Interview with Nick Hornby

Posted by Goodreads on February 3, 2015
Nick Hornby English author and screenwriter Nick Hornby, perhaps best known for his autobiography Fever Pitch and his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, returns to bookstores this month with Funny Girl, his first novel in over five years. Set in London in the mid-1960s, featuring a female protagonist who rejects a beauty queen title to instead pursue a career as a comedic television actor, Hornby's newest book captures a brief window of time in 20th century popular culture when over half of the U.K. would watch a hit TV show and the Beatles and Rolling Stones had yet to fully assert their dominance. With his usual humor, pop culture references, and enviable empathy, Hornby has created another cast of instantly memorable characters. Just before departing on his book tour, Hornby spoke with Goodreads Author J. Ryan Stradal about Funny Girl's manifold influences, the challenge of writing a novel with no antihero, and his film projects, including his recent screen adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's Wild.


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Goodreads: Your new book, Funny Girl, celebrates creative collaboration and reveals some of the complexities and conflicts behind creative pairs. You mention Galton and Simpson and Lennon and McCartney as influences, but which collaborations from your own life contributed to the relationships in your novel?

Nick Hornby: I think anything I've ever done in movies has fed into this. I've not worked with a cowriter, really, but every time I've done a film, I've worked with the director, I've worked with independent producers—my wife is an independent producer—I worked with her on An Education and on Brooklyn, in fact. It's always nice to be in a room with people whose company you enjoy and whose intelligence you respect and know that you're being pushed on to make what you're doing better.

GR: You have a central character in Sophie who's pointedly unhip about music. Tell me how you decided to make that an attribute of her character and what you feel it says about her.

NH: When I was thinking about the book, I decided for various reasons to set it in the 1960s. I wanted to try and avoid a straightforward swinging '60s theme, which I feel I've seen and read before. Also, the more I thought about it, I felt that to set the book in that world of BBC entertainment, the characters would be a bit squarer, which is different than we're used to thinking about characters in the 1960s. There was a quote, I think from a photographer at the time, "Swinging London was 200 people, and I knew all of them." Their myth has cast a shadow over the whole decade. But there were lots of people doing creative work who weren't aware of that scene, were right on the edge of it, and wouldn't actually feel the effects of it for years to come. Sophie comes from a different tradition, and the Beatles-y, Stones-y mod stuff was just starting as she was beginning to work, so she wouldn't necessarily have seen it coming.

GR: She's also very much her father's daughter.

NH: Right. She works hard, and she hangs out with people who would also be a bit mystified by it all.

GR: I loved the scene where her unquestioned appropriation of her father's politics is disabused. It felt like a major step forward for her from her life in Blackpool, which outside of your book is not a place I'd ever read about. As an American reader, I am tempted to find an equivalent American town.

NH: It'd have to be a fading seaside town that no one goes to anymore because they have more money, so I guess it'd be like an Asbury Park, except Blackpool, being in the north of England, is cold and wet pretty much all the time. It's sort of tragic that people ever went there for their holidays. People don't go there anymore; now that you can go to Spain for 40 pounds, why would you go to Blackpool?

GR: The integration of these actual places, photographs, and historical figures throughout the novel lends Funny Girl a real verisimilitude. People like Lucille Ball, Tom Sloan, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Marcia Williams, Jimmy Page, the Dave Clark 5, and Keith Relf show up as characters. Were there any historical interactions you considered that didn't make the cut?

NH: That's an interesting question. I obviously spent a lot of time thinking about which member of a band Sophie would meet in a nightclub. I was thinking about Jimmy Page again. I didn't want it to be a Beatle or a Rolling Stone, but I did think of it briefly. I really scouted around for the right band with the right vibe in that little Keith Relf scene.

GR: You've mentioned in other interviews that there's no British analogue for Lucille Ball. Did any contemporary British female comedians influence the character of Sophie?


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NH: She's not a comedian, but a part of this started from working with Rosamund Pike, who had a part in An Education. Rosamund is incredibly beautiful and a naturally gifted comedian who doesn't play comedy very often. She said to me that she wanted to do that role in An Education because nobody ever let her be funny. It was something that stuck with me; an actress whose great beauty can limit them in some way because it's kind of a brand, and you might have to think very carefully if you're going to damage that brand by making yourself dumb or make faces or pratfalls or something that's going to make you look less cool. Rosamund had been a Bond girl, and now she's an A-list actor.

It's kind of wonderful writing about someone who's beautiful because it is a bit like a superpower. My first few books, I was writing about these guys who were incredibly tentative and lost. Dramatically they're much harder to write about because they don't speak; they're not proactive. A beautiful woman walks into a room, things happen.

GR: Many of Sophie's interactions with men in positions of power—particularly her first meeting with Tom Sloan—are wonderful. Though you touched on it in the program notes at the end, tell us about the fate of Sophie the trailblazer.

NH: I always had the idea that I was going to write about the characters when they were older. One of the things that interested me was what it's like for people who are involved in some kind of cultural phenomenon that they can never recapture, and they know they can never recapture it. It's clear from the program notes that Sophie has had a wonderful and rewarding career, always doing work but never again scaling the creative heights of her first show. She's OK with it, but Clive isn't and Bill isn't and Tony is.

We see versions of that all around us—people who maybe overrate the importance of when they were younger because they're really hanging on to something, or people who pretend it didn't really matter that much, and life's been just as good since. It's a really complicated thing, I think. How do you deal with the prime of your life? I mean, we all have a prime of our lives, even if we're not making television programs. Sometimes it's hard to own up to it, because that would be accepting that things aren't going to be as good ever again. So I admire Sophie's post-Barbara (and Jim) journey, that she kept working. Really, it's about the value of work.

GR: Having the prime of your life be a hit television show in the cultural landscape of the mid-1960s, though—that's probably unsurpassable.

NH: One of the things I love about it is the power of television at that time. There was a sitcom that Galton and Simpson wrote that I think got 29 million viewers in 1965, in a country of 50 million people. There was a sense on the BBC that you could write smart for a mass audience, and I think in some ways that dream has died, that culture has fragmented much more. You can get your smart television, but you're going to get it on cable, and comparatively few people are going to watch it. That sense of a whole country watching a television program together, that's never going to happen again.

GR: Right. In the time you set Funny Girl, there was BBC 1 and BBC 2, and BBC 2 is pretty much dismissed by the characters in your novel.

NH: I didn't watch it when I was a kid. It was sort of an educational, highbrow channel. If there was an opera, they were going to show it on BBC 2. Or maybe a program about gardening. There were really just two choices: the government BBC channel and the commercial ITV channel. And that was it, really, up until the 1980s.

GR: The director of Sophie's first TV series, Dennis Maxwell-Bishop, felt like the heart of the novel to me. Tell me more about the origin of this character—while it seems inevitable that Sophie would have a Clive Richardson, tell us why Dennis needs to exist.

NH: Again I was thinking about that time. There were a lot of very clever university-educated people who were working in popular culture pretty much for the first time. Up until then, there had been a division. Popular culture tended to come from working people, and higher culture, like publishing or current affairs or highbrow arts programs, is where the Oxford and Cambridge graduates would work. With things like Monty Python, who were supersmart university graduates and wanted to work in comedy, popular culture was beginning to reveal itself as something that could accommodate very clever people. Dennis is representative of that time. Some of his peers, certainly his first wife, are a bit snooty about what he does, but he's clearly very committed to the work.

GR: And Dennis is certainly an antidote to people like Bert, the outgoing director, for whom directing TV shows was simply a trade.

NH: Yes, exactly.

GR: Funny Girl is your first novel since 2009. What else has happened in that time?

NH: Since I finished the last novel, I adapted Wild, wrote An Education, wrote this novel, and wrote a couple of things that haven't seen the light of day yet or might not see the light of day. The novel and the two movies that I've done account for most of the last five years.


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GR: How long did the Wild collaboration take?

NH: That was really quick. The first meeting I had with Reese and her coproducer Bruno was in October 2013. It was 11 months from that meeting until the last day of shooting. I've never experienced anything like that. I wrote a couple of drafts in six months, and they used the second draft to find a director [Jean-Marc Vallée]. Then [he] and I worked hard for a couple of months before the shooting started. And then they went to it. It was a bit of a whirlwind.

GR: How did you decide which scenes or characters to cut? Was that part of the process collaborative?

NH: No, it was really just me saying that I wanted to do the script, and they said go off and do it, and I did it. There was a bit of back-and-forth, but there really wasn't any instruction.

GR: One of the things that consistently strikes me about your writing is your empathy and love for your characters.

NH: I don't think I could ever have a central character I loathed. Sometimes I like to read stuff like that, but I can't write it. I love all five of my central characters in this book, and writing about people you love while still making sure there's enough drama and enough momentum, it's harder than I thought it would be.

GR: Other than Vernon Whitfield, briefly, there's no real antagonist in Funny Girl.

NH: No, there's completely no antihero. Everybody is sort of lovable, and hopefully the book still has momentum and you care about what happens to them. There is a sort of sadness to it because I wanted to try to write about people who are basically balancing on top of a ball, and you know they're going to have to come off at some point, and it will be sad when they do. I just wanted to write about that moment where they're balancing and everything is good. But inevitably there comes a part where they can't hold it together anymore. The individual complications in the group are going to drive them apart in the end.

GR: OK, this is my dumbest question, but I haven't yet seen anyone else ask it: Was either Barbra Streisand or Fanny Brice a conscious influence?

NH: No, the title is a piece of cheek, really. It seemed absolutely appropriate and descriptive of the context. There's nothing conscious about it, no.

GR: One question off-topic from your writing career: In another interview I read about your educational nonprofit, Ministry of Stories. I've been volunteering with 826LA here in Los Angeles since it opened, and it's changed my life. What inspired you to open what sounds like a similar project in the U.K., and how is it going?

NH: It was really, from my point of view, simply because of 826 Valencia. I'm a friend of Dave Eggers, and every time I went to San Francisco I went there and hung out there and always thought this is such an amazing thing and that I want to do something like this in London. Then I was introduced to two people here who were determined to make it happen. It became their jobs to get it up and running, and I was able to help and do some fund-raising. So we opened the Ministry of Stories after the 826 model.

GR: Any plans for Ministry of Stories to expand within the U.K.?

NH: Yes, hopefully we have two more opening in the next couple of years. We're looking at Brighton on the south coast and Rotherham in the north of England, in Yorkshire.


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GR: Goodreads member Patrick asks, "We're all familiar with the expression 'kill your darlings,' where writers are encouraged to leave out something that doesn't work, no matter how much they love it. Do you remember a darling that was especially hard for you to kill?"

NH: I never mind killing them unless they're hundreds of pages long, and then it's devastating [laughs]. I think the time I remember most is junking the first third of About a Boy, which I'd spent a long time on. It was set up in a different way, and there came a point when I realized it was becoming harder and harder to write, and it was because it hadn't been set up the right way, and that meant I had to thin the lot. Pretty much killed me at the time.

GR: Goodreads member Robbie asks, "Of all your characters throughout all of your books, which one would you most like to revisit?"


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NH: I've often thought of Rob in High Fidelity and what that guy would be doing. He'd be in his fifties now. It's becoming a little bit easier now to see what might be going on with him. For a long time the music business was murky and run by people who weren't like Rob at all. Now I've seen a few secondhand shops selling new vinyl and some that have clearly been kicking around for a while. But it'd be more about wanting to write about him as a father and him as a husband. I suppose he's the one I've thought about most often.

GR: A friend of mine, Brian, reread High Fidelity recently, and he mentioned how he used to identity with Rob but now identifies with Ian.

NH: [laughs] That's great!

GR: I suppose that kind of thing is inevitable as we get older. Two final questions. I'd received a lot of versions of this next one, and I chose the one from Juan in California. He asks, "What has the reaction in the U.K. been like to the Americans' efforts at dramatizing/adapting your work? More importantly, what have you thought of the Americans' efforts?"

NH: I loved the movie of High Fidelity, and everyone here I've spoken to loved the movie of High Fidelity. There was a great deal of anguish when people first heard that it was going to be made in America, but it was done with such care and respect and imagination. I think people could see it was done in the right way.

In terms of the U.S. Fever Pitch, I think not so many people here have seen it, and they're much more snippy about it because of the perceived cynicism around making it about an American sport. I completely understood the impetus; you can't have the same relationship with soccer in the U.S. Even if you're passionate about an American soccer team, you can't have been passionate about it for 30 or 40 years, so it made sense as a baseball movie.

And the About a Boy TV series...my kids really like it.

GR: Finally Rhyle Adcock says, "With music such an integral part of your life and work, do you think you'll be doing another musical collaboration, and who would you like to work with?"

NH: That's an interesting question. There are all sorts of people I love, and most of the people I love, I'm not sure if they'd want my help necessarily. I've had a fancy of trying to write something for Shovels & Rope. I've got a real thing for them.

GR: Rhyle also adds, "Here's hoping for a defensive midfielder."

NH: [laughs] I don't think we're going to get one of those. Not this transfer window anyway.


Interview by J. Ryan Stradal for Goodreads. Acquisitions Editor at Unnamed Books in Los Angeles and Fiction Editor at The Nervous Breakdown, J. Ryan's debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, will be published by Viking in July 2015.

Learn more about J. Ryan and follow what he's reading.

Would you like to contribute author interviews to Goodreads? Contact us.




Comments Showing 1-25 of 25 (25 new)

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message 1: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Great interview, I'm stoked for the new book. And the answer to the last question is Francis Coquelin.


message 2: by Annette (new)

Annette Nick's collaboration with Ben Folds on Lonely Avenue, an album from about four years ago, is beautiful and way underrated.


message 3: by Yatsuko (new)

Yatsuko Howes Growing older, we are getting different if remains intact at the core. More attention to women - I wonder if Nick Hornby finds female characters more interesting, or more suitble vehicle to express empathy.


message 4: by RDG (new)

RDG Can't wait to read it, especially given the setting. I've always wanted someone to write a historical placed in the slim three years of Swinging London, 1964-1966, before the drugs and weirdness saturated themselves.

Besides, how can an ardent Aimee Mann fan be wrong?


message 5: by Nirali (new)

Nirali Great interview! Excited to read the book.


message 6: by Eileithyia (last edited Mar 19, 2015 08:25AM) (new)

Eileithyia NicéPhore Great interview! Look forward to reading the new book...


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