Author QandA The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman Uncategorized

QandA with Charity Norman

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.

Book Reviews The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman Uncategorized

Book Review: The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, Fiction

7.30 am London. Not long before Christmas. A cafe called Tuckbox. A young man with a gun enters and a nightmare begins. Charity Norman explores what happens next in her sixth novel The Secrets of Strangers.

The story brims with suspense and energy, full of bubbly language that feels cosy and comfy even when we’re reading about violent and terrifying events. Norman writes characters with incredible depth – the people in her books fizz with detail. She wants us to see them as though they are real, believe in them. Her last novel, See You In September, was shortlisted for the Best Crime Novel at the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards for Crime Fiction, and Second Chances was a Richard and Judy Book Club Choice in the UK, so if you haven’t read any her books yet, and you enjoy fiction with a gripping plot, you need to remedy that.

The Secrets of Strangers moves quickly – short chapters lending the narrative a strapping pace. The main characters are introduced one by one – Neil, a former teacher now living rough; Abi, an ambitious solicitor on her fifth round of IVF; Mutesi, a carer from a nursing home having breakfast with her grandson; Eliza, a copper working as a negotiator; Rosie, a waitress. Although Norman now lives in New Zealand, the characters feel distinctly British. At times I thought it felt like a PG version of the Bodyguard television series with the original King of the North, Richard Madden. But less sex, and less violence. Although there is a dead body on the floor for most of the book, he’s mostly ignored, and sometimes I forgot he was there.

Secrets do abound in this book, not least the ones Norman keeps from the reader: Why is Neil homeless, what is the tragedy in Mutesi’s past, why doesn’t Abi tell her husband she’s taken a pregnancy test, who is Rosie, who is Nicola. Who is Sam? Why is he holding these people hostage?

These secrets, these hidden pasts, are often referred to in the story – we find out the horror of Mutesi’s past in Rwanda, we hear about Arthur’s lucky absence from the tube station in Balham that was bombed in World War II, an event that also featured in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Norman reminds us constantly that our present selves are not always what they seem: past trauma is often hidden away, and we should be gentle in our appraisals of others.

The short chapters lend the story a pace that feels hectic and out of control, much like a hostage situation must feel like to the people involved. With each chapter change, and sometimes within a chapter, the character point of view switches, and we’re lifted out of one person into another with a speed that gives a couple of characters short shrift. It does give the novel the quality of a film, with quickly shifting camera angles. I admire Norman’s astonishing ability to throw many balls into the air – and catch them. There’s not one loose thread, not one idea or tangent that isn’t followed up on, and this thorough plotting is more difficult than it looks.

Later in the book, Mutesi speaks about the power of the radio. We hear Abi’s partner Charlie speak on the radio playing in the cafe. I thought of the radio in All The Light We Cannot See; of Serge Carrefax, born to the noises from the first wireless stations in C by Tom McCarthy; of Hinemoana Baker’s new collection of poetry Funkhaus, that takes the German word funken – a transitive verb meaning signal or ‘ to radio’ – and I think of the power of words. Words that travel along lines, in radio waves, words that we hear whispered into our ears. Sam finds a sense of peace when he tells his story to Eliza. He says it is the first time he feels heard. The first time someone truly listened. And I suppose that is all anyone might want, too: to speak and be heard. To feel a connection to others; to find community. To be supported by those people, and not hurt by them. The Secrets of Strangers offers us a glimpse into a tragedy that leads to friendship, with strangers that we might otherwise have passed by on the street.