generation of aspiring authors who don’t have the chance to acquire a voice, ply their trade, learn on the job, call it what you will.
He’s quite candid about what might have befallen him. ‘Rough Music [published in 2000] was the first
of my books that made money for the publisher.’ How did you know? ‘Because there hadn’t been any royalty cheques. That book broke me through the glass ceiling. I might have been dropped before that if I hadn’t had a loyal following.’ And how did you become aware of that loyal following within HarperCollins? ‘Suddenly people I didn’t know were coming out of offices to welcome me with open arms.’
And that is when that unexploited backlist came into play. The success of Rough Music meant a big in-house meeting to discuss a new cover concept to encapsulate the Patrick Gale identity. ‘It’s a pragmatic process every ten years, probably more frequently now. But with Notes from an Exhibition the original cover design they showed me was terrible, really bad, unimaginative and I said I didn’t like it. And they said “the marketing department think it’s right for your readers”. A month after that Richard & Judy said they wanted Notes from an Exhibition for their next book club but not with that jacket. And at that point it was changed like magic to one that had been rejected from an earlier round and it was perfect. And I acquired 150,000 or 200,000 new readers overnight.’
A DARKER BOOK
There’s no rancour or point- scoring in his telling of this – he must be a delight to work with! And we turn to the jacket of his new book, A Perfectly Good Man for which he liked the first design he was shown. ‘And I’m normally very picky because I see things very visually.’ He proudly shows me the design for the paperback which is the same image but with more of an orange glow round the edges. I mention my theory that it’s a good sign when a publisher sticks to the same design for the paperback that they used for the hardback. He explains why the new book merits this darker, less- Boden like look. ‘It’s very dark, quite grim’ but quickly smiles and adds ‘until the last chapter.’
Barnaby Johnson, tall, good-looking, in his mid- twenties at most, arrives at Pendeen as the new
curate. He takes lodgings on the farm where Dorothy has grown up and is fully expecting to marry Henry Angwin, a neighbouring farmer. Perhaps inevitably, Dorothy’s long walks with Barnaby to show him the area turn into an amorous interlude which slightly scares them both. Barnaby leaves to allow the situation to cool but he writes to her and she replies, although her mother intercepts his letters when she realises what is going on. She recognises that a life as a priest’s wife would be hard and that her daughter will always come second best to her husband’s beliefs – which underlines one of the central themes of the book. So far, so Mills and Boon but of course, unexpected events are already in progress , in fact, of all his books this is probably the one which has the most plot, as Patrick
Gale is well aware.
But what are his own views on religion and how did he verify religious practices and life? ‘I come from a
very religious family – my grandfather and my great grandfather were both priests and I think my parents hoped I might become a priest myself. I’ve never quite shaken off religion [although] I’m not a regular churchgoer – but it does fascinate me. If you look at my backlist there are often religious characters in there. I’m interested in the vision involved, the formative experience. I didn’t want to do a whitewash – I’m interested in the job. What being a priest involves; the unpaid social work, the tedious invasion of your life, of your family’s lives. Barnaby becomes ambivalent about how he feels about the church.’
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Gale On Book Signings
Modest Carlsson is Gale's most unlikable character to date, trading as a second hand book dealer (and pornography) dealer.
'Yes, it happens all the time, the creepy men who say, "Just the signature." Ask any novelist, it's all a bit sinister. i almost want to rescue the book from them, say "No, I want someone to love it not sell it on eBay."
He would visit book festivals and join the long (or sometimes surprisingly short) queues to have a famous writer sign an old copy of one of their books.
'Just your signature,' he would always tell them to prevent them writing all good wishes or some such devaluing nonsense.
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Gale On Religion
'In certain crises, people still reach for a priest, it's a totemic, almost magical thing for a lot of us. Methinks Richard Dawkins doth protest too much but doesn't come up with a viable alternative.
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When I meet Patrick this evening, his appearance does little to dispel the stereotype of gay men as well- groomed smart dressers. An expensive black leather jacket covers a black, slim-fitting corduroy jacket with a crisp white shirt below that. Straight-leg blue jeans and smart black shoes complete the ensemble; the whole presenting a pleasing monochrome effect matched by a full head of expensively cut and styled – but now steely grey – hair.
He smiles freely and openly, remembering my name, which is always a good way of disarming one. Although the fact that I was sitting reading the penultimate chapter and desperately wanting to finish A Perfectly Good Man before we began was a clue to who I was, as were the yellow post its poking out for questions I wanted to put to him.
But before we began on that topic, Patrick helped to place a few more jigsaw pieces in his own back story. I knew already of his stint as a singing waiter and various other casual jobs to make ends meet while he attempted to become an actor. However, I didn’t know how he’d made the break through to writing and, more importantly, being published. Yes, he’d managed to get himself onto the review circuit which means your name becomes known in the industry, but it can be a thankless task, being the critic when you’d rather be the one critiqued.
Having written ‘the novel’ in his early twenties, he wasn’t sure what to do next however a female friend from Oxford days stepped in. Another aspiring actor, she was working as a secretary to literary agent, Caradoc King. Unbeknownst to Patrick, she put his manuscript on Caradoc’s reading pile for the coming weekend. Imaginatively, Patrick had tried to make his book stand out from the rest by giving it a collage of a cover but it was the title – The Aerodynamics of Pork – that caught the eye, and so young, very young, Mr Gale was added to the client list.
A year or two passed before King found a publisher to take on this new protégé but the title survived and Patrick was launched. Unfortunately, publishers seemed not to know what to do with him although he continued to be given advances – £2,500 the going rate. He was passed from Sphere to Penguin who published his first two books on the same day.
Was this genius or folly? On to Century and Hutchinson, hardback and paperback imprints who published the new hardback and the previous title in paperback simultaneously. Another neat idea but sadly still no evidence that it had made much of a splash with readers. From there into Chatto & Windus, another literary publishing house but one that didn’t want to publish the paperback. Vintage, the logical home for it, was too newly established to be able to take it on so the paperback went to Paladin, which at the time was part of Grafton.
We colluded in nostalgia as we remembered this litany of long-gone imprints, subsumed by newer, more thrusting publishing houses, although many of the long-time favourites on your bookshelves are likely to bear their names.
It was Jonathan Davidson at HarperCollins who finally recognised the true promise of Patrick Gale. Not only did Davidson entice Patrick into the care of Flamingo, which he was then setting up, he very astutely bought up the half dozen or so previously published books, probably for a song.
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Patrick Gale: The CV
Born 31 January 1962 on the Isle of Wight.
Father was prison governor at Camp Hill, Wandsworth and Winchester prisons.
Education: Winchester College; Quirister at the cathederal choir school, Pilgrim's.
New College, Oxford - English degree awarded 1983.
He has never had a 'grown-up' job.
For three years he lived at a succession of addresses, from a Notting Hill bedsit to a crumbling french chateau.
Typist; Singing waiter; Designer's secretary; Ghost-writer for an encyclopedia of the musical; Book reviewer.
Lives on a farm near Land's End.
Ambition: to perfect the art of reversing a tractor and trialer around a corner.
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TIMELINES AND PLANNING
As in The Whole Day Through, the new book is very carefully structured; characters are presented in rotation at various – and not synchronous – ages. Chapters are headed Dorothy at 24, Carrie at 11, Barnaby at 8 – these are respectively mother, daughter and father so obviously some kind of planning
was needed, but how was it done? I mention Philip Pullman’s shed with its wall of post its, found objects, memorabilia and anything else that helps him to establish his storyline. For Patrick, it’s numerous notebooks; sometimes a notebook for each character because they’re written separately. Is this really a viable way to write a book? Surely you’re making it extra hard for yourself? ‘I knew this book would be a sister to Notes from an Exhibition even when the story was very rough in my head but that the father not the mother was the parent that almost destroys the family. In a double helix, the central character, Father Barnaby, goes back and back, while the other characters [largely] in the present day are affected by Barnaby. I can only write one character at a time, otherwise I’d go mad and I deliberately left the main character until last so I’d created a Barnaby-shaped space from the point of view of all the other characters. By then I had a much clearer idea of who I suspected Barnaby was. Every one of my novels has to have an implicit question – Who is this person and what makes them tick? And that gives me the writing energy.’
So does he employ a timeline, at least? ‘Ages are a nightmare, I have to do a graph with the years as the vertical axis and for each chapter I work out their ages at that time. Real life events can be a nightmare. Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor appears in Notes and obviously she died [in 1975] so she can’t appear in some of the scenes I’d written so I had to shift the whole axis of the book. In A Perfectly Good Man I wanted to include Geevor Mine which is a real place with a real story so that affected the ages of all of the characters.’
As in his earlier books, the places are based on real life locations, although some of the names have been changed. In The Whole Day Through for example, Winchester became Brewster as a concession to the fact his parents were still living there at the time, and in fact his mother and sister still do. I ask whether there will be a guide book element to the back pages of the paperback edition of A Perfectly Good Man. Unfortunately not, it follows on so soon after publication of the hardback that there hasn’t been time but he definitely intends to put it on his website – GaleWarning, worth checking out for lots of other background information. We both agree that this kind of ‘added value’ is so much more worthwhile to the reader than the patronising questions publishers of various stripe have manufactured as if they were DVD extras. ‘Reading groups are [full of] intelligent women who can work discussion points out for themselves.’
Agreeing on this obviously sweeping and self-evident statement, we draw things to a close so Patrick can go downstairs to entertain his waiting audience and charm them into buying his latest book – which I recommend you should, too.
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A Perfectly Good Man
by Patrick Gale
is published by 4th Estate.