An Interview with Nick Hornby
Tom DeMarchi | February 2003
THE TOP TEN REASONS to read this interview with Nick Hornby:
10. He is the author of the internationally best selling novels High Fidelity, About A Boy, and How To Be Good, and the memoir Fever Pitch, all from Riverhead Publishers.
9. Hornby edited the story collection Speaking with the Angel (Riverhead) which features his own "Nipplejesus" as well as original contributions from Zadie Smith, Helen Fielding, Melissa Bank, Roddy Doyle, Colin Firth, Giles Smith, Robert Harris, John O'Farrell, Patrick Marber, Irvine Welsh, and David Eggers (whose first novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is currently being adapted for the movies by Hornby and DV DeVincentis). A portion of the proceeds from the book is donated to TreeHouse, a school designed to meet the needs of autistic children.
8. As a feature writer Hornby has contributed to The Sunday Times, Esquire, Elle, GQ, Time, and is currently the pop music critic for The New Yorker.
7. His music writing experience landed him at the editor's desk for the collection De Capo Best Music Writing 2001: The Year's Finest Writing on Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country and More (De Capo).
6. In 1999 Hornby received the E.M. Forester Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
5. Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, and About A Boy have all been made into successful—and good!—films.
4. A script Hornby co-wrote with actress Emma Thompson has just been optioned by Working Title Films. There are plans for filming to begin in 2003.
3. The novel How To Be Good was the UK's favorite work of fiction at the WH Smith Book Awards, the only major UK book prize to be voted for by the public.
2. McSweeney's just published Hornby's latest effort, Songbook.
1. Hornby is out there, as you're reading this, writing something that you will likely hear about, buy, read, and enjoy, so you might as well learn a bit more about him here and now.
Tom DeMarchi: When did you first start writing? And why fiction as opposed to, say, poetry or playwriting?
Nick Hornby: I started writing in 1983. Funnily enough, I did start by writing plays. They were sort of screen-cum-radio-cum-TV plays, and they weren't very good. They got me an agent—not the same one I have now—but nothing much beyond that. I didn't think I could write prose. When I left the university and I tried to write, everything came out sounding like bad essays, so I thought I should stick to dialogue. I hadn't done enough reading—not of the things I wanted to emulate—so it took me a while, a long while, to grapple with voice.
DeMarchi: You must have started reading more, then, to find people you could emulate? What authors influenced you?
Hornby: Everything changed for me when I read Anne Tyler, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Lorrie Moore, all in about '86–'87. I'd never read short stories like Carver's and Moore's—her first collection, Self-Help, just seemed to be me in some way I couldn't have articulated at the time—so I started writing some, and sold a couple. But voice, tone, simplicity, humor, soul... all of these things seemed to be missing from the contemporary English fiction I'd looked at, and I knew then what I wanted to do.
DeMarchi: Have you read any books lately that impacted you the way those earlier ones did?
Hornby: I have to say, I'm not having such a great time with books this year. I don't want to say what I've been reading, because I don't want to dump on the authors, but nothing much has really impressed me in the last three or four months. Easily the best novel I've read this year was Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, published 40-odd years ago. Last year was good, though—Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Dave Eggers's book were both spectacular, I thought.
DeMarchi: Since you mention Smith and Eggers, can you tell me how and why the story collection Speaking with the Angel came together? What affinity do you have with the contributing authors?
Hornby: Well, it came about because I wanted to profile and raise money for my son Danny's school, Tree House, which admits severely autistic children. So I wrote to a lot of people I knew, and some people I didn't. The people I knew replied. But I do feel an affinity with each and every writer in the book, for one reason or another. With the honorable exception of Colin, they're all people whose work has struck a chord with audiences on one side of the Atlantic or the other, usually through their work's directness and/or humor. They tend to be demotic, be aware of irony, and write with soul. They're my guys!!!
DeMarchi: How has Danny's autism, a condition often characterized by a language impairment, affected your approach to writing?
Hornby: I don't think it's affected my approach, particularly. I wouldn't say that my style or tone has changed since he was born, or diagnosed. But it's definitely affected some of the things I've done. How to Be Good was, I think, prompted partly by him—he, and his caregivers, teachers, etc., have transported me into a different moral universe, and I'm not sure I would have thought about many of those things if it hadn't been for him.
DeMarchi: A friend of mine told me he thinks How to Be Good is your most mature work. Do you see that as a compliment or an insult? Why?
Hornby: Oh, a compliment, of course. I have no problem with maturity—it's not a word that has a negative connotation, as far as I'm concerned. I know it's my best and most sustained piece of writing, and probably the most ambitious. And that's got to be a good thing, surely? You run the risk of pissing off fans of the more 'immature' work, though!
DeMarchi: Since you used the term 'immature work,' could we talk a bit about the main characters in High Fidelity and About a Boy? I'm not suggesting that the books themselves are immature, but that the protagonists of both books are—how do I say this?—not entirely adult-like in their behavior. For one thing, both Rob from High Fidelity and Will from About a Boy are obsessive consumers of pop culture. What is it about these characters that attracts you to them?
Hornby: Everyone says they're the same because they're obsessed with pop culture, but to me there's a clear difference between them. Rob is stuck, professionally and emotionally, but his relationship to pop culture and music is at least soulful. He feels. Will's relationship with pop culture (and fashion mags etc.) is to me indicative of a lack of soul, and he's only interested really in what's trendy. He's agonized by anything (for example, Joni Mitchell) that has any sincerity to it, in a way that Rob wouldn't be. Rob wants a relationship, and just can't make it work; Will isn't interested for most of the book.
So what I was attracted to was something different in each case. Both types exist, I think. But Will uses pop culture to ward off the real world, and Rob uses it to make sense of, and give shape to, what he's feeling.
Generally speaking, I like using the references because it helps to place people, and because most people know more about pop culture than they do anything else. As far as I can tell, most writers avoid the references because they date the books—which means they're worrying more about posterity than about their readership.
DeMarchi: Kurt Vonnegut has said that he writes with an audience of one in mind. His books are addressed to that one person. You said that you make pop culture references to address the intelligence, the interests, the knowledge of your readership. I, for one, originally flipped through High Fidelity in a bookstore because I recognized that the title was borrowed from an Elvis Costello song. During that initial flipping through I saw references to films I'd seen and albums I owned, so I bought your book. Who is your readership? Do you write with one person in mind? If so, who is that one person? What does he or she look like? Or do you write with a "type" of reader in mind, a reader who sees a lot of films, buys a lot of albums, and who takes these films and albums seriously? Furthermore, is your readership similar to your characters in that they form an identity based on listening, reading, and viewing habits and tastes?
Hornby: This thing about the readership and pop culture is complicated. Sometimes I think that the 'typical' reader can be too close to the material—in other words, someone who understands all the references, has records by every single one of the artists mentioned in High Fidelity. Sometimes they're just too thrilled to see the names in there at all. There's a scene in that book where Rob and Dick and Barry are talking to someone who once played bass on a Guy Clark record, and obviously it's meant to be kind of pathetic... this bassist is a long, long way from being really famous, but they're awestruck anyway. My mum is much more likely to get this joke than a Guy Clark fan, who maybe couldn't see it.
Anyway. My sense of who the audience is shifts all the time. I definitely write for a woman. Even Fever Pitch was written for a woman, not least because I had a woman editor then. Maybe I still write for her (she died a couple of years ago). I don't think it matters if the woman I write for gets the pop culture references. And she's probably my age, or a couple of years younger.
DeMarchi: It's interesting that you say you write for a woman, because I detect a real attempt at empathy for women in general in your work. For one thing, the men are yearning, either consciously or unconsciously, to understand themselves through their relationships with women. Will is a borderline sociopathic in his plotting to date all the beautiful single mothers in London. He sees their misfortune as an opportunity to capitalize carnally. Yet he eventually softens and sees the difficulty of being a single mother in a world populated by men like himself. Rob complains too much about how women have betrayed or misled him, but I think he eventually sees that he is primarily responsible for his series of failed relationships. Even the bouncer from "NippleJesus" (from Speaking with the Angel) tries to understand the motivation behind the female artist's work. He initially just reduces her to a twisted stick, but he soon sees her as a complex, sophisticated person, someone whose artistic intentions he even defends to his own wife. Yet for all their failings, you somehow manage to make me sympathize with your male characters. Would you say that a primary motivator for your writing is an attempt to better understand and empathize with women?
Hornby: Really, I want empathy for all my major characters, just like everyone does, I suppose. Your question presupposes that either my readership or I has a problem empathizing with or understanding women, and it has only occurred to me relatively recently that actually the genders understand each other very well. There is a whole industry now telling us how to understand each other better, and after a while we absorb it and start to think that there is a gulf, when really there isn't. It's like, if you read a whole book on how to boil an egg, you'd begin to doubt your own ability after a while. Most of us have friends and lovers whom we understand pretty well—when relationships fail, it's usually because people, not genders, are complicated, and anyway the differences between the sexes have become much more blurred over the last couple of decades. I think that the female response to High Fidelity in particular, which lately has been pretty much the same as the male response, made me want to write about everybody, not just guys, or women, or men vs. women.
DeMarchi: Did you have females read drafts of How to Be Good to see if you were presenting the female voice authentically? What were their reactions?
Hornby: Endless women—all the women thanked in the acknowledgments—read drafts. So if there's anything inappropriate, or inauthentic, or plain wrong, it's down to them! What you discover, predictably, is that there's no such thing as a 'typical' female reaction, although the nature of the book empowered them all to talk quite confidently about what was 'wrong'! And they all contradicted each other. Sometimes it was depressing. One woman told me she didn't think that Katie would make the reference to Lee Harvey Oswald on page one, because women weren't that interested in politics. A reaction which scandalized other women I knew. And then, do childless women really know more about what it's like to be a mother than I do? What you realize is that any book given that kind of scrutiny is going to cause debate. If I'd given female friends a manuscript of the new Anne Tyler and told them I'd written it, they'd have found fault with the female character. And if I'd given High Fidelity to a group of men and told them it was by a woman, they would have had a field day. People are different. As if we didn't know.
DeMarchi: What do you think putting people together who are ill-suited brings to your stories?
Hornby: Comedy and, eventually, some richness. I think the interesting thing is getting them together, finding circumstances which break down the usual age/class/education divisions without narrative strain. Now that I think about it, that's always what I'm looking for-it's the basis of all the best narratives.
DeMarchi: What strikes me about "Nipplejesus" is the way the main character changes his initial reaction to the nipplejesus piece from disgust to attempting to understand the artist's motives. This is a stylistic device I've noticed in all your fiction—your characters often think their way through trying to understand their own and others' behaviors and motivations. Sometimes the characters rationalize and justify, other times they have little epiphanies. It's as if you're thinking on the page through them. Are your characters expressing the thoughts and feelings you discover as you get to know them better?
Hornby: I think you really need to know a little more in advance. You can't just work out your own thoughts through the characters on the page, otherwise you're going to end with a mess. I suppose what I do sometimes is think the thing, whatever it is—morality, art—through myself, and work out what varieties of response there are, what wrong turns you can take, where the possibilities for confusion or richness of response are. I take the walk first, and look for the interesting turnings, and come back and guide the characters through them as best I can.
DeMarchi: We generally ascribe a large degree of spirituality to those with the supposed ability to heal, such as Native American faith healers or Pentacostal ministers. But DJ Goodnews from How to Be Good isn't spiritual in that sense. He claims he gained his powers from Ecstacy. To what do you attribute his gift?
Hornby: The most obvious answer is: to me, I guess. Which means that your question is, why did I do it? Because in many ways he doesn't deserve it: he's a twit. There is a basic unfairness there, Katie would probably think—she works hard, and no such gifts are forthcoming.
DeMarchi: High Fidelity focused on single daters and didn't have any child characters. About a Boy featured 12-year-old Marcus, a single mother, and Will, a satellite kind of surrogate father figure. Now with How to Be Good you've come out with a proper, yet troubled, nuclear family dealing with infidelity and a potential divorce. How closely do your books mirror stages in your own life?
Hornby: It sort of doesn't quite work, as a theory—unless you see Will as 'me' dipping my toes into fatherhood—and when I started About a Boy, Danny had already been diagnosed as autistic, so I was in up to my neck! But yes, I think all people write books that befit their age. Look at Julian Barnes. Metroland is by a young man, about a young man; Love Etc, his most recent, is about people his own age, with appropriate problems. I went through a divorce, so divorce was on my mind, but that's different from writing 'autobiography.'
DeMarchi: Can you tell me a little about your contributions to the New Yorker?
Hornby: Well, they're hard—I've never had a more demanding employer, but that's what makes it such a great magazine, and I'm very proud to be in there. It's the closest writers can get to the Olympics, I think—an irrefutable tribute to ability. Everyone wants to be in there, few are chosen. I'm not sure how many pieces I've got left in me, though. It's tough to find people you want to write 2000 words—2000 New Yorker words—about, and I haven't got the time or the inclination to wade through every dreadful-looking CD to find something new. I still discover new things as a fan—i.e. via friends or other reviews—than as a journalist, and that's a weakness in my game.
DeMarchi: Have you received any flack over your New Yorker articles? My guess is that your less-than-complimentary Radiohead review caused a small scandal in the UK. Similarly, your recent article about the Billboard Top Ten makes no attempt at hiding your amusement and dismay over the US's musical tastes. Aren't you just a little nervous about dissing P. Diddy and Eminem in print?
Hornby: No flack, really, although it clearly irritated a lot of people. Whenever I do anything online, there is always a queue of outraged Radiohead fans waiting to take me to task. I stand by the review; I think that in 20 years' time, that generation of fans won't own up to having liked it, just as my generation deny owning anything by Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I notice that Radiohead is even starting to get the same press as prog-rock bands got in the '70s—earnest, 'posh' music writers basically saying, "This stuff is wasted on pop fans. It's really brainy." Yeah, right. Hopefully history will repeat itself in other ways, and there'll be a 21st century Ramones along in a minute to blow it all away.
I shouldn't think P. Diddy and Eminem are too worried about what I think. What appalls me about P. Diddy is the celebrities who suck up to him. All those people who appeared in his video birthday invitation. What are they "thinking" of?
DeMarchi: What's a typical Nick Hornby writing day?
Hornby: I have an office round the corner from my home. I arrive there between 9:30 and 10 a.m., smoke a lot, write in horrible little two-and-three sentence bursts, with five-minute breaks in between. Check for emails during each break, and get irritated if there aren't any. Go home for lunch. If I'm picking up my son I leave at 3:30. If not, I stay till six. It's all pretty grim! And so dull!
DeMarchi: Can you tell me a little bit about your book tour—dates, cities, amusing anecdotes, road weariness, etc.?
Hornby: It was really, really hectic. I don't know what happened between this book and the last (an American movie, probably), but everything—media interest, sizes of crowds for readings—had tripled. There were 700 in Boston, 900 in New York City. It takes a long time to get through the signing queue. But I got to see lots of friends, and I went to Memphis, and Graceland. The strangest thing about touring for two or three weeks is feeling that you're not living: life is something that happened before, or will happen after, but not during. I went to 10 cities in 14 days, which isn't as bad as some, but still pretty knackering. The thing is, I love America, and will always be grateful to the books for introducing me to parts of the US I would never have seen as a holidaymaker, probably. I can't tell you how exotic it seemed, driving from Nashville to Memphis, for example.
There's always someone from the past who shows up. In San Francisco, a girl I used to teach when she was an 11-year-old came to a reading. She's a woman now, in her early 30s; she had her exercise book with her from 1982, with my handwriting in it. Things like that are weird. I keep a list of people I've bumped into, and it makes bewildering reading. So many different areas of life.
DeMarchi: During your tour I saw you on a panel that was discussing artificial characters in movies taking the place of real actors. How did you end up on this panel, and do you think that there is a danger of technology replacing characters in our entertainments? How might this effect the fiction market?
Hornby: No idea how I ended up on the panel! At times when a new book is published, publicists will book you onto anything! And no, I don't think there's any real danger of anything good being affected. Perhaps Angelina Jolie might be replaced by a virtual actress in Tombraider 2, but I don't think any of us should lose any sleep over that. Proper films will still require acting.
DeMarchi: You said before that your American audience had tripled—possibly because of the movie version of High Fidelity—since your last book tour. Have you sold the movie rights to How to Be Good?
Hornby: No. Had a couple of offers, but haven't decided what to do with it, if anything.
DeMarchi: How did the movie deals for your books come about?
Hornby: Different ways. I made a short BBC film about Fever Pitch at time of publication in 1992, with a director who said he wanted to make a movie of the book. I said that as no one else was likely to want to do the same, he was welcome. So, four years later, he did. High Fidelity was bought by Disney shortly after publication. About a Boy was bought way before publication—I still don't really understand how they got hold of the manuscript.
DeMarchi: Are you pleased with the screen versions of High Fidelity and Fever Pitch?
Hornby: I love both the films. You end up seeing them a lot of times, so I can see lots of things wrong with both of them now. But if I had ever read any of the books nine or ten times, I'd see a lot more that was wrong with them. The best thing for me was that they were very happy experiences. I made a lot of friends out of both movies—I see the directors of both, the lead actors in both, and I hope to co-write with DV, who adapted High Fidelity. I'd expected to hate everyone!
DeMarchi: How much did you contribute to the screenplays?
Hornby: I wrote Fever Pitch. High Fidelity—no real contribution—they sent me lots and lots of drafts, and they always made me feel as though my contributions were welcome. I also went to lots of different cuts of the film, and sat in on soundtrack discussions. I never had any sense of being excluded, and I see and hear from John Cusack, Stephen Frears, and DV DeVincentis still. But I didn't want to get that involved in the process: all that stuff is a full-time job, and I'd really rather get on with something fresh. Especially as, in the end, you're not going to be able to influence that much.
DeMarchi: Have you seen About a Boy yet? Were you involved in its production?
Hornby: No and no. Again, I like the guys who made it a lot, and they too sent me lots of scripts. But How to Be Good was coming out just as they began filming, so I didn't get to the set much.
DeMarchi: What are the differences between US and European markets and expectations? Audiences?
Hornby: Nothing much, really. The big difference is that Fever Pitch didn't really happen in the US. Some people have read it now, but it wasn't really successful, and it didn't get reviewed, so High Fidelity was my first book in the US. Things are a lot footballier in Europe, which can be a drag. It's 10 years since I wrote that book. Lucky I still have an interest.
DeMarchi: To keep that interest up, are you working on a new book?
Hornby: Thinking about one. I can't start until the paperback of How to Be Good is out—there are too many interruptions. I need a three-four month unbroken stretch to start off, and there isn't that kind of gap available for a while.
DeMarchi: Where do you begin when you write a book? Do characters present themselves, and do you follow them around? Do you start with plot? With How to Be Good, did you begin with theme, thinking about morality and goodness? Maybe you could choose one of your books, or the one you might be working on now, and describe your writing process?
Hornby: For the last couple of books, I've started with a fragment of narrative, which seemed resonant in some way. With About a Boy it was Will's imaginary son; with How to Be Good it was David giving the 80 pounds away. And then stuff starts to accumulate: characters, other fragments of narrative, theme. But easily the most important thing is, what's this book about? Does it have an intellectual/thematic cohesion? Both the narrative fragments I've mentioned seemed to me to say something about both characters and the times we live in.
DeMarchi: Do you think your writing has changed since Fever Pitch?
Hornby: Well, I'm writing fiction, which is different. Plus I think the books have become progressively more ambitious. I'm beginning to feel as though I know what I'm doing, and will be able to write something really good one day.
Tom DeMarchi earned his MFA from Florida International University. He currently lives and works in Cortland, NY.