On New Year's Eve, four strangers converge on the roof of a London apartment tower to jump. But it's awkward, isn't it, gathering the wits—or would you say abandoning them?—to off yourself in front of three people you've only just met. And such hopeless ones, at that. What makes A Long Way Down
quintessentially a Nick Hornby novel is the way he draws humor out of that impromptu rooftop gathering without undermining the very real angst that brought his characters together in the first place.
"It seems to me there's probably nothing you can't do in a funny book that a heartbreaking book is doing," Hornby explained before reading to hundreds of fans here in Portland. "You can write about exactly the same stuff. You just try not to deny people hope and enjoyment at the same time."
In 1992, Fever Pitch made Hornby a star to soccer fans whose reading rarely may have ventured beyond the sports page. Three years later, High Fidelity won ecstatic raves from fans of fiction and music, alike—you could justly blame Rob Fleming's women troubles for the whole genre of Lad Lit; Hornby made it seem so easy to satirize the inner workings of a commitment-phobic single man that publishers soon flooded bookstores with inferior imitations. If skeptics persisted, however, About a Boy and How to Be Good proved the author could take on characters and conflicts broader than his first two efforts, with the same sly charm and reflection.
It's enough to forget that Hornby broke through writing nonfiction, but his monthly "What I've Been Reading" columns for the Believer magazine (collected through November 2004 in The Polysyllabic Spree) offer the most astute, entertaining commentary on books and reading being published today. All this on the heels of another McSweeney's project, Songbook, wherein Hornby riffed on many of his favorite pop songs. Not unlike a mix-tape in prose, the Independent dubbed it "a pleasure for anyone to read." Exactly, in other words, what we've come to expect.
Dave: Each of your novels has taken a different narrative perspective: the thirty-something single man, the twelve-year-old boy, the adulterous housewife, and now the four depressives up on the roof.
Nick Hornby: Each time I've tried to do something new. The big thing for this book sprung from the story I wrote for Speaking with the Angel; it was written in somebody's speaking voice. When I finished, I thought, That was so fun. Forget about writing in a literary voice; I'm going to try speaking voices. I knew at that point that next time I came to write a novel, there would be more than one person speaking.
That was one part of it. The other of course was the idea for the book. Maureen, for one, couldn't have been a thirty-something guy—I wanted her to have lived a certain kind of life for twenty years. So it wasn't foresight in terms of How different can I get from Rob? The point of view suited the problems that I wanted these characters to have.
Dave: A woman narrates How to Be Good, and it stops being an issue by page four. Was the leap to a female point of view as natural as it comes off on the page?
Hornby: I kept realizing, for various technical reasons, that it was going to have to be from the woman's point of view. I kept adding it up, like maths: I want to do this, I want to do that, I want to do that—it's the woman. Bugger! I better double-check. I want to do this, and this, and this—it's the woman again. Arrgh.
It wasn't an issue by the time I sat down to write it. With all the books, I've had plenty of time before sitting down to actually write them, so I've got some kind of voice and tone in my head before I start.
I knew it would be an issue with media and I'd just have to swallow that. When the book was in Penguin's catalog at home, there was a picture of me wearing a dress on the front of the Guardian. And a lot of this, I think, is because the first book [Fever Pitch] was about soccer. I don't think it was even necessarily High Fidelity.
Dave: You've written three books of personal nonfiction: Fever Pitch, Songbook, and The Polysyllabic Spree. But your novels, also, because the voices feel so familiar, are perceived by many readers to be at least in part autobiographical. It's more of an issue for you than most authors, I think.
Hornby: I think that's right, though there's nothing I can really do about it. I don't feel like any of the fictional characters are actually me —I wouldn't like them to represent me in any given social situation— but there are things about them I feel I'm quite connected to. Probably Rob more than most, at the time.
With this book, I've got a disabled kid and Maureen's got a disabled kid; there are things I know about having had that experience, but I don't think that's quite the same as writing autobiographically. I used what I knew. I've done that a few times.
Dave: In one of the Believer columns, you note that every time you read a biography of a novelist, you're taken aback by how autobiographical the subject's novels are.
Hornby: Right, about Richard Yates I wrote that. I do think it's incredible. I never feel as if I write autobiographically in that way.
Dave: And yet the truth, with any author, is that your life experience populates your brain with ideas and inspirations, and however much they might get garbled in the process of creating stories, they wind up as words on the page.
Hornby: It's true. You can get a pretty good idea of what an author is like from a thriller or a science fiction novel. There's going to be politics in there; there's going to be a sense of humor or a lack of sense of humor; there's going to be warmth or not. You're always going to reveal yourself through your writing. It's impossible not to.
Dave: Are you familiar with Miriam Toews?
Hornby: I'm not.
Dave: Her most recent novel, A Complicated Kindness, won last year's Governor General's Award. I recently came across a quote of yours that gave me a strange sense of déjà vu. Wait, someone has said that exact same thing to me before. I realized that it was Toews. She said, of her novel, "I wanted it to be as funny as it could be and as sad as it could be at the same time. That's my favorite kind of writing, the stuff I like to read."
Hornby: Is the book good?
Dave: It's fantastic.
Hornby: I want to read that.
Dave: It's an interesting study in autobiographical fiction, too. Both Toews and her narrator were raised in a Mennonite village outside of Winnipeg. She'd previously written a biography of her father [Swing Low], so you can hold one book up against the other and see where the novel intersects with her own experience and where it totally diverges.
The novel verges on heartbreaking at times, but it's not a book you cry your way through. It's very funny.
Hornby: I'm getting to the point where I wonder what the point of that would be, writing heartbreaking books for people that leave them bereft at the end.
Dave: There's no shortage of them.
Hornby: I know. That does seem to be the literary model. And I'm now at the stage where I'm genuinely perplexed as to why someone would want to do that. It seems to me there's probably nothing you can't do in a funny book that a heartbreaking book is doing. You can write about exactly the same stuff. You just try not to deny people hope and enjoyment at the same time.
I interviewed Springsteen last week for a music magazine, just briefly, but I was asking about his stage stuff—some of it's funny, his goofing around. He said, "I think some of the things I sing about are quite hard, and I want people to listen, so I try to entertain them at the same time."
It seems like such a blindingly obvious thing to say, but so much fiction doesn't entertain people, and therefore I don't know how it can ask people to pay so much attention. Every book is demanding to be read in someone's leisure time. Even if you're writing a biography of Stalin, there is a sense in which you have to craft it and make it as readable as you can.
Dave: Which speaks to why your books sell well, particularly to people who aren't necessarily big readers. I think people are scared to take chances with a lot of literary fiction. You may have heard the book was good, but is it where you want to spend fifteen hours of your life?
Hornby: That's one of the things that frustrates me about things like The Booker Prize. I think a lot of people allow The Booker Prize to make a selection for them; that's going to be their one literary novel of the year. They read it, and they can't fucking read it. There's an attitude that, Well, that's better than all the others, so how am I going to get on with the others?
They say it promotes reading, The Booker Prize. Sometimes I fear that it actually kills it dead.
Dave: Who are some funny writers you enjoy?
Hornby: I love Wodehouse, and I think Dickens is very funny. Sarah Vowell makes me laugh—lots of nonfiction writers. Dave Eggers's books are funny. Lorrie Moore is funny. But mostly for comedy I won't turn to writing; I'll go to TV or film.
Dave: How did you get started writing the Believer column?
Hornby: Dave [Eggers] had done something for Speaking with the Angel. We'd known each other for a while. At the time, I was having the experience that I wrote about in the first installment. One book would lead me to another and another. And I thought, There isn't a column where people just write about what they read, where they let their own natural inclinations guide them. They're usually being paid to write about books, which obviously changes the relationship with the book a little bit.
Just as I was thinking that, Vendela [Vida] asked if I wanted to write a music column for the Believer. I said that I didn't want to write about music in that way, but what about this? We thought we'd give it a go.
I've really enjoyed doing it. I don't want to stop.
Dave: How does chronicling your reading life change it? It must force you to think about the books, and your prejudices, in ways that reading alone wouldn't.
Hornby: I try to come up with some half-ass theory of what each month represented. You can see that there are patterns.
The one I just submitted was interesting—it hasn't come out yet. I read Gilead, and I just loved it. It's such hard work, that book; I didn't understand about one line in three, never having read a book about Christianity before.
Looking back on it, and why I went for it in such a big way, I'm sure it was something to do with my own book coming out in England at the time and being slightly freaked out. It just feels really noisy in your head all the time— it's different for me in England; there is noise. And this book is so quiet. Sitting on trains, traveling around the U.K., reading Gilead felt right, as if I needed it nutritionally. Now this month I'm reading Housekeeping [Marilynne Robinson's previous novel], and it's not working. I can see it's a great book, but I'm much more tired. When I was reading Gilead, I was working off some sort of nervous energy, and Housekeeping requires more patience than I've got just now.
It's something we know about ourselves: our mood is going to affect how we react to a book. Book critics are like that as much as any of us, but there's that tone of authority to book criticism; I think it's hogwash most of the time. There is no authority, and there is no objective truth about a book.
Dave: Of the many books in The Polysyllabic Spree that piqued my interest, one that I'm anxious to read is How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.
Hornby: Have you not seen that?
Dave: I haven't, though I think it may have had a different title in hardcover here in the US. [Editor's note: The hardcover was called Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense.] The paperback is due out in July.
Hornby: Francis Wheen also wrote a really great biography of Marx. I know that might not sound appealing, but it's very funny. It's about Marx the hack as much as anything, a slightly comical figure. He so wanted to impress, for example, that he had a butler even though he was living in some squalor, and he and the butler ended up sharing a bed. Engels was writing half his stuff because Marx was basically overstretched. It's a funny story and really helpful as well.
Dave: Why do editors get such minor billing compared to record producers?
Hornby: I don't think an editor can create the sound of a book. You can make a book better. But if you think about musical genres, some of them, the music was practically invented by a producer. Phil Spector, Jam and Lewis, Dr. Dre... These guys, you can hear them in every note.
A good editor can make a book better, but you're never going to be able to look at an imprint and say, Look, you can see Robert Gottleib (or whoever) in all of these books; you can hear him in every line. Sometimes an editor can be really smart and bring something out of a book that the author hasn't noticed, but I don't think they're ever going to be able to create in the same way as a producer.
Dave: I knew that I wasn't buying enough copies of Songbook when it came out in hardcover, with the accompanying CD.
Hornby: It's beautiful, isn't it?
Dave: It's great packaging. I mean, aside from the book...
Hornby: No, no—but beyond that. It's the first book I'd ever written where my friends picked it up and said, "Hey, I want one of these."
Dave: There's a publishing lesson here somewhere.
Hornby: Exactly. It's nice to return to books as artifacts, as objects you want to take home.
Dave: And McSweeney's is very good at that.
Hornby: They're fantastic. It's always exciting getting involved because you can't wait to see how it will turn out.
Dave: I've given the paperback to a few people—and it's nice having the additional essays—but to have the music alongside the essays in hardcover really opened up the pieces to another level of consumption. Not all the songs are so well-known, and it's not as if they're contained in any one place.
Hornby: Some of them were more important than others. It wouldn't have mattered if they didn't have Gregory Isaacs singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" —you get the idea from the essay. But a couple of them were about particular moments in the song, so it did make a difference.
It always helps when something's for charity, and you can phone up and say, "We're not getting any money, so you're not, either." Mostly, then, it's fine.
Dave: How do you discover good music these days?
Hornby: I do a lot of scanning of magazines. I don't really read them so much, but I'll have a look, and if I see four stars and it says it's like something I like... Then there's personal recommendations. And the Internet.
Dave: If you could design your own supergroup...
Hornby: [a long pause] I'd have the drummer out of Booker T. and the MGs. Or there's also the guy who drummed for Al Green, Al Jackson.
This is a hard question. You'd want teams of people, I think.
Dave: A rhythm section.
It would pretty much be Booker T. and the MGs; I'd like to hear them backing a singer I like. I love Steve Cropper; I love that rhythm section. And if you could maybe throw in someone to mess it up a bit, like Hendrix.
Rod Stewart fronting Booker T. and the MGs in 1972 with Hendrix on guitar.
I'd at least go see them in a bar.
Dave: They'd be worth the cover.
Dave: "Dave Eggers," you write, "has a theory that we play songs over and over, those of us who do, because we have to 'solve' them."
I'm aware that people do this, but the whole concept makes me uncomfortable. When I hear a song that I like, I need to protect it as much as possible because I know it's going to wear out with repeated listening.
Hornby: I can see that what you say makes perfect sense, but I've never thought of it that way. I wish I were more disciplined.
I think it's particularly true, what Dave said, about really annoying pop songs that really get under your skin. You think, There's something going on here; I want to play it again. That was the Nelly Furtado song ["I'm Like a Bird"] I was writing about, and there were all sorts of little tricks that I wanted to crack. What was going on? But I've never tried to protect anything. I just let the songs live or die by the exposure, and the really good ones don't die.
Dave: What have you been listening to the most lately?
Hornby: The Magic Numbers. They're an English band. Their first album came out this week. I was playing it again today; I got a pre-release because I was interviewing them for something. It's lovely folk-pop. Really great songs.
Dave: When Ian McEwan was here, he said, "If I was commanded by the government to exchange whatever writing ability I had with someone else's other ability, I'd say to Ry Cooder, 'You can have my writing ability; I want your playing ability.'"
What about you?
Hornby: I wouldn't have minded Thierry Henry, his career at Arsenal. I'd really like to know what that felt like.
Sport is so different. Of course there are loads of musicians I'd like to be, but you can very crudely approximate in words your favorite bits of music. To smash a ball into the net from thirty yards and have all those people go nuts, just to feel like that... To feel that fit. I don't think I ever have. That would be pretty cool.
Dave: That segues nicely into our Impossible Question segment where you answer one or the other, A or B.
The first question is: Perry Groves or Pascal Cygan?
Hornby: Ha! On a purely pragmatic level, Perry Groves never cost us any games.
Dave: That question was supplied by Wesley Stace, by the way.
Hornby: Was he here?
Dave: In April.
Hornby: He had my Cup Final tickets.
Dave: Because you couldn't use them?
Hornby: I was touring, and it was the pretty much last weekend before I came here. I hadn't seen my kids. The Cup Final is now in Cardiff. It seemed perverse to not be at home for a single second of the day.
Dave: Pop music fiction or sports fiction?
Hornby: Pop music. I never buy the premise of sports fiction. I'm kind of nerdy about it, but I wind up saying, "Who is this team? When did they beat the New York Yankees? They never!" I can't imagine this alternative universe.
Dave: The novelist can fool with anything, but not sports results.
Hornby: And leagues. Suddenly a team has to enter a league and you know they've never been there. I hate that. I just hate it. And the names of the teams are always so stupid. Whereas you can have a fictional band that no one's ever heard of and it doesn't really matter. I think everyone buys the premise.
Dave: Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers?
Hornby: Let It Bleed.
Dave: Hangover Square or Twenty-thousand Streets under the Sky?
Hornby: Twenty-thousand Streets under the Sky.
Are these all from Wes?
Dave: That one and the Arsenal question.
I grew up in Massachusetts, a die-hard Red Sox fan. After the events of the last two years, I know that your life must be different now that Arsenal is no longer a laughing stock.
Hornby: There's a lot less intensity about the games and about winning, but the main thing is that it's such a pleasure to go and watch them, which it never has been before.
I don't want to miss games, not because I'm nuts but because they've been so great for the last four or five years. You just kind of sit there and allow yourself to be entertained. It's more like going to the cinema than it ever has been before, and actually it's a bit more distancing because of that.
Dave: In The Polysyllabic Spree, you mention standing on a chair in a pub called The Bailey, singing a comical song about Victoria Beckham. I was wondering how that goes.
Hornby: Have you ever heard of an Arsenal player called Ray Parlour? [Editor's note: the name is pronounced pahlah, at least when Hornby says it.] He's gone now, but he was the most prosaic of the team the last few years. He was the workhouse; he came from Essex, which is our equivalent of New Jersey.
Anyway, the last two lines of this song were, "And when she's shagging Beckham / She thinks of Ray Parlour"—to rhyme with Wonderbra. The sheer unlikeliness of Victoria Beckham thinking anything at all about Ray Parlour...
Dave: Music and sports, your first subjects. Now you're writing about books, too. What other nonfiction subjects might you try?
Hornby: I'd quite like to write a book of essays about anything that took my fancy, including politics or film or memoir-y stuff. I think there are other ways of writing about books, as well.
Dave: You're working on a screenplay right now.
Dave: Do you find the process satisfying in the same way as writing books? Is it comparable?
Hornby: It's comparable, and you can feel that you've done a pretty good draft and be pleased with it. The way in which it's not comparable is in the end it's nothing to do with you; whereas writing, everything is you.
If something gets published, it's your work. Maybe an editor has helped you, but they couldn't really say it was their work. In a movie, the words are just a starting-off point. The part that people are actually interested in is everything that comes after that, as in actors and directors.
It's a much more humble role, and what you've done won't mean anything if the movie isn't made; it's meant to be looked at. If it's just going to sit there on the page and that's all that happens to it, then it's a complete failure.
Dave: Has screenwriting affected your approach to novels?
Hornby: It's made me much more grateful to them. I don't think it's changed the way I write novels; it just makes me happy when I go back to them. I think, God, you can do this in a novel and no one's going to tell you to take it out. If you want to write a joke that goes on for five pages, as long as it's funny it can stay.
Nick Hornby visited Portland on June 15, 2005 for a reading at the First Congregationalist Church. By the time doors opened thirty minutes prior to the event's scheduled start, a line reached around the block. We shared a couch downstairs in the parson's robing room while feet scurried above us, fans staking claim to their seats.