Charity Norman introduces us to The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone.
Luke is a complex character throughout the novel. How did you draw inspiration to create a character with so much depth, angst and most of all, the ability to make a life-changing decision?
I think Luke was inspired by many people, both men and women. At the end of World War II, my father served in the army with James Morris, who later became Jan Morris, the legendary writer. I grew up knowing about her story, and first read her book Conundrum when I was a teenager. Decades later, while volunteering as a telephone counsellor, I often spoke to people who struggled with their gender. Some were living on the margins of society and finding life almost impossible. Around the same time I became friends with an amazing woman who happens to have been born male. She’s been a great source of advice and insight.
The book cover is superb. How much influence did you have over the artwork?
I know! I wish I could take credit for it, but no – not my work. Except for one thing: Late one night I was at Auckland airport waiting for a flight to London. I spotted an email from my publisher, asking What is Lucia’s favourite colour? Baffled, I replied: Lavender – but she knows midnight blue suits her. I arrived in London to the news that they’d tried lavender, and it hadn’t looked right – so blue it was!
What was the hardest part of bringing to life the story of Luke and his family?
Putting one word in front of the other, day after day after day. I knew and liked the Livingstone family, and I wanted to visit them; but writing a novel is a long haul. As with all journeys, there are parts that are stressful, painful – or just plain hard work. Sitting down at that laptop and putting in the hours is the part of writing that most challenges my rather feeble reserves of self-control.
If you could cast Hollywood actors to play apart in the adaptation of your novel, who would they be and why?
If I had a magic wand? Sigourney Weaver as Eilish. Physically she’s almost exactly as I’d imagined her, and she exudes that inner strength. While I was writing this book the wallpaper on my laptop was the British actor Rupert Graves, in his BBC role as Sherlock’s Inspector Lestrade. My children were merciless – Mum, that’s so creepy … you’ve got a crush on Lestrade! I pleaded Not Guilty. Rupert Graves is fascinating, but that wasn’t why I chose to see his face every time I fired up the computer. There was something about Lestrade – something lost but determined, and those dark eyes – that was Luke. In fact, Graves played the lover of a transgender woman in the 1996 film Different for Girls. Oh, and I bagsy Maggie Smith for Luke’s mother, Meg. Obvious reasons.
Did you do much research before writing or was it something that flowed naturally?
I researched for months, before and during writing. I talked to transgender people and their families and friends. I read books, articles and blogs; I watched videos and visited forums. I followed relevant sites on social media, and was kept up to date with stories: some tragic, some uplifting. I thought I had some knowledge before I began, but it wasn’t until the research was underway that I really began to understand Luke’s despair, and the immensity of the choice he faces. I had to be careful not to dump all of that research into the novel – most of it went unused.
Is there a message in the novel you hope readers will grasp and accept?
First, that people who struggle with their gender aren’t a joke, and they aren’t a caricature; many have immense courage and an awful lot to offer to our communities. And perhaps some readers will agree with Luke’s daughter, Kate, when she says: The world isn’t yin and yang. It isn’t black and white, and it certainly isn’t bloody Venus and Mars; it’s so much more fun than that.
Connecting with readers is essential when writing. How do you go about achieving this?
Yes, essential – they’re the reason I write. They can talk to me through my author Facebook page (Charity Norman Author) or on Twitter, where I’m @CharityNorman1. Many have done this, and I’ve had some wonderful conversations and encouragement on those dark days! I also visit book groups and other communities. It’s fun to be able to meet face to face, and find out about their lives. Book groups seem to involve a lot of wine, gossip and laughter – what’s not to love?
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
We’re lucky enough to live in Napier (in New Zealand), one of the loveliest little cities in the world. There are cafes, theatres, bookshops and walks along the coast or inland. I sing with the Cathedral choir, which is surprisingly fun. I bash away on the piano – very badly. I love to hang out with my almost-adult children when they can spare me the time. They’re funny and cynical, a constant mine of new information about the world. Sometimes we light the fire, scoff chocolate and cups of tea, and watch DVDs: Broadchurch, Sherlock or Downton Abbey. Sad, but true.
How are you influenced as a writer?
By everything I read, everything I hear, everything I experience, and almost everyone I meet.
What is your favourite part about writing?
After the first draft is finished, the real fun begins. The characters have begun to come to life, the plot has taken shape, and it’s time to make something of it all. I get quite addicted at that stage.
What is your least favourite part of the editing and publishing process?
It’s during the very detailed, final stage that my head begins to spin. Hundreds of small decisions – a comma added here, an adverb deleted there. After a few hours everything gets out of perspective. Nothing in the world matters as much as that darned comma! My whole career is riding on it! That’s when the family gently steer me away, and suggest I go for a walk.
What’s next for Charity Norman?
I’m well into my next book, which is set in New Zealand and is about a young person entangled in a cult. The research has been chilling, but utterly fascinating. It’s my latest obsession.
Charity Norman’s new book, The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone is published by Allen & Unwin and is now available at all good bookstores and online.
Girl meets boy. They fall in love, and they marry.
For thirty years they share one another’s lives. That should have been the end of the story.
Luke Livingstone is a lucky man. He’s a father and grandfather, a respected solicitor, a pillar of the community. He has a loving wife in Eilish, children who adore him and an idyllic home in the Oxfordshire countryside.
But Luke is struggling with an unbearable secret, one that is close to destroying him. All his life, Luke has hidden the truth about himself – a truth so fundamental that it will shatter his family, rock his community and leave him an outcast.
Luke has nowhere left to run. He must either end his life, or become the woman he knows himself to be – whatever the cost. His family is tested to its limits, as each of them is forced to consider what makes a person essentially themselves. What do you do when you find that your husband – your father, your son – is not who you thought? Can you ever love him again?
A beautiful and dramatic portrayal of a family in turmoil.
Charity Norman was born in Uganda and brought up in successive draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. After several years travel she became a barrister, specialising in crime and family law in the northeast of England. 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 first novel, Freeing Grace, was published in 2010; Second Chances, in 2012 (published in the UK as After the Fall) and The Son-in-Law was published in 2013.