Patrick Gale on his latest bestseller A Place Called Winter
Date posted: 16th July 2015 / Interviews
A Place Called Winter is Patrick Gale’s latest novel. A book Patrick describes himself as “a big departure” from his previous works, A Place Called Winter is set in the early Twentieth Century, and stems from the story of the author’s own grandfather, banished to Canada as a young man.
The book has gained many superb reviews, not least from our own Patron Helen Dunmore in the Guardian, in which she described A Place Called Winter as “elegiac”.
“I suppose it is elegiac,” says Patrick, “in that any reader who knows their history will know that I’m describing a world and a way of life which will be swept away, if not in the course of the narrative, then soon after in the years that follow its end. It kept threatening to become almost overwhelmingly sad at points so I had to fight in my rewrites to find ways of balancing the sadness out. I was keen to leave the reader on a note of tentative hope, at least!”
What’s immediately impressive about A Place Called Winter is the personal connection to Patrick Gale’s own family history, and the ways in which he weaves this personal significance into the work.
“My great grandfather was Harry Cane,” he says, “ and he and his brother, Jack, did indeed marry the eldest of the Wells girls and had a sister in law, Pattie, who went on stage as a Gaiety Girl and had an aristocratic admirer. And Harry did indeed appear to abandon his wife and child in order to take up homesteading in Canada, which he did until the 1950s. However nobody could give me a good explanation as to why a rich young man should have felt the need to do something so extreme. Granny’s handwritten memoir revealed the sadness of her parents’ marriage – that her mother loved another man she had been forbidden from marrying – but that didn’t seem reason enough to me. So what I’ve done is to honour the known facts but then to inject a completely fabricated story into their midst – about Harry’s secret love life – which would give me a believable explanation, not only of why he went but of why he was spoken of so little when I was growing up.”
With the first foray into historical fiction, came the need for serious research. Research varies from writer to writer, from someone like C.J. Sansom clearly doing immense amounts of research for a novel like Dominion, to a writer like George Mackay Brown, who allegedly did barely any for his beautiful Viking story, Magnus. Patrick Gale, however, put the hours in, while never losing sight of the creative impulse to tell the story:
“I had to do a mass of research, of course, but the biggest challenge of the historical aspect was writing from the viewpoint of a sheltered, fairly naive Edwardian man. I had to keep policing my thoughts and words to keep out any hint of 21st century liberalism or the psycho-sexual vocabulary which we have all grown used to using so readily. This was a man most of whose story remains, literally, unspeakable! So the challenge ended up being less an historical one, than a creative/imaginative one.”
As well as wrestling with the weight of history, Patrick moved to a single narrator standpoint, and finds the work all the more enjoyable for that. “I like its relative simplicity,” he says. “Unusually for a Gale novel, it has a single viewpoint. I wanted it to be a little like an Edwardian adventure story in its singlemindedness, if not in its subject matter, and I hope I succeeded. I’m also very pleased with the way the women in it turned out, in particular Petra, with whom I rather fell in love.”
Having said this, Patrick doesn’t feel it’s likely that he’ll return speedily to the world of A Place Called Winter. “I can’t imagine returning to any of these characters,” he says, “as their stories are either over, or doomed to be very sad! One day, though, I might find a way of returning to the character of my grandmother, poor little Phyllis, being raised by all those aunts. I inherited a wealth of material in the shape of a lifetime’s correspondence between her and my mother, on which I’d love to draw some more. The challenge is to find a story that is incomplete, however, as it’s the unanswered question that gives me my point of entry into a story.”
Needless to say, Patrick is fully at work on other projects already. “I’m busy with several television projects at the moment,” he says. “I’m just finishing A Man In An Orange Shirt, an original two part gay drama for BBC1 and I’m about to start adapting Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence for BBC2 and Rose Tremain’s amazing short story, The Housekeeper as a one-off feature.”
“But there is another novel taking shape in my head,” he adds. “All I can say about it at the moment is that it involves lots of stuff about playing the cello, which just happens to be my instrument…”
A Place Called Winter is now a bestseller, and is published by Tinder Press.
I am not terribly disciplined. I certainly don’t do word counts, as that would be too depressing! When I have a novel on the go, though, I do treat it as a nine to five job. I have a writing shed in the garden to which I go as soon as the dogs’ morning walk is over and where I stay for as much of the day as I can stand. I spend a lot of time staring into space out there, but it seems to work. I am a bit old fashioned in that I write in ink in a series of hardback notebooks. Initially this was because I simply found I wrote better and more richly that way and liked to see my crossings out and thought processes, but increasingly I cling to it as an excuse to turn off the computer and – more importantly – any connection to the Internet. I do a lot of social media. This is justifiable for publicising novels but is desperately time consuming and distracting and I found the only way I could get A Place Called Winter finished was to go on a digital sabbatical, removing myself from Facebook and Twitter until the job was done.
Have a go at writing by hand.
Don’t be scared of writing stuff that isn’t actual novel but just ideas and character background – often its while making these notes that your best ideas will come to you.
Do get into the habit of reading your work either aloud or in your head. Prose has a natural metre, just like poetry, and it’s crucial that you avoid writing that will pull your reader up short; you don’t want to remind them that they’re reading!
I can highly recommend Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and Sibyl, for lovers of
historical fiction and both Polly Samson’s The Kindness and T R Richmond’s ingenious psychological thriller, What She Left.
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