Monday, 2 June 2014

Fact and Fiction. Gabriel Marchant:How I became a Painter

I’ve spent more than a month now putting the final touches to the revising, writing and re-editing of my very long novel Gabriel Marchant: How I Became a Painter. This painstaking process has been necessary because I feel this must be my best novel. Room to Write has published it, using the invaluable Createspace process, where much of the responsibility for the quality of the end product lies with the author. In the past this seemed much more straightforward as I worked for a long time with a big publisher where whole departments attended to the details which I have now attended to myself in collaboration with the Room To Write team

People always say, about a new novel, what is it about? This is always a difficult question to answer in one sentence.

 ‘There is no doubt that fiction
makes a better job of truth.

Doris Lessing

Here is what it says on my cover:

'It is 1963, the day after the assassination of President Kennedy, the eminent painter Gabriel Marchant pays public tribute to his late mentor Archie Todhunter. He reflects on his early days when, as an out of work miner in 1936, he met Archie, the charismatic warden of The Settlement, an arts centre in his home town.
           At that time, unemployed and feeling very low, Gabriel is rescued by the encouragement he finds at The Settlement, where people out of work are inspired by Archie Todhunter and the enigmatic German Rosel Vonn, a sculptor and artist who teaches there. Travelling with Gabriel on his journey are his best friend Tegger, who will become a writer, and the clever, witty schoolgirl Greta who will change lives in her own way.
           Later, both haunted and inspired  by images of life and work underground, Gabriel’s paintings finds first local,  then national fame and his life is changed forever.
          As he tells the whole tale of how he became a painter Gabriel Marchant celebrates the liberating nature of art in hard-pressed lives and the role of people like Archie Todhunter, those magical change-makers in lives like his own....'

Gabriel’s own story is fiction but it  springs out of my personal experience of a particular place at a particular time and my research into the true experience of people whose lives were changed in such a way.

In my dedication I say: This novel is dedicated to all those whose lives impelled them to dig in the darkness, who still found the grace there to create beauty. In particular I honour the inspiration of the art of Tom McGuinness, Ted Holloway and Norman Cornish, in addition to the literary inspiration of the writer Sid Chaplin. All of them, in their unique fashion, flourished as young people through the magic of the Spennymoor Settlement.

I have published this book to coincide with the magnificent Shafts of Life Exhibition - masterminded by Gillian Wales and Robert McManners – currently on at the Bowes Museum in County Durham. 

In my own mind I was writing a story which came to  me and which I felt compelled to write. Committed to Gabriel. Tegger, Greta, Archie, Cora, and Dev, I wrote their story from the heart.

But during this long revision and rewrite I have discovered that, threaded through my story, are my own sense of history as an element of place and my own fundamental ideas about inequality, social justice and the triumphs of personality over circumstance.

And, most importantly, my story is about the liberating outcomes of practising one’s art, whether it is expressed through paint on canvas or in words and stories on the page. In their creative processes both painters and writers are, I feel,  driven to arrive at a greater truth.

The vivid paintings in the Shafts of Life exhibition are an enduring proof of this. I hope that this also applies to this novel, as it may apply to many of my other novels. As Khaled Hosseini says of writing, ‘Writing Fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.’  

The exhibition shows the great art and the greater truth of individual miners’ perceptions of their work and their environments.  I hope my novel about Gabriel Marchant  shows the greater truth about the interior and exterior lives such artists lived.

Doris Lessing has said ‘There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of truth.’ In the same way the paintings in this exhibition make a better truth of the miner’s experience than any so-called factual documentary film.

Perhaps going to see Shafts of Light and also reading  Gabriel Marchant: How I became a Painter would allow people to access a more complex truth. I hope so.

, ‘Writing Fiction is the act of weaving 
a series of lies  to arrive at 
a greater truth.’ Khaled Hosseini 



  1. I have just downloaded Gabriel onto my Kindle and without intending to have devoured the first four chapters. Beautifully written, it's full of important truths and insights: of its time, its world and of the individual journey to realising creativity - wonderful...

  2. Thank you so much Avril. You know I am very committed to this novel and these ideas. This was joyous work, wx

  3. Sounds wonderful Wendy. I came across the Settlement several times when researching Norman Nicholson. I'm away at the moment, but will get hold of the book when I come back. XXXx

  4. Be interested to talk with you Kathleen, about Norman Nicholson's connection with the Settlement. Very much home you enjoy the novel, wxx

  5. This is so exciting, the book, the exhibition, all coming at together to mark, acknowledge and record something so important. Clever you, with love from your very proud daughter, DXXX



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