Interviews December 2007

The Younger Side of Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch, talks about the pitfalls of contemporary literary culture, his ambition to be the male Anne Tyler, and his new novel for young adults
book cover

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by Nick Hornby
304 pages

"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.

—Jessica Murphy

Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby

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?

From the archives:

"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.

Presented by

Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She is the fiction editor of Memorious: A Journal of New Verse and Fiction.

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