Graham Norton has been a saucy mainstay of British entertainment for so long that it is hard to imagine him doing anything else. Talk-show host, radio presenter, Eurovision Song Contest frontman, 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 outrÃ© public persona. His latest, Home Stretch, which begins in a close-knit Irish community in 1987, is his most personal yet.
The book, which HarperVia is releasing in the United States on Tuesday, 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.
"Irish books are so often about leaving, or about going back, or about staying," Norton, 58, said.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, he was speaking from the house on the country's south coast that he bought some 15 years ago. Although he also owns several properties in England and New York ("I'm chronically overhoused," he said), he has spent many months in this house, not far from where his mother and sister live, during the pandemic.
The main character in Home Stretch, Connor Hayes, bears a double burden: responsibility for a horrific car accident 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 County Cork " and like Connor, he slipped away when he was young, flying to America with 200 British pounds (about $275 in modern exchange rates) and a vague plan to move to Los Angeles. But his weeklong 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 said.
As for his parents, he said they were mostly relieved that he was secure in his new life.
"This thing they worried about had happened," he said, "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 a bawdy late-night talk show.
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.
After the canned formality of American talk shows, it is a delight to watch bits from Norton's programs through the years, even if the current iteration is less raunchy than the earlier one. (Guests are still allowed to swear and tell dirty stories, though.) Norton sits in a chair, and the guests cram together on a red sofa, often chatting with each other as much as with the host. Norton knows when to talk but also when to keep quiet.
"He's very intuitive about his audience, and he has a great deal of empathy with his guests," said 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."
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 said. "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 realized that he was going to come back and see this new Ireland," Norton said 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 said, came about in part because of how 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 said. "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 said. "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 said, and wanted Home Stretch to conclude not with revenge or punishment but with redemption.
"I thought, 'This has to be about forgiveness,'" Norton said. "It's the only way the story can end."
Sarah Lyall c.2021 The New York Times Company