About a writer

Nick Hornby talks about soccer, writing and a highly faithful adaptation of "High Fidelity."

Topics: Nick Hornby,

About a writer

“I have read books written
by people who obviously love football,
but that’s a different thing entirely;
and I have read books written, for want
of a better word, about hooligans, but
95 percent of the millions who watch
games every year have never hit anyone
in their lives. So this is for the rest
of us, and for anyone who has wondered
what it might be like to be this way …”

– Introduction to
“Fever Pitch” by Nick Hornby

It was with some expectation that I
headed out of Arsenal tube station and
toward an Italian restaurant on
Northolme Road last fall to meet Nick
Hornby. I’d been a fan since his first
book, “Fever Pitch,” a loving account
of the way his home team, Arsenal FC,
had been symbolically linked to every
significant event in his life, was
published in 1992.

“Fever Pitch” spoke to all British men obsessed with football
(soccer in America), but for
me there had been a special twist: I
support the team Tottenham Hotspur.
Located barely two miles from each
other, Tottenham and Arsenal have been
fierce rivals for more than 100 years.

Hornby’s second book, “High Fidelity,”
explored the weird adolescent hangover
that seems to strike men in their 30s.
It was a sweet and moody meditation on
lost loves, fluctuating friendships and
a passion for music. By the time “About a Boy”
(a novel about fatherhood,
responsibility and the struggle to grow
up) came out in 1998, it seemed to me
that Hornby had produced one novel for
each of the most important areas of my
life: football, fatherhood and music.

“Some of the players come in here to
eat,” said Hornby shortly after we
arrived. “Arshne Wenger [Arsenal's coach
and manager] comes in here after every
home game … It’s quite sweet really,
because he always gets a round of
applause.”

Reading Hornby for six years had me
feeling like we were old mates, which
probably explains why it took me all of
a capresi salad and some fusilli with
pesto to remember I should probably stop
arguing the merits of Tottenham
Hotspur’s David Ginola over Arsenal’s
Dennis Bergkamp and record something.



Considering that, at the time we met,
Hornby was working on a new novel,
selling the screen rights to “About a
Boy” to Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions
and previewing “High Fidelity,” then
still in post-production, it was
extremely gracious of him to agree to
meet me. And considering that not four
days earlier Tottenham had beaten
Arsenal 2-1 in a typically raucous North
London match, he was surprisingly
friendly.

Is it easy watching your work
reinterpreted on the screen?

There’s two answers to that. One, once
you take the money then that’s that.
It’s like selling a coat. You can’t then
say, “I don’t want that fat bloke wearing
my coat because he doesn’t look good in
it.” You’d just think, Well you sold
it, you burke, you took the money. I
got paid really well for it and I wanted
the money and fine, I don’t think I
should whinge. The other thing is that I
think the books are so unfilmic in a
certain way that the only people who
want to make films of them do so because
they love them, and not because they’ve
seen this “thing” they can pull out of
it. I mean what’s the big idea of “High
Fidelity” where you’d take something and
throw the rest away? You’d be left with
nothing, a story where a bloke splits up
from his girlfriend? Couldn’t you have
thought of that yourself?

Weren’t some basic elements of the
book changed in the film, though?

Actually the film of “High Fidelity” is
incredibly faithful to the book despite
the fact it’s been reset in Chicago.
John Cusack’s in it, he’s Rob, and it
doesn’t make an awful lot of difference
to anything. The only thing that’s
changed is the music.

I would’ve thought that was integral
to the story.

Yeah, except again I take it as part of
the personal connection with it. The
guys who are doing it see it as a story
about themselves, therefore they’ve
transposed their music into it and I
appreciate the spirit of that. I think
the only thing that’s holding it up
right now is they’re arguing with each
other about the soundtrack. Part of
their thing with the whole project was
getting their favorite obscure bands
into the soundtrack, which seems in
keeping with the spirit of it all
anyway.

Were you able to remain involved in
the project?

They’ve been incredibly solicitous all
the way through. I’ve been invited to
see a couple of cuts, I’m going to see
another one tomorrow and they’ve tried
to keep me as involved as I want to be.
But, frankly, I quite enjoy the
distance. I also think with those things
you’re either completely in or
completely out, and if you’re in
that takes up a lot of time and I want
to do other stuff. It’s been directed
by Stephen Frears, who’s English anyway,
so there’s an English sensibility
looking after it.

Are you still interested in writing
screenplays after “Fever Pitch?”

Actually, the three of us who made
“Fever Pitch” — writer, director and
producer — got a development deal with
Miramax, and this will be the first film
to come out of that. It’s about an
American band in the U.K. where the lead
singer walks out halfway through and
ends up in a small seaside town. The
other one is a sort of gimmicky romantic
comedy. I always liked those films like
“Big” and “Groundhog Day” and I wanted
to try one myself. At the moment I’m
developing that with John Madden, who
directed “Shakespeare in Love,” but he’s
got loads of things on the go. I don’t
know if he’d end up directing it, but
he’s helping me with the script every
couple of months.

Does writing a screenplay feel like
taking a break from your real job?

Sort of. I really enjoyed doing “Fever
Pitch” and I really enjoyed working with
people. It occurred to me that I’m
really too sociable to want to sit on my
own in a room for two years, which is
what you do when you write a book. I’ve
got a couple of things on the go right
now. Original screenplays. “High
Fidelity” and “About a Boy” are both
going to be films — well you know “High
Fidelity” is coming out soon — I didn’t
do the screenplay for that. So the last
year has been spent doing drafts of two
different screenplays which are very
different from each other.

You created some dead-on depictions
of London males, especially with “High
Fidelity.” Do you find people saying
that to you when you’re doing readings
in America?

No, not really. Englishness doesn’t
really seem to come into it. “High
Fidelity,” for example, works for any
Western country because there are guys
everywhere who are obsessed with popular
music. In Scandinavia the books have
done well, Italy the same, Germany very
well and Spain not at all. I wonder if
there’s something about Catholic
countries where a lot of people still
live with their mums and stuff and I’m
not sure if they get it; the endless
chopping and changing of relationships,
the agonizing over what you’re doing
with your life. I think paradoxically
they’ve worked so well here because we
are more American in that way and we do
agonize that much more over life. Also,
all my input is American. I only read
American novels, I only watch American
television.

What American writers do you
admire?

My inspiration was Anne Tyler.
I’m very
different from her, but I think she’s
fantastic. It’s that simplicity, where
there seems to be bottomless
intelligence and yet they don’t exclude.
I think for me, what’s wrong with more
or less all English fiction, to be
clever means to be erudite and to
express your vocabulary and it alienates
more or less everybody. They have tiny
book sales and there’s this little
literary circle in Britain which is
basically for themselves and doesn’t
impinge upon the outside world at all.
What the fuck’s that? The good American
writers don’t exclude in that way.

Who else do you read?

There’s a short story writer called
Lorrie Moore who I think is great,
Tobias Wolff … “This Boy’s Life” was a
big book for me before I wrote “Fever
Pitch.” Part of it also comes from
teaching. You’re looking around for
stuff to give to kids that takes them
places, is intelligent and that they can
also comprehend. That’s why in English
schools even today people read Hemingway
and Steinbeck all the time, “Of Mice and
Men,” Salinger’s “The Catcher in the
Rye.” You don’t feel you’re being
patronized by the vocabulary of the
characters because the ideas and
relationships behind it are extremely
complex, yet the language itself is
simple, so any kid can grasp what’s
going on in those books.

Are you happy with the way your books
have been received?

None of the books have had really bad
reviews, but I think I’m still viewed by
the “establishment” with some suspicion.

Why’s that?

Well, none of the books have been up for
a literary prize. I don’t feel chippy
about it at all, but looking at it
dispassionately I think that “High
Fidelity” and “About a Boy” were better
books than some which ended up on short
lists.

Why do you think that is?

I think we have a problem with jokes in
literature. If you have jokes, it’s not
literature. How many funny books have
won the Booker Prize? I can’t remember
how this came up, but I think it was the
year “High Fidelity” came out and one of
the judges was asked why “High Fidelity”
and a couple of other books weren’t on
the list, and she said, “I think people
are confusing the best book with the
best read.” I appreciate you can have a
difference but I’ll tell you, you can’t
have a good book that isn’t a good read.
If it’s not a good read, it’s a bad
book.

Do you think fiction should be
without geography?

Oh no, I think fiction should certainly
have a set geography. I think
something’s gone wrong somewhere if a
book works for every single audience
everywhere in the world. I don’t think
I’m writing about Britain, but a very
precise class of people who could exist
in four or five European countries.
They’re metropolitan books, they’re
written about places where there are
lots of record shops, where there are
lots of people who don’t know what to do
with their lives and people who drift
from relationship to relationship.

Have you ever been interested in
relocating to the U.S. for a couple of
years somewhere down the line to write a
book?

There’s a part of me that feels it’s
sort of cheating. The sort of book where
you go and research something and then
regurgitate it onto the page doesn’t
seem like proper writing to me. I’d be
wondering what had come from me if I
took myself somewhere and said, “Right,
I’m going to live in Memphis, look at
Memphis and write about Memphis people.”
There’s people who have been living in
Memphis for the past 50 years and
they’re not going to be interested in
what I think of Memphis having lived
there for three months. In terms of
urban environments, let’s say I went to
San Francisco. I’d end up writing the
same sort of book except the places
would be different. Names of streets
would be different and so on.

In “About a Boy” you explored a
“typical male” reaction to children and
the concept of fatherhood. Yet you seem
very comfortable with your own role as a
father.

Anyone who has a kid, at some point in
every day, for one minute, says, “Fucking
hell! I wish I lived in this penthouse
with my CDs in perfect order and no one
to piss around with my Bang & Olufson!”
And writing a book is taking that flash
of fantasy and expanding on it. In the
course of a day you have a million
contradictory thoughts. You look at a
woman and think, For this second I do
not want to be married. All that stuff
happens all the time and can take you
anywhere, and all that stuff is
certainly true about being a parent.

Has fatherhood influenced your
writing?

My experience with Danny is so different
that I don’t think that has properly
influenced my writing yet. [Danny is
autistic.]

Does writing force you to analyze
yourself as a person?

Well with the type of books that they
are, contemporary, I think it’s very
hard to write about things like drugs or
hooligans without finding a bit of
yourself in there.

Is writing books therapeutic for
you?

Well, I have therapy as well, so
[laughs] … I had therapy a couple of
years before I wrote “Fever Pitch,” and
it was the first time I’d ever talked
about football in a way other than it
being football. I used to go on
Mondays, and every Monday I’d sit down
and be asked, “How was your weekend?”
And I’d reply, “Oh it was crap, ’cause
we lost 2-1.” It was just a crap joke
because I didn’t know what else to say.
After about a year she [the therapist]
said, “Why do you always do that, the
joke about the weekend?” And she just
started asking me about it. It had never
occurred to me that there was any sort
of meaning connected at all. And I was
amazed at the time scale of when she
pointed out I was getting interested in
football relative to my parents getting
divorced and things like that. So I
don’t think the book was therapy but is
was certainly a product of it.

Your first book dealt with very
personal subjects.

When I saw ["Fever Pitch"] in print for
the first time I thought, God, I’ve
exposed myself here! You look at it and
think, Why did I want to go and write
all this stuff about me? It struck me
as a very peculiar thing to have done.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

With the restaurant all but empty, save
for a handsome chap and two rather
stunning women at the table behind us,
it was time for Hornby to go home and
continue working on his fourth book. The
working title: “How to Be Good.”

“It’s at an early stage and it’s
narrated by a woman,” Hornby said
quickly before thanking me for lunch and
striding purposefully out of the
restaurant.

But then I saw him stop, turn abruptly
and head speedily back inside, head
down. He looked a bit stern and it was
actually a little worrying. He came
right up to me, stopped and looked up
from under his eyebrows before gesturing
over his shoulder at the occupied table.

“Giles Grimandi,” he whispered, having
recognized the Arsenal defender moments
earlier. He winked and quickly strode
back out.

Even Nick Hornby couldn’t have written a
better ending.

Steffan Chirazi is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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