Patrick Gale is the author seventeen novels, including the bestselling Notes from an Exhibition. His new novel, A Place Called Winter, is a sweeping historical epic set in the Canadian prairies that has been described as ‘EM Forster meets Brokeback Mountain’. It’s a tender, heartbreaking and beautifully written novel that’s been widely tipped to be one of the biggest books of the year. In the week of the novel’s publication, I asked Gale about the inspiration behind the book and his hopes for its readership.
This story is inspired by your family history, which you talk about in fascinating detail on various blogs. Did you feel a greater sense of pressure or responsibility writing this novel because of your personal connection to the story?
Initially, yes. Although these were great grandparents and a slew of great great aunts I had never met, I felt I knew them through my grandmother’s stories and wanted to honour them. But soon the usual fictional process kicked in, they became flesh and blood characters to me and, as such, had to be free to behave as well or badly as they needed to. Initially I had planned to frame the novel with chapters told from the viewpoints of my grandmother and her son-in-law, my father, which would have been much, much more intimidating.
As part of your research for the novel, you spent three weeks in the Canadian prairies, locating the exact co-ordinates of your great-grandfather’s farm, where much of the novel is set. How did that research trip influence your writing of the book?
It helped that the entire book was told from the viewpoint of an ignorant Englishman, much like me, so that my ignorances and misconceptions could be his. My time on the prairies – criminally brief, and avoiding anything but distant, melting snow – still brought home to me a keen sense of how isolated the homesteads were and how profoundly uprooted a wealthy settler from London would have felt.
A Place Called Winter is your first historical novel. Do you think you would have written an historical novel if this particular family story hadn’t piqued your interest? And do you plan to write any more?
I suspect having a family story to tell gave me courage to set forth into alien creative territory. But once the novel was underway, the imperatives felt just the same as they always do – to ensure the characters’ psychology felt true-to-life, and to find ways of making my reader care as deeply about those characters as I did. I’d love to write another historical novel, but I’d have to find a plot first which absorbed me as utterly as this one did. I might yet take a look at my Gale ancestors; they seem to have been suspiciously stable and well behaved…
The novel’s early chapters are set in the familiar literary territory of Edwardian England, but you soon pull the rug from under the reader’s feet when the novel relocates to the isolation of the Canadian prairies. Did you consciously set out to create that shift in gear for the reader?
Absolutely. It was a gift to be able to start the novel in world familiar to us from E M Forster’s novels all the better to bring home the violence of the dislocation when we leave for the dangers and uncertainties of the newly opened Canadian west.
You live on a farm in Land’s End in a place you once described to me as ‘the last piece of land in England’. Did any of your own experience influence Harry’s feelings of isolation and sheer hard graft when he first reaches the Canadian prairies?
Nowhere in Cornwall – not even our farm – is as remote as parts of Saskatchewan feel, even today. We have the sea all around us, which I’ve always found oddly stabilising. To be so far from a coastline felt deeply weird (and I unconsciously gravitated to any lake or river I could find there.) I did, however, draw on my experiences of learning some pretty heavy duty farming tasks (harvesting potatoes and cauliflowers and herding cattle) in my desk-softened late thirties when I first moved in with Aidan.
You were born and grew up in Wandsworth Prison, where your father was governor. Has any of that sense of order and routine found its way into your processes as a writer?
Ha. I wish I had even a fraction of the discipline my older siblings bring to their work. I seem to rely entirely on obsession and neurotic fear to get the job done. I was very young when we were at Wandsworth. I think a stronger influence may have been the antiquated and highly disciplined schools I went on to attend in Winchester. The combination of that and my father’s late Victorian moral standards mean that I am constantly failing to live up to my own standards but also that I am incapable of not picking myself up, getting back in there and trying again.
A Place Called Winter has been the subject of rave advance reviews both from critics and bloggers. Does that go some way to easing the publication nerves?
Alas nothing does. I find the nerves and the waiting for reviews get worse with each novel, perhaps because there is more and more to live up to. The one thing which soothes them is when I start to visit bookshops and festivals where I can meet readers and hear what they think.
What would you most like readers to take away from A Place Called Winter?
I hope they’ll find it dispels the myth that the English behaved any better in Canada than we did in Australia but, on another level, I hope it will remind them not to be complacent about the relatively recent victories won for LGBT rights. 1905 may be two lifetimes ago, but the 1980s, when new, actively homophobic legislation was brought in on both sides of the Atlantic, were scarily recent.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale is published by Tinder Press, £16.99