Patrick Gale: ‘It’s true, I adore books about nuns’

The British novelist on his fascination with convents, delving into people’s hidden inner lives and the luxury of solitude

Patrick Gale is the author of 19 novels, including Rough Music, Notes From an Exhibition and the Costa-nominated A Place Called Winter. He wrote the acclaimed TV drama Man in an Orange Shirt, the centrepiece of the BBC’s 2017 Gay Britannia season. A keen cellist and gardener, he lives on a farm in the far west of Cornwall. Take Nothing With You is his new novel about boyhood, coming of age and the power of music.

You often base your novels on your life and family. How autobiographical is Take Nothing With You?
Like the lead character, Eustace, I learned the cello when I was young and went on these amazing residential music courses in Scotland, which were quite a rite of passage. The other thing lifted from life is Eustace’s mother having a terrible car crash. When I was 10 my mother crashed her old Morris Traveller, which didn’t have headrests, so she had terrible whiplash and a brain stem injury. She should have died and it was testimony to her amazing resilience that she survived. But she underwent a complete personality change. She used to be very witty, chatty and talkative. It was as if a different person came back from the hospital. She became so Christian it really took over her life, which profoundly affected the whole family.

You mentioned the cello. How important is music in your life?
Hugely. Music has been almost like a second career for me, both as a cellist and an administrator, running things like the St Endellion Summer Festival and the Penzance Orchestral Society, where I am secretary. I am passionate about how music transforms people. For children, I think it is so depressing that it is not an absolutely obligatory part of the national curriculum. Think of all that poetry, all those folk songs that nobody is learning any more. I feel it is a national tragedy.

Writing Man in an Orange Shirt for TV was new territory for you. What did you take away from the experience?
The thing I really enjoyed – and am still enjoying as I’m doing more TV writing – is the collaborative aspect, which is enormous fun. When you write a novel, it’s very lonely and you have no idea what anyone is going to think of what you’re writing, whereas when you write a script you have feedback at every stage – instant reassurance or not as the case may be.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing with your life?
I would probably be a psychotherapist. My abiding fascination, the thing that really sparked my interest in writing novels, is with what goes on under the human bonnet. I was never a scientist, so I could never have been a medical doctor, but I do think that if I have any gifts at all outside of writing I am quite good at getting people to talk about themselves, which I love to do. Everyone is really quite strange once you delve into their minds. There’s no such thing as normal.

Are there any literary genres you particularly enjoy?
I love science fiction, which was very much one of my ways into reading as a boy. My totemic childhood books were The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner and the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin. I also loved Le Guin’s adult science fiction books when I was older, not least because she plays very subversive games with gender.

I’m told you like reading books about nuns...
It’s true, I adore them. The book I would love to adapt for the BBC is The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It’s a very subversive novel about a Fenland nunnery during the years of the Black Death, which sounds like not a barrel of laughs but is very, very funny and haunting and strange like all her novels. The reason I love books about nuns is that the enclosed world of the convent is such a brilliant metaphor. Nun books are as much about politics and power as they are about spirituality. Very slightly kinky, I know, but there it is.

How do you organise your books?
I am ruthless. They are organised by type so fiction, nonfiction and poetry are separated out, short stories are separated out from novels and they are all alphabetised, as is my spice rack.

Do you have a favourite literary hero and heroine?
I’m so boring – they are both from Jane Austen. Mansfield Park is probably my favourite – I cycle back to that a lot for the structure – but the novel that gets me every time is Persuasion. Anne Eliot is the most perfect heroine because she has that deep, deep tumultuous inner life, most of which she is too polite to show and that’s what is so beguiling. Captain Wentworth is completely wonderful too and I think it comes down to me hero-worshipping people who don’t give much away.

What kind of a reader were you when you were young?
Voracious. I was a Puffin Club member and obediently did just what the marketing department wanted. I probably spent my pocket money on a Puffin Club book every week. I also benefited hugely from being not only the child of bookish parents, living in a house where every room had stacks of books, but also the youngest of four children who all read as well. So I had the luxury of having almost a home library.

Which book would you give to a young person like Eustace in Take Nothing With You, who is struggling to decide who he is?
I would give them EM Forster’s Howards End, because it is one of those novels that really showed me, as a young reader, just what a novel was capable of, in that it contained multitudes. Not so much lots of characters, although it is richly peopled, more that it covers so much ground emotionally and psychologically that it erupts in your head and keeps on erupting long after you’ve read it.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
There is always somewhere on my shelves a book about how to improve your Italian or German– evidence of my constant battle to learn other languages. That’s been a lifelong thing with me. I am a pretty fluent French speaker but I yearn to speak more languages.

Which author do you always return to?
That’s easy – Anne Tyler. I adore her and find her books immensely comforting. I loved her latest [Clock Dance]. It’s such a bold book, to have a heroine who is really irritating. What’s fascinating to Tyler is what made this bloody irritating woman the way she is. It’s a novel that encourages you to play the shrink.

What do you plan to read next?
I want to read Neil Ansell’s memoir, The Last Wilderness. He’s a wonderful nature writer who is going deaf. Like all musicians, I have a complete horror of losing my hearing but I think in his case it must be even worse because it means he can’t hear birdsong. This book is very much about coming to terms with that and about his lifelong love of solitude. I think as a society we are a bit cowardly about our own company. I don’t know about you but I love my own company, I think it is a great luxury.

What do you most like doing when alone, apart from gardening?
I love to bake. I make our own sourdough bread and I love to bake and to read about baking. It’s something that comes from when my mother was in hospital when I was a child. I started cooking a lot then and, like a lot of children, baking was the first thing I felt confident about having a go at rather than trying to cook a full meal. I’m very interested in the link between sugar and power. I think in a lot of families the person who bakes the cakes wields a lot of influence. They are just bribes, basically: you’re making people love you by giving them cake.

• Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale is published by Tinder Press (£18.99). To order a copy for £14.99 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Lisa O'Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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