“I can’t write any books that haven’t got jokes in. I don’t know whether the jokes are funny, but I know that I can’t write with a complete poker face. And I don’t really get books that are 300 pages of no funny because there is no stretch of life that’s 300 pages, no funny.” Celebrated author Nick Hornby talks with host Mary Laura Philpott about his new book Just Like You on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Twenty-five years into his career as an award-winning author and accomplished screenwriter and lyricist, Nick Hornby has become a household name. His latest book, the warm, funny love story Just Like You, is in many ways a classic Nick Hornby novel, but it also takes its central couple into territory he hasn’t written about before. Hornby spoke with A Word on Words host Mary Laura Philpott about what led him to create these characters, and what’s next for him.
Mary Laura Philpott: Hi, Nick. Thank you for taking the time to join us for this special remote episode. May I ask where you’re joining us from?
Nick Hornby: Hi! So I have a studio in Islington, North London, which is about 10 minutes walk from my home, and that’s where I like to write.
Philpott: I was thinking this morning about how I wished we could be recording this spot in person, but we can’t because of the pandemic. But then again, it’s because of the pandemic that this show has pivoted to Zoom episodes and started filming remotely. So I’m kind of grateful because in some ways we’ve been able to connect with people we wouldn’t have been able to see at all otherwise — like you. Have there been any upsides to the strange year for you?
Hornby: Well, I think it’s reopened the sense that we’re all a lot closer than we knew we were. And I’ve had a few conversations with American friends which I probably wouldn’t have had last year — I would have just hoped that I would have seen them at some point in the future without ever seeing them. So there’s been that. I’ve done a lot of watching and a lot of listening. Reading was a struggle, in the first lockdown. I couldn’t find the right books at first. But I do feel enriched by what I’ve seen and what I’ve listened to.
Philpott: I couldn’t read for a couple of months either, but I’m back reading now, which feels better. Speaking of which: When I say “a classic Nick Hornby novel,” I feel like readers would know what I mean by that, but what do you think makes a Nick Hornby novel? What do your books have in common?
Hornby: Well, I’m probably the last person to ask, but . . . I always start each book thinking, “Oh, I’ve never done this before. This is great.” And then I sort of write out to sea, and then there’s a terrible clunk when I hit the inside of my own head again. It’s a bit like Jim Carrey at the end of The Truman Show. I think, “I’m heading out to sea. Ah, it’s just me.” Which is always a disappointment.
They tend to be set, most of them, here and now where I live. And I can’t write any books that haven’t got jokes in them. I don’t know whether the jokes are funny, but I know that I can’t write with the complete poker face. There tends to be a mix of tones. I have warmth for my people. I mean, I don’t think I could write the books if I didn’t love the people at the center of them. I try and keep myself optimistic by making the books kind of optimistic, although not unrealistically so I don’t think.
Philpott: That love and optimism definitely comes through. Let’s talk about the people in this newest book, Just Like You. Who are the main players here?
Hornby: This is a novel about an unlikely romantic relationship set during the time of Brexit. The two central characters are Lucy, who is the head of an English department at a large state school in London, and Joseph, who’s 21, 22. He has several jobs. He’s a butcher on Saturdays. He works in what we call a leisure center — I don’t know what you guys call it — with swimming pool and squash courts, open to the public, not a country club. Anyway, he works there, he does some babysitting, he coaches kids’ football. So he has a “portfolio” of work. He hasn’t been to college. He wants to be a DJ producer. That’s the central couple. Joseph starts to babysit for Lucy, who’s a single mom and has two boys, 10 and eight, and they move from babysitting to something more serious.
Philpott: You mentioned earlier that your books often include humor. I’m thinking about how this story takes on issues of race and class, which are very often the stuff of serious, heavy novels. And you do certainly look at these things with sensitivity and with empathy, but you do it with plenty of humor. It’s a very funny book, even when it’s treading on delicate territory. Why is it important to you to find the humor in this story?
Hornby: I don’t know if I ever set out to find it. I think that in our lives, you might go to a funeral and see somebody laugh. It’s just how we are. Every day consists of something that’s really, really awful, possibly, and something funny.
I don’t really get books that are 300 pages of no funny, because there is no stretch of life that’s 300 pages with no funny. So that sort of funny-sad thing seems to me a completely natural expression of self, rather than anything that I have to go look for. Characters find themselves in absurd situations, and you can have fun with them. I always want to make the most of them, if my characters find themselves in that place.
Philpott: Among the differences between Lucy and Joseph, one of the biggest differences is age. What attracted you to telling a love story with a two-decade age gap — and why those particular ages, early forties and early twenties?
Hornby: When I conceived of these characters, I wanted to put a lot of barriers between them. This book started with me observing a couple in a shop. It was an older guy and a young woman who was serving him and they had this little vibe. You could see it, they were having a little flirt. I came away thinking they were quite a cute couple, and I was thinking, yeah, but they could never get together. You know, just the stuff you start thinking about when you’re a writer.
I knew I could tell the socioeconomic background of the guy and the girl, and the education background of the guy and all of the things that usually prevent us from making connections, especially romantic connections, with people. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, actually, wait, our track record of making connections in our normal way is really not great. We choose partners who read the same books as us. who’ve maybe had the same educational background as us, roughly in the same socioeconomic group, and yet we get divorced all over the place. So this clearly isn’t the most important thing.
And the more I thought about these people, I thought, maybe it’s other things that we connect to. Maybe it’s philosophies of life, senses of humor, and resilience, and all kinds of things that actually you can’t find out about someone if you go on a few dates with them.
For Lucy and Joseph, I wanted Joseph to be kind of a midway point between her and her kids. So he completely understands her children. He shares the loves of their culture in a way that she can’t. With Lucy, I wanted to stretch the bounds of credulity. There are all sorts of super-hot women in their forties that I could imagine a young man of Joseph’s age being attracted to. But I thought maybe someone in their sixties or seventies, that’s a bit harder. I didn’t want it to be the guy being 20 years older than the girl, because that’s kind of yucky. So I kind of ended up with these people.
Philpott: At one point, Lucy starts doing the math, and she says to Joseph, “When you’re 50, I’ll be 70.” And I felt like you captured so well a very specific kind of anxiety, which is the inability to resist extrapolating every choice we make out to what it will mean later. There’s such a heightened sense of time in this story, a really bittersweet sense of time. Can you talk a little bit about that, that tension between living for right now and living for the future?
Hornby: It’s an interesting time to be talking about it, of course, because of the pandemic. I think that the pandemic has really affected our sense of time. We have lost the habit, I think, of projecting very far into the future, because we need to get through today and tomorrow. I noticed when I was checking through the book that there’s quite a lot about “bubbles” in there. They talk about bubbles, like, “Let’s just live in this bubble.”
It was really weird that I’d written it before the pandemic, because now we talk about bubbles all the time. We’ve all heard the word “bubbles” much more than we thought we would in January. So it was interesting to me to think about that in the context of this, but I think it probably is the best way to live: Things are good, don’t burst the bubble. And if, if that means resisting the temptation to think about what it means in two years or five years, then resist that temptation, because these are really strange times for us all. If you can find the space that you can occupy which seems survivable, then stay in it, don’t mess it about.
Philpott: Yeah, I noticed that — it’s almost eerie the way they talk about bubbles.
Hornby: Also, the word pandemic is in the first paragraph of the book! And the reason that the word pandemic is in there is because I was thinking back to when my kids were the ages of Lucy’s boys in the book. I was thinking, what did I worry about as a parent? And what I worried about then was, I think it was bird flu. I spent a lot of time trying to buy Tamiflu online, which you can’t buy in the UK, because we were told it was going to rescue us all. So I think parents did worry about a pandemic — we were constantly told that one was going to come.
I have to say one of the reliefs of this pandemic is that our kids have been left alone by this virus. It’s us that suffers. It’s not much of a consolation now, but it was right at the beginning.
Philpott: You set this book in 2016 — which, in 2017, 2018, 2019, I felt like we were all looking back at 2016 and going, “Well, that was one crazy year.” It makes sense that that’s the year you would pick to represent things going off the rails. And now here we are in 2020, which has blown 2016 out of the water.
Hornby: [laughs] It’s a nostalgia piece about a simpler, happier time, when everything was mad and difficult and we all hated each other, but not like now.
Philpott: Right, not like now. You have such a gift for revealing character through little gestures. There’s one scene in particular that I kept thinking about: It’s where Joseph is playing for Lucy a piece of music that he’s been working on, and she starts dancing in this sort of dorky, mom-like way. And he’s absolutely mortified. It really puts him off the relationship for awhile. I wondered, would I be right in guessing that that scene was at least a little bit informed by your experience in being a parent to teenagers?
Hornby: Oh, yes. Yes, of course. I cause nothing but hilarity if I ever try and express even any enthusiasm for anything, let alone dancing. Yeah, that was on my mind, and of course, you know, Joseph is making this dance music, and he hangs out in clubs and DJs . . . It’s kind of something he almost cannot get over with with Lucy. Just this one moment of physical expression.
Philpott: There’s no better way to mortify a young person than to (a) express too much public enthusiasm and (b) dance.
Hornby: Yes, yes, dance.
Philpott: Pop culture is so much a part of your books. Your characters make references to specific music and television and sports, things that place your stories in a particular time. I’ve heard other writers say that they avoid doing that because they don’t want their books to seem dated later; but it’s one of the things that I love about your books. Why build those pop culture references into your writing?
Hornby: We all judge people on what they consume, what they read, what are they like . . . I mean, it just helps you to understand who they are. And I think making up TV programs or making up books doesn’t help the reader at all.
I don’t think you should worry about your book’s dating. I think you should worry about whether they’re going to be read now — and if they’re read now, and then now, and then now it means they’re lasting. I think to leave everything out because you’re worried about 50 years time is really the wrong way around. I was certainly told with High Fidelity that there were too many pop culture references in there, but you know, here we are — it’s a quarter of a century old, and young people read it. That’s really a kick for me, but I didn’t worry about it then when I was writing about it. And it turns out I was right not to worry about it.
Philpott: Yeah, it was a good call. You’ve been writing for the screen as well, for decades. Of course, movie audiences know your screenwriting work from Brooklyn and An Education. And you’ve now had several of your novels become movies. Having had all that experience, does it affect the way you write your books at all? Are you ever thinking, as you write a scene, here’s how I would want this to play out on screen?
Hornby: I never think that. And I never think about a screen version when I’m writing. One of the reasons is that actors are too good-looking. I mean, that’s why they’re actors, right? That’s why they got those jobs. If you’re a lead actor or lead actress, you can be really good at acting. But actually the most important thing is you’re better looking than everybody else. That’s just a fact of life. That’s why they get these gigs. When I’m thinking about my people, I’m not thinking, “This person is better looking than everybody else in the world.” It’s just crazy. They’re just normal people to me. Rob in High Fidelity, to me, did not look like John Cusack, but when it comes to a movie that’s who ends up playing him and it’s cool. My first book [Fever Pitch], it was Colin Firth. My third book [About a Boy], it was Hugh Grant. I promise you, these were not who I envisaged when I was working on the page.
One thing that screenplays have taught me, though, is about minor characters. Most of the movies I’ve worked in were independent movies. And one of the ways in which you can make an independent movie more interesting or attractive is what they call “casting up,” where you’ve got the lead character but if you can find someone else to play this other part — like how we had Emma Thompson in An Education playing the headmistress — you make the parts interesting. That should always be what we do for minor characters. You make them memorable. It doesn’t matter whether they’re going to become movies or not. Think of them in ways that are almost the same as the lead character. I have learned that from movies.
Philpott: That’s really interesting. I’ve never thought about that before.
Hornby: That’s what I’m here for, Mary Laura!
Philpott: [laughs] Any particular differences in how your books are received by British readers versus American readers?
Hornby: I don’t think so much now as at the beginning. Then, British people couldn’t understand why I had a life outside of the UK, because I was writing about their football team or a record shop that they recognized or whatever. I think it took people a while to see that, even though I was writing very specifically about where I live, actually I was writing really about all first-world cities — that people in Chicago weren’t reading High Fidelity because they thought that’s what life is like in Britain, they were reading it because their boyfriend was like that or their brother was like that, or they were like that. So the idea that there was any kind of universality to it, I think maybe took British people by surprise. Maybe some of them were annoyed when the movie was set in Chicago, but I kind of understood it from the life that the book had already had.
Philpott: One of my favorite things to talk about with people who have made it to what appears to be the pinnacle of their careers is mistakes. Can you think of a time that you’d be willing to share where something went wrong or you made a misstep or learned from something that just didn’t work out the way you wanted it to?
Hornby: I think maybe the biggest misstep I’ve had with a piece of work was when I chucked away maybe 20,000 words of About A Boy, the first stab I had of it. I worked out what had gone wrong, which was that I was not only denying the reader information, I was denying characters information — and that made them two-dimensional in a way that I didn’t want them to be. In the book, the Will character pretends that he has a kid, so he can date single moms. And I was going to keep that going all the way through the book, but actually it made it a one-joke book. I realized that I had to ditch it after a certain point so that the characters could get on with being characters and relating to each other in ways that were honest, rather than everything being based on this rather flimsy premise.
Philpott: Do you ever feel like you’re out of ideas?
Hornby: No. No. I never feel I’m out of ideas. That’s one thing that I don’t worry about, actually. If I finished something today, I know that there’s something else I could start tomorrow. Things start to get stacked up. I think the problem is, it takes a long time to write a book and it takes a long time to write a movie and I realize I’m going to die with ideas not having been realized.
Philpott: What’s next for you?
Hornby: I’m working at the moment on a very big TV show. Well, it’s supposed to be very big. I can’t talk about it cause it hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s two seasons of drama about a very famous real-life rock band.
Philpott: That sounds fun.
Hornby: It has been fun. Maybe it won’t come to anything, but usually when movie projects don’t come to anything, you have nothing to remember apart from some meetings in a dismal office and then a bad phone call. But this one has been quite fun already because of the people involved.
Philpott: That’s fantastic. Well, we have reached the end of the main part of our interview. We’re going to do a quick lightning round, and then we’ll wrap up. If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?
Hornby: I would go to New York in 1966.
Philpott: That’s the first answer anyone has ever given me where they changed the time period.
Hornby: Why not? I want to go and see those bands and James Brown at the Apollo and all sorts. Yeah.
Philpott: That’s awesome. Okay, what is something you have not done yet that you would like to try?
Hornby: I would love to try and write a musical, stage musical. I’ve talked about it with my former writing partner and your fellow Nashvillian, Ben Folds. I know it’s hard, but I love stage musicals. And when they work, I don’t think there’s a better evening out.
Philpott: I completely agree. Okay: When you read, do you read a physical book with paper pages, an ebook, or do you listen to audio books?
Hornby: Audio books, forget it. I read faster than they speak, and I don’t really like doing something else apart from reading, so they’re a non-starter. I do know a couple of people who speed them up, which seems like the worst thing that you can do to the voice actor’s work. I do use a Kindle sometimes if the book is unwieldy, because I walk to work and I bring a book with me and I travel, and the Kindle is better for that. But I would say 95% of the time it’s a physical book.
Philpott: A book you loved as a child?
Hornby: Have you ever heard of Erich Kästner, German writer? He wrote a book called Lottie and Lisa, which then became The Parent Trap, the Hayley Mills film. Anyway, he wrote a book called Emil and the Detectives, which I was obsessed with. I read that book over and over again when I was a kid.
Philpott: That’s wonderful. Well, we have wrapped up. Like I said, one of the bright spots and blessings of this year has been the ability to reach out by Zoom and talk to people I wouldn’t normally get to talk to. So thank you so much for this.
Hornby: Oh, thank you, Mary Laura. I enjoyed it so much.
Nick Hornby Recommends
Boom Town, by Sam Anderson
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
Niagara Falls All Over Again, by Elizabeth McCracken
Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson
The Fortnight in September, by R.C. Sherriff