Graham Norton may be known mostly as a talk-show host, but he's also an accomplished writer with two memoirs and three novels under his belt.
His new Home Stretch opens on an ordinary-seeming moment, washed with impressionistic horror: A man heading home from work stumbles across a strange tableau by the side of the road. Two boys, one kneeling, one standing and waving his arms. "Had they had a fight? Then he saw the thin threads of smoke rising up into the marmalade sky of dusk, and to the right of them, the broken bank of shrubbery. Everything suddenly accelerated."
It's the summer of 1987 in Norton's native Ireland, and we're seeing the aftermath of a terrible car accident, one that kills three young people and upends the lives of everyone in their small town — especially Connor, one of the boys by the side of the road, whose involvement in the crash (and his need to hide his sexuality from his conservative parents) drives him far away from home.
Hodder & Stoughton
Hodder & Stoughton
Hodder & Stoughton
From that one awful moment, the story jumps around in time, following Connor and his friends and family across decades and oceans as they puzzle out their relationships to home and identity — and uncover the secrets that led to the crash.
In an email interview, Norton tells me he was trying to avoid a sort of plodding "and then" narrative. "I chose to take the reader on an almost whistle stop tour, dipping into the lives of the characters at various points and seeing the many high and low lights of their lives. The flashbacks to the day of the car crash that sets the whole story in motion are placed at precise points in the story so that they illuminate plot twists or unknown motivations. I was very keen that the reader was reminded that the whole story remained tethered to the events of that day in 1987."
To me, as I read Home Stretch, it seemed like the central theme was sexuality — about Connor discovering his own and coming to terms with it over a lifetime. But I read an interview where you said that wasn't the case? What was central in your mind while you were writing?
The wonderful thing for me about writing a novel is that themes emerge and change. Initially sexuality was only introduced to the book as a plot device but it soon became much more than that. At first I thought I was writing a story about peoples relationship to home and the far reaching ripples from our youth into adulthood, but the story blossomed into a larger one about Ireland and the journey that the whole country has been on over the last few decades.
I love the scene where Connor's nephew Finbarr, who's also gay but who's had an altogether easier time of it, is reflecting on all the people who fought for the changed world he lives in. Tell me about that moment.
Finbarr is born into the modern Ireland of gay rights and tolerance, while Connor returns to find it fully formed. It was important to me that I found a way in the book to acknowledge how that happened and to recognise the nameless people who remained in the country to fight. I was one of the lazy people who left for more liberal shores and now I get to reap the benefits of all the dull, often thankless, hard work and campaigning that went on. It is completely understandable that young people think that all the freedoms they enjoy are their birth right, but they need to be reminded that the lives they take for granted were fought for and hard won.
There were moments that seemed viscerally personal — for Connor and Finbarr, but also Connor's sister Ellen — how did your own experiences play into the construction of the story?
If any moment in a novel works it is probably because it resonates on a personal level. That doesn't always mean that you went through exactly the same thing but it has emotional echoes of your experience. I've been in terrible relationships, I've left home and returned, the places Connor goes to, I have been to, but ultimately this is a work of fiction. If moments felt real or personal, I'm glad!
What do you want people to come away with, once they've read the last page?
The ending was sort of [the] eureka moment for me. All the way through the book I was trying to come up with a resolution to satisfy the reader, and I kept thinking in terms of punishment or revenge, but nothing felt right. It was very late in the day that it suddenly dawned on me that forgiveness was the only conclusion that made sense. Forgiveness is a sort of super power. If you can manage it, you win. Making your peace with the past is the only way you can really move forward in your life. I hope that is what the reader feels at the end; the hope of new beginnings.