INTERVIEW – Gregory Norminton

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Q: The Devil’s Highway is your first novel for ten years. What was it about this story that inspired you to write it?
I have always wanted to write about my home landscape – by which I mean the landscape of childhood, ‘the happy highways where I went / And cannot come again’. For me, this was the pinewoods and damaged heaths of Bagshot, in northwest Surrey. These sombre acres cover a large area, by southern English standards, and are pretty much unsung. All we had to do was put on our hiking-boots, walk out our front door (tracing the same route as characters in my novel) and trudge our way into the bracken and gorse, pines and sweet chestnuts that seemed to await us. Perhaps it’s because my parents were keen historians that we had a sense of the place’s human history. The largest of the firebreaks is a Roman road – colloquially, the Devil’s Highway – and north of that stands the vegetated hump of an Iron Age hill-fort. You walk on sand in Bagshot, your feet kicking up the remains of an Eocene sea. There are flints everywhere, the raw material of Stone Age culture. With a bit of imagination you can sense all the places this one place has been over time. I think more than anything it was this sense of past and present fusing that wanted to make itself felt in my novel. And of course, once you have a sense of timescale, you realise how imminent the distant future is, and you try to imagine what it might be like, what traces of our time will survive there. I’ve been thinking and reading and worrying about climate change for thirty years, and loving a place as combustible as pine forest and heath leaves you wondering about its chances in the hot world we are creating.

The three stories of the novel – winter under Roman rule; spring in 2011; summer a few centuries from now – evolved separately, and the links between them only suggested themselves to me as I worked on them. Into the future section, ‘The Heave’, I poured all my fears for the world to come. In the Roman section, I tried to put meat on the bones of my childhood conjectures about the ancient heath. The contemporary section was the hardest to work out, as it was closest to personal experience. That narrative changed radically over the course of two total rewrites. The changes consisted of my acquiring distance; so the archaeologist figure went from being central to peripheral, and peripheral characters took centre stage. However, this is wandering from the point of your question. What inspired me to write the story? A stone I found on the heath. It has odd markings on it that might be ancient or might be the work of a bored soldier out on manoeuvres. I bequeathed that stone to my characters, and it sits now on the bookshelf in front of me.

Q: Have you changed much as an author over that time?
A lot has changed in my life (salaried employment – I teach creative writing at Manchester Met – marriage, fatherhood, bereavement), so it seems inescapable that I should have changed as a writer.  I think my prose is less baroque; I wouldn’t describe it as plain, but more concentrated. My second novel, Arts and Wonders (Sceptre, 2004), is five-hundred pages long, and I have neither the energy nor the desire to sprawl like that. The Devil’s Highway took me years to write, and it spans 3000 years, but it is just over 200 pages in length, and that seems right to me.

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Creatively, the decade that separated my fourth from my fifth novel was a period of crisis. My first novels came out at a boom time for publishing and I was one of its beneficiaries. However, the journey from promising first-timer to disappointing mid-list author is a short and well-trodden one: unless you win a prize or get a film or TV adaptation, market forces pretty much guarantee that your stock will fall. And when global stocks fell in 2008, the big publishing houses cast off their loss-making authors and I felt my self-confidence evaporate.

Luckily, I found a refuge in two of the small presses – Vagabond Voices in Glasgow, Comma Press in Manchester – that are the underfunded glory and best hope of British publishing.

Vagabond Voices and Comma published my short stories and enabled me to keep a sense of myself as a writer. I also wrote a bit for BBC Radio and took on translating work. In 2011, when I got the teaching job in Manchester, I waved goodbye to the independence, but also the monthly cash-flow crises, of the freelancer. I like teaching and having colleagues. I may have less time and energy to write, but I have the freedom from necessity that allows me to write as I please.

Nothing in this story is unusual. In my twenties, I wrote more from books than from life. Now, I feel able to draw more intimately on my experiences – although I tend to do so obliquely. I have fewer ideas now but a stronger sense of the stories I want to tell.

Q: The new novel has a very distinct sense of place, a sense that it’s important to be connected to, and care for, your environment. Do you think that this message is particularly resonant at the moment?

I do, and it’s only going to become more resonant as the effects of climate change hit home. We don’t realise, on the whole, how much the continuity of a place matters to us, how consoling it is to feel, as people have for most of history, that however short our lives may be, the world as we knew it will outlast us. Whereas on current trajectories, many if not most of us will have to suffer the psychological dislocation of abrupt changes.

The forest fire, the flood, the hurricane, warp familiar views and landscapes. What had seemed constant proves, because of us, mutable, and that mutability casts us out of the familiar.

I think the intuition of what is coming operates as a kind of anticipatory grief. The least we can do is to encounter and cherish the places that made us, as we cherish those we love and can only expect to lose.

On a less terrible note, I think a revival of interest in nature and place writing is a reaction against the virtual. I feel it – this deep hunger for reality, for an embodied and creaturely life instead of the dopamine-hooked spiritual drought of online chatter. 

Q: Of course, it’s set in an area that many people might dismiss as a relatively uninteresting part of the commuter belt. What was it about Surrey Heath that made you set your novel there?
I fear I’ve anticipated this question. The blunt but happy truth is that, in Britain at least, there is no such thing as an uninteresting place, only places that one hasn’t explored. There are thousands of local amateur historians who, out of parochial curiosity (I use that adjective approvingly, by the way), devote themselves to documenting their local patch. And you only have walk with an entomologist or a botanist to get an inkling of the ecological narratives that play themselves out independently of our psychodramas. Ultimately, I wrote about Surrey Heath because it was where, almost by chance, my mother and father chose to raise a family.

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Q: The book covers three very different stories, which seem superficially almost unconnected. To you, what is the thread running through the novel that binds the characters?
I’m wary of interpreting what I have written, because in a sense that narrows down its potential. That said, there are obvious threads that bind the characters. The first is the place in which they find themselves. The second is the problem, bluntly put, of our appetites and our often dysfunctional search for meaning. The heath for Richard, the archaeologist in the contemporary section, means history and continuity. For the traumatised ex-soldier, Aitch, it means freedom. The conservationist and the dirt-biker are bound to come into conflict over what the land means for them. And these conflicts abound. For the Romans, the land is to be conquered and tamed. For the British boy, Andagin, it is a place of spirits and a means of survival. For the people of the blasted future, the land is the source of conflict between settlers and pastoralists. Anyone who follows contemporary debates about rewilding, or grouse moors, or community buyouts in the Scottish Highlands, knows that questions about what and who the land is for remain as combustible now as ever.

There are other recurring motifs and incidents. Migration and the conflicts it stirs up; occupation and resistance (whether in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Britain under the Emperor Nero); the problem, common to all societies, of masculine aggression, and how easily this is exploited by ideologues. Lastly, there is our relationship with the land and its creatures. Are we kin, or are we enemies? What does it mean to belong in a place, to dwell there? Are we natives, or must we forever be intruders?

Q: A third of the novel is set in a dystopian future world, where slavery and violence are common. Warning or prediction?
Certainly not a prediction. I think any novel – let alone a ‘literary one’ – that sets itself up as a Cassandra is doomed to be as ignored as Cassandra was at Troy. So any climatologists reading the book can spare themselves the effort of setting me right. I took care not to date the future section, in part because the protagonists have no sense of where they are in relation to the twenty-first century. They inhabit the same place as the rest of us, Now, but without any sense of history, and so their world is both of the future and archaic. That said, I took care to inform my futurological guesses, to set myself up as the Ghost of Heathland Future. ‘If these shadows remain unchanged,’ and so on. So I extrapolated from present trends to imagine what conditions might exist centuries from now. I had fun dragging Mediterranean fauna and flora across the English Channel. I had less fun reading about conflict in Darfur and the desperate plight of migrants attempting to cross to Europe. These are the real-world consequences of climate change and societal collapse – the future that is, pace William Gibson, already here but unevenly distributed – in which I attempted to ground my speculation.

It’s problematic, this writing the future. Not least because it brings to the fore a conflict in myself between the writer and the citizen. As a citizen not quite ready, even in the age of Trump, to give up on society, I dislike the pessimism that is a close, unwitting ally of predatory delay. We may well lack the societal and spiritual tools to save ourselves, in which case slavery and violence are all that awaits our descendants. But this doesn’t mean that we haven’t a sacred obligation to try. And the negative glamour of dystopia cannot motivate us to take evasive action. I look at my own novel, which revels perhaps in that negative glamour, and the activist in me is quietly dismayed.

Q: To me it seemed one of your inspirations was Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. What other novelists do you find influence your work?
I kept trying to run away from Riddley Walker, until at last I realised that I couldn’t and I didn’t need to. It’s an inescapable novel. That voice takes hold of you, if you let it, and its cadences and humour scratch a groove in your brain. Better known novelists than me have paid imitation’s homage to it: Will Self in The Book of Dave, David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, Paul Kingsnorth in The Wake. The trick, when composing what is after all a variant on Anthony Burgess’ Nadzat, is to hear the voice, to achieve a kind of consistency with it. Once you do that, it’s like tuning in to a frequency. That applies to the reader, too. Either it rewires you, or you resist it and feel excluded. So it’s not surprising that the futuristic section of my novel has been the most divisive for critics.

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Riddley Walker

The other major influence on The Devil’s Highway is Alan Garner. I didn’t read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child – which is when Garner hooks most of his devotees. Instead, I came to his later novels – Strandloper, Thursbitch – in my thirties, persuaded that I was missing out by my friend, Dougald Hine. Notions of deep time with humanity on its surface, the idea of landscape as memory but also capable of memory – these themes, in Thursbitch in particular, really resonated with me as I was starting work on my novel. And Red Shift, with its three interwoven narratives, the Roman and the Early Modern and the contemporary, is obviously influential. It amazes me that Garner remains a cult writer rather than a canonical one, but then I suppose that says everything you need to know about the Oxbridge English value system. It is blinkered to what shines on its periphery.

So Hoban and Garner were big influences on The Devil’s Highway. But my influences have changed according to the book I’ve been working on. My next novel may prove quite different from anything I’ve written, if you exclude the odd short story. I hope to tell the history of a marriage, backwards, from the death of the widow to the first meeting. It will be domestic and intimate, and funny I hope, and the writers who are exemplary for my purpose are Penelope Fitzgerald, Carol Shields, Hilary Mantel. I suppose it’s similar for composers. You immerse yourself in sound worlds that are akin to the one you hope to create.

Q: Who are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations for our readership?
Right now, I’m reading Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, because I’m toying with the idea of writing a haibun travelogue using travel diaries I kept when filming a TV series on conservation in 2005. I read mostly contemporary fiction with side dishes of history and natural history. From the last category, I’d recommend the work of Philip Hoare and John Lewis-Stempel. Philippe Sands’ East West Street shook and absorbed me. I felt like I’d time-travelled and trespassed on the life of Andrea Dunbar when I read Adelle Stripe’s novel Bright Teeth and a Brilliant Smile. I could go on but that’s enough for now.

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Q: There’s a game I like to play where you identify two books by different authors, written at different times, that should be read together. For example, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Owl Service. Any suggestions?
Oh goodness. I’ll try this: The Inheritors by William Golding and The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace. Both attempt to imagine our prehistoric ancestors. For what it’s worth, I think Jim Crace is our most interesting male novelist since Golding. Like Golding, he writes far from the mainstream yet is widely read. Not many novelist get to bridge that gap.

Q: STORGY hosts a lot of short stories and holds competitions for aspiring writers. Do you have a best piece of advice you’ve received as a writer? Do you have any advice you’d offer to aspiring writers, in particular with regards to short story writing?
You don’t need me to offer writing tips: that’s what Twitter is for. I have two rather glib axioms, though.

1) Read lots of books. Then reread them.

2) Consider the reader but remember that your primary duty is to the story. If you try to second-guess what will be popular, what you write will probably be second-rate (though it might still sell).

Q: I note from your biography that your mother was French and your father is Irish. Do you feel this background gives you a different viewpoint on the UK?
It’s more complicated than that! My maternal grandmothers were Francophone Belgians, my maternal grandfather was French and my paternal grandfather was born British, to an English father, in Dublin before Independence. My father in turn was born in Caracas, just after the war, and though he sounds as English as I do, he was only a British subject, rather than a citizen, until the 1990s. It’s tempting to claim special status as an insider-outsider, but millions of Brits are mongrels like me. That said, growing up bilingual, with a proudly French mother, in a deeply conservative part of England does incline you to view the world with a certain scepticism. I feel English but also European. Prime Minister Rees-Mogg will doubtless have me interned in the early 2020s.

Q: In The Devil’s Highway there seems to be a pre-occupation with the impact of violence, the ripples it creates, which I find interesting given you are a Quaker. Would you say that this has influenced the way in which you write about issues such as aggression?
Quakers are pacifists, as is well known, but integral to Quaker thinking about violence is the recognition that we all capable of it. We are also bound up in systemic violence. Quaker abolitionists understood this. John Woolman, back in 1763, testified:

“May we look upon our treasure, our furniture and our garments, and try to discover whether the seeds of war are nourished by these, our possessions.”

Today, if you buy clothes made by sweatshop labour, if you drive a car, if you cook with gas or buy plastic products, you are – we are – contributing to exploitation and injustice. It’s incredibly troubling, and incredibly difficult to decouple our lives from these cycles of violence: ecological violence, economic violence. This is a concern of my fiction generally. I don’t have answers, but Quakerism has helped me to ask some of the right questions.

Q: You’ve published a book of aphorisms. Do you have any favourite ones our visitors can steal and pretend they came up with?
It would be the height of pomposity to cite my own, but here are two that resonate.

“I know what I have given you, I do not know what you have received.”

Antonio Porchia

“Whale to the ocean, bird to the sky, man to his dream.”

Don Paterson

Q: Describe The Devils Highway in a sentence?
A Roman road, an Iron Age hill fort, a hand-carved flint, and a cycle of violence that must be broken.

Q: Always a difficult question, but what is your favourite book and why?
It’s a difficult question because the answer changes over time. I’m not even sure I have a favourite book. But my Desert Island Book – I’ve daydreamed about this in the bath – would be The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. It’s a gloriously diverse anthology, a poetic atlas, that we used at school and that I’ve turned to regularly ever since.

Q: Are you currently working on anything at the moment; and what might we expect from you in the future?
Well, there’s that tropical travelogue I mentioned earlier. I also have a few short stories simmering. I want to finish the script for a planned graphic novel. And then I need to make a start on my next novel. Mostly though, you’ll find me on Twitter, raging at the world.

 

Interviewed by Joseph Surtees

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The Devil’s Highway is available to purchase from 4th Estate here.

You can read our review of The Devil’s Highway here reviewed by Joseph Surtees.

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