Nick Hornby on ‘Brooklyn,’ Taylor Swift and ‘High Fidelity’ Sequel
Nick Hornby is not a casual person. One of the most popular writers to emerge from the U.K. in the Nineties, the author exploded onto the literary scene with tales of overgrown boys whose passions metastasize into lifestyles and prevent them from being functional adults. (You get the sense that Judd Apatow has read ever word Hornby has ever written and taken copious notes.) Fever Pitch (1992) is a winsome, wince-inducing memoir about how the author’s obsessive fandom for the Arsenal football club; his first novel, High Fidelity (1995) follows a record-store owner whose greatest romance will always be with his vinyl. Hornby’s heroes are so committed to certain parts of themselves that they can’t fully commit to other people.
But now a 58-year-old family man, the writer can’t help but try to tunnel out of his own head. And with Brooklyn, the stirring new film he’s adapted from the Colm Tóibín novel of the same name, the bashful king of lad-lit flips the script on the story that he’s been writing his entire life. The story of a wide-eyed Irish girl named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) who sails to America in the 1950s and finds herself in the middle of a love triangle, it’s a moving, old-fashioned story that offsets the emotional heft of a lush historical drama with the watchability of a popcorn movie. It’s also the perfect fit for a writer whose most resonant work is often derided for its readability.
On the eve of his Brooklyn‘s release, the novelist, screenwriter, and former music critic rang up Rolling Stone for an in-depth conversation about his evolution as a writer, the genius of Taylor Swift, and if he’s ever going to rethink the Radiohead review that sullied his reputation among the obsessive music fans that High Fidelity chronicled.
Haruki Murakami tells this story about going to a baseball game in his early 30s, watching a pop fly sail towards the outfield, and suddenly knowing that he wanted to be a writer. Sports have clearly been instrumental in your creative life as well — but was the path that clear?
I think it was clear to me, but in a very indirect form. There was no sense of career path or what kind of writer I was; I just knew that there was something in me that had to come out. I did try, first of all, to write scripts, but I don’t really know what they were, and it took me a while to move to prose. They were kind of like BBC plays, but at a time when the BBC wasn’t producing plays anyway, so I don’t know what I thought I was doing.
Were you at all surprised how easily your books were adapted, or is it just that you’ve been able to make it look easy?
I wrote the first Fever Pitch movie (a British version starring Colin Firth, released in 1997) myself because it was a memoir and had to become something else as a film. And the next one (an Americanized version starring Jimmy Fallon, from 2005), somebody else had a go at. I think if you were to ask the various screenwriters who’ve adapted my work, they’d say that it wasn’t very easy at all. They all took five or six years to get right! I think people think it’s going to be very simple when they option them, and then they think, “Hold on, this book is set entirely in this guy’s head as he sits in a record store — and that actually isn’t a movie at all!”
But the script for High Fidelity has so much of your novel in it — a lot of it is verbatim!
[Laughs] Well, it’s funny, it went around all the studios and I think there was an earlier version — I’ve never read it — but I think it was a lot closer to something like You’ve Got Mail. That was the one about the bookstore, wasn’t it? The first studio thought that there wasn’t any story there and they had to put one in, so it became about a record store being eaten up by a bigger corporate record store and all of that. When John Cusack and his writer took over they went back to the book — and then when [director] Stephen Frears came on board, he made them go even further back to the book. So they ended up with John doing a lot of fourth wall stuff that contained great chunks of the novel. That may have been the only way it could work.