It's good for writers to get out
Author Patrick Gale tells Jackie Butler what he’s working on and why he loves book festivals.
Author of the bestselling Notes from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale lives with his partner on a farm near Land's End. He is a board member of Endelienta, which is organising the inaugural North Cornwall Book Festival next weekend...
Literary festivals have been springing up all over the Westcountry in the last few years. What do you think is the appeal for writers and readers?
For readers the primary appeal is getting to hear authors you already like talk about their work – and getting to quiz them yourself afterwards. But book festivals are also a great place to look for inspiration for what to read next, to encourage a love of reading in your children or simply to have a great time. I know they're very popular with book groups – who also happen to make great audience members as they're not shy about putting their hands up to ask questions! As for writers – ours tends to be a very isolated way of life and festivals present a great opportunity for us to befriend other writers as well as to meet the kind readers who make our careers possible.
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How did you get involved with this particular event?
I'm on the board of Endelienta, a local charity that fosters the arts and spirituality in North Cornwall. The vast majority of our public events to date have been music-based so it was time books received some attention. I was involved for years in the music festivals at St Endellion and hope the North Cornwall Book Festival might end up providing a similar experience for readers and writers as those do for musicians and music-lovers.
The festival is set in a beautiful location at Daymer Bay. Tell us more about the venue.
Trefelix is a stunning Arts and Crafts house whose garden backs on to the sand dunes of Daymer Bay and St Enodoc golf course. It has literary associations as the owner, and the festival's vice chairman, Sue Harbour-Robertson, was one of John Betjeman's goddaughters and he was a regular dropper-in through its hedge. As well as using part of the house, we're putting up heated marquees in the gardens; one of which will be our main auditorium, the other a sort of clubhouse-cum-restaurant-cum-bookshop.
How were the writers selected for the festival? Many of them seem to have a strong connection to Cornwall.
Quite a few are friends of mine or simply writers who I've already seen "perform" at other festivals, so I can vouch for their ability to entrance a room. At first I thought only a few had Cornish connections, but then it turned out that several of them had holiday houses or grandmothers down here so I had to do remarkably little persuading.
We hear there's going to be some fabulous food available, as well as a bar. What's cooking?
Some seriously good cooks in the surrounding parishes are laying on hot, home-made food as well as coffees, teas and (all-important, in my view) cake by day and in the evenings local firm Kernowforno will be setting up their mobile wood-fired oven to serve slices of delicious pizza. And of course, yes, there'll be a licensed bar – not that the association of writers and alcohol has the slightest whiff of truth to it… My hope is that people won't just come for one talk then go away but will want to linger for an hour or two, grabbing a bite to eat or a glass of wine before slipping back to the auditorium.
There are some workshops for aspiring and novice writers too. Has everyone got a book inside them?
I think most readers sooner or later wonder why they don't have a go at writing for themselves. The trouble is that, quite apart from the inhibition that affects so many of us half-way through our school years and never leaves us, most writing courses represent a big commitment in both time and money. So what we're offering are half-day courses in different kinds of writing, which will act as tasters. After three hours of nature poetry with James Simpson or memoir with Damian Barr, people will either be itching to sign up for a week-long Arvon course or they'll have decided it's not for them, but either way they'll have had a great time.
Several of your own books are set in Cornwall. How important is a sense of place in your writing?
A sense of place is pretty crucial (as Philip Marsden will be teaching in his half-day workshop on this very subject!) as I think the setting of a novel needs to function like an extra character, shaping and influencing the people who move through it. I've always been very susceptible to atmosphere and Cornwall has it by the bucketload.
What are you writing at the moment? And when can we read it?
I'm working on a totally un-Cornish novel – a ripping yarn set largely in remote Edwardian Saskatchewan – which attempts to solve the mystery of what became of my great grandfather when his disapproving in-laws banished him there. I've fallen terribly behind with the writing – not least because I said yes to helping set up this book festival – but I'm relishing the challenge of writing something which takes me out of my comfort zone. It's a bit inhibiting writing about relations, even if they're nearly all dead – I even have chapters from the viewpoints of my father and granny – so I have to keep reminding myself it's just a novel, not a memoir. At my current rate of writing, which feels like mining silver with a teaspoon, it should be in the shops in time for Christmas next year.