Telling Tales: Nicole Galland Finishes Novels at Record Rate

By TOM DUNLOP

How to account for the ferocious pace at which Nicole Galland is writing books these days?

Book one, begun in college, lies fallow on her hard drive for 14 years, only one-fifth complete. It migrates from computer to computer without her ever opening it, until the year she turns 36. Living in California with her boyfriend and suffering her eighth month of writer's block after writing several unproduced screenplays, she decides one sleepless night to purge her machine of unfinished work. She drags the draft to the trash and is about to delete it when she thinks it might be fun to give it one last look. She reads through the night, reaching the last page at dawn. She thinks, "I could finish this," and starts writing that day. The Fool's Tale is finished 11 months later, and published by HarperCollins in January of this year.

She begins book two in April 2003, a month after finishing book one. Set like The Fool's Tale in the Middle Ages, it is finished 17 months later, in October of last year. Tentatively titled Revenge of the Rose, it will be published in May or June of 2006. Book three - The Mill of the Gods - sends the Welsh fool from the first book on the fourth crusade with a knight from Burgundy in the second book, the one in custody of the other. Book three is started as she finishes book two last fall, and already the first draft - but for the last act - is substantially complete.

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"I feel like I lost a decade of my life," says Ms. Galland, a 40-year-old Islander who traces her Vineyard lineage back to the early 1700s. And then she tells a tale of her own, on which the final dramatic turn of The Fool's Tale pivots, and from which the undammed freshet of her writing and publishing now comes.

At the age of 26, while enrolled in the first semester of a doctoral program for theatre academics and directors at Berkeley, Ms. Galland was mugged and raped at gunpoint. "Almost being killed over the course of an hour and half was the thing that really screwed me up," she says, sitting in the sunshine on the back porch of her parents' home in West Tisbury, arms wrapped around knees, gaze direct, voice full of color and force, sentences unbroken. She has never told this story to a reporter before.

"I went into this very passive space where I didn't inhabit my life for almost a decade," she says. She left Berkeley, seesawed from coast to coast, writing a bit, working in theatre, and all in a daze. "When I look back on that decade, I'm amazed that I got by as well as I did. But I let things happen to me. Crippling depression. I was hospitalized. It was like I was standing in Crisco, and I couldn't get my feet to be steady underneath me. Now that I've found a groove, I'd like to make up for lost time. By the time I'm 45, I'd like to look back on my life and say I could have come this far if I hadn't lost that decade. And I don't blame anybody but myself for it, but I just want to do something about it."

Nicole Galland (the accent in her last name is on the first syllable) is the daughter of Karen Goethals Colaneri and Michael Colaneri. She is also the granddaughter of the late Dr. and Mrs. Robert W. Nevin of Edgartown. He served 54 years as the country doctor to Vineyarders all across the Island; she was the owner of a real estate agency. Both were quiet but widely known benefactors of many Island causes and individuals. Ms. Galland grew up in West Tisbury, riding at Pond View Farm, acting in school plays and at Island Theatre Workshop, writing at the dining room table while the clamor of family life rang out around her.

She graduated from Harvard with a degree in comparative religion and moved to California, where she founded a theatre for teenagers and was awarded a full scholarship in the doctoral program at Berkeley. Then came the attack and - years later, after life had slowly untwisted itself from the trauma - also the heart-stopping moment when the hero of The Fool's Tale must decide whether he wants to live on another man's terms, or die by his own.

Ms. Galland's assailant, inexperienced and tense, originally planned only to take her money. He took her from a road down into a clutch of bushes and, taking his cue from old gangster movies, ordered her to remove her clothes so that she could not run for help after the mugging. For an hour and a half, Ms. Galland listened to her attacker talk about his life from the nighttime shadows, he growing ever more nervous even as she grew ever more focused and calm, trying to convince him that she did not blame him for what he was doing. But then he raped her, and she mistakenly used that word during the act, which enraged him. "The deal was, you agree with me that this isn't a rape, and I'll keep doing it and everything will be fine." She had what she calls her Arthur Miller moment, where - as she recounts it now in mock-heroic terms - she decided, "I don't want to win my life back with a lie!" and refused to call the rape anything but. She thought: "Now I go, but at least I go on my own terms."

The attacker fled without shooting her, and has yet to be captured, and Ms. Galland was left with her lost 10 years. But when she was writing about Gwirion, the eponymous fool in her first book, set in a turbulent Welsh court fighting for its independence at the end of the 12th century, she came to the scene in which the king, nicknamed Noble, offers Gwirion - his companion and protector from boyhood, but now his betrayer - the exact same choice. "Noble says, ‘If you don't agree with me, I'm going to kill you,' and Gwirion says, ‘I'm not agreeing with you.' I didn't realize this until after the fact, but that's an alchemical take on something that actually happened. Pyschodynamically, the person with the weapon is saying, ‘I'm going to tell a lie now, and you have to agree with me, and you get to keep living.' And the other person says, ‘I can't live a lie.' "

Ms. Galland has returned to the Vineyard to discuss The Fool's Tale at the first annual Martha's Vineyard Book Festival on Sunday in Chilmark, and to read and sign copies of the novel at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven on August 12. It is an exciting but rootless time in her life. She left California early this year, but has no home of her own. Even before The Fool's Tale was released, HarperCollins agreed to publish her second and third novels, and this spring sent her for a week to the Hay Festival at Hay-on-Wye in Wales, the largest English-language book festival in the world, to promote The Fool's Tale. So far as she knows, the publishers have never done such a thing with a first-time novelist before.

The second book draws from The Romance of the Rose, a 13th-century poem by Jean Renart. In Ms. Galland's novel, a fictional Holy Roman emperor falls in love with the sister of Willem, a knight from Alsace-Lorraine, whom the emperor must elevate above his station in enviable ways in order to make the sister worthy of royal marriage. It is a lighter, more whimsical story than The Fool's Tale, says Ms. Galland. The Mill of the Gods, the third book, is - for the moment anyway - intended to introduce the knight from book two to Gwirion from book one, and send them both on the fourth crusade, which topples Constantinople. She sees crucial parallels between this crusade - after Richard the Lionhearted's, before the children's - and events as they are playing out around the world right now.

Constantinople fell almost exactly 800 years ago, after two wars spaced 15 years apart, like the first and second wars in Iraq. To Ms. Galland, the great city seemed at first to stand neatly for Baghdad, the crusaders for the United States. But now she thinks the city stands for America too. "It was a huge place that could be attacked, but everyone knew it could never actually be conquered," she says. "And it was." The citizenry, living privileged lives and absorbed in commerce and froth, grew inattentive to their own government, which itself lost focused on who its adversaries were and why, and where the real threats were coming from.

"And I'm reading this, going, ‘Wow. This is really familiar,'" she says.

The medieval focus of her first three books is something of a surprise to her. Growing up, she was not especially interested in the era. As a screenwriter, she wrote The Winter Population, a story based on the illicit love affair that led to the marriage of Dr. and Mrs. Nevin, her grandparents. In 1998, it won the Massachusetts Film Office Screenwriting Competition and eventually sent her to Los Angeles, where she secured an agent and optioned the movie, the one theatrical project she would still like to direct. For Ms. Galland, book four will bring things home.

"I want to write about the Island," she says. "Fiction, but from the point of view of a social historian. I think the shifts that have happened on the Island in our lifetimes haven't really been looked at thoroughly or honestly or squarely. I understand community intuitively, how it operates here more than I understand how it operates anywhere else, and I want to write about it while I'm still in this funny position where I feel connected to it, but I have a slightly outside relationship to it. That's the time to write about it. And before that part of the Vineyard vanishes. It's really turning into Martha Stewart's Vineyard. I don't think I can stop that, but I can capture what was before that. It's a love song."