ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Howard Norman's new novel is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the core of the plot of "My Darling Detective" is a photograph and an auction.
HOWARD NORMAN: (Reading) The auction was held at 5 p.m. in the street-level drawing room of the Lord Nelson hotel here in Halifax. "Death On A Leipzig Balcony" by Robert Capa was the first item on the docket. The auctioneer had just said taken on April 18, 1945, when my mother, Nora Ives - married name Nora Ives Rigolet - walked almost casually up the center aisle and flung an open jar of black ink at the photograph. I heard, no it can't be you. But it was my own voice already trying to refute the incident. My mother was tackled to the floor by the auctioneer's assistant. An octopus of ink sent tentacles down the glass. My mother was lifted roughly to her feet by two security guards and escorted from the room. And here I thought she was safely tucked away in Nova Scotia Rest Hospital across the harbor in Dartmouth, room 340.
SIEGEL: And from there we try to figure out the story of both mother and son, Jacob Rigolet. Howard Norman, welcome to the program.
NORMAN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Your novel has been described as an homage to noirs. In film noir, one character says noir is noir and it's atmosphere that counts. How do you describe the atmosphere that we call noir?
NORMAN: One of my favorite writers, Akutagawa, who's famous for writing "Rashomon," has a letter in which he says what good is intelligence if you can't discover a useful melancholy? So I consider noir about melancholy, an atmosphere of melancholy. I'm devoted to watching noirs of the classic sort. So in this book, I simply tried to create an atmosphere with some menace and some humor in equal measure.
SIEGEL: Now that I've read a few of your novels, I find that there are things that you return to in your writing. They're always fresh, but they're familiar. So I wanted to put to you a list of short-answer questions for a moment. What's so important to you about - and I'll start with first - birds?
NORMAN: Oh, I elevate birds to a theological level of regard. They are the spirit world to me. They also represent distance. And when I see a flock of geese, I sort of yell, take me with you. They're in all my books on some level.
SIEGEL: What is so important to you about photography?
NORMAN: Our daughter has become a wonderful black-and-white photographer. I find myself distracted by color in photographs, so I prefer the black and white. I think it's the starkness. I think, again, it's the melancholy. And certainly, all the photographs in this novel do have a noirish quality.
NORMAN: Well, librarians were my babysitters when I was young and...
SIEGEL: In Grand Rapids, Mich.
NORMAN: In Grand Rapids and in Toronto. And I just think they're the place of respite and quiet. And in this book, of course, it's the place where the narrator was born, in the Halifax free library. So I guess I've gone back as far as one could go with a character.
SIEGEL: Radio figures commonly in your stories.
NORMAN: Extremely important - these voices that are disconnected on some level and yet importing the world into a life in the most graphic and oftentimes poetic ways strikes me as, you know, almost spectral in a way. And I like to put those situations in my novels.
SIEGEL: And Canada - I mean, you are an American.
NORMAN: I am an American. I sort of feel my imagination has a dual citizenship in a way. I go to Nova Scotia. I travel around. I research in the archives. I eavesdrop. I read everything I can. Then I come back to Vermont, and there's this displacement of the imagination. I'll sit in my writing cabin in Vermont but write about Nova Scotia, and that just seems to have worked for me.
SIEGEL: And in fact, I was curious about how you research things. In your novel "The Bird Artist," you name a village full of people. It's early 20th century Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Do you go to graveyards or birth registries?
NORMAN: Yes, a graveyard's one of my favorite places to go. I've confiscated, if you will, a number of names from graveyards. I may be on a long search for an epitaph for myself someday. Yeah, there and registries, reading sermons in churches. It's a constant search. It's what the great haiku artist Basho called wandering scholarship. You just wander into places, take down names, take down dates, think about incidents that have happened, and eventually, the ones that stay with you longest might turn into fiction.
SIEGEL: Howard Norman, thank you very much for talking with us today.
NORMAN: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Howard Norman's new novel is called "My Darling Detective."
(SOUNDBITE OF THE KNUX SONG, "CAPPUCCINO")
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