Mr B's Marvellous Monday Book Group met to discuss "Notes from an Exhibition" on 3rd March, 2008. Afterwards Mr B had a chat with Patrick by e-mail to get his thoughts on some of the questions that were raised that evening:
Mr B - Is Anthony intended to be an idealistic character to contrast with a family full of individuals who mostly seem to be flawed in one way or another?
Patrick Gale - Oh I’d be very wary of idealistic character portrayal because it wouldn’t rest easily in a realistic setting. However Anthony is an idealist and, as such, flawed as well though the flaws are harder to spot perhaps. As I see it his big weakness is Rachel. His mother died – the thickly veiled implication being that it was suicide brought on by depression – when he was still young and I imagined that the boy of such a woman would grow up needing to redeem his failure to save her by striving to save women like her. In short, he’d have a weakness for damaged femininity. But he ends by putting his wife before his children, which I think is a pretty big flaw, and he should feel very guilty indeed for the way in which he has failed Morwenna. It’s often the way, though, that people who are essentially kind and gentle appear relatively perfect alongside their noisier, more self-consciously flawed neighbours! Like Petroc’s, by the way, his Quakerism is instinctive whereas Garfield’s tends to be dutiful, which is why Anthony seems genuinely good whereas poor Garfield emerges as a bit of a prig and a hypocrite.
Mr B - Is the way that you build the story up in an abstract fashion (jumping in time and almost dipping into episodes in the characters’ lives) intended to reflect Rachel’s artwork? If that’s just us reading too much into it, then maybe the more open question is whether you had any particular reason or intention behind the choice of the book’s structure?
Patrick Gale - I knew from the start I wanted to structure it like this. My hope was to produce chapters that would be as self-contained as short stories but which would form a bigger image when placed alongside one another. I wasn’t so much aiming to echo Rachel’s art as to echo the way in which her art might be gathered together and displayed after her life, almost as pieces of brightly glowing evidence. (Funnily enough, though, the idea for the Notes tying it all together came very late and these were the last sections I wrote.) I’ve long believed that the best fiction tries to reveal an emotional truth and emotional truths are best arrived at from multiple “camera angles” or testimonies. I’ve done something similar, though with far less radical time schemes, in many of my earlier novels – something that reveals the heavy influence on me of the work of Iris Murdoch, especially when I was starting out. I like the idea that the reader alone is in a position to understand a situation fully, that the reader plays a sort of cross between god and a detective.
Mr B - Can you give us any insight into the symbolism of the stones and in particular the way they are thrown from the window? One stone is broken or damaged in some way….whose is that stone?
Patrick Gale - The stones start out as crudely representing the different family members for Petroc, with a hint that, with the sharp eye of childhood, he has seen truths about his family that might be uncomfortable. I wanted to imply that, following Petroc’s death, Rachel has instinctively gathered the stones about her as she has (usually) failed to gather her own loved ones. Her last painting sequence is a reflection of this; a final statement of deep knowledge and love. At the end, though, the stones become nothing more than weapons. I imagined in her final frenzy that her delusion that BGH was watching her or had come for her became unbearably frightening and that she had thrown the stones at “her” in self-defence – hence the broken window - and also thrown the bracelet-turned-hairclip in the hope that GBH would be appeased by it and leave her alone. As for who is the most damaged stone, that’s for the reader to decide!
Mr B - The book introduces us to lots of intriguing characters in some depth but leaves us to fill in the rest of their story from the views of others. Would you ever plan on revisiting any of the characters and developing them further?
Patrick Gale - Absolutely not! I left loads out on purpose because I thought that the more the reader had to join the dots, the more deeply they would find themselves involved or even implicated in the unfurling story. That said I’m finding them a very tough bunch of characters to leave behind me as I struggle to start another novel about completely different people. In the past I’ve often revisited characters but rarely to do more than grant a playful glimpse of their “lives” continuing in the background of someone else’s story. An amusing exception is Roly the sculptor who first appeared in my very first novel, The Aerodynamics of Pork. I’d always felt he was a wafer thin sex symbol and needed fleshing out. So I brought him back, older and wiser, in Rough Music, only to find he was still a wafer thin sex symbol. I fear this speaks volumes about the fragile relationship between sexiness and genuine knowledge of a person!
Mr B - There was much discussion about the ending and what made you end with Petroc. Given the great “jigsaw” structure you chose for the novel was it difficult to choose how to end it? Oh, and who killed Petroc? We had some conspiracy theories!
Patrick Gale - Funnily enough I wasn’t sure how I was going to “end” the novel – not least because I didn’t write the chapters in anything approaching either chronological order or the order in which they ultimately appeared – until I came to write the chapter in which the long lost sister comes to Penzance. Only then, having written what in effect is the book’s happy ending, did I sense that shouldn’t come at the end. On one level Petroc’s death is the novel’s dark heart, the event by which most of the other characters remain scarred for life. However I wanted to offer comfort and I wanted to show on a very basic level how Quakerism works. Petroc doesn’t know it’s the night of his death. For him, it’s the start of his adult life, and in the actually quite blissful and visionary minutes before his death, I wanted to show him achieving a vision of his family in which they were healed. As for how he died, he was struck by Spencer Young’s speeding car and flung against an old milk churn stand. I imagined that Spencer dropped Morwenna off at home in a hysterical state then speeded back to the party to find Troy and acquire an alibi but that Morwenna came clean and gave evidence against him for driving under the influence of drink and drugs and for doing a hit-and-run on her brother. Spencer did time in prison on the evidence which her testimony brought to light but she has continued to blame herself, and Rachel has blamed her too. I started to spell all this out then realized it was really quite dulll – at least, it belonged to a different sort of novel. What mattered to me was the damage, not how it was arrived at…
Mr B - Oh and one final one from me. Although the book is all about Rachel it struck me that it was really about parentage/inheritance (you seem to hint clearly which children have inherited what characteristics from whom and there are lots of “illegitimate” children around!). Was that a major aim or was the primary aim to explore this remarkable character and the more obvious themes of the Quaker religion and the impact of an illness like Rachel’s? (By the way my conspiracy theory is that by having Garfield and his wife finally conceive shortly after his trip away you’re hinting to us that this may be yet another illegitimate child on its way! Any comments?)
Patrick Gale - Oh yes. It’s very much about inheritance, with the considerable worth of Rachel’s unsold art balanced out by the heavy inheritance of guilt, mental illness and damage the children get from her. In a funny sort of way I didn’t intend the book to be just about Rachel. It was meant to be about the family as a whole and what makes a family and whether legitimacy matters more than parenting and so on. It was just that Rachel’s character was so vast and noisy that she sort of took over. I don’t tend to think in terms of themes when I’m writing, though. I just concentrate on character and story and themes seem to emerge from that. Nothing sinister about Garfield and Lizzy’s impending baby. I merely imagined that his night of, erm, instruction in Oxford greatly improved his sexual technique which in turn improved relations between him and Lizzy etc etc.
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