The chatshow host on his new novel, his pride in appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race and why Ireland is in a sweet spot right now

Observer New Review Q&AThe chatshow host on his new novel, his pride in appearing on RuPauls Drag Race and why Ireland is in a sweet spot right now
Sun 25 Apr 2021 04.30 EDT
Broadcaster and author Graham Norton, 58, grew up in County Cork. He moved to London to go to drama school, before becoming a standup comedian. His TV breakthrough was in the sitcom Father Ted. His BBC chatshow began in 2007 and has won five Baftas, while his Virgin Radio show is broadcast on weekend mornings. Norton has commentated on the Eurovision song contest since 2009 and is a judge on RuPauls Drag Race UK. His third novel, Home Stretch, is out in paperback this week.
Home Stretch traces the fallout from a car crash. Was it based on a real-life incident?Its based on a whole phenomenon. Every summer in Ireland, there are these crashes of cars with too many young people in them. Sometimes, there might be drink involved, but often its just reckless driving and the confidence of youth. Because its a much smaller country, these stories make the national news and what I noticed was that often the driver survived. That was my starting point I thought, what happens to that life? Its hardly begun but its blighted by this awful tragedy.
The central character, Connor, has to leave Ireland to find happiness. Did you?I think so. Not everyone did, though. Thats why I dedicate the book to all those who stayed and made Ireland the extraordinary modern republic that it is today. I certainly saw my life happening somewhere else. That wasnt just about sexuality but also wanting to be an actor. I didnt know how to do that in Ireland. Back then, Fiona Shaw was the only person I knew of whod ever done it. That was the only roadmap I had, so like her, I went to UCC [University College Cork], then drama school in London.
Would you still want to leave Ireland if you were growing up now?I think Id still want to get off that small island for a bit. But maybe Id go back sooner. I didnt start returning until my late 30s, so missed a whole chunk of Irish history. My experience of going home is great. The place looks and sounds the same but now it has this openness. Irelands in a sweet spot right now. You sense young peoples pride in this country that they lobbied for, carried placards for and created.
Whats the difference between writing gay and straight sex scenes?There isnt one really. Its a balancing act. You dont want to be too graphic Im always aware that my mother is going to read them but not too coy either. I often reread those scenes, go Eugh! and delete a few adjectives. Nobody wants to be nominated for a Bad sex award. Although its telling that sex is so difficult to write about, they invented an award for it. There isnt a bad grief award or a bad love award.
Its a cliche that the Irish have storytelling in their blood, but do you think its true?Theres something in it. What Ive noticed is that in Britain, people like to know someone in a story so its either celebrity gossip, a neighbour or someone at work. They like to be somehow invested in an anecdote. In Ireland, we do not require that. We dont care if its about your brother-in-laws school friends old boss. As long as its a story, were there for it. Irish people talk in a different, more random way. Its like birdsong. Often, it doesnt have much meaning we just enjoy making the sounds.
Ru Pauls Drag Race was the only job I ever went a-looking for. What the queens do is awe-inspiring
Was there a particular book that inspired you to write fiction?I first wanted to write novels in my late teens I loved Lorrie Moore, Paul Auster, a lot of Americans but back then, youre busy. Youre either out, studying or working long hours as a waiter. I look at young writers such as Sally Rooney and think: Where do you get the discipline to sit still for that long, at that age, crafting these brilliant novels? Its only in my 50s that Ive got time to sit down and tip-tap away. When I was young, I was far too gallivanty. Is that a word? It is now.
Did you read much in lockdown?Like lots of people, I couldnt concentrate at first. Just when I finally had the time, reading seemed beyond me. But then something clicked in my brain and I ended up reading loads. Apeirogon by Colum McCann was terrific. A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson was a beautiful thing. I also loved Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan.
Did you take up any new hobbies?The opposite, if anything. I previously enjoyed cooking but got really bored by my own food. It became like: Jesus, when I can stop? Meh, Ive made this before. I couldnt wait for restaurants to reopen.
Were you happy with your Covid-safe chatshow during lockdown?Initially, we did a terrible back-bedroom series that nobody liked, but it was a way of keeping people employed. Since autumn, weve been back in the studio in various socially distanced ways. Its funny the glimpses that guests give us of their house over Zoom. Some celebrities looked like they were being held hostage in a bunker. Others were happy for us to see their grand pianos and rolling lawns.
Which guests are still on your wishlist?Julia Roberts has never been on. Neither has Brad Pitt. The young royals would be interesting.
You recently had a voice role in Pixar film Soul. How did that come about?I got a call out of the blue, went to New York for a recording session and it was genuinely one of the most fun things Ive ever done. Sweetly, they treated me like a proper actor, not some hopeless amateur. When they didnt re-voice me or cut me out, I was thrilled.
Perhaps they heard you were the new Fiona Shaw.Thats me. Fiona Shaw wasnt in Soul, was she? No.
Eurovision is next month. Looking forward to it?Im both excited and nervous. Ive heard its being staged as a test event. Being in a Rotterdam arena with 4,000 people before Ive had my second jab will be quite something, but bring it on.
Norton with (from left): Alan Carr, Michelle Visage, AJ Pritchard, RuPaul and Curtis Pritchard on Drag Race UK. Photograph: Guy Levy/PA
RuPauls Drag Race UK was a lockdown hit. Are you proud to be part of it?Pathetically proud. Id been a fan for years and its the only job I ever went a-looking for. When I heard the show was coming over here, I mustve been a bit drunk because I emailed the producers. They claim I was on their list anyway. What the queens do is awe-inspiring. As a judge, you only ever see them on the runway, so its not until the series airs that I see them as boys. Its such a shock: Wait, thats Bimini?
And its a chance to wear your more flamboyant suits.Oh Jesus, it gets worse. In lockdown, I wasnt able to go out and buy anything, so I was really scrabbling around the bottom of the dressing-up box. Youll see some really rank suits in the next series.
Whats in the pipeline for you?Im supposed to have embarked upon novel four a month ago. I havent started typing yet, but its bubbling away. The TV show comes back in September, hopefully with a live audience. Its been kind of fun without them you feel giddy, like your parents are away but you miss that energy and instant response.
Do you worry for the comedy scenes recovery after the past year?Its been so hard for all the performing arts. Comedys lucky because you can get it back on its feet relatively easily. All you need is a mic and some chairs, so hopefully that will bounce back fast. Its theatre I really worry for.
Does criticism of the BBC annoy you?Its the public broadcaster, so its always going to be under scrutiny. I just wish it would defend itself more robustly. Our commercial stations are only as good as they are because theyve got to match the BBCs standards. When you go abroad and watch terrestrial TV, its shockingly bad. By getting rid of the BBC, youre essentially signing up for jaundiced news and terrible programming. Thats sad. One day, well look back at the BBC and wonder how we were manipulated by vested interests into losing this great thing.
Home Stretch is published in paperback on 29 April (Coronet, £8.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply
We will be in touch to remind you to contribute. Look out for a message in your inbox in June 2021. If you have any questions about contributing, please contact us.