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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH GREGORY NORMINTON

Published in the Book Review newspaper KNIZHNAYA VITRINA in October 2006

Elena Dedukhina: What does the term ‘historical novelist’ mean to you? Is it a reputation or a label?

Gregory Norminton: The ‘historical novel’ is, more than anything, a marketing term. As such it is rather confining. I have written two novels set in the historical past: Arts and Wonders and Ghost Portrait. Though both touch on real events, the central characters are invented and their dilemmas apply equally to our own age. The Ship of Fools is a fantasy, or set of fantasies, inspired by the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel. Anybody hoping to learn about life in Medieval Flanders will find it a most frustrating read.

If the term ‘historical novel’ means anything, it is the fictionalised account of historical fact. I am not in that business. My current project is set in contemporary Britain, while a future novel (if I ever manage to write it) imagines a trip into outer space. My short stories include what marketing types would call ‘speculative’ and ‘historical’ fiction, as well as ‘horror’ and more conventionally ‘realistic’ narratives. The problem is that publishers need to define an author, to market a ‘product’ rather than facilitate the expression of an imagination. So labels are imposed and those who refuse them are kept in obscurity. Contemporary writers I most admire flit between genres and resolutely ignore that grim dictum (the ‘socialist realism’ of a narcissistic and confessional culture) only to write from direct experience.

Elena Dedukhina: You said in one of your interviews that ‘getting reviews for fiction is becoming increasingly difficult.’ Does it mean that the art of criticism is generally disappearing or that you personally lack attention towards your work?

Gregory Norminton:: The sale of a book is to a large degree determined by the number of reviews it receives. My third novel was barely reviewed and its sales have been dismal as a result, even though I consider it my best work. But this is not just a personal gripe. The majority of writers in Britain work in relative or total obscurity, and the sheer volume of books published annually ensures that only a minority will see their work reviewed. At the same time, there appears to be a growing trend for reviewing non-fiction over fiction. Newspapers are in the business of fact and interpretation; they are not over-concerned with works of the imagination.

The art of criticism is not dead, for all that. But it is increasingly confined to specialist publications. This means that fiction has a diminishing profile in the mainstream media and only a small number of titles (winners of literary awards or the beneficiaries of expensive marketing campaigns) find a readership. Perhaps the growth of online magazines, reader forums and (in the real world) reading groups will rescue us from this law of diminishing returns? I, for one, long to find ways of finding an audience without the costly mediation of marketing people.

Elena Dedukhina: In your first novel, The Ship of Fools, you offer your own interpretation of the famous Bosch painting, whereas in Ghost Portrait the narration itself offers such vivid descriptions of Nature (mainly) that one might assume you are a landscape painter at heart yourself.

Gregory Norminton:: I regard my first three novels as a kind of trilogy, with painting as the uniting theme. The Ship of Fools pays homage to Bosch and Bruegel: characters from their work are given life, so to speak, on the page. At the same time, as an affirmation of creative freedom, I wanted to go back to the prehistory of the novel and so Rabelais plays an important part, along with English writers such as Swift and Lawrence Sterne: experimenters who played with and invented a new form. Ghost Portrait was a very different enterprise. Like Arts and Wonders, it has painting and painters at its centre. Whereas The Ship of Fools is hermetic and ‘artificial’, an intertextual game, Ghost Portrait is a naturalistic work, an intimate portrayal of long dead people. It marks my return to England and to a tradition, present in art and music as well as literature, of celebrating the English landscape. It is a rural novel. It is about sight and perception. It is also about the sense of place: how one house can be many houses over time, experienced anew by each inhabitant. Fools sprang from books and paintings, Ghost Portrait from explorations of the North Downs – that narrow vein of chalk hills in the south-eastern county of Kent. Nathaniel Deller’s home is a composite of actual country houses; a close relative of William Stroud’s post-mill still stands in east Surrey. As for the revolutionary Diggers, they did indeed attempt to create a colony on an area of heath quite near my childhood home. I was, then, writing about landscapes that I knew intimately. For that reason Ghost Portrait is a very ‘personal’ novel, even if it set three centuries before my birth.

Elena Dedukhina: ‘Failure, though it doesn’t pay the bills, can be an effective tutor.’ You wrote this about the novel you abandoned for being ‘lacklustre and directionless’. Was this the first time such a thing has happened to you? What did you learn from that ‘tutor’? Have you any intention of going back to that unfinished work one day?

Gregory Norminton: I had been working on a comic novel set on an American campus at the height of the present Bush administration. It was going to be based, very loosely, on my own experience of living in Iowa City for six months between 2003 and 2004. I wanted to capture something of that (to me) very foreign country where in theory my own language is spoken. After working on the project for about nine months, however, it became quite obvious that, though I had a setting, I did not have a novel. Many minor characters had the stamp of life about them but there was a gaping hole where the central narrator ought to have been. To work successfully, over months and months, on a novel one has to really need to write it. I made the decision to abandon a project that somehow lacked that life force.

It was the first time I had met with such a failure. The experience was oddly bracing, for it taught me viscerally what I should have known about inspiration and compulsion. If you are trying to earn a living from fiction, the necessity to churn out material can be detrimental to good writing. By going astray, you become acquainted with the path you should follow.

All was not lost, mind you, from the abandoned work. I managed to rescue a section which, substantially reshaped, became a long short story called ‘In Refugium’. It has not yet found a publisher.

Elena Dedukhina: ‘Increasingly,’ you have written, ‘short stories are where my enthusiasm lies, both as reader and writer.’ Why?

Gregory Norminton: I wonder at the decline of the short story in Britain, for it seems to me the perfect narrative form for our age: a fictional package fully digestible in one sitting. The short story, by its brevity, allows us to be promiscuous readers. A good collection (in which each is piece is autonomous yet belongs with its neighbours) takes us through time and space. Yet the proverbial shopper will wrinkle his or her nose at a volume of stories and buy instead some breezeblock of a novel. Madness! It’s buying one story for the price of twelve.

Producing a novel consumes vast amounts of time and anxiety; so writing a short story can seem, at best, a sort of working holiday. Forget stamina: what’s required is precision and concision, the rice sculptor’s steady hand, if you will, and the clockmaker’s squint.

The status of the short story is a wretched one in Britain. Is this because our writers can’t manage the demands of the form? I don’t believe it. The truth is that we are no longer accustomed to reading stories. They have largely disappeared from newspapers and magazine. Until they return to mainstream culture, the passion for short stories will continue to wane; and readers may never discover the speculative fictions of Borges and Ballard, the dark confections of Poe and Angela Carter, or the luminous humanity of Katherine Mansfield.

For my favourites I choose Kipling, V.S. Pritchett (the closest we get to Chekhov?) and Samuel Beckett. Only in Kim does Kipling equal the genius of ‘They’ or ‘The Church that was in Antioch’. Kim of course is greater but only the stories approach perfection. As for Beckett, neither his Trilogy nor his late, negative-knotted exercises offer the compelling cadences and despairing comedy of ‘First Love’ and his three ‘novellas’.


Elena Dedukhina: What annoys you most in British contemporary literature? In American? In any other?

Gregory Norminton: I resent the distortions of hype, the banality of ‘relevance’ and the poison of sentimentality. I fear the relentless push of commercialism with its antipathy towards the unusual and the eccentric. I think the best writing in the USA comes from small, independent publishers. In the UK, the disappearance of independent bookshops is a cultural disaster. We also publish too few books in translation.

Elena Dedukhina: Could you name the authors and books you have recently read? How do you choose the books you think you ought to read?

Gregory Norminton: I am an avid reader, and a greedy accumulator of books. My reading is rarely planned or schematic: I just go where curiosity, or the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend, leads me. Recently, having moved to Scotland, I have been reading contemporary Scottish writers such as James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy and the great, eccentric visionary Alasdair Gray, whose novel Lanark I cannot recommend too highly. I hope it is available in Russian translation. Fiction is not my only interest. I read books on natural history and the environment, works of history (often following particular obsessions: last year, the Soviet gulags, this year the disgraceful conduct of the West in the Middle East) and quite a lot of poetry. Perhaps I should be a more disciplined reader: I tend to have several books on the go at any one time.

Elena Dedukhina: Do you normally attend book festivals? What do they mean to you? Why do you think more and more readers each year flock to book fairs and festivals?

Gregory Norminton: I would love to attend more book festivals: it’s the frustrated actor in me. I really enjoy reading my own work. Unfortunately having a low profile in Britain means that I rarely get the opportunity. I do occasionally go as an audience member (living in Edinburgh enables me to attend the Book Festival in August) but must confess that, unless the writer has a real talent for reading her work, I often end up regretting the experience. On the other hand, festivals are proof of a literary appetite and testify to a strange public curiosity concerning the shape and sound of authors. People who attend such events want to make a connection with the frail or fallible human being who happens to have written a book. For the author who fills the tent or theatre, the size of the audience testifies to the health of his talent.

Elena Dedukhina: You took part in all kinds of projects for the television series, Planet Action. What does it mean to you?

Gregory Norminton: Planet Action is a six-part television series, broadcast around the world on the Animal Planet channel, in which seven volunteers travel to different, tropical locations to work on conservation projects with the WWF. A lifelong supporter of the WWF (a remarkable organisation I would urge everyone to join), I auditioned on a whim for a part in the series and, to my great surprise, was selected in May 2005. Eight weeks of sweating adventures followed: fitting satellite transmitters on leatherback turtles in Panama, studying coral reef ecology in Belize, restoring degraded forest in Borneo, creating an eco-tourist adventure to safeguard a patch of Malaysian jungle, building a tiger-proof paddock in Kelantan, and helping to save the dismally rare Irrawaddy dolphin in the Cambodian Mekong. As this list suggests, the whole experience was remarkable – a unique opportunity to see parts of our endangered planet and to do something to raise awareness of our ecological crisis. I have long been an environmentalist (show me another planet we can live on) but my experiences last year have strengthened my conviction that writers have a particular duty to address the greatest challenge of our time: learning to live in a sustainable way on a fragile and finite Earth.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006
Copyright © Gregory Norminton 2006

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