READ CLOSE: The Secrets of Strangers has a quality of film or television to the storytelling. Do you see your story in your mind like a movie before you write?
CHARITY NORMAN: I do, except it’s perhaps more immersive than a movie. For me, the fun of writing is imagining the entire story as though I were physically present. Much of this story takes place in Tuckbox café. I had a clear picture of the place and drew myself plans of the layout. I thought about sounds – the milk frother, the chatter, the radio, the smells of coffee and toasted sandwiches, and that London-winter-café feeling of warm radiators and cold blowing in every time someone opens the door. I spent time in cafés as part of the research – or so I claimed! Much the same process applied to other parts of the story – a Sussex farm, or a Rwandan hospital.
If The Secrets of Strangers were to be made into a film, are there any actors you’d like to play your characters?
Oh, that would be great! I think I would leave casting up to the experts. Mind you, if I had a magic wand it would be awfully tempting to invent a role for Daniel Craig just so I could look into his eyes …
You’ve written six novels – does it get easier, or is each book a different experience?
It doesn’t get easier. In fact as technology has become more sophisticated and online news more all-pervasive, I find it increasingly difficult not to be distracted. Of course, there are ways in which experience is a great help – for example, nowadays I write a detailed synopsis before I begin, so there are fewer blind alleys. I used to be swamped by self-doubt halfway through but now I’m writing book seven I recognise this symptom as normal, and press on. It takes a long time to put 115,000 or so words into the right order, and there are days when it feels like a chore. I need to be immersed in the story, to let the characters breathe and come alive, to edit again and again and again. None of that gets any easier!
What book has had the biggest impact on you? How has it influenced your writing?
Just one? So tricky! Well, I hugely admire the 20th century Irish writer, Molly Keane, especially her novel Good Behaviour. It’s exquisite – sharp and wry, occasionally vicious and never sloppy; it’s literary without being pleased with itself. Keane never gets her own cleverness get in the way of the story. This book has the most brilliantly portrayed naïve narrator I’ve ever met (or is she as naïve as she pretends to be?). I can never write like Molly Keane, but she is an inspiration to do better.
This book is set in London. Do you think this novel would be different if you set it in a small town?
It would have felt very different. I spend at least a month of every year in London, and most of my family live there, so it’s a second home to me. The city has a glorious vibrancy and I wanted to bring that into this story. People can be trapped in a café together, be very diverse and the chances are they won’t have met, have any acquaintances in common – try that in Waipukurau!
If your book was to be on a bookshelf next to two other books, who would you choose as its companions, and why?
The Long Way, a memoir by the iconic lone sailor Bernard Moitessier, because reading his words makes me remember that the planet is much bigger than its present troubles. And Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, because he is hilarious and brilliant and just seeing the jacket cover makes me smile.
What are you reading now? What is next to be read?
I’m reading Anna Burns’ Milkman. Next on my list is The Cat and The City, by Nick Bradley, which is a fellow BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.