Charity Norman is a writer you should add to your must-read list. I have reviewed her novels Second Chances and The Son-In-Law here on the blog – both moving, insightful family dramas that leave you pondering their moral messages for days after you read the last page. Her publicity likens her style to that of Jodi Picoult or Joanna Trollope. I’d agree that her work covers similar emotional terrain to those popular authors – families, relationships, emotional upheaval and redemption – but Norman’s impressive writing style is all her own. She has a fascinating life story, too, having been born in Uganda then raised in the UK as a vicar’s daughter. She eventually became a criminal barrister, specialising in family law before sea-changing with her family to rural New Zealand. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask Charity Norman a few questions about her life and writing….
An interview with Charity Norman
You seem to have great passion and insight when it comes to complex family dramas. Is this something that’s always been close to your heart, or is it perhaps born out of your experiences as a barrister?
Delighted you think so! Always, I think. Quite a lot of my childhood was spent in inner-city Birmingham. My mother taught young people in remand homes, and my father was a vicar. Every day – sometimes at night, or Christmas day – people in deep trouble, homeless or with mental health problems would come to our door. My parents respected each one of them and helped in numerous ways, and we children were expected to do the same. Of course that meant we met some colourful characters. It was a marvellous upbringing, especially for a writer. I learned very early on that everyone has a story.
One of your great skills as a writer, in my opinion, is the slow reveal of character nuances that signpost where the story itself is going. I found this particularly effective when it came to Joseph and Zoes relationship in The Son-In-Law. How much do you know about your characters before you start writing? Or do you build them as you go?
Thanks! I try to get to know the main characters before I write, or very early on. I’ve failed to do this in the past and got into a real mess. So before I start the book I do a lot of research into whatever issues it is they’re facing. I go for walks and think about them. I also write short character sketches, giving them a history and personality. I also think about their physical characteristics: how they look, how they dress, and how they behave: do they have little habits, or verbal tics? There again, once I’m actually writing the book, characters have a habit of going off on a frolic of their own. That’s fun, but it can wreak havoc with my plans.
Your stories are increasingly having an impact around the world. I note that you’ve had a title change in one case. Does the potential international market shape your writing in any way? Do you need to translate aspects of the legal system, for example, for different markets?
As you’ve spotted, Second Chances is After the Fall in the UK, though the book itself is identical. The French publisher chose to call it Secondes Chances. But I haven’t shaped my writing for the international market. I just write the stories and hope people will want to read them.
So far your books have been set in the UK and New Zealand the place you grew up, and your adopted home. I note that youve travelled widely are there any other places or landscapes youd like to explore as story settings?
There’s also Freeing Grace, part of which is set in Kenya. Jake finds Deborah winning a game of chess at a campsite on a beach near Mombasa. I met my husband on a lorry in the Sahara desert, and we ended up … yes, you guessed it: camping on a beach near Mombasa. We played a lot of chess. Now you mention it, I would like to explore other landscapes in future stories. Malawi, for example. Or Israel, or maybe the Cook Islands. Hmm, you’ve got me thinking. There again, I’d have to revisit the places, which could prove expensive!
I note that you work as a counsellor these days, amongst your other commitments. Between this and your legal work, you must have encountered your share of tragic stories and complicated people. Something I love about The Son-In-Law is the way it details just how complicated are the emotions surrounding something like a murder. So often we take these things at face value (or base our opinion on media sound bites) without acknowledging the complex stories that sit behind the headlines. Do you see your writing as being educational about the nature of crime and punishment? Or is it perhaps therapeutic for you to draw on some of the situations you’ve encountered and get them out on the page?
Interesting question. I don’t think the writing’s therapeutic in that sense, and to say that I see it as educational sounds awfully bossy! It’s just that I love exploring the way we humans tick, and always wonder what’s behind the sound bites or media headlines – that’s why I began Second Chances with a newspaper article. We, of all the animals, have the most developed language, and yet we regularly make a mess of communicating with or understanding each other. We are good at demonising those we feel have wronged us or broken the rules (I do this too – I’m as capable of vilifying the school bully as the next woman); but in my experience there are few truly evil, irredeemable villains in life. I find all this fascinating, so wrote about it in The Son-in-Law.
Charity Norman’s latest novel is The Son-in-Law, published in Australia by Allen & Unwin.