Barney Norris is likely to be a familiar name to serious theatre-goers already. Still only 28, he won the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright for his first full-length play, “Visitors”, which both the Guardian and Evening Standard named as one of the best shows of 2014. His follow-up play, “Eventide”, received a similar accolade from the Times in 2015, the same year he was named as one of the 1,000 Most Influential Londoners by the Evening Standard. It would be fair to say, then, that his début novel Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain (Doubleday, April) arrives burdened with a certain weight of expectation. He can undoubtedly tell a story on the stage, but on the page?
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is set in Salisbury, the small but perfectly formed cathedral city on the edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, eight miles from Stonehenge. The title of the novel is taken from Salisbury’s unusual geography; five rivers meet there and flow on in the form of the Avon. This geographical feature also provided Norris with the structure of the novel: five characters whose lives intersect in the aftermath of a serious car crash in the centre of the city.
Five Rivers . . . unfolds as each of the five characters takes it in turn to narrate their story. Rita is a sixtysomething flower-seller with a stall in the market and a chequered past which includes drug-dealing, broken relationships and an estranged, though much- loved, son. Sam is a grammar-school boy who is falling in love for the first time, and he is also dealing with the loss of a parent. George is an elderly farmer grieving for his late wife and their lost life together. Alison is an army wife, used to moving around the country at the whim of her husband’s employer; with her husband away and their only child fast growing up at boarding school, she is desperately lonely. The fifth character is Liam, a security guard who walks the perimeter of Old Sarum [the original town] at night with just an Alsatian for company. They tell their individual stories of love, grief and regret, but also appear—sometimes fleetingly, sometimes more substantially—in each other’s stories.
Norris, who grew up in Salisbury, says: “I wanted to draw a map of the place through people.” The novel is, he hopes, “an evocation of what is extraordinary about ordinary life . . . and the way that our ordinary days are amazing. It’s about the way the hidden currents of life draw together into something symphonic no matter how random they might seem at the time.” In a review of one of his plays, Time Out commented on his “talent for polishing the ordinary, buffing it up with a damp cloth until it shines”, and in Five Rivers . . . this talent shines through. He articulates his characters’ feelings of love, grief and regret so beautifully, and the result is a very moving read.
Sitting in a café in south-west London, Norris himself is an ebullient presence. He explains that Five Rivers . . . began as a vignette or sketch of the schoolboy who would become Sam: “Four or five years ago, I started writing a story about this boy who was falling in love for the first time, and losing a parent at the same time. That story found its way to my agent, Laura Williams [at PFD], who basically said if we chuck it away and start again completely, and do all different words, then maybe it will be okay. Haha! So the process from there was very practical, the growing of a story: how do we make this a piece of work that fills a book? One that can ‘hit the back wall’, in theatrical terminology.”
Norris’ use of the pronoun “we” rather that “I” is telling; to his surprise, he found writing a novel to be “an amazing collaborative process” rather than the solitary endeavour he had anticipated. “Having come from the theatre, where everything is collaborative and the whole point is that everyone contributes and it’s just one of you doing the pen-holding. I thought book writing might be a solitary exercise, but actually the first thing you do is you set your ego aside and get willing to get kicked in the head by your agent and then later by your editor. You realise that by subsuming your ego into this larger project—which is, ‘let’s make a piece of work that matters’—the work gets better.” He thinks for a moment, and adds: “And you constantly play draft tennis with people . . . so it’s collaborative and, yes, quite tennis-based.”
Collaboration has been a crucial part of Norris’ success to date. He co-founded his touring theatre company, Up in Arms, while still a student at Oxford. The company consists of a core team of four “who make the work”—Norris refers to “making” a play rather that “writing” one—who in turn employ a bigger team for each production. After the huge success of “Visitors” and “Eventide”, they are now working on a revival of Robert Holeman’s “German Skerries” for the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. His passion for making things up stretches all the way back to secondary school in Salisbury when, on the long solitary walk to school, he would “do characters all the way in . . . make them up and do voices”. He had early ambitions of becoming an actor: “I fell at the very first hurdle but I loved that experience of becoming someone else.”
Of his characters in Five Rivers . . . he says: “I don’t think I can ‘be’ people who I haven’t, some way or other, met or experienced or synthesised. And when you do know them a little bit, and you know what it’s like to have lived that kind of life—not personally, but you have experienced people who have lived the kind of life that Rita’s lived or that Alison’s lived—then feeling what they might feel is the pleasure of it, really. Putting yourself in their headspace and then trying to represent them linguistically.”
Norris fits in writing around his theatre work. He has a two-book deal with Transworld and has already started on the second. He also found the time to write a non-fiction book, Bodies Gone: The Theatre of Peter Gill (Seren, 2014), about the Welsh theatre practitioner, and has plans to move into film. He tends to work on different projects simultaneously. It sounds incredibly difficult, but he says: “I think that’s good. At least, I persuaded myself it was good early on because one must pay one’s rent and actually if your choice is, ’do I write three things at once, or do I get a café job?’, then don’t ever dare complain about how hard writing is, because actually a real job is much more tiring than having to come up with another story.”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 12th February 2016.
Picture: © Jay Brooks