Updated: Apr 9
Novelist Patrick Gale asks author Neil Bartlett some probing questions about his new work of fiction, and home furnishings:
There’s a deep humanity to Address Book, and a calm thoughtfulness. What prompted the writing of it?
All of my books start with an image that won't leave me alone. With this one, it was simply the image of a big, black front door. Slightly battered; rather forbidding; possibly locked. My notebooks started to fill with questions and possibilities; was this a door I knew ? Was it even one that I'd once lived behind myself? Those questions lead me to pondering on what doors can stand for in our lives. We shut secrets away behind them; we seek safety behind them; if we're lucky, we sometimes find behind them everything we need. The moment that really got me writing in earnest was when I realised that a series of seven interconnected front doors from different decades would allow me to explore not only the things that have changed—attitudes, freedom, prejudice, the shapes of relationships—but also maybe the things that don't change: personal courage; sexual hunger; the power (and price) of love. I guess the thoughtfulness comes in part from the simple fact that I'm 63. I've lived through six decades of extraordinary and often hard-won change; through grief, and rage – and through a 32-year-long relationship with my beloved partner, the author and archivist James Gardiner. Maybe I'm finally acquiring perspective!
From my position as a chronic nester, you’ve always come across as a true Bohemian. Are you secretly deeply domestic?
Well I'm rubbish at housework, if that's what you mean! But yes, I think of myself as a very domestic animal , in the sense that the rooms I live in are very important to me. Even when I was living in a frankly frightening council flat on the Isle of Dogs, which was where I wrote my first novel Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall, I might have been sleeping on a mattress on the floor and salvaging furniture out of skips - but I still made the place remarkable. The kitchen was wallpapered with porn, and there was a Victorian chandelier in the hallway. Latterly, James and I have made marvellous homes together. I'm writing this in a one-bedroomed tenement flat in Clerkenwell built in 1881 (it's actually the setting for two of the stories in the book). When we moved in, it was a near-slum (mould, mice, dodgy floors, the works) but now it fully expresses our life together. Beautiful colours. A wonderful bed. It's a real home.
Do you think there’s a significance to the reputation queer people have for interior decoration?
Hmnnn...well, much as I'd love to say that we just have better taste when it comes to cushions...obviously that's not true. What is true, I think, is that we are brilliant at pleasure – historically, queer culture really values pleasure. Also, we're great at all the arts of transformation. I think the reason for that is because transformation is a deeply rooted and deeply necessary principle of queer life; we've always had to take the world as we find it, but then make it liveable.
With the exception of Ready to Catch Him your novels seem to stand outside any sense of an immediate gay scene, and to be steeped in a fascination with queer history. Do you look to the past for answers or for consolation?
Do you see your theatre work and fiction writing as parallel careers or do they bleed into one another?
Oh blimey. Well, I have to keep them apart to a degree; when I'm writing, I write for a minimum of three uninterrupted hours a day, so obviously I can't do that and rehearse a show at the same time. But I do think my writing is 'theatrical' in specific ways. When I write character, for instance, what I'm actually writing is voice; I literally hear someone in my head, and transcribe them – so if you think about it, each of the stories in Address Book isn't so much a first person narrative, as a monologue. Also, as I'm writing, I visualise; I can always 'see' a place or scene, in exactly the same way as I can when I'm working in a rehearsal room. I love to use a location, an atmosphere, a gesture...
How do you see your body of novels relating to the more or less queer male voices in British fiction, to James, Saki, Forster and Firbank? Do you fit in a tradition or buck a trend?
I would never dare to compare myselves to any of them, though I do love The Turn of the Screw and Maurice and Arthur Snatchfold (my favourite bit of Forster, probably). My British must-have queer-writing heroes would include Frederick Rolfe (Hadrian the Seventh amazes me, every time); Wilde (the Wilde of De Profundis and Dorian Gray especially) and (this may surprise people) Ruth Rendell – not because she was queer, but because she wrote so brilliantly about queer lives (No Night Is Too Long, for instance; oh what a book). Beyond these shores, my other great queer heroes/heroines are James Purdy, Juan Goytisolo, Jean Genet and Patricia Highsmith. Hardly a tradition – because they are all wild cards and all category-destroying originals in the way they handle their sentences. So I'm more bucking than fitting, I guess.
Relating to the above question, would you talk a bit about class in your work and giving a voice to characters other writers tend to overlook or patronise?
I occupy a very particular place in our deeply peculiar British class structure. Both of my grandfathers were the first members of their families to not be factory-workers; my father was the first member of his family to go into higher education. He started out as a PE teacher, and my mum was a commercial artist until she got married, and then a housewife. So I always say I'm pure middle lower-middle, in origin. However, life took me to Oxford, where I learnt to pass as grand when necessary, and into gay bars, where I learnt to pass as rough trade. So I'm a real chameleon; I can slide up and down a class at the drop of a hat. I never consciously set out to include or be sympathetic to lower-middle or excluded voices in my writing – that's just where my ears and my imagination go. I would say however that I'm not naturally happy in posh settings, so I tend not to use them in my work.
Like me you started being published during the UK’s AIDS epidemic, at a time when we lived under an openly homophobic government. Do you think attitudes are improving or has homophobia simply gone underground?
Well, James and I can at last walk down the street together without fear of assault (mostly), and I haven't been duffed up on air or in print for being too gay for at least three years, so things must be getting better. HOWEVER, no complacency, please. Schools in Birmingham are being picketed over their plans to provide inclusive sex education; none of my trans friends feel properly safe, ever – and we have a government that is absolutely brilliant at constantly inventing new scapegoats. Stay alert, people.
Neil Bartlett lives in London with his partner James Gardiner. His first novel, the queer love story Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall, was written in a council flat on the Isle of Dogs, published in 1990, and translated into five European languages. His second, Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, was nominated for the Whitbread Prize in 1996; his third, Skin Lane, was shortlisted for the Costa Award in 2007; his fourth, The Disappearance Boy, earned him a nomination as Stonewall Author of the Year in 2014. You can find out more about Neil and his work, and contact him at www.neil-bartlett.com
Patrick Gale is a keen cellist, gardener and artistic director of the North Cornwall Book Festival. He lives with his husband, the farmer and sculptor, Aidan Hicks, on their farm at the far west of Cornwall. In addition to his latest, Mother’s Boy, which is published on March 1 2022, his seventeen novels include Take Nothing With You (2018), which was his fourth Sunday Times bestseller, Rough Music (2000), Notes From an Exhibition (2007), A Perfectly Good Man (2012) and A Place Called Winter (2015). In 2017 his two part drama Man in an Orange Shirt was screened by BBC2 as part of the Gay Britannia season. Continuing to be broadcast regularly around the world, this won the International Emmy for best miniseries and is now in development as a musical. He is currently working on a television adaptation of A Place Called Winter and a stage version of Take Nothing With You. Extracts from the BBC documentary All Families Have Secrets – the Narrative Art of Patrick Gale can be seen on his website www.galewarning.org.