Nick Hornby (AP/Taylor Jewell)

Nick Hornby gave up record stores for Spotify, cigarettes for vaping, and adapting his own books

Salon talks to the "High Fidelity" author and "Brooklyn" screenwriter about his new show "State of the Union"


Alli Joseph
May 14, 2019 8:00PM (UTC)

Nick Hornby has written many of the bestselling books that have turned into your favorite movies, from "High Fidelity" and "About A Boy" to "Fever Pitch," as well as adapted the work of others into award-winning screenplays, like "Wild" and "Brooklyn." His new work is a short-form dramedy — each of the 10 episodes is only 10 minutes long — called "State of the Union," currently airing on Sundance TV and Sundance Now

Directed by Stephen Frears, "State of the Union" places a married couple, played by Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd, in a pub right before their weekly counseling session, to "banter and bicker, spar and spat" as they try to figure out how they moved apart and whether they can come back together again.

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Hornby sat down with me last week for a "Salon Talks" conversation about adapting books into acclaimed films — but not his own — his writing process (it includes vaping and jigsaw puzzles), and writing about "marriage as a character in itself."

In today's short attention span world, we're going to share with our audience that your programming in this regard is unique and it's appropriate for today's short attention span. 10 episodes, 10 minutes, no commitment. You really caught me with that, you grabbed me. What made you want to try this format?

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Well, I'd seen a couple of things that used it. I think most notably "High Maintenance," which was a Vimeo show before it moved to HBO. It was like eight, 10 minutes. I thought, "Oh, that's interesting." It's at a time where forms are beginning to float free of their original medium, so books are online and music can be one song or it can be 50 songs. It's not attached to a thing anymore. And TV programs, it turns out, don't have to be 30 minutes or 60 minutes. Those days are gone.

I thought that it looked fun to try and write it, and I'd had this idea of a couple and how they are before marital therapy a while ago, so it was a collision of the form and the idea I guess. I started it because literally everything else I was doing had ground to a halt, and I had about a month to kill, which was too short for a novel, and I didn't want to start another screenplay that would get stuck somewhere. So I thought I'm going to have a go and see what happens, and it got weirdly out of hand.

I wouldn't say so. I quite enjoyed it.

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No, I didn't expect it to turn out so fancy, with the-

It is fancy.

— Stephen Frears and Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd.

Drinking rosé and having fancy actors. Look at that.

Now I understand that this was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend, and it was shown continuously but without the credits. What was the audience response?

It was good. It was the second time we had done it. We did it at Sundance in January, and it was the thing we were most nervous about because clearly it wasn't made to be seen like that, but with the 100-minute thing, it seems like a kind of quirky 10-chapter movie, maybe like an early Woody Allen or something like that. I think that the actors' performances and faces are so interesting that you don't worry too much about the audience getting bored. Also, each of the 10 episodes sort of has a beginning, a middle and an end, as does the series. There's an arc. I think it kind of function as a movie even though it wasn't supposed to.

I'm impressed that you did all that in a month.

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The writing?

Yeah.

Yeah, probably. They were really a joy to write.

It's so witty and so fast that you have to be really closely listening because I feel like every exchange is a clever joke.

Well they riff off each other, and things turn very quickly in the sentences that lead them onto some kind of bone of contention or something that they regret. It's kind of a bit of a freeform mess, but they do speak fast, and we do pack a lot into the 10.

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You have to be good at listening to accents. But I wanted to get every little moment, so I rewound it a lot, and I did, I hope, got most of it.

Who did you have trouble with? Chris or Rosamund?

Chris.

Chris, and his Irish.

Yeah. But I love him. It's my fault.

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We all love him. Everyone loves him.

It is my philistine ears.

Everyone loves Chris. It's really remarkable I think.

And [Pike's] amazing. She came on here for her last film, which was of course very sober, and she was just lovely as well.

She's great.

But I hadn't seen her be funny as often.

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I wrote a movie called "An Education" with Carey Mulligan, and Rosamund had a comic role in that. First of all, I didn't know if she'd want to do it, and she was desperate to do a comic role, and then afterwards she said, "No one ever lets me be funny," and I thought, "Wow." To have a beautiful, really sharp comedienne at your disposal as it were, I thought, I'm filing that away and I'm using that whenever I can, because it's such a gift that she has.

And she's a good dramatic actress and she turns very quickly, so I think there parts in this hopefully where they go from funny to sad pretty quickly, and she requires no buildup as it were. They're both good at that, but Rosamund's fantastic.

You're a writer in my observation whose work thrives in these long, impressive stretches of dialogue. How did you pull it tight for this?

The funny thing about these is that they liberated me in ways that I hadn't expected, because you never get to write 10 minute dialogue scene. In fact, even though it's a short-form TV, it's actually long-form dialogue. They won't ever let you do a page and a half, two pages of dialogue in a movie. Even if you're enjoying it, someone's going to come in and say, "We've got to move on, we've got 100 minutes." Actually, I had 100 minutes to write 10 sort of self-contained conversations. The problem is that because dialogue comes easily to me, you can easily get to a point where you've written the 10 pages, and you haven't said anything that you want to say. That was the challenge, was to go back and stuff more things in and boil it down.

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It's hard to edit oneself. Do you have a good editor?

I'm a good editor.

So he doesn't need one.

I won't claim much for myself, but I think I'm a good reader of my own work, and I have... I think it's a good combination. I'm a decent reader and I have zero self-confidence, so if you read something and you think it might be bad . . .you've got to take it out, as opposed to the self-confident people who think, "No, that's hilarious. I'm going to leave it in." I'm not one of those people.

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That's good to know. Well then that's probably why you've done so well. 

Well, not as badly as I might've done anyway.

Oh, see now. There's that lack of self-confidence.

Tom and Louise, a married couple, are trying to recover from a marital infidelity and they're given a funny premise to meet in a bar before therapy. I was wondering if maybe everyone in marital counseling should try meeting at a bar, unless of course they have a drinking problem.

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Well, it seems more natural to do in England than maybe it would in America.

Everyone's so judgmental here.

Everyone's judgmental and drink is more of a charged thing, whereas at home, I think stopping at the end of a day for a glass of wine and a pint is part of our idiom. I wanted it to be in a pub so they can just sit and talk and have a drink, and I wanted them to be able to see out of the window where they're going. That's the other thing is that they could see the therapist's house, and they can see the people coming out before them.

They sort of steel themselves for what's coming.

Now we don't see any actual counseling happening in the show, but rather the anticipation of what emotions people might tap into for the couple in these moments. Since we don't see what's happening in there, how do you build up to that?

The reason I didn't go in is because I think it can be dramatically inert to sit in a counseling office, especially... There's so many silences. If you've ever done any therapy or counseling yourself, I won't delve, but if you've ever done that —

Yes.

But you don't just go in and gab. Someone asks you a question and it's like, "I don't know."

Also it costs money. Time is money, so don't be chatty.

And it costs money, yeah.

Because it's before, they go in, they try and decide what it is they want to talk about. They talk about what went wrong in the previous week's session, and they've also got a week of life that's happened to them as well. There's this real jumble of stuff. I wanted to write about marriage as a character in itself, because every relationship has, as it were, a mother and a father, the two people in the relationship, and the relationship's something that exists between them. So that's kind of the third person I suppose in it. It's built up of really complicated stuff. Every day you spend with someone is another day of history where something's been misunderstood or gone wrong, or perhaps gone right if you're lucky, and they have all this to deal with basically.

In normal couple's counseling, there's usually some impetus, and here we learn quickly on which one it is. But that's maybe why people could be in analysis for years. That's why I think cognitive behavioral therapy solves the problem. Who could sit on a couch for 20 years? It seems like just a giant waste of time, no offense to the Freudians.

Or Jungians.

Or any, yeah. Just hit the problem and — 

Hit the problem and deal with it.

Again, time is money.

Let's go back to your skill at writing dialogue. You say yourself, and obviously your fans know, that you write dialogue so well, but it is hard to do, and you said that you weren't so good at it when you began in your career. What part of your writing process over the years most helped you refine this part of your writing, do you think?

I think noticing what comes easy is the first thing. You have a sense that writing is a certain kind of thing, and I think that it was prose actually that I found hardest, and then I realized that people liked reading dialogue and I liked writing it. Just because something is dialogue heavy doesn't mean it's necessarily a movie or a TV show. It can also be a book. I kind of just relaxed into doing that, and didn't worry about the other stuff so much.

That makes sense. When you decided to make the shift from novel writing into adapting them into screenplays and for other people, did you ever imagine a further evolution that would include that step, like "Wild" and "Brooklyn"?

No. I mean not at the beginning. It was a funny thing about writing, which is that every time I start something, a novel or an original like "State of the Union," I guess, you always think, "This one's going to be different, I'm going to be me," and you sail out into what you hope is new territory, and it's like the end of "The Truman Show." There's a clunk, and you hit the inside of your own head again. You think, "Oh man, it's me again," and there's nothing I can do about it. I'm just me.

When I was offered an adaptation, I thought, "This is someone else's head. This is fantastic." It's like opening one door out of my head and into theirs, and I've got all this territory to work with, and that was such a joy with "Wild" and "Brooklyn," because I couldn't have lived those lives, or I don't know those people, but the author enabled me to have access to them, and to use what skills I have as a dramatist and a dialogue writer to bring them to life. It's been a real fresh thing for me, that.

Well you're saying essentially that you have your own universe, and then you essentially get to step into someone else — 

Yeah, and you get sick of your own universe sometimes.

I think I read on your website, somebody asked you what your typical day was. Can I read it?

Yeah.

You said, "An average day. I have an office around the corner from my home."

"I arrive there between 9:30 and 10:00 AM. I smoke a lot. I 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." There's lack of self-confidence again. Keep going back. You get mad, because people aren't wanting to talk to you.

No. Well that's just I want something to break the boredom.

I got it. "Go home for lunch. If I'm picking up my son I leave at 3:30. If not I stay til 6:00. It's all pretty grim and so dull." The life of a writer is often solitary. I know this. I've worked on a book some years ago, and it just goes on and on, and this was writing someone else's life story, so I can only imagine if I was trying to craft something fresh.

How do you combat loneliness or boredom when you're in the thick of working on a project, and also not get distracted by everything that's available to us now?

There are a couple of things that have changed since I said that. One is I gave up smoking and turned to vaping, and that... There's quite a lot of business involved with vaping.

Tell me.

Well, you choose your juices and you can go to places and have different puffs of different things. Sometimes the coils need changing, you need to clean them. Cigarettes, you just buy a packet of your favorite cigarettes and smoke them. I've got this whole hobby with the vaping that's really helping with the writing.

The other thing is I discovered that jigsaw puzzles were a really good way of doing something without taking yourself out of the zone of writing. I think the big killer for writers is spending too long on the internet, or just being taken out of the place that you were. I've got a desk here, and then behind me is a jigsaw, and so when I get to the end of my horrible two or three sentence burst, I spin around and I start working on the jigsaw. But there's nothing really to think about. You can't get stuck. You just work steadily. And actually, I think you're probably still in the wold of what you're writing.

How long does it take you? 1000 piece puzzles? 5000? 

No, I do 1000. I do a 1000.

I was about to say you're a 5000 piece guy.

Thank you.

Puppies? Tower of London?

No, no. I'm very specific about what I want to do.

See, now you've made me ask.

I had some good ones. 1940s film posters. Oh, the hardest thing, literally the hardest thing I've ever done in my working day, much harder than books or screenplays, was the cover of "Sgt. Pepper."

Oh my God, so many flowers.

It's the flowers.

It's the flowers.

Exactly. The faces at the top are a joy, but then the—

The whole thing is like a big trip anyway. You try to keep looking at it.

But there's no piece with the flowers that tells you what it's spelling out, because there were too many flowers. It was a killer, but it was great.

That's great. You didn't that much writing done that day.

That's my tip for the top.

If you really get to the "Sgt. Pepper" album, it will take you forever.

How did you balance the relationship, going back to adaptations, between the big movie studios and the writers that you're working with, because their goals might be different depending on the day?

I don't think I've worked with big studios. I think that you might end up working with big studios once the movie's finished, but all of those movies started with a smallish production company and me doing the screenplay, and then things start to accumulate, like actors and money and distributors. At the beginning it's a very small team, and my loyalty very much is to the writers. I didn't ever want to piss them off with what I'd done, especially because it's Cheryl [Strayed's] memoir and it's very personal.

I hope she remembers me saying to her, "If there's anything that you think is offensive to you or your family, then let me know and I can change it," because there's no point getting hung up on the detail of something that might annoy somebody, so you can find a way round it. You circumvent it. You write about something else. Hopefully... Well I know we still have a good relationship. I have a good relationship with Cheryl and with Colm Toibin, who wrote "Brooklyn." The were happy I think with the movies.

I'm sure they were, and you must always respect the writer and the process.

Then what about adapting your own books?

Don't do it.

What?

I don't do it.

You don't? As an artist, you spend all this time writing your own book, and then you hand it off to somebody else?

Yeah. I did it with the first book, "Fever Pitch," because I didn't know if I'd ever make any money out of a second book, but once I realized that I had a career, I really didn't want to spend three years writing a book and then five years taking out everything that I'd just written in the first place. I'm happy for someone else to do it.

Hopefully they show you the same respect.

Yeah. They've all been good and nice. I think the only reason that movies don't work out at that sort of level is things that you can't govern. No one ever sets about trying to make a rubbish movie. The kind of books I write, I don't think anyone looks at them and thinks, "Oh yeah, we can take this bit out and throw the rest away." There is no rest. There's only this stuff. It's only people talking about their lives and relationships.

I understand that you're a big music fan, that's pretty evident from a lot of your work. I wanted to just touch briefly before we have to run on "31 Songs."

It's called "Songbook" in America, and "31 Songs" in England.

The collection of essays, if people don't know, about what you feel some of the best songs ever written were and also the resonance to you.

It's more about the resonance I think than making any particular claim for the quality of the songs.

Would you redo it? Are they the forever songs?

No, no, they're not. One of them was "Puff the Magic Dragon."

I was going to ask you about that. It's right here, look. Why?

That essay was about my son, I have a son with autism, and his relationship with music, which was really interesting to me. I chose that song as something that he used to have on repeat a lot of the time. I would make no claims for it as being the greatest song ever written. There are a few there like that, where it was just a chance to enable me to write about one's relationship with music rather than the music itself.

Absolutely. I mean music is such a powerful force for so many people, and also I imagine you learned how it works in maybe even a greater way with folks with special needs. I think this was in fact in part to benefit your son's school if I recall at the time.

Yes, it was. The relationship with music remains intense. I made an album with Ben Folds where I wrote the words and he wrote the music. That was really interesting because you get to see how music actually operates. "High Fidelity" has remained a sort of active thing in some way or another. Zoe Kravitz is making a TV series of the book now.

She's working here now in New York. Of course, that book has evolved, but vinyl shops still exist and music fans definitely still exist, so it's interesting to me how it's surviving.

Do you spend a lot of time still looking for vinyl?

No.

Not at all?

No, because I love music, and for me, the internet has been fantastic. I love Spotify. I think it's amazing. If I love something on Spotify, I will buy the vinyl of it, but usually, I'm afraid, via the internet.

I like not looking for it. I only used to look for it because I wanted to hear it.


Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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