He's not talking about writing, although we're speaking just now about his latest book, A Perfectly Good Man, and he might as well be. He's talking about family. "We all have this ideal, this impossible ideal of the family. But it's all a process of compromise."
It's several years since Gale's first novel, The Aerodynamics Of Pork, came out – since then, he's published 15 more novels and volumes of short stories, most notably Notes From An Exhibition, which made it on to the Richard and Judy Book Club list and transformed his fortunes, bringing him to the largest audience he'd ever had. That book, about the power a mother wields over her family, finds its counterpart in A Perfectly Good Man, about the influence of a father who strives to do the right thing but inevitably makes mistakes.
Gale has always been interested in family, he says. And in his own, especially. Family trauma has been worked out through his writing – "fiction is my therapy" he said once. As the youngest of four, he might have been shielded from some of it, but in larger families there is always drama, and the Gale family had plenty of it. His mother had a stroke when she was younger, and lost two babies as well. One of his brothers died, and a long-term marriage broke up.
His own lifestyle has contradicted some of the conventionality of his upbringing. His father was a prison governor, first on the Isle of Wight, where Gale was born, and then of Wandsworth in London, so his childhood wasn't entirely usual. But, as he grew up to be a particularly handsome man, he perhaps had to be open about his homosexuality and adult relationships with men – in one case, speaking about his affair with a married man, deploring the "self-deception" which allowed his lover to keep a wife and children in the country and a separate lifestyle in town. He's long since been more settled, living now with his partner, Aidan Hicks, on their farm at Land's End.
It's perhaps inevitable, given his preoccupation with family, that he was, he admits, "very broody for many years". Does he wish he'd had children? "My novels are my children," he says, after a brief hesitation. "Besides, you can do other kinds of parenting. You can be a very wonderful uncle or foster mother. As a gay man, I've always been very aware of the connections of biological family but most gay and lesbian families have very strong family structures that unite them."
That question mark over what makes a happy family seems to have motivated him from the very beginning, puzzled him and absorbed him. In 2000, he drew heavily on his parents' marriage for one of his most successful novels, Rough Music, almost as though he was trying to work it out. Indeed, his novels have a strong psychological strain, a beautiful teasing-out of the emotional complexities of family relations.
He's braver now, he says, about going into the darker places of the "family romance". Once upon a time he might have been ashamed or embarrassed about going into certain areas because of the impact on his own family, but his father is dead now and his mother has Alzheimer's. The loss has had an effect on his inhibitions and allowed him a wider range of subjects.
This makes A Perfectly Good Man particularly interesting. When he remembers the sales of Notes From An Exhibition going sky-high, he laughs – he laughs often, part of his openness and willingness to speak about things many writers keep to themselves. It changed his life – his writing life, that is. Suddenly he was in demand for appearances everywhere and the time for writing narrowed. Fortunately, he says, he tends to plan his books out in his head at least a year before he begins writing them, and that planning was something he could do easily enough on the road between signings and readings.
"I started writing when I was very young," he says, "and my novels then were much more artificial. I was enjoying the games. They were typical young novels. Now they're darker, more realistic, because they're concerned less and less with plot and more with character. Writing is oddly circular with reading – in an ideal world, the reader should feel what I feel when I'm writing. I'm obsessive about my characters – I worry about them the way I do about my friends."
He admits that it is "notoriously hard" to write about goodness, the subject of his new novel. Barnaby Johnson is an Anglican priest, married to Dorothy and the father of two children: a biological daughter, Carrie, and an adopted Vietnamese son, Jim. But he has a secret, which plays on the biological theme that so preoccupies Gale, and which is connected to a scandal that erupts when he helps a paraplegic young man, Lenny Barnes, who commits suicide. Gale tells the story in flashback, showing Barnaby's own background and how he grew into the man he is, the man who tries to do good. "Although it became obvious early on that he had to have a flaw," Gale says. "I'm always interested in the people in families who are damaged. The damage is often not done on purpose. It's accidental, how things go wrong."
We usually associate the freeing of inhibitions to mean something more sexually explicit or taboo, but in Gale's case it has offered the chance to explore more philosophical ideas, rather than necessarily sexual ones. He admits his publishers were worried about this latest novel, and the choice of a priest as his main character.
Would it be too quiet a tale? It's interesting that the publishing world worries about a priest, and not someone more sexually taboo these days, but Gale stuck to his guns and was willing to take the risk.
"Faith interests me," he says. "In comparison to Notes From An Exhibition which had a woman who all but destroys her family for her artistic vision, this time it's the pursuit of goodness that is almost as destructive. Barnaby puts doing the right thing before his own family." He was "wary of the Christian thing", he admits. "I come from a Christian background and am personally very conflicted about my faith, so I didn't want it to be too overtly Christian. I'm simply trying to understand it."
Understanding is what drives Gale's novels, and what makes them so fascinating. There can be few writers who have such a psychological hold on their characters, or explore them in such depth, and to such beguiling ends. This is a grown-up novel for grown-ups, full of compassion for human frailty and is easily one of the best reads of this year. Gale may be modest about his success, but there is nothing modest about his achievements.
Patrick Gale will be talking about A Perfectly Good Man at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival (June 14-17) in Melrose on Sunday, June 17, at 6.15pm. For tickets (£9/£7 conc) contact 0844 357 1060 or visit www.bordersbookfestival.org