Writing novels has created a quiet happy place for talk show host Graham Norton
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The novel "Forever Home" is a dark comedy set in a small town in Ireland - a page-turner about blended families and family secrets. The author is a bestselling memoirist and novelist who also happens to be the beloved host of a TV talk show called "The Graham Norton Show."
Graham Norton, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
GRAHAM NORTON: Thank you so much for having me. What a delight.
SHAPIRO: Before we get to this specific book, what does writing fiction do for you, broadly speaking, that interviewing celebrities on "The Graham Norton Show" does not?
NORTON: Well, I suppose, in my head, it's sort of my quiet, happy place. It's the only thing I do that is sort of solitary - that doesn't involve a meeting...
NORTON: ...Because, you know, everything else does. You know, everything is through filters. This is the only thing that I really feel is mine. I have a real sense of ownership of these books because, you know, obviously there's - kind of editors get involved later on. But, really, they belong to me, I feel. And I suppose that's what's pleasurable about it.
SHAPIRO: And yet you were well into your career before you started writing fiction. When you began as an author, you started as a memoirist. What made you decide to make that move?
NORTON: Well, now, I don't know about you - I'm in awe of young people who write novels because - I don't know - when I was in my kind of late teens, early 20s, 30s, I was out. You know, I didn't have time to sit...
NORTON: ...At a desk and write a novel.
SHAPIRO: You were living life.
NORTON: I was. I was getting the life experiences to put into a novel. So I don't know. Those people are real writers - where it's their No. 1 ambition. It's the thing they absolutely must do. For me, it was something I wanted to do, but it wasn't really till I was in my 50s that I sort of felt I had time to sit at a desk. And I'm so glad, in a way, that I waited 'cause I think if I had written books when I was younger, they'd have been very kind of glib and cynical and quite harsh. And I think, you know, as you get older, you develop, hopefully, a bit of empathy, and you're not quite as - oddly, not quite as cynical as I was when I was young. So these books are very different to novels I would have written, you know, back then.
SHAPIRO: You joke that, when you were young, you were getting the life experiences that allow you to write novels. How much is that literally true? I mean, how much of the life experience you accumulated does feed into your fiction?
NORTON: I mean, they're not autobiographical, but, you know, if you read any novel, it does give you an insight into who wrote it because, you know, it all came out of their head. So these people in this novel - you know, they borrow from me. They borrow from people I know. They borrow from people I've met. So it's kind of an amalgamation of all of that. So, you know, if somebody wanted to psychoanalyze me to the Nth degree, it's all laid bare..
NORTON: ...In these books. But there's not much of my life - I deliberately tried to keep my life out of the books because - I mean, it's different here, in this country, where I'm - you know, I'm not really very well-known at all. But back home, the danger was, because my name was on the cover of the book, I would be reading the book over people's shoulders.
SHAPIRO: Huh. Right.
NORTON: They would...
SHAPIRO: Everyone feels like they know you so well from television, from podcasts, from live events.
NORTON: Yeah, they would be, you know, hearing my voice and associating the book with me. So I tried really hard to keep anything to do with, you know, the media or celebrity or London - anything that people might associate with me - out of these books. You know, in my first book, there weren't even any gay characters, you know? I went that far. I was kind of like, right, nothing to do with me. Now I allow myself a few - a few gays wander through the pages now and again.
SHAPIRO: The minor characters in this novel - they're not the center of attention.
NORTON: No. No, they're not. No (laughter).
SHAPIRO: This novel, "Forever Home," unfolds from so many different perspectives. We see chapters through the eyes of different narrators. Was there one character who was your inroad to this story?
NORTON: Well, I began the story with Carol, who is the central character. And she's a woman in her middle age, and she's in her kind of second relationship. And when people are older and in relationships, you always imagine they're very stable and, you know, people are settled. But, of course, that's not the world we live in now. People are often in a second, third, fourth relationship. And, you know, if it's a new relationship, you have no claim on property, on homes. There's none of that. And that's what happens to Carol with her older, I suppose, boyfriend - you'd call him partner. And she was the way in. And it was a very kind of dark, bleak story. And then Carol's mother entered the scene, Moira, and...
SHAPIRO: Ah, she's my favorite.
NORTON: Well, she's kind of mine, too. And she changed the book, you know? She was the one who brought so much comedy 'cause she's just a funny woman. And so she turned something quite dark into a sort of dark romp, I would say.
SHAPIRO: She's so nosy. She really has no business being in the story, and that's part of...
SHAPIRO: ...What makes her so delightful - right? - is the - like, what are you doing here? Well, I guess you're here.
NORTON: (Laughter) Yeah, like mothers - like mothers do.
NORTON: And also, I think she's...
SHAPIRO: Even mothers of grown children.
NORTON: Yeah. Oh, no, absolutely. And I think she's got that mothering thing where she shows her love through action - through deeds - rather than through actually telling anyone that she loves them.
NORTON: You know she loves you because she's right there. Like...
SHAPIRO: Is Moira based on anyone you know?
NORTON: Well, she's not my mother...
NORTON: ...But they do have similarities. Moira has a thing - her version of silence in the car...
SHAPIRO: Oh, I love this - yeah.
NORTON: ...Is taken from my mother, where - you know, silence in the car to me is you're driving along silently. For my mother, it is a constant monologue...
NORTON: ...As she drives along. A kind of - I wouldn't like to live there. She always has washing out. That dog looked killed (ph). And - until finally you get to where you're going and you've parked wrong. And that's...
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) It's not a meaningful monologue. It's not revelatory.
SHAPIRO: It's not disclosures about the inner life. It is just a sort of, like, filling the air with sounds.
NORTON: Yeah, it's birdsong.
SHAPIRO: It's birdsong (laughter).
NORTON: It's birdsong - yeah - is what it is. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: Your life is much more cosmopolitan than your fiction. Your novels tend to focus on small-town experiences. And so as you fly from London to New York to Los Angeles, do you ever long for the kind of parochial life that you write about - minus the murder?
NORTON: (Laughter) Well, the thing is, I kind of get it because I do have a place in Ireland. And so every every summer we'll go there for a couple of months. And what's nice is, when I leave Ireland, I never want to. I always kind of think, oh, I wish I could stay for a few more weeks. I am very aware that, if I did stay for a few more weeks, I would then be going, ugh, when can I get out of this backwater and back to the excitement of life? So I kind of have the best of both worlds. And also, it keeps me in touch with that world so that when I am writing the novels, one, I enjoy going back there in my mind. But two, I'm sort of confident that I'm getting this right. These are the sorts of houses people live in. These are the sorts of cars they drive. This is the way young people in Ireland talk. So it - that's kind of important to me.
SHAPIRO: You know, I was going to say, the difference is that, when you go back to a small town in Ireland, everybody knows who you are. But I guess the nature of a small town is that everybody knows who everybody is anyway, and so that's not actually a difference.
NORTON: Yeah. No, I remember I did a little talk for a youth group in Bantry, County Cork, which is a tiny town. And this girl put her hand up to ask a question, and she was like, what's it like being famous? And I was thinking, well, that's - you know, I understand why she's asking that, but how on earth do you answer that question? And then it came to me - that, oh, it's like living in Bantry. You know, everyone knows your business, and there's people you want to avoid in the supermarket.
SHAPIRO: What a perfect answer. Graham Norton - his new novel is called "Forever Home." It's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.
NORTON: Oh, listen - thank you so much, and thanks for having me on. It means a lot.
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