Graham Norton: “You Have More Time Than You Think”

As he publishes his first novel, Graham Norton talks to Emma Justice about unrequited love, dating on Tinder and why he’ll never be friends with Madonna… 

I wonder if he’s really as funny as he is on telly,” says my cab driver when I tell him I’m on my way to interview Graham Norton. The answer is yes but also incredibly thoughtful and surprisingly vulnerable as he admits to worrying about how his debut novel, Holding, will be received. Graham, 53, has already published three books, his memoirs The Life and Loves of a He Devil and So Me plus Ask Graham, a collection of his advice columns. He also hosts The Graham Norton Show on BBC One and his Radio 2 show. Graham, who now lives in London, grew up in County Cork, Ireland, where he still has a house and his mother Rhoda lives, so it’s no surprise that Holding has an Irish setting. It’s a brilliantly evocative and fast-paced mystery, which will in my opinion not only be a bestseller, but also a box office hit – especially if they cast Julie Walters and Brendan Gleeson (Graham’s choice for his lonely hero PJ, a Garda) in the lead roles. You read it here first…

I’ve always wanted to write a novel but it’s like saying you want to play the piano – if that’s the case then by the age of 52 you really should be banging out a tune! So I’m relieved to say I woke up on my 53rd birthday having finished this book.

I wrote it in three big chunks and it took me about a year. I got a two-book deal when I wrote The Life and Loves of a He Devil and it was the only reason I finished it. My publisher kept saying, “So Graham, about that novel…” I thought I’d write a cynical story set in London about smart arses talking to each other. So I’m surprised that I wrote a sweet, sentimental tale set in West Cork, Ireland. I’m not sure what genre it fits into – “cosy crime” perhaps?

The good thing about being “a man off the telly” is that someone will publish your novel. The downside is that my persona can get in the way when you read it. I tried hard not to put “me” in the book but I’m there in some way – the characters are outsiders and emotionally stunted for a start! They feel they haven’t had choices – that life just happened to them. I gave it a happy(ish) ending because I felt it would be too cruel to have everyone’s lives end badly. I wanted there to be hope.

I intended to write it in Ireland but, when I was there last summer, I sliced a bit of my finger off. I was washing my Irishman of the Year Award (I kid you not), which was this big glass thing that shattered in the sink. I’m just getting the feeling in my finger back now.

There’s lots of conflicting advice about how to write fiction. As a debut novelist I knew it was important to plot it out so I made the crime element the scaffolding of my story. Then the characters just took on a life of their own. And yes I know it sounds pretentious when writers say that!

I didn’t get writer’s block, I got writer’s laziness. There were a few points, even as far as 30,000 words in, when I could have easily given up and tossed the book aside. So my advice to other first-time writers is KEEP GOING. Write something – anything – every day or your half-written book will end up under the bed.

I sent an early draft to my mum, my sister, a few friends and my old English teacher who I’m still friends with.
They were all gentle with their criticism but they didn’t hold back either. They pointed out things that didn’t hang together. I listened to them and the book changed a lot.

For me the pleasure was in the writing – not in the sharing. I was worried writing would be like doing a long stretch of boring homework but I loved it. Now I know people are going to read it, I feel vulnerable. I hope it’s a success but if nobody likes it I’ll still write another one – I’ll just keep it in a biscuit tin afterwards.

Best. Book. Ever. is the review I’m looking for! I haven’t done this for a laugh. I’ve done it seriously so if people don’t like it I can’t dismiss it as being a joke. I’d like to think bits of the story will move people and that they will get a sense of place from it.

I’m glad that books are making a comeback. People are rediscovering them because, you know, that page-turning thing is quite good! Kindles are great for taking on holiday but there’s something special about holding an actual book.

ON SUCCESS 

People find happiness in different ways. I go back to Ireland and still know people who have never left and I think, “Do you have no curiosity? Do you not want to see anything else of life?” But at the same time they probably look at me and think, “Why did you leave? What are you looking for that you can’t find here?”

People talk about success and ambition in very narrow terms. In work it’s easiest to define. For me it’s about people watching my show, buying this book and listening to the radio. And in that arena I’ve far outstripped any ambitions I ever had.

I’m very content. I overuse that word but I think if you find it then you’re doing well. Some people never find contentment and that’s a curse. They think, “If I lose weight I’ll be happy… if I have a baby… if I get a pay rise… but I’m not that person. I’m usually the one saying, “Isn’t this great!”

ON HIS CAREER 

I had no plan B, which is a good thing because if I did, I’d be doing it now. My plan A wasn’t working for a very long time. I was living on the 18th floor of a tower block in a council estate in east London and not making any money. I’m glad I didn’t find success until later in life – it makes you a more rounded person.

I don’t become friends with all the guests on my show. Some of them are really hard work! Sometimes, the next day, I’ll read the gossip columns and see they’ve gone out to dinner without me. My name is on the title credits and when I walk out everyone claps, but as soon as the guests arrive it’s my job to make them look funnier and more interesting than me. I’m basically the hired help!

There aren’t many people like Madonna in the world. You need a particular mindset to become that person and driven doesn’t quite cover it. It’s extraordinary and intimidating because there’s no way you can relate to them as an equal. They’re part of a super race. The only other people who come close are Tom Ford and Oprah.

If I were PM for the day I’d tackle tax evasion. If the very rich paid their fair share we’d be in much better shape. There would be more schools and more hospitals, people wouldn’t be as disaffected and maybe Brexit wouldn’t have happened. I like the idea of living in a society where there’s free education and healthcare – it’s in everyone’s interest. Of course I could take my money abroad but I pay what I’m supposed to because what’s left is still a lot more than most people have.

I think female politicians are motivated by better things. They get on with the job and genuinely want to improve society. Men tend to go into politics to feed their ego and for power and purpose.

If you don’t have empathy you’re in trouble because you’re basically a psychopath. I genuinely enjoy writing my advice column and I hope I have an understanding of people, although I have no idea where that comes from!

My office is a terrible museum to me. I keep mementos and pictures of me with guests in there, as well as my various awards. Sometimes I think I should put it all away but then I think these are the things that I’m proud of.

ON LOVE AND DATING 

I’ve been in love along the way but the relationships didn’t fail – they just ended. Would it be winning if I was still in them but miserable? I’ve never thought “this will do”.

Everyone tells me it would be nice to have a boyfriend. But I’m convinced there’s a couples’ conspiracy – that people in relationships pity those that are single because otherwise all the compromises they’ve made won’t have been worth it.

I had one big unrequited love and unrequited love can go on for years. I think it’s about being safe – it helps you believe you still have feelings but because they’re not reciprocated you can’t do anything about them. It’s one of the easiest kinds of relationship to maintain.

The best way to get over a break up is to start dating someone else.
 I say take some furniture out for dinner if you need to!

I love going on first dates and was on Tinder for a while.
 It’s second dates that are hard – I’ve usually heard all the best stories on the first one. I’m incredibly judgemental, which is a problem when you’re dating. I remember one guy said, “in essence” at the end of every sentence and, in essence, that really irritated me.

Being Graham Norton makes it easier to meet people but also makes it harder to sustain.
 No situation is ideal though – everyone has different circumstances they have to get over to find love.

My dogs don’t act as a surrogate boyfriend or child – the hole in my life they fill is distinctly dog shaped! Picking up dog poo is a pretty good way to remain grounded.

ON LIFE AND FRIENDSHIPS 

The most successful friendships are ones you sustain because you still look forward to seeing them. I used to have more female friends but now there’s more men. There’s a gang of us and they’re not famous at all. Of course on some levels they like my fame, I can get us tickets to things or a reservation somewhere. But I also appreciate how annoying it must be for them when we’re trying to have a heart-to-heart and people keep coming up to ask for a selfie with me.

I’m lazier and more frightened than I am vain. So although I have considered cosmetic surgery I’ve never done it. One of the nice things about getting older, especially as a man, is that you grow into yourself. But men are lucky – we’re allowed to grow old gracefully. It must be hard for great beauties to suddenly see it disappear.

I’m good at keeping secrets although I wish people wouldn’t tell me them. As for my own secrets – I don’t tell them to anyone. Maybe my problem is I don’t trust people when really I should.

I’d tell my younger self you have more time than you think you have. You have time to fail and time to start again. I’m a debut novelist at 53. You can learn Spanish when you’re 70. It’s about keeping as many doors open as possible.

GRAHAM’S CHECKLIST…

Signature dish Nigel Slater’s lamb, which is roasted over potatoes so all the tasty juices drip down into them.

Food hell Grapefruit – it’s the only thing I don’t like.

Most wanted guest Prince William or Harry – I’d love to interview them.

Zen time Walking my dogs and sitting by the river where I live.

Worst trait Impatience.

Greatest fear Pain – physical and emotional.

Motto If you shake a snow globe just let it settle. The crap will go and the view will be revealed.

Three words to describe you Energetic, committed and loyal.

Holding by Graham Norton is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 6 October, priced £20 in hardback. The Graham Norton Show is on Fridays, 10.35pm, BBC One.
 

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