Graham Norton has been a mainstay of British entertainment for so long that it's hard to imagine him doing anything else. Talkshow host, radio presenter, the BBC's Eurovision Song Contest frontman and RuPaul's Drag Race UK judge, he is known for being quick, empathetic and outrageous – and for relishing nothing more than a good dirty anecdote.
But Norton is also the author of three novels, and it is a surprise to discover how quiet and restrained they are, how far removed from his outre public persona. His most recent, Home Stretch, which has just been published in the United States after its appearance here last autumn, and which begins in a close-knit Irish community in 1987, is his most personal yet.
The book is about how the tendrils of pain from a single incident can extend far into the future, but it's also about fleeing your home because you don't feel you belong there, as Norton did when he left Ireland in the early 1980s. And it's about what it's like to return much later, when both you and the place have been wholly transformed.
Graham Norton demonstrates an expertise in the art of personal deflection. He won't discuss his domestic arrangements except to suggest, cheerfully, that he has an active social life. 'I'm not lonely – let's put it that way'
"Irish books are so often about leaving, or about going back, or about staying," the 58 year old says. Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, he is speaking from the house on the Cork coast that he bought some 15 years ago. Although he also owns several properties in England and New York – "I'm chronically overhoused," he says – he has spent many months in this house, not far from where his mother and sister live, during the pandemic.
Norton is just as playful and energetic talking by video as he is on television. He answers questions forthrightly and candidly but demonstrates an expertise in the art of personal deflection. He won’t discuss his domestic arrangements except to suggest, cheerfully, that he has an active social life. “I’m not lonely – let’s put it that way,” he says.
The main character in Home Stretch, Connor Hayes, bears a double burden: responsibility for a horrific car crash that killed three people, and his status as a gay man in an era when homosexuality in Ireland was both a sin and a crime. He moves to England and eventually to New York, becoming part of the great Irish diaspora. When he returns, years later, the book’s threads begin to weave together into a story of change and growth.
Norton was born Graham Walker, taking Norton as a stage name later. Like Connor, he grew up gay in a small town – in his case Bandon, in Co Cork – and, like Connor, he slipped away when he was young, flying to the United States with about $275, or €230, in modern exchange rates and a vague plan to move to Los Angeles. But his week-long all-you-can-travel bus ticket ran out when he got to San Francisco, and he lived for a time in a hippie commune, eventually making his way to London. His sexuality was so evident that he never had to come out.
“I was a fey young boy, quite camp,” he says. As for his parents, he says they were mostly relieved that he was secure in his new life. “This thing they worried about had happened,” he says, “and the world hadn’t ended, and life went on.”
In 1991 Norton had a breakout success in a one-drag-queen comedy show called Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Grand Farewell Tour, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Acting roles followed, then radio slots and guest-hosting TV stints, and by 1998 he was the host of So Graham Norton, the bawdy late-night talkshow on Channel 4.
There were sex toys; there were crank phone calls; there were audience confessions. During one show he and Cher cold-called the proprietor of an American balloon-fetishist website, who educated them in the myriad erotic possibilities of rubber balloons. Another time, Dolly Parton shimmied out wearing a leather waistcoat and tie. “I dressed like a boy for you,” she said.
The current iteration, The Graham Norton Show, on BBC One, is less raunchy than the earlier one, although guests are still allowed to swear and tell dirty stories, of course. Norton knows when to talk but also when to keep quiet and let his guests talk to each other.
If I had been writing books in my 20s, they would have been glib, cynical, harsh and funny in a kind of smart-arsey way. Now that I'm telling stories in my 50s, there's more empathy
"He's very intuitive about his audience, and he has a great deal of empathy with his guests," says Graham Stuart, who has been working with Norton since his early TV days and is the managing director of So Television, their production company. "He trained as an actor, and when artists come on they feel they're with somebody who is not trying to talk about himself or show that he's funnier than they are."
Even old Hollywood hands seem to regard the show as a place to let their hair down. "This is the most fun I've ever had on a talk show," the actor Matt Damon said during a memorable 2014 episode in which he, Bill Murray and Hugh Bonneville, rolling in directly from the premiere of their film Monuments Men, proceeded to drink large amounts of champagne and get increasingly merry on the air.
In addition to his three novels, Norton has written two memoirs. He writes them himself, without a ghostwriter. “I think at the heart of everything that Graham’s done – and I include the wildness of our early shows – it’s about intelligence, emotional intelligence and personal intelligence,” Stuart says. “In terms of writing, I have never been surprised by what I read in his novels. He’s cultured and literate, and he reads a lot. He’s a very funny man, but he doesn’t have to be funny all the time.”
In the acknowledgments in Home Stretch, Norton thanks “all the people who stayed in Ireland to fight for the modern, tolerant country it has become”. The book was meant at first to be about family reconciliation, but as it took shape it also became about the transformation of a nation. “I realised that he was going to come back and see this new Ireland,” Norton says of his main character. “For a lot of people it’s sort of bittersweet. You enjoy it, but you think, Wow, I could have been part of this change.”
His own reconciliation with Ireland, Norton says, came about in part because of the way his family’s neighbours stepped in to help when his father died. “When I was a young kid and someone died, and everyone was going around to the house with the beer and cake and sandwiches, I would have thought, Leave them alone,” he says. “But when I was older I thought, This is amazing. When they come they’re not just bringing sandwiches but stories about your father, and you’re seeing a fully rounded human being.”
Home Stretch is a different sort of book than the one he would have written as a younger man. “If I had been writing books in my 20s, they would have been glib, cynical, harsh and funny in a kind of smart-arsey way,” Norton says. “Now that I’m telling stories in my 50s, there’s more empathy and more of a willingness to understand how characters can do certain things.”
He is intrigued by the notion that a story can continue after the storyteller closes the book. But he also likes a happy resolution, he says, and wanted Home Stretch to conclude not with revenge or punishment but with redemption. “I thought, This has to be about forgiveness,” Norton says. “It’s the only way the story can end.” – New York Times