The Sundial Press


An Interview with ROGER NORMAN



What's the first book you remember reading?

The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. It's a lovely title and still a pretty good story, after half-a-century.

Did you enjoy school? What is your most vivid memory of your school years?

After the initial shock, I really liked my prep school years: the best friends of my life, a sense that the sun was always shining or about to and it didn’t matter much if it weren't. My years at a public school I didn't enjoy, but I wouldn't want to blame the school for that. Like most places, it was what you made of it. 

What were the first pieces of writing that you produced? e.g. short stories, school magazine etc.

Poems, from the age of 20 to 30. Lots of them at one period. A tape survives somewhere, read in a solemn, sonorous voice, as if something important were at stake. Was it? It seemed so at the time.

Did you always want to be an author? If not, what did you originally want to be and when and why did you change your mind?

Pretty much always. No serious rivals.

Who were your role models? Which writers have influenced you the most? Who do you most admire and why?

Among living writers, the American Cormac McCarthy, especially Blood Meridian. Among the dead, too many to list, but here are some: John Cowper Powys, Mervyn Peake, JRR Tolkien, Dylan Thomas. Most of the great Victorians - Eliot, Hardy, Dickens, Stevenson, Kipling.  Melville for Moby Dick and Dostoevsky for everything. Pre-nineteenth century: Swift for the unique, magnificent Gulliver's Travels and the wisdom of the King of Brobdingnag, and William Blake for the short lyrics and the grand incomprehensible visions. Will Shakespeare because in every one of those endless lists and contests … who was the greatest this, the greatest that … he's the one name who is always there, which makes you think that you haven't quite dinged the Bottom yet.

What's the greatest influence on your writing?

All of the above plus Henry Miller, William Faulkner, Carlos Castaneda… whoops! How did he creep in there? Everything was looking nice and predictable, Leavis's Great Tradition plus a handful of Big Americans and now up pops one of the prophets of drugs n' mysticism. But he's got to be there. Journey to Ixtlan, Tales of Power, The Second Ring of Power: superb storytelling, two or three utterly memorable characters, marvellous goings-on. I can't think of a better writer of dialogue, and some of the action scenes are also terrific.  The drugs are irrelevant after the first couple of books, and the last couple of books are also irrelevant. Among Sci-Fi writers, I like the veteran Jack Vance, inventive, spare, intriguing. Among children's books: The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, The Earthsea Trilogy and Edward Lear's Nonsense, a powerful and enduring influence.

Where do you write?

At my own desk in the very early mornings, with nothing on the desk but the notebook and the fountain pen. Even the bottle of black ink should not intrude on to the desk itself. Nor the shorter OED, Roget, Oxford Quotations or Cobham Brewer, but these are allowed to be adjacent, obviously. The following books are normally within reach, for purposes of exemplary moral support: John Cowper Powys' autobiography, the complete poems of William Blake, the Tao te Ching … well, one could go on, but one won't. The view from the window is mostly walls, not very picturesque but it reminds me that I'm better off (apparently) than Bartleby the Scrivener in Melville's great tale.

Name your favourite literary hero and villain.

'Hero' strikes a gong from the past. I find myself choosing between Sir Alan Quartermain, Sir Richard Hannay, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, 007 and Philip Marlowe. Poirot's the first out, I'm afraid, on account of the way he blows his nose. Hannay and Quartermain were just what was needed in their time - manly, decisive, generous, brave etc - but their time went, around the age of thirteen. Sherlock Holmes is admirable, essential in fact, but he is not likeable. He is a dry, egotistical sort, irritatingly right about everything. You do not like him and you are not supposed to. The creation of this vain, unlovable know-all, with his pipe and violin and his habit of 'springing up' from his chair to consult a large tome was Conan Doyle's great achievement. Not the stories, most of which, at the third or fourth reading, are dull or incredible, but the man. His rooms, his landlady, his long smokes and sullen depressions and the way in which he opens the door (springing up from his chair), his turns of speech. 'And that, if I'm not mistaken, Hastings, is his foot upon the stair …'

Bond played by Connery is still almost in the running, but Philip Marlowe wins it by a head. Tough but tender, wonderfully observant, and capable of describing an entire mansion its grounds and its occupants (not forgetting the make of car in the garage and the character of the chauffeur) in three lines. 

There's one other 'hero' who needs a mention, the British Consul in Mexico City in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. There is a scene in which His Majesty's Representative remembers that he has a half-bottle of Tequila (or was it something even more fiery than that?) hidden away in the gardens of the consulate. His journey among the flowers and bees to rescue that little bottle from oblivion is on a par with the great grail quests of Sir Galahad and Sir Pellinore and Sir Steven Spielberg.

Villain? Long John Silver for charming roguery, treachery and deceit. Daniel Quilp (The Old Curiosity Shop) for an ugly, acrobatic vileness, the all-time prizewinner for dense, furious, anti-social tobacco smoking … He carries that weak novel (weak for Dickens I mean) all by himself, he is the charge, the powder, the trigger, the fireworks, when he is absent you zoom through the pages waiting for his return. Among modern novels, the bloated Doctor in Blood Meridian is unspeakably ghastly and powerful, like some awful messenger of Death bearing a message of utter cynicism and despair. 

What is your philosophy for life?

It's something like Jacob's ladder, I believe. I'm reaching for the bottom rung, or perhaps slowly approaching it from far off.

Name your top five favourite books.

OK. I agree to this but not in any particular order and including only novels.

Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, The Return of the Native, Owen Glendower, Gormenghast.  I'm truly sorry that there's no room for Tolkien, but Lord of the Rings is not, strictly, 'a book' and The Hobbit … well, I'm sorry but there it is.

I also wish to add a second list, an alternative list, a 'B' list: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry; A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes;   The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Carey; The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell; The Bridge at San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder; The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West.  

The C-list has Treasure Island, something by Jack Vance, The Manchurian Candidate,  anything by Patrick O'Brien,  Dexter’s  Inspector Morse,  and a couple of  Agatha Christies for when you're ill.

The D-list contains work by Henry Williamson and Richard Jefferies and short stories by Rudyard Kipling, Katherine Mansfield and AE Coppard. In the D-list is some of the finest writing of all.

Name your top five favourite musicians.

Bach sometimes, Van Morrison at others, Dylan and The Grateful Dead for a whole decade, Cathedral choirs, Annie Lennox, Irish folksingers, some of the old sixties and seventies rockers.

What jobs did you have before you started writing and since?

I've really only had one job all along, which is to try and make sense of the universe, and I've made a pretty poor fist of it so far, but I'm still trying. About money-getting, I've found that teaching has a lot to be said for it. You're never bored and you never have to ask yourself: 'Why am I doing this?' The answer is there in front of you. If you stop talking, or performing, or reacting, they'll all go to sleep or go away. But generally they've got to stay, so you've got to too.

If your house were burning down, what would you save?

Once the people were out of it, and the cat, it'd be the two handwritten volumes of Green King, around 400 closely written pages and the only version of this unusual, intriguing, macabre tale.

How do you write each novel, i.e. do you block out the narrative first, take each page at a time, create the central character, build a cast of characters?

I probably need to have around half-a-dozen characters alive in my mind, complete with physical characteristics. If I'm hazy at the beginning about what someone looks like or how they talk or react, I'll probably go on being hazy and keep chopping and changing that person until suddenly he or she is right. So it's best to do that at the start. Once the main characters are there, the story will come. I have some ideas about it, and a few locations probably, but if the characters come to life, there'll be a story there for sure. Thomas Hardy is reputed to have come out of a Dorchester shop looking rather pale one day and asked why answered that he'd just seen Tess. That hasn't happened to me, but I'd like it if it did. Would I rather meet Tess than one of my own characters? Of course, but I wouldn't recognise her, you see.

What personal experiences do you feel have informed your writing? Do you have a connection with or fondness for particular characters or locations?

North Dorset's always been the background to it all, the River Stour, Hambledon Hill, Manston and Hammoon, Cutt Mill, Marnhull, Sturminster. I don't mean that these have to be present in the books, but something belonging to them must be there at some point, at some essential point - a feeling for the land as it was and in some measure will always be. Out of all my walks, there have been two or three that have stayed in the mind, representing part of some longer journey perhaps. Walking from Sturminster to Salisbury with my brother Pete. Walking from Sherborne to Cerne Abbas and back the day that the idea for Red Die was born. Walking from the New Forest to Stonehenge, with William Cobbett in my pocket. I was passed by a long goods train with YEOMAN, YEOMAN, YEOMAN written in bold letters on the side of the trucks and I thought, these are the only yeomen I'll meet today, and that's how there came to be an Edward Yeoman in Albion's Dream, a Jack Yeoman in Red Die and a Louis Yeoman in Green King.

I wrote one novel which has nothing of Dorset, nothing of the landscape, the hedges, the lanes, the farms, the sheepdogs, and it seemed meagre to me somehow. Green King was due to travel to Africa and the Peloponnese when it first set out, but in the event it never made it further than from Sherborne to Bulbarrow.

What is a typical writing day?

I write from four a.m. to around eight and anything after that's a bonus.

What do you do when you are not writing? How do you relax? What are your hobbies?

I've always got a garden going somewhere, often a large one. I grow things. Vegetables and fruit.  I watch a lot of films, English, American, Australian, Italian, Turkish, Iranian, Chinese - pretty much anything except French. 

Where do you live? And why?

In Eskişehir, in mid-Anatolia. This is a medium-sized provincial town known for its large sugar factory, its second division football team and some impressive new law courts. The city is very far from the sea; it bakes in summer and freezes in winter. I think you'll agree that these are sufficient inducements for any wanderer to settle for a while or for good.

What single thing might people be surprised to learn about you?

That I'm settled in Eskişehir.

Have you started your next book? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

And finished it, with the exception of the last chapter (see above, Green King.) It's set in 1877. I have the feeling it may change quite a bit during the typing and editing, but the main characters won't. Louis Yeoman, Isadora Magdalensky, Austin Kelynack, Sergeant Timmins, Francoise, Cuff, the excellent John Biffen and the extraordinary Robin Rovert - they'll still be there. Corvo will be there, too, although I feel that there must be deeper levels to the Milton gamekeeper, and as for Rugg's boy, I don’t know whether to hunt 'im and hang 'im or just let him fall in a deep pond somewhere and lose the thre'penny bits in his pocket. Inspector Bright's already lost his job, and Dr. Hulme is clearly going to lose his, so that's alright. But Rugg's boy definitely needs more than another clip on the ear, and nothing is too bad for Corvo, really. The knives must besharpened for Corvo.  

Roger Norman on:



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