"A thick New Zealand accent is inherently funny. I think it brightens up any story." Author Matt Suddain talks to Graham Norton about Creativity, Kiwiness and his new novel, A Keeper.
The problem with interviewing Graham Norton is you feel like your time is running out from the moment you arrive.
I've got a whole hour with him in a room at our London publishers. There's coffee. Croissants. Tasteful flower arrangements, Thames views. He's the perfect host, as you'd imagine.
"There's pastries, too? Do you take sugar?"
"Just black, thanks."
I'm officially here to chat about his new novel, A Keeper, but we're straight into the celebrity gossip — specifically, Paul McCartney's recent scandalous admission that he once got into a homo-erotic eggplant squeezing contest with bandmate, John.
"Why would he admit that?" Norton wonders. "Was he drinking heavily during the interview?"
It was risky sexual behaviour, I think. It could've broken up the Beatles.
"Yes. I'm kind of dreading him coming on the show now," (no pun intended, I'm sure) "because it's bound to come up . . . He'll have to talk about it for the rest of his life."
That's his legacy?
"He thought it was gonna be Let it Be, but no."
I last met Norton during an old-fashioned media scrum: 15 international journalists crammed into a room at ITV Studios. It sticks in both our minds because a journalist from TV3 decided his question would be: "Do your dogs watch the show?"
"Oh yes! It was like … did you see the Kavanaugh hearings? This is to appoint a US Supreme Court Justice, and one of the Republicans asked, 'How come you use a thick Sharpie instead of a thin one?'"
It seems to me that the Kiwi character is very doglike: we're loveable, loyal, like the outdoors and sometimes perform heroic deeds.
"Yes. They're also very good at telling stories, that's why they end up in the red chair all the time. It's weird." Norton's TV show features an audience participation segment where people try to tell an interesting story while sitting in a chair that could tip them out at the pull of a lever. He thinks our chair domination is partly the quality of our stories, partly our shamelessness.
"People sitting in that chair know the show is going to be shown in New Zealand, yet they somehow think: 'This won't be seen'." But it also has a lot to do with our accent.
"A thick New Zealand accent is inherently funny. I think it brightens up any story. People are already laughing before any story happens."
Of the non-chair Kiwis on the show, Sam Neill made an especially good impression.
"Lovely Sam, what a nice man. For some reason Twitter has made a huge difference for Sam. Before Twitter … well, you probably all knew he was funny and nice, but the rest of the world had no idea."
We actually had no idea either.
"Oh really? I just assumed everyone in New Zealand knew each other. But he was terrific on the show, I'd have him back any time."
I have to get to what I came here for: his second novel, A Keeper. It tells the story of a woman returning to Ireland after her mother's death to discover a cache of letters which point towards a dark secret in her family's past. It maintains two parallel narratives. The first, set in the present, tells of daughter Elizabeth's discovery; the second, set 40 years earlier, tells her mother Patricia's harrowing story of a personal ad gone wrong.
So did you write the book with a thick Sharpie or a thin one?
Norton laughs. He's a good laugher; he's also emerging as a pretty good popular novelist. His writing is lean and wry and his stories draw inspiration from his Irish roots. Patricia's story was the germ of a tale his mother gave him years ago.
"She told me this story about the daughter of a friend who was doing a lonely hearts column and responding to a farmer. And what happens with the letters in the book, happened to her. So that bit's true."
What's interesting is how universal are these characters. This book could have been set in New Zealand with very few changes. There's something archetypically weird about provincial life.
"I think it's the isolation. Things go on. My mother's aunt had a specially knitted cover for the phone."
"A phone cosy?"
"A phone cosy. How is the phone going to feel the cold?"
It's this provincial eccentricity that he finds intriguing, " … and there's also the sheer amount of stories — it's probably the same in New Zealand — that thing where I go for a walk with my mother and every house we pass has the beginnings of a novel in it. It seems to me more odd things happen to people in Ireland, per capita, than most places."
Secrets seem to be the central theme of Norton's fiction.
"It's something that's real, I think, and it's probably the same in New Zealand. If there's a way you can get away with not sharing your family scandal, why on earth would you share it? But also, these are books, they're stories, stories need secrets, something needs to unfold. Otherwise you just have a dull, modern novel."
… Where anything can be solved with a cellphone.
"Exactly. 'But why didn't you just call someone?'"
The hour flies by. There's still so much to talk about.
"Oh, just make it up," he says, "I won't challenge you. You're a fiction writer."
We haven't even talked about wine.
"Uhhh, still love wine," he says, "it's all good."
So that's a relief. I wanted to ask him about Kiwi winemakers InVivo, official supplier of wine to The Graham Norton Show. They're the largest equity crowdfunded company in the Southern Hemisphere, now they're looking at an IPO.
"Really? I didn't know that. I must have shares in that."
To be exact, 0.8 per cent share.
"That's great! What am I doing here writing these stupid books!"
Because you love the craft.
"I do love the craft, I love writing. This is the weird bit: the media stuff. Being in a room writing books is lovely."
I couldn't agree more.