I spoke with Hornby by phone about Funny Girl and Wild, as well as British comedy, aging rock stars, and what inspires a writer to keep on writing.
Jennie Rothenberg Gritz: Most of Funny Girl takes place during the same time period covered in Mad Men. How would you say that era was different in England than in America?
Nick Hornby: I think the hippie thing didn’t happen quite so much over here. And also, the ’60s in the U.S. were quite a violent time. I think here it was more of a long-postponed celebration of the end of the war, the Beatles obviously being a big part of that.
Gritz: While you were working on the novel, you read David Kynaston’s books about midcentury Britain. Did you have any revelations while reading them?
Hornby: When one gets older, you just realize how close in time everything was. The memories were so fresh for all the people who brought me up. My parents had experienced, I suppose, quite severe privations. My mum was evacuated. My dad lost his dad. We were all still feeling the effects. We had food rationing till the mid-1950s, so just a couple of years before I was born. A lot of the place was still being rebuilt. It was a very dark, austere time. And I realize now that the end of the Second World War to my birth was just 12 years. Well, that’s 2003! It’s so recent.
There were some incredible details as well. For example, TV shut down for an hour every evening between 6 and 7 p.m. so parents could put children to bed. There was that kind of paternalism of the BBC: Parents are putting their children to bed now, and we’re going to help them.
Gritz: What was television actually like there before 1964? When Americans think of British comedies, we tend to think of later ones like Monty Python and The Office.
Hornby: There was a lot more stereotyping back then, much gentler humor. There were domestic scenes where people played incredibly traditional roles—women spending too much of their husbands’ money, for instance. It was what we call a kind of seaside humor. It was never crude in an edgy way, but there was kind of an obsession with toilets, lots of that sort of thing. Looking at it now, it’s hard to see where they were even expecting the laughs to come from. Then along came these writers who were more working class, more leftwing, probably quite male, but a lot sharper than the previous generation.
Gritz: Why does Sophie, a girl from a seaside town in England, idolize Lucille Ball?
Hornby: I think she’s the most obvious female role model for someone who wanted to be funny and on TV in the 1960s. It’s always that thing—who is that person who makes you believe what you want to do is possible as a job? Not just a teacher telling you you’re clever.
Gritz: It sounds like you’re speaking from experience. Who was that person for you?
Hornby: There were authors I read as an adult who completely inspired me. But when I was a teenager, I got to hang out with Tom Stoppard for a bit. My mum was his wife’s secretary. He was obviously super smart, but he was also approachable and normal. I think he was the first person I’d ever met who I’d thought, “Oh, I see. There’s a living in this.”