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by Nick Hornby
"I talk to Tony Hawk, and Tony Hawk talks back,” confesses Sam Johnson, the 16-year-old narrator of Nick Hornby’s fifth novel, Slam. Sam keeps a poster of the professional skateboarder on his bedroom wall, and when Sam has problems or general questions about life, he tells the poster about them. The poster responds with quotations from Hawk Occupation: Skateboarder, the Tony Hawk autobiography that Sam has read 40 or 50 times and has largely memorized. In the past, Hawk’s responses have been helpful (if not always entirely on topic), but when Sam finds out that his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, Hawk’s advice doesn’t seem to help quite as much as Sam wishes it would.
Slam is Nick Hornby’s first foray into the genre of the young-adult novel, but Hornby’s readers—adult and young-adult alike—will find that they are not on altogether unfamiliar terrain. All of his novels, including About a Boy (1998), How to Be Good (2001), and A Long Way Down (2005), involve, as he says, “situations where ordinary people living relatively ordinary lives get bent out of shape by something quite momentous.” And many of them orbit around narrators who entertain Tony Hawke-esque obsessions. Hornby’s own fixation on North London’s Arsenal football team was the subject of Fever Pitch (1992), a memoir that put his name on the literary map, first in the U.K. and later in the United States. Another of his passions—pop music—helped to shape his first novel, High Fidelity, in which an indie record-store owner dealt with a recent break-up. (This was the novel that, as the The New Yorker has noted, launched his reputation as “the maestro of the male confessional.”)
Perhaps it is this combination of momentous changes and rich inner worlds that has endowed Hornby’s books with such widespread appeal—every one of his novels has been optioned or made into a film. Or perhaps filmmakers and readers are attracted to his stories’ strong narrative pulse, or the way he balances a difficult situation—depression, heartache, attempted suicide, teen pregnancy—with humor and, ultimately, redemption.
Though he no longer writes about sports, Hornby is still an avid fan, and it somehow seemed fitting that we conducted this interview on the first night of this year’s World Series. We were both in Seattle: he was in town from his home in North London to give a reading that evening at the Seattle Public Library. I had planned to speak with him by telephone and then to attend the reading. But as a Red Sox fan, I was conflicted about having to forgo game one of the series. At the end of our interview, he asked where I was from, and when I replied that I was from Boston, he immediately intuited my conflict. He knew the Sox were playing that night, and he quickly and generously gave me a dispensation. He even went so far as to forbid me from coming to his reading, and offered to cheer on my home team. “I shall be rooting for you,” he promised.
Slam is your fifth novel, and it’s your first time writing a young-adult novel. What made you want to write to a younger audience?
I was never quite sure in the process that that’s what I was doing. I had spoken to an editor about doing a young-adult book at some stage, and when I had the idea for this book, I wondered whether this was the one. It’s certainly about a teen, and I would hope that teens would read it, but I’d also hope that if I had written the book about somebody who lived in Alaska, somebody other than Alaskans would read it as well.
In your recent “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer, you write, “I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of.” Why do you think you had dismissed them? And what have you discovered in this new room?
Well, I hadn’t dismissed them. I just didn’t think about them at all. I wasn’t reading the young-adult reviews in newspapers, and my friends weren’t telling me to read the books, so there was no reason really for me to have discovered them. Pretty much all the books I’ve discovered I’ve written about in The Believer. I just read The Pigman, which I’d never read before. I’m getting up to speed slowly on what’s been going on out there. I keep getting very passionate tips as well, which I’m looking forward to following up on.
From writers? Or from readers?
Readers. Bookstore people. Librarians. On this tour I’ve been dealing with the people who run the young-adult sections of bookstores and libraries, and they have their own particular favorites. There’s some pretty amazing stuff out there.
In this same Believer article, you also talk about the list that the Young Adult Library Services Association makes each year of 10 adult books they think will appeal to younger readers.
Yes, the Alex Awards.
You characterize it as “a list of 10 books that aren’t boring.” You even call them the “Not Boring Awards.” Do you think that a lot of books written by and for adults are boring?
Why is that?
"A Reader's Manifesto" (July/August 2001)
An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose. By B. R. Myers
That’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. I think quite a misguided literary culture has grown up in the 20th century that says a book has to have a seriousness of purpose and a seriousness of language. At the same time, I think this literary culture has developed a mistrust of comedy, and also quite often of narrative. It’s turned novels into something they were never meant to be. They’re read by very few people and talked about by very few people, while vast swathes of the population are kind of vaguely repelled by them.
What do you mean by a mistrust of narrative? On some level doesn’t a novel have to involve narrative?
Yeah, but it tends not to move very quickly in a lot of these books.
By saying that a book or narrative should move at a certain pace, are you saying that one of the main purposes of fiction is to entertain? Should it do that and other things as well?
I think that every book that’s in a bookstore should entertain in some way. That’s the purpose, surely, of trying to organize whatever material it is you’re working with so that it’s readable and digestible, even if you’re writing about the history of the Holocaust. You don’t want to write it so that no one wants to read it, and you don’t want to present the information and the argument in an indigestible form. Nonfiction tends to be better, I think, at this organization. But sometimes I feel that our fiction culture’s become so decadent and lazy that writers don’t think they have to organize anything.
I’ve read that you’ve found American writing to be very important to you and to your development as a writer. How would you characterize that influence?
I don’t find the high-culture, low-culture divide quite so marked in American literature. There’s a more popular strain in American writing, even in a lot of literary books. All the people I discovered around the same time during the ’80s—Carver, Ford, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore, Anne Tyler—they had a strong voice, and quite often a demotic voice as well. There wasn’t that kind of clipped, English, third-person prose bit going on. Obviously, there were a couple of exceptions in England, but most of the time I didn’t want to read a lot of that stuff.
Turning more specifically to Slam, where and how did the seedlings of this story and this narrator first germinate?
It grew out of seeing a teen couple who were parents near where I live. The fact that it wasn’t just the teenage mum of urban legend—that there was a boy there as well—kind of took me by surprise. I thought, He’s not supposed to be here; it’s supposed to be the single teenage mum. So I started thinking about him.
Is this how you typically start on a larger narrative? Does it start with a situation that takes hold of your imagination?
Yeah, pretty much. I think that all my books have started with a situation, some kind of fragment of narrative. Sometimes I can sense that there’s something to it that might develop into something more, and other times it’s just what it is and there’s nothing you can do with it.
Sam, your narrator, is 16. Did you treat him differently as a narrator because he was an adolescent? Were there particular challenges to writing from his point of view?
I don’t think there are particular challenges. I think the moment that you’re writing fiction that’s not about yourself or someone extremely like you then the challenges are the same. In my last novel, there were narrators who were not like me. There were four narrators, and some of their predicaments I sympathized with very strongly, but they weren’t me. The moment you’re using a frame of reference that’s not your own, then it’s hard work, whatever it is.
Did you find it difficult not to want to make your teenage character “do the right thing” under harsh circumstances because you knew that adolescents were going to be reading it?
Like I’m sucking up to them—
Or that there should be a lesson or a moral.
Oh, no. Absolutely not. If a kid read Slam and decided that he didn’t particularly want a baby at age 16, I wouldn’t think that was a bad thing, but that wasn’t the intention of writing the book. In all the books, I’m looking for situations where ordinary people living relatively ordinary lives get bent out of shape by something quite momentous. And having a baby seemed like a pretty momentous thing to me. Obviously, it’s not the same when you’re 35, but when you’re 16, it’s really a big deal. And it’s happening to a lot of kids. I was kind of surprised as I was reading up on the subject by just how many it’s happening to.
A character’s doing the right thing is more about my investment in him—about my willingness to spend time with him over the course of 18 months, or however long it takes me to write a novel. I really don’t want to write about somebody who’s irredeemable. That may well be a weakness in me as a person, but it’s the only way I can get by with a book.
Your novels certainly do have an element of redemption.
For me, it’s really important. I think there are plenty of people writing books where there is no redemption at all. That seems to be another job that contemporary fiction has taken upon itself—to deny people all hope. I find that tough, actually. People work hard, and their lives are difficult enough as it is without being told by some guy who sits around doing nothing all day that there is no hope for any of us.
Something that seems unique and that is very inviting in this novel is its narrator’s voice. Here’s an example: “[Y]ou don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes or whatever to work out that Alicia was a girl who meant something me. I’m glad there are things you don’t know and can’t guess, weird things, things that have only ever happened to me in the whole history of the world, as far as I know. If you were able to guess it all from that first little paragraph, I’d start to worry that I wasn’t an incredibly complicated and interesting person, ha ha.” How do you go about establishing a narrator’s voice? And do you need to establish that voice before you can write anything?
That’s the biggest thing for me. I suppose I’ve come to think that I don’t really write fiction. I write extended monologues that are probably meant to be spoken aloud. I do think of myself as addressing my readers directly through my characters in a spoken voice. But that absolutely depends on being able to hear that voice. All the work that goes into the books before I begin them is kind of waiting for that voice to emerge and speak properly and clearly.
You say that it’s a voice that addresses the reader. Even from this statement, one gets the sense that there’s a certain kinship between the narrator and the reader—that there’s someone that Sam is speaking to.
High Fidelity in some ways had that, I think.
Who is this audience?
I think I do construct an ideal reader or listener. I always seem to think that I’m addressing some quite smart woman in her 30s. I don’t know why.
Even for this young-adult book?
Although you don’t write strictly from the male point of view in all of your books, you’ve garnered a reputation as a writer who can write about the intimate details of the male heart, and its occasional dysfunctions. Do you see Slam as an extension of this subject matter?
It was a little bit like when I wrote High Fidelity. I wanted to write the domestic novel from a male perspective, because I enjoy reading those—especially Anne Tyler. I wanted to write the male Anne Tyler book, and the music stuff came right at the last minute for me. When I was looking around for a job for him, I thought, Well, I care and know about music; he can work in a record store. It was really the last decision. The point of the book, or why I wanted to write it, was to write about the relationship. I didn’t know about the young-adult thing, but when I’d been in a bookstore and had seen all the books, there seemed to be lots of books aimed at girls by women authors. And not so many books for boys by male authors.
In the 2001 interview, “About a Man,” London Times writer Robert Crampton wrote about how your writing followed the trajectory of your own life, beginning with yourself as a young man obsessed with football, then on to someone in a relationship nearing marriage, then about childrearing in About a Boy. I’m not so interested in whether or not the trajectory is true—
Whether I’m going backwards…
Ha. Right. But I am interested in why you think people always ask that question. Why is everyone so interested in speculating about where a novelist’s life and a novelist’s fiction intersect?
I suppose in my dark moments I think it’s an attempt to reduce it somehow, to make it seem less mysterious, and that we could all do it if we could just be bothered. I think there isn’t as much to say about fiction as it’s written.
About the thing itself—
I mean one of the reasons I really love writing my Believer column is that sometimes I only want to say that something was really good and I really enjoyed it. But, of course, you can’t do that if you’re writing about books, because you need to find the other 900 or 1,448 words as well. I do a lot of interviews, and they’re not all like this, where the interviewer is thoughtful and has read the books carefully. The easiest thing to ask is, Why did you write this? Is it because blah, blah, blah?
Maybe the question is supposed to make the story more interesting?
But I think the end result is really reductive. And I never know on what level the person is asking the question. If they’re asking about the autobiography behind the story, I might start to answer thoughtfully, but then they say something like, But which record store did you work in? And I say, Well, I didn’t work in a record store. And I start to get irritated with the literal-mindedness of the questions.
In Fever Pitch, your memoir, there’s the interest—some might say obsession, depending on how you look at it—in the Arsenal football team. In High Fidelity, there’s the passion for music and the Top Five lists. In Slam, the narrator has a poster of the skateboarder Tony Hawk, who the narrator speaks to and asks advice from, and whose autobiography he’s read countless times. You seem to find this idea of obsession good for storytelling.
I do look at it in that way a little bit. It’s funny, I think, to care so much about these things that on the face of it don’t mean very much. So that’s a huge advantage. It always provides opportunity for comedy. Sam in this book is probably different because he’s the only one who’s given away his board by the end of the book. There’s no sign of me stopping going to football, and there was no sign of Rob not having so much invested in music.
It’s hard to write about life directly. Whenever anyone tries to do that, it’s a mistake, by which I mean you can sometimes see a point in a writer’s career where they think, Oh, I’m good enough now. I don’t have to channel it through these little holes. I’m just going to write about the thing itself—life and death and love. That’s the point at which I think their careers tend to come untied a little bit because you can’t look at the sun. You have to slant off somewhere and choose the things that reveal something. Those guy-relationships with those obsessions are very rich in that way.
Humor is clearly a part of your storytelling, although you’re often dealing with pretty difficult issues—depression, suicide, teen pregnancy. How are you able to strike a balance?
It feels like a completely natural expression of personality, and it’s probably safer in a book than in life, where you’re looking for a gag the moment something bad happens and you just piss everybody off, which is what tends to happen to me at home. Comedy and comic writing are really important to me. Comedy is my favorite thing to watch and read, but a lot of times comic novels tend to be very disappointing because you have nothing invested in any of the characters. After a while the laughs begin to wear very thin. Typically, the second half of a novel is just wrapping up a lot of strands of a daft plot that you’re not interested in. I was never interested in trying to write that kind of book. For me the most important thing in fiction is to be able to switch moods. One thing I really hate about the literary novel is its plonking into a groove on page one, and you know there are going to be no jokes for the next 350 pages. You can just tell that from the first paragraph.
Class—and class difference—is important and certainly plays a role—often a humorous one—in Slam.
Yes, particularly in this book. In this book I was more conscious of being very class-precise than in the others, in that there are distinctions between the two characters in the relationship and also distinctions those characters have within their own classes as well. In fact, when I was approached a couple of times about movie rights for this book, I realized this might be the one book that you couldn’t transpose to the U.S. I’d feel much more comfortable with it being set in the U.K. if it were going to be a movie.
Do you find that your books are received differently in the U.K. than they are in the U.S.?
I don’t really read reviews—not at all—but my impression is that everything is pretty much based on sales. I think I was a “literary” writer in the U.S. for longer than I was a literary writer in the U.K. because I didn’t sell as many books here as I did there, but now it’s starting to catch up a bit here, so I’m less a literary writer here.
A literary writer being one that doesn’t sell—
Yeah, the moment you hit best-seller lists, I think the attitude is different. I understand why that is, but it means that you can forget about that kind of reviewing as a yardstick of how you’re actually doing with your books.
You’ve now written three books that have been turned into screenplays. And if I’m correct, the rights to A Long Way Down have been optioned.
And How to be Good.
Why is it that your books translate so well into film?
My impression is that when you talk to novelists, a lot of their books have been optioned, and maybe the options have lapsed or whatever and it never happened. But it seems to me a rare novel that’s had some attention that hasn’t been optioned. So then it’s how come I got some made? I don’t know.
I don’t know whether it’s a quality of the book, or luck, but they’ve all been bought by people who really loved them. They really loved them. They didn’t necessarily think they were films, but they happened to work in that medium and wanted to try to express that love in cinematic form. That’s what they did rather than looking at the books and thinking, Oh this would make a good movie. I’m not sure that’s what happened with, for example, High Fidelity. I don’t think anyone looked at that and thought, That’s a good movie. I think they thought, I love this book.
That book was set inside a record store inside someone’s head. Or set inside someone’s head inside a record store. I don’t think there was a pressing need for it to become a movie, because it wasn’t visual in that way, but they worked really hard to adapt it and turn it into something that people might want to go and watch. I think that’s different from looking at a narrative and thinking, This has got a chase, it’s got a helicopter, this is going to look really cool. I’m not sure the books work like that at all.
I read that you’re working on a screenplay with Emma Thompson. Is that right?
We were, but we gave up the struggle. I’ve been doing another one on my own which is an adaptation of somebody else’s work. It was an autobiographical essay that was published in Granta about three years ago, and, weirdly, I now see in a rather slow and stupid way that it’s also about teen sex. The person who wrote the essay was writing about an affair she had when she was 16. So teenage sex is something I’ve been writing about, it now turns out, for about three years. That may well get made at the beginning of next year.
Can you say whom the autobiographical essay is by?
It’s an English journalist named Lynn Barber. She had a pretty racy affair with someone much older than her.
Is it true that after you came out with How to Be Good, the Guardian published a picture of you wearing a dress? Was that about the fact that you had taken on a female point of view for that book?
I didn’t pose in a dress. This was a Photoshopped picture.
You’re right—we do need to be clear about that!
It was just ridiculous. Lots of men write from a woman’s perspective all the time, but I think the Guardian did that because before that point I’d written these two guy books.
Are you still writing about music? And football?
No. I only do my Believer column. If someone asks me to write about someone whom I’ve always wanted to meet, then I’ll do something, but I have no real desire to write about it outside of that.
Has writing the “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column changed the way you read and how you think about what you read?
Yes, completely, and in a fantastic way. I think I might have mentioned this in the introduction to the second collection, but I can now see that I used to read some books—not many—but some books because I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy them and so that I could kind of sneer about them afterwards. There are some books one knows that one isn’t really going to enjoy, but everyone else is reading them and you feel as though you’re out of the loop if you don’t. Well, I’ve completely given that up, and it’s become surprisingly easy to pick up books that I’m pretty sure I will get something out of. It’s flipped a switch in my brain, and I’m mainly drawn to those books now, and I’m rarely disappointed by what I read.
You’ve also been behind the publishing of a wonderful collection of stories called Speaking With the Angel, which involved contemporary authors such as Zadie Smith, David Eggers, and Irvine Welsh, among others. The proceeds of the book, as you mention in the introduction, benefit TreeHouse, the school for autistic children that you helped to found and that your son attends. What was the experience of pulling this project together like? And what kind of response has there been?
Well, it was thrilling and heartwarming to approach these people, and they responded wholeheartedly. It’s pretty cool to log on in the morning, and see that there’s a story by someone you really like that you know no one else has seen. I think it turned into a pretty good snapshot of where a generation of writers was at that time. I knew all of those people. In fact, all the people I didn’t know turned me down, and all the people I did know responded. I think I learned a lesson there. But people seemed to really like the book, and it’s stayed in print, and I was really happy about it. I love being asked to do those things. Michael Chabon asked me to do one for McSweeney’s, and it really put me on my game because it was Michael Chabon, and it was a good cause, and I wanted the book to be really good.
You’ve been keeping a blog, and I read that the Arsenal team, the team you wrote about in Fever Pitch, has taken TreeHouse as their charity for the year. Is that right?
Yeah, it’s amazing.
It seems to be tying together two important aspects of your life.
Yes, it’s very weird to see. They show a little promo film for the school at halftime, and Danny’s in the film, and it’s weird to see him in the stadium up on the screen. In fact, what’s becoming harder is ignoring it. There’s been like ten home games this season, and for the first six you’re nudging everybody, and saying, “Look! Look! There’s Danny, there’s Danny up on the screen!” And I don’t think I can do that for every game this season. I’ve got to ignore it.
What was your role in founding the school?
Danny was one of the first five kids to go there, so the first five parents were, I suppose, the founders. But I’m terrible at committees and meetings, so I never feel as though I did what the others did. I’m the most famous of any of the parents—there’s no point in being immodest about that because none of them are famous at all—so it’s me that’s done books or fundraising and writing to people and stuff like that. That’s where I’ve done my thing, but the actual work was done by other people.
And you have two other children as well.
Yeah, two little ones. I spoke to my wife today, and she said that my middle one, who’s nearly five and has always known that I’ve written books and has seen books of mine in the bookstore, today saw one of mine in the children’s section. He saw Slam in a Borders, and for the first time he got really excited and was very disappointed when he was told that he’s not going to be able to read it for a few more years. I think finally he could see I was a proper writer.