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

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.

That’s remarkable.

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.

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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