Thursday, February 09, 2006

An interview with Gregory Norminton

Gregory Norminton's book GHOST PORTRAIT is one of the first books I reviewed on this blog. It is a beautiful book which takes the reader back to the British Civil war and the Restoration.

I am not sure this link will keep working but you may be able to hear some more of Gregory's writing here. It is a short story about the cost of saving someone's life and was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last Friday. It explores the debt owed for being saved and the consequently complicated relationship between two soldiers. The heat of the Malaysian jungle and the suffocating modern Asian smog is used to excellent effect.

A SHORT BIOGRAPHY (in his own words)
Gregory Norminton was born in 1976. To date he has published three novels: The Ship of Fools, Arts and Wonders (which won an Arts Council Writer’s Award in 2003) and Ghost Portrait. As well as writing, Gregory is a rather frantic environmentalist who will be featured in an Animal Planet cable television series this spring. He divides his time between a desk in Hampshire and some tables in Edinburgh, where his girlfriend lives.

I first met Gregory at a Sceptre party. Everyone that I've met who knows him says he is very clever. In fact someone, and I can't remember who, said that they would like to emulsify Mr Norminton's brains and then suck them out through one of his ears with a straw... However, as well as being clever Gregory feels strongly enough about the fate of this planet to something about it. He also has a lot of interesting and amusing things to say - as the interview below shows.

I noticed from his website two things - that he has also started his own blog and that his story had just been broadcast (something he modestly forgot to mention).

CD: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable
GN: I am fond of snails. They are triumphs of evolution; they have inspired poets from Shakespeare
(Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled snails)
to Marianne Moore
(If “compression is the first grace of style”,
you have it);
they feed my favourite garden bird (the thrush); and they taste so good cooked in garlic that I forgive those that ravage my garden in spring.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
GN: The time when – cut by coral and buffeted by strong winds – I summoned the strength not to drown while studying the reef off Calabash Caye in Belize. (Of course to others it can’t have looked so dramatic: a red-faced Englishman floundering in the shallows. But the relief – yes, the adrenaline-charged triumph of getting back to the boat – was unforgettable.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
GN: Being born. It was a shock. And there’s only one known cure for it.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
GN: James Lovelock telling us the planet’s f**cked (though not in those words).

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
GN: My tendency to despair.

CD: What is happiness?
GN: Living in the present. Being free of physical pain or discomfort. Both of these, in fact. Pain is a prison: you can achieve almost nothing when you’re in it.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
GN: Regret it.

CD: How long have you been writing?
GN: Professionally (that is, in return for small amounts of money), I have been writing for about seven years. Before my first novel I wrote a number of plays but fiction took over when I realised how slim the chances are of getting work for the stage produced. An unperformed play is half dead, whereas a short story, even if it is never published, can at least be said to exist.

CD: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
GN: My ambition for many years was to be an actor. I trained at LAMDA after university but was told I’d only get work in middle age. To act as a young man you must either be handsome – in a blandly telegenic way – or fabulously ugly. I am neither. On the other hand, I do possess a slight resemblance to Prince Albert (later Edward VII) and hence played him in a docudrama for BBC 2. It was my only acting job to date and I was upstaged by my false whiskers.

As for writing – well, I’ve always been a scribbler, a consequence perhaps of obsessive compulsive disorder when I was a teenager.

CD: What is your typical writing day - if you have such a thing?
GN: My writing day? I wake up at 8 a.m., consume half a grapefruit (without added sugar) and stand on my head for ten minutes while reciting my mantra. (The mantra was given to me by a great lama in a greasy spoon café on the Balls Pond Road.) At nine o’clock, sporting a paisley cravat and smoking Cuban cheroots, I settle down before my Olivetti (I spurn word processors as the work of the devil) and write 1000 words before lunch. After lunch (either at the Groucho Club or the Ivy) I play three consecutive games of squash with my agent, my editor and my publicist; then return to my desk for three solid hours’ composition until it’s time for supper with my wife, the celebrated model and academic Vashti Piňeyro-Cadiz.

Oh, all right. My writing day is a miracle of procrastination. I consider myself one of modern literature’s most prolific nappers. I scribble on scraps of paper for one or two hours (when I’m not trying to walk off a packet of hobnobs), then type up the awful drivel for another two, print out the day’s disaster, cut out most of it with a leaky biro, and absolve myself by insisting that I really would benefit from another evening in front of the television.

CD: What initiated the writing of GHOST PORTRAIT?
GN: Ghost Portrait started life as a radio play, written over a couple of weeks in 1998. The play’s title was The Portraitist’s Commission. Nathaniel Deller, his wife and daughter, William Stroud and Thomas Digby were all there, somewhat roughly. The play was championed by an independent production company but rejected by the BBC. I moved on to other things but enough of my curiosity survived for the story to continue to grow in my mind. In 2002 I decided to rewrite it completely as a novel. Needless to say, Ghost Portrait is not a transcribed play. I wanted to find a form unique to the novel and, on the whole, I think I succeeded.

CD: One of the (many) strengths of GHOST PORTRAIT is the way you give a sense of the historical setting without being at all heavy handed. What sort of research did you have to do for the book?
GN: Research is a tricky business. I’m currently reviewing a novel which sinks under the weight of it. On the other hand, it’s a novelist’s task to make an imagined world live in the imagination and to do this one must be familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of that world. I visited Ightham Mote in Kent and explored the downs near Maidstone. I spent a glorious hour in one of England’s last post-mills – erected in 1665 – from whose bin-floor the miller and his family would have watched the Great Fire of London, and gave my experience to William Stroud. For the Amsterdam sections I consulted Simon Schama’s controversial book Rembrandt’s Eyes; I read a lot of titles on the English Civil War and its aftermath, on King Charles I’s art collection, on sex and family in the seventeenth century. I acknowledge my debt to Liza Picard’s Restoration London for all the sensual stuff. All the rest is guess work.

CD: The descriptions in your book are exquisitely terse and poetic. Do you write poetry or any other sort of fiction or non-fiction?
GN: I am no poet, though I do enjoy writing haiku. I write short stories – a few of which have been published or broadcast – and am pioneering, ha ha, a kind of miniature form, under 500 words in length, which I hope to persuade some newspaper or magazine to publish instead of a column. A novel is a cumbersome business and even the best are imperfect. While I don’t pretend to have succeeded, at least in short fiction one can aspire to perfection.

CD: Which writers do you most admire - can you give me three living and three dead?
GN: Writers whom I admire? There are so many: I’m glad you limit me to six. Dead, then (and bear in mind that next year, God willing, this list will have changed according to my reading): Paul Valéry, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett. Living: Penelope Lively, Jim Crace, Pierre Michon. Oh, but six is so little...!


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