Barney Norris’s latest novel is a lyrical and affecting examination of love, life and the stories that shape us. Ed, a man in his early thirties, meets Amy, a girl he saved from drowning years before. This encounter, coupled with a family tragedy, causes him to question the direction of his life and how his own history, and that of his family, has influenced it. Norris is an award-winning writer of both fiction and stage plays.
Tell us a bit about Ed and where he is at in life in the opening of this book.
At the start of Undercurrent, Ed is entering a moment I think many of us pass through. He has built a life, he is leaving his youth, and he does not feel any more certain or settled than he did ten years before. He is asking himself “Is this it?” and knows he doesn’t want to answer in the affirmative; but he doesn’t know how to go out and get more from life.
That, for me, has been a strong post-pandemic energy for a lot of people I know – a desire to review and renew and live more deliberately. But it’s always been present in people, and I’ve certainly always written about the difficulty of living deliberately and the desire to do so, the desire to be really “awake” in life.
There is a lot about family in this book and you also explored family and family history in your recent play We Started To Sing. How are this novel and that play connected and what was your motivation behind exploring the theme of family?
These projects are separated because Undercurrent is a fiction, whereas We Started To Sing was an exercise in creative autobiography and closer to life (not that it made any claims to be real life, but I didn’t create any characters!), but my fiction has absolutely always woven new stories from real experience, so there is a connection. I think stories are responses to life, ways of processing life, so real life is always in them if they’re any good.
I think I explore family because it’s central to the identity of everyone – who we come from goes such a long way to shaping who we are in one way or another, doesn’t it? My aspiration would be that the stories I write might be of some use to some of their readers or viewers in thinking about their lives, and reflecting on how they want to live. To do that, my stories have to touch on the things that matter, and family is one of those.
In the acknowledgments of this book, you say that you have “borrowed from” your family to tell this story – and your recent play was based on your real family. What responsibility did you feel to telling “the truth” as you saw it in both the book and the play? Is it hard writing about people you know so intimately?
This is a very deep subject we could talk about for weeks! The challenges of my recent play receded in Undercurrent because I was making the characters up (they’re palimpsests of real people), but actually, I think fictional characters might be harder to write, because they could do anything and be anyone. How to narrow that possibility down to a single life? In terms of my responsibility to the truth – this is very important, but objective truth is probably only achieved by a chorus of voices telling their truth, I think. My truth, the way I see things, is very important to me, but I wouldn’t pretend to it being “the truth”. That will emerge gradually, if all of us are encouraged to start speaking our lives.
There are many stories in this novel. How do stories about our past shape us, do you think? Does it matter if we know what is fact and what is fiction when we hear these stories and pass them on?
I think all stories are made out of language and are embroiderings. They all become fictions over time. The emotional or moral truth of them sometimes gets clearer as they are planed away to the fundamentals of good storytelling. In answer to your question about how we’re shaped by stories – I think that process is fundamental and total. Our lives are made out of stories. Who we are and what we do is a reflex of the stories we tell about ourselves. So the profound importance of novels is to ask readers – what is the narrative architecture of your mind? What would you like it to be? What stories are your lives a product of and is that OK with you, are your instinctive reactions emerging from the stories you want to place at the core of your life? Because we can all rewrite them – that’s absolutely possible. We can tell new stories and live by those, with enough hard work and self-examination.
The nature and meaning of home is another theme in the book. What does home mean to you?
This, for me, is tied to my relationship with faith, as well. I’m in a kind of dance with ideas of faith and home that cause me much agony, but do motivate all my work. I think I am a writer who celebrates how wonderful life is and how meaningful life is as it passes, or tries to. So home might be memory for me, I don’t know. Because that is where that wonder resides. Home is the glory of consciousness and the glory of being on this planet, but the way that organises around concrete places, people or events is a protean and complex dance.
Is there a difference between how you approach writing a play and how you write prose? Do some ideas present themselves as better suited to a particular format?
I do find different stories suit different media, yes. And I also am learning slowly about where my voice sits within those media, because almost every book or play ever, I couldn’t have written. I can do the little scope of work I know how to do, and try to learn from all the other writers who know how to do different things. Prose and drama are connected by rhythm for me. I write rhythm above all else. I don’t know whether I’ll ever settle into just one medium. I hope not. I am very privileged to get to work in several.
What are you working on next?
There are lots of pots on the boil, always: plays and films and novels and essays. I worry about saying what they are, because then when no one wants them, I will look a fool. But I am very fortunate to have many different projects to work on and explore, going from one to another trying to work out where my talent might lie, where my voice fits best.