As his third novel is published, Graham Norton talks to Emily Hourican about writing, success, forgiveness, Twitter, moving to 'where the gays were', and his thanks to those who stayed in Ireland to fight for the modern, tolerant country it has become
Zooming with Graham Norton, who is in West Cork, makes me first want to find a red chair to sit in, and then ready myself to be tipped over backwards when I fail to be sufficiently entertaining.
As it happens, we don't get very long face-to-face before Norton's patchy WiFi defeats us - "people tell me I'm unstable," he says with a laugh, "I don't need to hear that!" - and we revert to the phone. But it's long enough face-to-face to feel that we have established something of the dynamic for which Norton is famous - that cosy, intimate, slightly risky rapport in which Norton plays both the beguiling host and the zany, unpredictable contributor.
At one point, we have a chat about housework which is pure Norton, meaning I don't honestly know how much he's joking - "In London I have a cleaner and here I don't, I do it myself. I say 'do it myself', I mean when my mother's coming to stay, that kind of galvanises me. Left to my own devices, I will walk into the kitchen and think 'there could be vermin in this room…'" Seriously?
Housework aside, we're talking about his new novel - his third, on top of two memoirs. Home Stretch is a skilfully plotted, pacy and emotionally resonant tale that starts in rural Ireland in 1987, in a fictional town called Mullinmore, takes in London and New York, and ends 32 years later in 2019, back in Mullinmore.
Just as with his first two books, Holding and A Keeper, Norton's characters are the people of this small town. They are unshowy, often inarticulate, bound by the town and its expectations until forced to confront these by dramatic external events. In this case, it's a car accident that kills three young people and maims another on the eve of a wedding. Two escape, and much of the story is what happens to them and because of them, in the aftermath of the crash.
Home Stretch, it seems to me, is a more personal book than either of his previous two: Connor, the main character, moves to London, comes out as gay, works in restaurants, hangs out with designers, then moves to New York.
Is that reading too much into it? "I think it's easier to find bits of me in it," Norton agrees. "All books are personal but this one is the most overt. Initially, I was reluctant to have anything that might remind people that I'd written the books. With the first two books I was really strict - there were no gay characters, no London… This one, I thought, 'oh come on, this is Book Three, I've got to mine bits of my own life if I'm going to keep writing here…'" he laughs. "So I allowed myself. It's still not 'my life', though - and I hope people won't think it is."
'His' London - he moved there in the late 1980s - sounds a lot like Connor's. "When I went to London I didn't do any of the Kilburn stuff," he says. "I thought, 'I left an island with three-and-a-half million of them, I don't need to meet any more Irish people, thank you very much.' So I worked in restaurants, went to drama school, made friends."
As part of the acknowledgements to the book, Norton thanks "all the people who stayed in Ireland to fight for the modern tolerant place it has become. I took the easy way out and left..." Does he really think that was the easy way out? "Yes, absolutely. I moved where the gays were. I went to London. Where nobody knew me so there was none of that scariness and there were gay bars that were just on the street so I could walk in, and meet other gay people. And I don't want to be glib about it, because those people who stayed, who went on the marches and did the petitions, are nameless and faceless and I'll never get to actually thank them, but they did the hard work."
Then he adds, "I am aware that Ireland isn't Nirvana - and I think if young people hear me talking they'll think 'what is wrong with him? It's horrible here…' Well, try being here in the late '70s! People should be proud of themselves. Ireland is transformed."
His description in the book of marriage - "It wasn't about being happy or making someone happy. It turned out it was just a matter of whose unhappiness was the easiest to deal with" - is particularly arresting. That, he says, when I mention it, "is my favourite line in the whole book. That is really true of relationships, particularly long-term relationships: choosing whose unhappiness is easiest to deal with."
As for his own current relationship status, "I get really uncomfortable talking about dating. I'm 57 years old, which sounds an awful lot like 60. Who wants to hear about that man's love life? Fifty-seven-year-olds only appear in porn when it is very, very niche. I'm not married with children but nor am I a monk. Shall we just leave it at that? I'll alert your local milliners if my circumstances change."
For all the wit, there are many moments of psychological astuteness in the book, including this, on Connor's fear of his parents' rejection: "How many gay young men had made the same excuses, when in reality it was all about their own self-loathing?"
Is that really how it feels, I ask? "You'll have to talk to other gay men about that," he says, "but I think that is a sort of truism. It goes back to Panti Bliss's speech on homophobia, that we're all a bit homophobic. We judge our own gayness harshly. Hopefully not any more; hopefully that is changing. But if you grew up in the society that myself and Rory [aka Panti] grew up in, you're not going to think being gay is a great thing. You're not going to go 'yippee!' You know it's not a choice, you know it's not something you did, but you feel like you're less than. You feel like you failed. You don't want to test people's love, because you don't love you…"
He breaks off then and laughs, and says "I sound like RuPaul now" - and I'm honestly not sure if the laughter is a defence. It's tempting to see the use of humour as a way to deflect - the 'tears of a clown' drill - but I'm not at all sure that's what's going on here.
Does he feel he should engage more on, say, Twitter? Do battle for the things he believes in? "It's so difficult. I think my younger self would judge me very harshly," he says. "That I have a potentially loud voice and I don't use it at all. I feel guilty on his behalf. I feel like apologising to him that I turned into such a wimp. What stops me are two things. One is working for the BBC; it doesn't sit well with the guy on BBC One on a Friday night if I'm constantly campaigning. But also because I think, 'who does care what I think?' I scarcely care what I think."
Twitter, he reckons, "is essentially a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week bar brawl. You can't go in there and whisper your nuanced opinion and expect not to be hit over the head by a chair leg. I don't understand the people who engage; I think, 'how can you be bothered talking to people who are clearly stupid?' They're stupid and angry. Angry, stupid people -they're not the ones you would normally like to spend time with!"
Success, at the age Norton was when he moved to London, feels like a kind of zero sum game, we agree. "You look at your friends and you think, 'They're having my success,'" he laughs. As for his own considerable success (hosting his own chat show for 22 years; nine Baftas, a BBC2 radio show and much more), "I was lucky in that I had failed at acting quite early on," he says. "Or I decided I'd failed, early on. I didn't keep knocking on that door. I knew I still wanted to show off, and that was when I started my own little shows and that bridged into stand-up; I did some radio, some TV, and that felt easier to cope with not being very successful at, because it was unclear what I was doing. I felt successful when I was able to pay my rent without working in a restaurant, and I wasn't able to do that until I was about 31. It felt like a long time coming…"
Back to acting, or, more specifically, actors. Given his unique vantage point, does he find the younger generation have less to say for themselves? Are they harder to talk to? "Not harder to talk to," he says with a laugh, "harder to listen to…" There are still, he says, "the good ones" where "you think 'you're great. You're funny, you're engaged, you're interested in other people…' You then get that really depressing thing when you have them on [the show] again and you think 'oh no! You've turned! You've drunk the Kool-Aid! You aren't as interested. You're very cautious now because you've been in the paper for the wrong reasons, or you said something stupid on the show the last time,' and it's sad to see that."
He talks about that elusive star quality - "the really big stars, they have learned whatever it is that they do, so that people on the film set walk away and think, 'what a lovely guy', and audiences go to see the film and think 'what a lovely guy…'" When I say, "Ah, but that's exactly what people say about you!" he responds with, "well, you hope you're a decent human being. I think that should be everybody's basic ambition. And we are all aware of the days when we failed in that basic ambition, and we all have those days and we're not proud of them and you think, 'well, I must start again, learn patience,' stuff like that…"
Home Stretch resolves itself in a way that is subtle, almost low-key [mild spoiler alert]; "I was slightly worried that readers would feel cheated of a big comeuppance. I kind of thought that's where we'd end up - with fisticuffs, punishment. It was such a Eureka moment when I realised the only possible ending is forgiveness. That's a lesson for me; for anyone. That actually, it is the most powerful thing you can do - to forgive someone, because that's it, you've washed your hands. You get to walk away whereas they are still stuck."
Is he good at forgiveness? "I have to work at it," he says frankly, "but I do work at it."
Forgiveness needn't, however, mean forgetting: "I do do forgiveness," he says, "although I'm still not talking to that person and don't want them in my life any more. I'm over it; I'm not angry, I'm not seething, I wish them well - 'good luck with the rest of your life that I'm not in.' They're unaware of my forgiveness, but I've let it go in my own head, and that feels as good."
The question of whether humour is a defence for Norton is one I have another chance to consider when I mention the period during his college years at UCC (he studied English and French, but didn't finish his degree). For a time back then, he refused to leave his room. I make a rather stretched analogy with lockdown, of which he is decently tolerant ("That is interesting, how you've joined up bits of my life," he says kindly), but takes gentle exception to the word 'breakdown', which is how it is mostly reported, along with the detail that he gathered dead flies in a saucer.
"I don't think I said in the book I had a breakdown," he says. "I think it's been reported I had a breakdown. And maybe I did. But I was never diagnosed, so I don't want to kind of trivialise.
"But I did kill a lot of flies and then keep all their bodies. I might have thrown them away! It was weird that I kept a kind of mass grave, on one of the stereo speakers. Those heavy winter flies…" and he's laughing again in a way that, truly, seems exactly as though he finds this delightfully funny, albeit at a distance of more than 30 years. I guess if one is as open and approachable as Norton, maybe it's only fair that he gets to have a little bit of clever fun with our perceptions.
Home Stretch by Graham Norton is out on October 1, published by Coronet, €13.99. Join Graham in conversation with RTÉ broadcaster Rick O'Shea at an online event, 4 October, 5-6pm; tickets €18, include a signed copy of the book; dublinbookfestival.com