Back in 2003, I snaffled Nick Hornby’s email address from a document I maybe shouldn’t have had access to, and boldly dropped him a line asking if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for me for publication in the Bath/Bristol creative magazine, Decode.
To my surprise, Hornby got back to me the very next day. He told me that it was very unusual for him to come back to anyone so quickly, but that in this case he’d had a whole batch of interviews to get through, and mine had just sneaked through at the last second.
By 2003 Hornby already had Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About a Boy and How to be Good under his belt. What really drew me towards him around this time was the short story collection he edited, Speaking with the Angel (with contributions from Dave Eggers, Roddy Doyle, Irvine Welch and Zadie Smith, amongst others) and 31 Songs (US title, Songbook), a collection of essays on popular song.
Here he shares some interesting thoughts on short stories, humour and fiction, and gives an update on the ‘not-to-be’ adaptation of Egger’s ‘Heartbreaking Work…‘. I was already an admirer, but after the interview he went up further in my estimations. Like Markus Zusak, he had an easy kind of warmth that comes across, even when answering questions he’s no doubt been asked a hundred times.
Judging by his comments on multiple monologues I expect he was working on A Long Way Down at the time of interview. Since 2003, Hornby has founded The Ministry of Stories, in London, written a book review column for The Believer, and published several more novels including Slam and Juliet, Naked.
Horby’s novel, Funny Girl, has recently come out in paperback.
I read an interview with you in which you said you’re always attempting to write books that are ‘funny + sad.’ It seems that to some degree a lot of successful writers are currently doing the same thing, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mark Haddon, for example, and I’ve heard it argued—by Zadie Smith amongst others—that this is a kind of recent phenomenon; the ‘Burned Children of America’ live all over the world. Do you have any thoughts on this?
What’s recent is people, proper literary writers who matter, coming forward and saying that humour is important to them and to their work. When I started writing, I remember being bowled over by Anne Tyler and Roddy Doyle because they had the ability to switch gear, rather than hit that dreary literary groove, po-faced and morose, and stay in it. (Name a Booker winner with a joke in it, pre ‘Paddy Clarke.) But you could find writers like that, particularly American writers – it was just that they seemed to be outside the literary mainstream,.Now we’re taking over the world.
Your short stories seem to share a lot with your novels – a lightness of touch and a kind of sadness; the central characters in NippleJesus or in Otherwise Pandemonium could have come straight out of your longer works. But there are certain differences. How important is it to you to work in the short story format? What can you do in short stories that you can’t do in longer works?
They’re monologues, I think, those two stories. And not only is a monologue difficult to sustain over 300 pages, I’m not sure anyone necessarily want to read a 300-page monologue. My feeling is that you need a little more light and shade in a novel than a monologue usually provides – a little respite from the tone of the voice. Most of my novels are narrated in the first person, but they’re for reading rather than speaking aloud, and so you will always find some parts that are sort of neutrally narrated, a first-person narrator temporarily serving the function of the third-person. But it’s fantastic to be able to finish something quite quickly, and also the company I kept in those 2 collections, ‘Angel’ and ‘McSweeneys 10’…That’s the sort of thing that keeps you going, helps you feel connected to a wider community of writers. You can be freer, more whimsical, rescue all sorts of ideas that were never going to be any use for a novel…
The short story has something of a hard time in the UK with less than 10 new collections by major publishers being brought out last year. Whereas in the US or Europe, the short story is a much more popular medium. Do you have any thoughts as to why this might be?
It drives me potty, our resistance to short stories in Britain. I used to recommend Lorrie Moore to everyone in the world –told people she was funny, sharp, soulful etc. And lots of people used to say, Sounds great, which novel should I read? And when I said she was really a short story writer, they lost interest. We don’t have much of a tradition here, though. We have never had an equivalent of the New Yorker, and we never had anyone like Richard Yates or Cheever or O’Hara, important writers whose best work was usually in the short form. Instead, we had dreary school anthologies with five pages of description and a crap twist at the end. I didn’t know there were any short stories worth reading until I was in my early 30s, and then I discovered Lorrie M, Carver, et al, and they made me want to write – in fact, the first 2 things I ever sold were short stories, to Radio 4. But maybe that’s it – short stories are incredibly valuable as a writing resource, and writing schools in the US love them, and we are not a nation of writers. When I do readings in the US, it seems as though half the crowd consists of budding writers. We don’t have so many, and we don’t have so many attending writing schools, and that’s maybe the way in which people learn to love the short form. By the way, I’ve just read a wonderful collection that’s coming out here in January – How To Breathe Underwater, by Julie Orringer.
Was 31 Songs a difficult book to finish? How often did you change your mind and can you imagine how different your choices might have been had you written it ten or fifteen years ago?
The book was written for fun, on a whim, and the moment I ran out of things to say in the way I wanted to say them, I stopped. I wrote it because I was getting bogged down in screenplays, waiting for decisions and meetings and co-writers, and I couldn’t start anything longer, so a series of short essays seemed ideal. And I’d wanted to publish a book through McSweeneys, because their books are so beautiful, so this looked like a fun way of doing that. (They published it as Songbook, with a CD, and it looked like no book I’ve seen before.) I didn’t worry about what was in or not in, because it wasn’t meant to be definitive in any way – just as a mix tape isn’t supposed to be definitive. One or two newspapers printed the list as if it were the 31 Songs that had made the cut, as if I Had Spoken, and nothing else was any good. Which meant that Puff the Magic Dragon was better than What’s Going On etc.
Music obviously plays an important part in your life and your writing. Do you listen to music as you write? What are you listening to at the moment?
I don’t usually write while listening to music, even though it’s in the mix, as it were – I couldn’t write without it. I’m having a flirtation with hip-hop at the moment – the Roots, Outkast, Jurassic 5. In other words, the nice hippyish, musical stuff that middle-class white boys like.
I read that you where involved in writing a screenplay of Dave Eggers’ A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. Is this still something you’re involved in? How do you find adapting someone else’s work for the screen as opposed to your own?
Yes, I’m still involved. Just. But it’s all very complicated and difficult, and takes up very little time! My partner, DV Devincentis, and I submitted the first draft a year ago, and nothing much has happened since, apart from the producer told us she loved it, and then tried to get us fired. It’s an insane business, really. But I like adaptation. It’s like doing Maths rather than English – it uses a different part of the brain.
Which, if any, of your contemporaries do you align yourself with? Or which of your contemporaries do you most admire?
Most of them have been mentioned somewhere in this interview. Dave E and Zadie, Roddy, Lorrie Moore…. Also Michael Chabon, Elizabeth McCracken, David Gates. (These last two, I think, are as good as anyone currently writing, but they’re not so well known here. And they’ve both had collections of stories published, even in the UK.) People with plots, jokes, a strong demotic voice.
I’m aware that you’re not keen on discussing works in progress but can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment?
Having said all that about sustaining monologues, the novel I’m working on at the moment has definitely been inspired by my enjoyment of writing the short stories. It’s sort of … four monologues interwoven, so if you get fed up with one voice, then there’ll be another one along in a moment.
Note: A version of this interview was originally published in Decode Magazine, 2003.