Nicole Galland is living the life of most writers’ dreams. Her first novel, The Fool’s Tale, was published last month and she has since signed a deal with her publisher for two more.
The six-figure two-book deal made it possible for her to leave her job last week as literary manager at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre to make time for a full-time writing life. After spending most of her career in theater—as an actor, director and screenwriter—she is changing course and devoting her life, for at least a ti me, to novels.
Galland, 39, grew up on Martha’s Vineyard and has lived in the Bay Area on and off since 1989. She began the book that became The Fool’s Tale, a story of love and political intrigue in medieval Wales, when she was 23.
Over the followi ng 15 years she worked on it in fits and starts, leaving it for years at a stretch. One night three years ago she decided to purge her unused computer files and start fresh. A moment away from deleting the stalled manuscript, something made her give it on e last shot.
“I was bound and determined to let go of things and I hesitated to let go of it,” she said.
She stayed up all night in her Oakland home rereading the manuscript and found her way out of her writing block. She took a two-week research trip to Wales and ended up staying four months, long enough to finish a first draft. The final book was complete within a year.
On a whim, Galland chose Wales as the setting for her novel after traveling there with a friend following her college graduation.
“I wasn’t thinking about my book,” she said, “but I noticed that the way people spoke, the cadence of their language, reminded me of my narrative whenever I tried to write my book.”
Medieval Wales was an ideal setting for two reasons, she said. First, the disputed border between Wales and England at the time fit her story, and second, it was a place where she could explore the relationship between a jester and a king. Galland has always been intrigued by the unique status of the fool—a man of lowly birth, but with the right to speak frankly to the monarch.
“All my life I’ve had this fascination with fools. I think it was because when I was a kid I felt like I was never allowed to act out,” Galland said. “I was raised between various different households, so it was never safe to play the fool because I never knew what the rules were. On the other hand, my grandmother always called me her little rascal.”
She admits that she has an uneasy relationship with authority. One example she gave was a year ago wh en she went to Japan to become a Buddhist nun. An argument with the abbot forced her to leave the monastery and return to the United States. She said her tendency to have confrontations with those in positions of power led her, from an early age, to ident ify with literary figures who challenge authority.
“When I was introduced to Shakespeare in high school I fell in love with all the fool characters,” she said. “Of them all, the one that played that role the easiest was Lear’s Fool, because his best scen es are with the king, and it’s just the two of them.”
Gwirion, the king’s jester and confidant in The Fool’s Tale, gets into a bind when his adversarial relationship with the queen becomes a love affair. This treachery leads to a confrontation between th e king and the fool. The book’s showdown is a reworking of a confrontation that Galland herself had 13 years ago on a Berkeley street, transported to 12th-century Wales. Galland was walking home from campus one night when a man grabbed her.
“There’s a ve ry intense moment in the end of the book that is an idealized reconstruction of that night I was almost murdered,” she said, recalling how she verbally challenged the man as he held a gun to her chest. “I call it my Arthur Miller moment, which was basical ly forfeiting my life for doing what I believed was the right thing. That event is the end of the book, but in a completely different way.”
Last month, at a book signing at Cody’s bookstore, Galland said she realized her story had strangely come full circle.
“I had a realization that Berkeley had given me an experience that allowed me to finish the book and now I was kind of returning it to Berkeley by appearing at Cody’s,” she said.
Galland has just finished a second novel and is beginning a third. The second is set in the same period as The Fool’s Tale but in a different part of Europe. The third book will connect the characters from the first two books.
Galland said she regrets leaving Berkeley Rep, which she joined a year and a half ago, but found herself pulled in too many directions with promoting The Fool’s Tale while researching and writing her other books.
“My plate is very full right now for the next five to six years, in terms of writing projects,” she said. “I know what I need to write about. It’s a new chapter in that, for a while—maybe not forever, but for a while—I get to be a full-time writer.”
Galland’s new life has yet to fully sink in.
“It’s an American dream and it’s happening, but I’m not experiencing it that way right now,” she said. “I know I will soon, in a week or two, when my life has finished shifting its patterns and I’m not trying to split my attention in so many ways. Maybe then I’ll feel it all, but right now it’s just an enormous amount of transition.”
THE FOOL’S TALE
By Nicole Galland
William Morrow, 523 pages,