Tell me about your latest book and why we should read it?
See You in September is about Cassy, a student who goes backpacking in New Zealand. She’s just broken up with her useless boyfriend when a van full of friendly people give her a lift and persuade her to visit their home, which turns out to be an idyllic lakeside community. She only intends to stay a night but they are so very kind and hospitable, so one night becomes two, and then a week. Little by little she’s seduced by their way of life and the charisma of their leader, Justin. Meanwhile her parents back home are frantic to rescue her from what they see as a destructive cult. Will they succeed, before Justin’s predicted Last Day comes to pass?
You should read it because (I hope) it’s a rollicking good story about new religions and cults, the appalling tragedies they can cause and the techniques they use to recruit, and is set against the gorgeous backdrop of New Zealand’s Rotorua Lakes. Also because I sweated for two years to research and write the thing! I ended up going to an isolated cottage, vowing not to leave until the first draft was finished. No phone, no internet or sign of human life – just cliffs, waves and brilliant night skies. I think I went a bit nuts – ended up talking to the sheep – but it worked.
Also I was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer during the writing process, as well as losing my mother to alzheimer’s, so it was written at quite a thought-provoking time personally – and perhaps for that reason it feels special to me.
If someone was to write your life story what would the title be?
Pull your socks up. My teachers used to mutter these words at me all the time, and they meant it both literally and figuratively. Later when I was a barrister I was notoriously scruffy and once went into court wearing mismatched shoes. I battle with being disorganised to this day, though I do try hard not to let it spoil my life or that of my family.
What’s the strangest fan question or request you’ve received?
I don’t want to embarrass or hurt anyone’s feelings, so let’s just say that people often want me to write their life stories. This happens quite regularly – they confidently assume I’ll be desperate to spend a year or more turning their past into a novel. Of course people’s stories are often extremely interesting and I’m more than happy to hear them – but that isn’t really how fiction writing works!
If you could co-write with anyone in the world (alive or dead) who would it be?
There are so many candidates but I’ve settled on Bill Bryson. He has a brilliant mind and is one of the funniest men on the planet. How could working with him not be a blast as well as making me into a better writer? And let’s face it, with his name on the jacket the book would be bound to sell, so there would be no call for my usual mid-novel ‘this is bilge, everyone is going to hate it’ paranoia.
Tell me something nobody else knows about you (yet!)
My eldest brother, Stephen Norman, is an author too. He’s had a fascinating career in the world of finance but has now turned to writing and his debut novel, a cyber thriller called Trading Down, it was launched on 9th November. Okay so I’m biased, but I bet this is going to be a cracker.
Finally please recommend 3 books that you have recently read and tell me why you’ve chosen these.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, a writer and surgeon. This is non-fiction but it’s a must read. It’s about growing old, about end of life care and how we handle it as a society. I know this topic might not sound too appealing but I promise it’s not depressing, it’s fascinating! This is a conversation we all need to have, and Gawande explores it with wisdom and insight.
For something completely different, how about After You Left by Carol Mason, which I read a few months ago (actually I listened to the audio book, does that count?). It’s about the choices people make when they get to a crossroads – lost loves and regrets, betrayal and loyalty, memories and dementia. I think most of us sometimes ask ourselves ‘what if …?’ After You Left explores that question in a warm, human way. A beautiful book.
I’m a fan of John Grisham, so when I picked up Sycamore Row (sequel to the brilliant A Time to Kill) I knew I was going to be getting lost between its pages. And how right I was! The story starts with the suicide of a very rich, elderly white man – he hangs himself from one of the sycamores on his own land – and in a handwritten will he’s left 90% of his estate to his black housekeeper. His family are furious – and so the battle begins. This book is vintage Grisham: a great courtroom drama with vibrant characters (some of them utter bastards), a dark mystery and very strong message – but I can’t tell you what that is without being a spoiler.
Who is Charity Norman? Charity Norman was born in Uganda, the seventh child of missionary parents, and brought up in successive draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. After several years’ travel she became a barrister in the North-east of England, specialising in crime and family law, and later in mediation. In 2002, realising that her three children had barely met her, she took a break from the law and moved with her family to New Zealand. Her debut novel Freeing Grace was published in 2011. After the Fall (Second Chances in Aus/NZ) followed in 2013 and was selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club. The Son-in-Law was also published in 2013. The New Woman was published in 2015 and was selected for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club (The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone in Aus/NZ).