Patrick Gale on A Place Called Winter: ‘a hybrid of Maurice and Brokeback Mountain’
Paul McVeigh talks to his fellow author about plundering the family vaults for his fiction and his love of music including an annual pilgrimage to the Wexford Opera Festival
Patrick Gale on A Place Called Winter: On one level it’s an old-fashioned adventure story, pitting a sweet innocent against an extremely dangerous psychopath who wants to destroy him but on another it’s the story of a man growing in dignity and self-knowledge through a succession of female friendships. Photograph: Dan Hall
Born on the Isle of Wight in 1962 and educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, Patrick Gale has spent most of his working life in Cornwall where he lives on the last farm before Land’s End. He is the author of 15 novels and two books of short stories. He has a two-part original drama being filmed for BBC1 next year and is adapting Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence for BBC2. He’s a director of the charities Endelienta and the Charles Causley Trust and chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival.
Paul McVeigh is is the author of The Good Son, director of the London Short Story Festival and associate director at Word Factory, London’s short story salon.
Tell us a bit about your new novel A Place Called Winter.
It’s a departure for me, both in being historical and in being told from a single viewpoint. It started with my cheeky impulse to rewrite the story of my great-grandfather’s mysteriously abandoning his wife and child to become a homesteader on the Saskatchewan prairies and ended up unexpectedly becoming a hybrid of Maurice, Brokeback Mountain and an old-fashioned western. On one level it’s an old-fashioned adventure story, pitting a sweet innocent against an extremely dangerous psychopath who wants to destroy him but on another it’s the story of a man growing in dignity and self-knowledge through a succession of female friendships.
The book has quickly become a bestseller. What it is about the story that has captured readers’ imaginations?
Apart from being a Western? I think there’s an enduring appeal to stories of dramatic transformation and also of endurance, and this is both. Harry Cane goes from having everything to leading the life of a labourer in unimaginably harsh conditions yet somehow survives and finds both himself and true love in the process. It also has a pretty fantastic heroine, who lets women reading the book live out their pioneer fantasies…
There’s a family connection to the story.
There is indeed. Harry is closely based on the story of my maternal great-grandfather and his colourful in-laws. I honour all the facts, and make use of some delicious stories told me by my granny, but then I start to make things up within them so as to generate an emotionally satisfying answer to the questions, “Why did Harry go?” and “How did he survive?”
Also, in your novel Rough Music the lead character is the son of a prison governor, as you were. What do your family think about you writing about themes and events so close to home?
After 15 novels from me, I reckon my poor family is pretty punch-drunk. Rough Music was particularly cheeky, being my attempt to fathom my parents’ mysteriously enduring marriage and to refashion family history with me as an only child rather than the youngest of four. My sister says she enjoys the odd flickering between family elements she recognises and elements that are pure fantasy. With A Place Called Winter I was taking a character who was pretty much a myth to us all as “Cowboy Grandpa” and restoring him to something like reality; for all that I’ve made him gay, I’ve also tried to show the quiet strength he must have possessed to survive and my siblings say they can appreciate that. My aunt, who knew him as an old man, said she thinks I may have stumbled on something as she always had her suspicions and charmingly added, “After all, you’re gay and you must have got it from somewhere…”
It seems that music is very important to you, having sung with the London Philharmonic Choir. You also play cello. Do you ever find making music finds its way into your prose?
I’ve often written about music – either the challenge of making it or the richness of its emotional effect upon a listener – and I listen to music constantly when I’m writing, unless I’m writing out in a field. I’ve always found the interplay useful; music sets my mind free to wander and listening to the same piece repeatedly gives it focus. Playing the cello requires my total physical and mental concentration so can be a great escape route when I’m having trouble with a piece of work. I really love the collaboration offered by playing chamber music with friends or working on a symphony in one of Penzance’s two orchestras, which comes a relief after the neurotic introspection of writing fiction. My next novel is going to be about a man’s lifelong relationship with his cello, funnily enough…
You’re visiting Belfast, can you tell us a bit about your trip. Have you been to Ireland before?
I come to Ireland every year to get an annual fix of operatic rarities at the Wexford Opera Festival, and I know and love Dublin well, but this will be my first visit to Belfast. I’ve been invited to talk at the Central Library as part of this year’s Outburst Festival and I can’t wait.
As part of Belfast’s Outburst Queer Arts festival, which runs until November 21st, Patrick Gale will be answering questions and reading from A Place Called Winter, on Monday, November 16th, at 6.30pm, in Belfast Central Library. A Place Called Winter is currently shortlisted for The Green Carnation Prize.