Roll over Rowling! As he gears up to give his annual writers' workshop in the South of France, arguably Britain's most successful openly gay author Patrick Gale gives OutUK's Adrian Gillan his top tips on how to pen a pink blockbuster and see it into print.
Patrick was born in January 1962 on the Isle of Wight, where his father was prison governor at Camp Hill, as his grandfather had been at nearby Parkhurst.

The youngest of four children, the family moved to London, where his father ran Wandsworth Prison, then Winchester.

Photograph by John Foley. © 2003 John Foley.
After studying English at Oxford and a succession of odd jobs, his first two novels The Aerodynamics Of Pork and Ease were published by Abacus on the same day in June 1986.
The following year he moved to Camelford near the north coast of Cornwall and began a love affair with the county that has fed his work ever since. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End with his lover, Aidan Hicks, where they raise beef cattle for the open market and broccoli for Sainsbury’s.

Patrick Gale will be facilitating a week-long men-only residential workshop on gay writing at The Lotus Tree guest house in France at the end of April.

The Lotus Tree Gay Guest House which is 45 minutes from Avignon. There are still a couple of places left on the Gay Writers Week with Patrick Gale, April 24 – May 1.
OutUK: If there are there as many different ways to write as there are writers, how easy is it to offer general advice in a workshop situation?
Patrick: Not very. I can only strive for honesty, drawing on my own experience. I've been doing little else now for twenty years so at least have had time to try various methods on for size.
OutUK: So does that mean the art of writing in fact rather more a craft?
Patrick: I'd say so, but a craft that is only of use if accompanied by unteachable talent. You can teach from example but there's always going to be that element, that instinct for storytelling or observation, that can't be taught.
OutUK: So which authors have influenced your work most?
Patrick: I'm drawn to writers with a profound empathy for their characters - like Anne Tyler, Carol Shields or Thomas Mann - whose style is so translucent the reader is drawn straight past it and into the narrative. I tend to read so widely that it's hard to cite direct influences but, looking back at my earliest novels I can see very clearly now how influenced they were by all the Iris Murdoch I was reading then.
OutUK: Does that mean you look back on your earlier novels and blush?
Patrick: I hate the way fans always seem to be keenest on the stuff I feel I've long since outgrown!

OutUK: Don't only very few writers of fiction manage to make a living from it?
Patrick: Very few fiction writers can cite it as their sole source of income. Most seem to have some kind of day job - as academics or journalists. I know of at least one who only dared give up his day job once he had a Booker nomination.

OutUK: Do you think writing is a vocation or does everyone have a book in them?
Patrick: Writing is such a weird, neurotic and solitary way to make a living that you need to be pretty obsessed to be able to put up with the strains it puts on you. Everyone has a story but they're not always the best person to tell it.
OutUK: But do you think all fiction is in some sense biographical?
Patrick: It can't all be biographical or the world would be an even scarier place than it is. But yes, I suspect that even fantasy and hardcore crime fiction needs an element of the writer's personality injecting into it to bring it alive.

OutUK: In what sense would you describe your work as gay?
Patrick: I'm gay so I suppose that means my work is written from a gay perspective or a gay understanding or whatever. That said, I'd be bored to tears if this meant I was only allowed to write gay stories. I tend to view writing fiction as a kind of spiritual ventriloquism - a chance to lose myself in characters I make up and who are often terminally hetero.
OutUK: Which novel do you think is the most gay and which least?
Patrick: The Aerodynamics of Pork is probably my gayest, in that so many of its characters turn out to have some gay or lesbian component to their nature. A Sweet Obscurity is probably my straightest, but even that has a gay man and a lesbian who power the plot along. To write an entirely straight novel would be a kind of science fiction for me.

OutUK: Does it annoy you even slightly when people describe you as a gay author?
Patrick: It used to but I got over it. Hell, it's a marketing angle straight writers would die for.
OutUK: So where would you rather be - in the gay fiction section or shelved with the rest?
Patrick: Both. Gay sections are an essential resource for the innocent and the ignorant. OutUK: Generally, do you think self-styled gay fiction is any good and what authors do you admire?
Patrick: As visitors to the gay fiction week at The Lotus Tree will know, I have a nostalgic fondness for the gay novels of the 70s and 80s that helped me decide who I was - writers like Ed White, Andrew Holleran, Michael Cunningham and David Leavitt, not to mention Armistead Maupin. But part of me is aware that I don't judge such books with the same ferocious criteria I might some straight novel I was reviewing for the Telegraph. Gay visibility has progressed to such an extent that it has enabled us to raise our critical expectations of gay fiction.

OutUK: Are commissions a luxury or do they bring added stresses and strains?
Patrick: The Cat Sanctuary, my sixth novel, was the first one I wrote on what's called a two-book deal. This is the nearest most novelists come to a commission. It's where the publisher draws up a contract for the novel you've just shown them plus whatever you write next which guarantees income over a stretched period. The downside can be that if the first book does really well, they'll have got the second book cheap. The upside is that you can make the second book kinda weird and uncommercial.

Patrick Gale's Top Five Tips for anyone who thinks they have a book in them.

1. Tell yourself the story. Can you see it holding your interest for the next two years?

2. If not, try telling it from a completely different angle. Interested now?

3. Once you have your main character mapped out, consider introducing a second character who is almost their polar opposite, then twist the story so it's told from their angle too.

4. Turn off your computer and buy yourself a nice big hardback exercise book. Working longhand is a great liberator and also saves you playing silly games and e-mailing friends.

5. Beware of "talking out" your novel before it's written by blabbing to friends or colleagues. Most books will twist and change a great deal in the writing.

OutUK: Does it help aspiring writers to join groups like 'Gay London Writers'?
Patrick: Depends how brave you are, I suppose. It would terrify me. For all the talk of support, writers can be terribly undermining of one another's confidence. Writing fiction is essentially a solitary thing.

OutUK: You write lots of reviews: must one read widely in order to write well oneself?
Patrick: I've always felt that reading is the best way to learn how to write. Find the sort of author you want to be. Copy them shamelessly. Take their work to pieces to find out how it gets its effects. Dare to improve on it. Very few of writers find their own voice immediately.

OutUK: Do you think a budding writer should start small before writing his first 1000-pager?
Patrick: The budding writer should do whatever works best for them. Short stories are not easier just because they're short - quite the reverse.

More information about Patrick Gale is available on his website www.galewarning.org.

Books by Patrick Gale can be ordered direct from Amazon.

 

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