Denver Lawyers’ Arts and Literature Contest: Nonfiction Writing Winner Charles E. Norton
Tell us more about your work. What was the inspiration? What techniques did you draw on? What do you like about this work?
My inspiration came as much as anything from the process of growing older, and coming to understand my parents and their lives from a much different perspective than I had when I left home to go to college or even when they passed away, in the mid-1990s. I think that for much of my life I took my childhood for granted; I certainly viewed it as a wonderful time, but I didn’t really consider that I had been given the opportunity to be exposed to two truly exceptional people and the old Colorado that my mother had known was passing from the scene.
The works of nonfiction that I admire most build emotional impact and power through a wealth of small details that give the reader an insight into the subject’s character. Biographies of famous people always contain narratives of the big things they did; what proclamations they signed, or battles they won, but the reader is often not given much of a portrait of who the person actually was. Robert Caro is a good example of a different kind of biographer; his books about Lyndon Johnson give us real insight into where Johnson grew up, the insecurities he faced as a child, all of which tell us a great deal about what kind of president he became.
What I like most about my essay is that it tells the story of two people whose story would otherwise not be told. I am very grateful for the opportunity to let many more people know who my folks were. Part of this is an outgrowth of my political philosophy, and my increasingly strong conviction that the United States is a country whose story cannot be fully told simply through the biographies of the great women and men who have furnished leadership in politics, business, and the arts, but instead must be understood through the lives of ordinary individuals in all walks of life.
How did you become interested in writing? What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
As far back as I can remember I have been interested in writing; it was a direct outgrowth of my love for books. I would spend a lot of wonderful time in the summer just reading what I wanted to read. One summer, I undertook the project of writing an account of my cat’s life, patterned after Joy Adamson’s book, “Born Free.” I am afraid that while Tammy was a great cat, her life was not quite as interesting as that of Elsa the lioness, so the project expired after a week or two.
Why did you become a lawyer? What do you enjoy most about the profession?
I was torn between becoming a political science professor and becoming a lawyer. The job situation for Ph.D. graduates in political science in the mid-1970s was not good, so I opted for law school instead. One of my political science professors had taken his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and so he strongly suggested the law school there. It was a great fit for me; it allowed me to get terrific technical training while still pursuing a liberal arts education in many ways.
I very much enjoy research, writing, and oral appellate advocacy. I also love the breadth of the experiences that I have had. If I am ever inclined to envy my law school class mates who do mergers and acquisition litigation, for example, I ask myself if they have been able to represent an outfitter for back country horse expeditions being sued by a rancher for not paying rental on a string of horses which the outfitter contended had a skin disease and were not fit for the intended purpose. The case was tried in the old territorial court house in Fairplay and we had a full view of Mt. Silverheels the whole time. While I love New York, I wouldn’t trade that experience for all the courts of Manhattan.
Art and lawyering seem to draw on very different skills and different parts of the brain. How do you think being a lawyer helps your art, or vice versa?
I suspect that this question was intended more for folks in the visual arts than for writers. I think that nonfiction writing (or fiction, for that matter) about general subjects really helps legal writing, and vice versa. I think all nonfiction writers are ultimately trying to persuade the reader to see reality in the same way that they do; the great nature writers like Thoreau and Edward Abbey, for example, were convinced that if we all came to see the natural world as they saw it we would all become defenders of nature. Great legal writing is not simply technical; it is persuasive and it has to appeal to the heart as well as to the mind.
Tell us briefly about your background as a writer and as an attorney.
I graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1980 and I have been practicing law in Denver ever since. If I really have a specialty (which I think my colleagues might question) it would be in trial and appellate advocacy for local governments and private parties who have claims against local governments.
I have written almost entirely for my own pleasure and for limited audiences. I’ve written a history of my church, Capital Heights Presbyterian, as well as a piece about the Children’s Fountain at City Park, which was published in neighborhood newspaper. I also keep up a lively correspondence with friends about politics, religion, and the arts.