Author Howard Norman sitting on his front step.
Though author Howard Norman has long called the D.C. area home, he’s best known for novels that examine how the intersections of love and violence play out against the stark backdrop of Canada’s maritime provinces. But his latest book is a memoir examining how strange — and sometimes violent events — have shaped his own life. That includes the murder-suicide committed by the poet Reetika Vazirani while she was housesitting at Norman’s Chevy Chase home in 2003, ending her own life and that of her 2-year-old son. Jonathan Wilson sat down with Norman at his current home in Northwest D.C., where they talked about moving past such incidents, and about writing, teaching, and living in nation’s capital. Following are highlights from the interview.
On not being able to write in D.C., even after living in the area for more than 25 years:
“All these books have been written in Vermont. A couple were completed out in Point Reyes, where I go every year in California — maybe one out in Halifax. But essentially it’s a matter of the displacement of the imagination. I travel to the Maritimes of Canada — you live, you eavesdrop, you absorb the atmosphere, the history, and then you research in archives obsessively, and then go back to Vermont and displace the imagination by writing about Nova Scotia. That displacement of the imagination does not work for me here [in D.C.]. And rather than just brood about that, I’ve just sort of embraced it.”
Focusing on the impact of violence in his novels:
“One thing I do feel very strongly is that Washington, like most American cities, is a place of murder. Just statistically, you are surrounded by homicides; you are surrounded by violence. In my novels, I tend to isolate an individual act of violence framed by a landscape — a perhaps deceptively pastoral landscape — and so one is allowed then to focus on the actual repercussions of an individual murder.”
Processing the murder-suicide that took place inside his home in 2003:
“The memoir is less about particular incidents than it is about sort of arguing against the idea of a convenient notion of closure. I don’t believe in it. I think that things that will stay after you — you love somebody, they’re no longer in your life; it doesn’t mean that you’ve shut them out. A violent incident happens… it may keep reinstating itself in some ways that are unpredictable. It seems to me that certain incidents in one’s life have a kind of inventiveness or perseverance and keep coming back around in various forms or another, and the idea is to kind of, maybe, transmute those into writing.”
[Music: Frostbit by Oddisee from Odd Seasons / "Pay Attention" by Bexar Bexar from Haralambos / "Wild Weekend" by The Ventures from 60s Rock Instrumental] Collection, Vol. 2]
AUDIO EXTRA: Norman reading a passage from his memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place.