Barney Norris’ writing process: ‘it’s important to be receptive to unexpected influence’

Award-winning playwright and author Barney Norris won The Critics' Circle and Off West End Theatre Awards for Most Promising Playwright for his debut full-length play Visitors. Here, he talks to his editor, Alice Youell, about his days spent writing, and his new book The Vanishing Hours.

Author Barney Norris

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I wish there was one! I'm trying to become more structured in the way I work. In the last year I've started treating weekends as sacred, for example, because life is actually more important than work in the end – but the demands of freelancing, particularly theatre freelancing, mean that my weeks tend to be pretty varied.

A year ago my wife and I moved to Crystal Palace and bought our first flat, and I have a shed now where I keep all my paperwork and do all my writing. So I try to shut myself away in there with a cafetière and write whenever I can, really. Sometimes with the dog in tow (we have a Border Terrier called Steve), to give the cat a break from him, and sometimes on my own – he's only 11 months old, so he's not the most chilled out character right now!

The shed has allowed me to be more systematic because I've never had a dedicated space before – I wrote bits of Five Rivers in graveyards, bits of Turning For Home in hospitals – and I just really love having one. I've painted it my favourite colour and built bookshelves out of old attic floorboards and hung pictures around the shed that connect me to all the important places in my life – pictures from Wiltshire and Hampshire and Sussex and Oxford and Sligo and Northamptonshire, which is more or less my personal constellation.

As I'm going through life, I'm becoming steadily more aligned with Ted Hughes in the way I see the writing process. I do think there's an element of magic to it, and that stories are really spells, and I do find therefore that when REAL writing happens – those moments when a story actually coalesces, when the work of getting all the words right comes to fruition – that tends to occur in very strange unpredictable moments. I've just adapted The Remains of the Day, and my first draft of that was pretty stodgy – but I worked out how to do it as my wife and I were leaving the house to go for drinks with friends and had to delay us to draw pictures on the back of an envelope of the shape I wanted to make. My new novel, The Vanishing Hours, was almost entirely written one night while I was crossing the estate where we used to live to go and buy a pint of milk. So it's important to be receptive to unexpected influence, not to let a regime shut that out, I think. 

What are the experiential/emotional/inspirational differences between novel writing and playwriting?

I'm not really consciously aware of any difference. They're sort of like motor skills, it's quite hard to explain them. I just write the story. I think structurally, my stories tend towards particular shapes because of my theatre background – I was so amazed when another writer you edit, Jan Carson, told me last year that novels are allowed to complete movements and then start new ones, unrelated episodes that are linked by common characters rather than tonal or structural continuations of the previous sequence. I don't think I've ever done that in anything I've written and I find it a thrilling thought! I'm a pretty new novelist and still feel like I'm learning enormous amounts about how stories work and being changed by that. So in a decade or five, if I'm still allowed to write and I still feel like I have things to say, I may be working very differently. 

What advice would you give to first-time authors trying to create their own masterpieces? Is there anything you wish you’d known before you started writing?

'Masterpieces', Youell! If anyone's out there trying to do that, I'd probably urge them to get over themselves! But to engage with your point more seriously – I really valued watching a documentary last year called The Defiant Ones. It's the story of how Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre came together and, ultimately, came up with Beats headphones. Which sounds awful! But the meat of that story is fascinating. Iovine talks a lot about great artists being absolutely unwilling to sign off their work – impossible to satisfy and determined that something better might be possible. I loved this. My own tendency in the past has been to be pretty quick with my work – words come quite easily, so I can produce a lot of them in a short time. But this documentary has changed the way I approach stories. Now I always go over everything I'm working on, asking, why is this not enough? How can I make this better? What is missing? I want to work myself harder than anyone else works me, and be dissatisfied. When I watched The Defiant Ones, I thought about the people I really admire who I've worked with, and a lot of them have been very demanding, often difficult people. And there's a cliché about difficult artists being that way because they've been indulged, but I don't believe that any more. I think being very, very demanding – of other people, but overwhelmingly of yourself – is actually an essential function of excellence.

Where did the idea for THE VANISHING HOURS come from?

As I mentioned, it came to me very strangely. I was popping to the One Stop and it was raining, and I walked under some trees, and suddenly I saw the shape of the whole story. Not the details, necessarily, but the essential shape that I was going to write. (I think stories are essentially architectural before they're anything else.) So I got back to the flat as quickly as I could and got that down on paper, and then when the time came to write it I just worked to fill in that structure with life.

Did you find it easier or more enjoyable to write one character over the other in THE VANISHING HOURS?

Is it very strange to say that when I'm writing a book, I don't really notice that kind of differentiation, because the only character I'm really conscious of writing is 'the book'? Whose character is comprised of different facets that are often different voices, but whose totality is a single voice, a single impression, a single image, I think.

You often write from the female perspective – does that take more effort and imagination, or is that a rather unsophisticated assumption?!

The glib answer is to say that I tend to just imagine women are people too, and then makeup what they'd do in the situations they're in on that basis. But that hides a multitude of issues – as I'm someone who has never experienced the unconscious biases, prejudices, sidelining and so on that women do experience, and I’ve never done lots of things that women do every day. So I feel that as a general rule, there are great swathes of experience that need deep thought before a male writer can responsibly represent a female character. My thing, though, is that I don't particularly feel like I write 'men' or 'women' – I write specific people, often people I know very deeply and very well, and I don't particularly gender the voices. I just try to articulate the people I know.

Leading on from that, do you tend to begin with characters, or ideas, when you embark upon a new project?

I think the two are relatively indivisible, but I think the structure, the architecture, is the beginning – it's just that nearly all my fictional ideas are about people because for me stories are about people, so the 'idea' and the 'character' come hand in hand.

How do you find the editing process? Do you dread it or enjoy it, or a bit of both perhaps?

I enjoy it. It's the best way of really working yourself hard, to come back to The Defiant Ones. I like the way other people can see where you've got tangled and help move a story forward, and I like the respect built into the way we engage with writers, the right I have when I want to, to say no to a change, to stand or fall by my own decisions. It's a very collaborative process because everyone has the right to say no.

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