Patrick Gale and Femi Oyebode: The Psychiatry of Character

On the second evening of Birmingham’s fourteenth annual book festival, Sara Beadle proudly introduced the accomplished novelist, Patrick Gale, and psychiatrist, Femi Oybode. The talk focused on his most recent novel, A Perfectly Good Man, yet he began by reading a short extract from his previous novel, Notes from an Exhibition, as he admitted they were loosely paired in theme and ideology. Throughout the talk he continued to make constant and fluid reference to parts of his previous fourteen novels, as if they were an extension of his own personality. The renowned psychiatrist Dr Femi Oyebode, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham and Consultant Psychiatrist for Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust, asked Patrick Gale a series of questions about his novel’s characters. Interestingly, Oyebode perhaps provoked Gale to reveal more about his own life and psyche than he had originally intended.

I assumed the event would be held in the gallery’s restaurant, Café Ikon, like their regular story-telling evening Tell me on a Sunday. Surprisingly, however, the talk took place amongst one of the latest exhibitions, Arefin & Arefin – The graphic design of Tony Arefin. The contemporary, graphic backdrop complemented the talk nicely: the wall behind the stage sporting a large and brightly coloured installation which read, ‘I can see through walls’.

The artists personal aphorism, ‘I can see through walls,’ became particularly appropriate during the first phase of the discussion. In Gale’s answer to Oybode’s first question, ‘how do you construct a literary character?’, he admitted that it is far from easy. He further explained that a writer must pay attention to the ‘boundaries’ of character, like stereotypes for example, and construct characters within and outside of these simultaneously. The writer, he suggested, has to be able to ‘see through’ the different ‘versions of ourselves’ in order to get to the core of his characters.

As Oyebode continued prompting Gale, some of his questions began to feel a little too premeditated. When Oyebode asked Gale about the use of ethnic minorities and homosexuals as symbols rather than characters in novels,  it seemed not only irrelevant in the discussion but also  came across as an outdated literary response. However, for the most part, Oyebode did an excellent job of facilitating Gale to talk interestingly and openly about his own experiences; such as the death of his brother, and how this had shaped his writing, his characters and his own personality.

The audience Q&A session ended up lasting longer than the talk itself. It was clear that the vast majority of the audience were avid readers of Patrick Gale’s novels: many probed deeper into particular characters and plots. The atmosphere was literary, but also light-hearted. Although I wasn’t able to engage with much of the discussion, having never read a Gale novel, I was able to enjoy the clash of audience opinion and Patrick Gale’s self-aware and comedic commentary. For example, in one instance he spoke about Quakers, an ancestral vegetable garden and a memory of a childhood home.

‘Read. Write. Think.’ Hearing an author talk about their work is always a privilege. It is organisations, such as Birmingham Book Festival, that make thought provoking and informative literary events such as these happen. So thank you Birmingham Book Fest, for another lovely evening.

For a full list of events: http://www.birminghambookfestival.org/events-2012/full-festival-programme/

Alana Tomlin

@alanatomlin

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