Last month, Bernard Gallate’s first adult book, The Origin of Me was released by Penguin Random House. “It tells the story of teenager Lincoln Locke, a boy searching for his origin story and his destiny alike”, and celebrates differences and self-acceptance. I took the opportunity to ask Bernard about the book, his interesting career and what advice he has for readers stuck at home during these turbulent times. Read on to find out more…
NLK: You’ve worked in animation for Hanna-Barbera and Walt Disney, hosted climbing tours of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and studied acting, how have these vast experiences influenced your writing and your approach to writing?
BG: A while back it seemed to me that these experiences were unrelated, but I came to realise they all involved story telling in different forms with their own limitations. During my animation years I was usually only involved in one process on the production line of the studio, and often had little idea of what the story was outside the particular scene I was working on. As a guide conducting 3-hour tours in sometimes inclement weather, it was vital to learn how to tell stories to keep the customers entertained. In acting you learn to interpret the intent of the writer and follow direction – but you’re still only ever bringing to life somebody else’s creation.
So when it came to writing my first novel, The Origin of Me, I approached it with a great sense of freedom to write whatever I felt like. But I soon realised that restraints and boundaries aren’t necessarily a block to creativity. In fact sometimes they demand it.
NLK: You’re an illustrator as well as an author, and I could ‘see’ The Origin of Me while I was reading, do you think being visually aware helps story telling? How?
BG: I haven’t illustrated anything for a long time, but I’ve certainly spent many years creating visual content in different forms. I’m really pleased that you could ‘see’ the story unfolding as you read it. I hoped that would be the case for readers because I saw the scenes as I was writing them. I did a little scriptwriting back in my college years and was aware of building a story through actions, staging etc. as well as dialogue. The book was originally in journal form with more of Lincoln the protagonist’s interior monologue going on. So when my editor’s suggested switching to a regular narrative style, I needed to add more descriptive passages. Sometimes I made the mistake of thinking readers would be able to see things I’d envisaged but hadn’t actually written. My editor’s Tom and Catherine pointed out these lapses!
NLK: What inspired you to write The Origin of Me? What message do you hope readers will take away?
BG: The seed was planted when I was thirteen and saw Steven Berkoff’s stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis. A travelling cloth salesman wakes one morning to discover he’s turned into an insect. Sixteen years later, I played the part in a college production. The idea of becoming consumed with concern over some fault you perceive in yourself that causes you shame, has stuck with me ever since. I don’t think I could define an intended message in writing the story. But I hope readers might question how we form our identity as individuals and collectively. And maybe come away from the book feeling a bit lighter if some negative self-perception has been weighing them down.
NLK: What was the strangest research you undertook in writing The Origin of Me?
BG: It wasn’t so much strange as serendipitous. I visited the Musée des Arts Forains, a private museum of fairground items in Paris, to do some research on automatons. The best feature was the velocipede, a pedal-powered merry-go-round that I actually rode on and it ended up in the book. Afterwards I visited the famous taxidermy shop, Deyrolle, because one of my characters, Esther Hunnicutt, stuffs animals. A year or two later, I was watching Midnight in Paris and Owen Wilson’s character rides on the velocipede and then afterwards also visits Deyrolle. It was uncanny!
NLK: Do you have a favourite scene in The Origin of Me? (No spoilers, please!) 😉
BG: In the contemporary narrative, I love all the scenes involving the cantankerous junkyard proprietor, Bert McGill. He was a pleasure to write. My favourite 19th century scene would probably be where William Stroud takes Esther Hunnicutt and her brother Samuel to the Market Carnival of Pemberton’s Magnificent Emporium where he subjects himself to a cranial examination by a phrenologist.
NLK: Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?
BG: The Origin of Me was originally conceived as a children’s book with the title D.N.A. Spells Dan! about a young kid whose parents aren’t pleased with his strange appearance and unusual behaviour so they send him to a laboratory for genetic modification. Writing the synopsis, I thought the story might better suit a teenage protagonist and changed the title to Missing Lincoln. Thankfully, the novel was rescued by Nikki Christer at Penguin Random House who didn’t baulk at the manuscript being about 800 pages! A few years of drastic restructuring and edits fashioned the beast into its final, much trimmer and publishable form.
NLK: What advice do you have for emerging writers?
BG: Sometimes let the story tell itself. Free your characters from the constraints of your mind and give them some independence to behave as they want to. Take the back seat for a while and enjoy the ride. Serendipity. Synchronicity. Electricity.
NLK: Do you have a tip for all the readers stuck at home during this pandemic?
BG: Reframe it as an opportunity to nurture your imagination. Feed it with all those wonderful books you’ve been meaning to read!
About Bernard Gallate
Bernard Gallate began his professional life in the animation industry with Hanna-Barbera, later working for Walt Disney and a multimedia agency. After studying acting, he ran climbing tours of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for six years while writing and illustrating books for younger readers. Bernard currently teaches programs on early Sydney life and archaeology at historical sites across the city. The Origin of Me is his first novel.
Read an extract from The Origin of Me here.