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.
In the book, Rob wishes he could be like Bruce Springsteen; in the movie Springsteen shows up to give him advice.
Yeah, that was an interesting moment for me. It was “Oh, I see, that’s how they do it in Hollywood: They just say ‘Call up Bruce Springsteen and ask him to say the lines himself.'” And someone in the room has his phone number, of course.
Of course. Did you feel the American remake of Fever Pitch was fundamentally honest to the spirit of your memoir?
Uh… well, I didn’t ever think of it like that. The U.S. Fever Pitch is a remake of the English movie, that’s just how it happened. I didn’t even have the rights, so I couldn’t have said no if I wanted to. And the English movie itself bore a much looser relationship to the book, so it was kind of a photocopy of a photocopy.
You’ve now adapted three screenplays, and all three of them have centered on female characters. Brooklyn, however, is your first full-on love story — did you find that women fall in love differently then men do?
That’s a big question. I think you need to know what the woman looks like. Eilis is clearly a pretty girl, and all the pretty girls that I’ve known have cause to be much warier than men. People are spinning them lines all the time, saying all kinds of crap, and I think it makes them watchful. I completely sympathize with that. I think also with the screenplays for An Education (2009) and Brooklyn there’s a sense that there are rules in place that these young women have to grapple with, and it’s maybe quite attractive from a dramatic standpoint to write about. I think it’s one of the reasons that Jane Austen is so popular with young people, because they feel that dilemma even if they don’t live that life.
Eilis is so eager to reinvent herself by traveling to America, whereas so many of the men in your stories seem like they’re trying hard not to change or grow up.
When I’m writing a novel, I always think to myself, “Oh, this one is different.” And then there comes a point halfway through the process where I bump up against the inside of my own skull and think “Oh no, it’s me again.” But when you’re adapting, you have the context of somebody else’s head and somebody else’s impulses. It’s liberating because it stops you from being yourself. I certainly wouldn’t adapt anything if I’d been sent it because somebody said it’s exactly like my novels. That would defeat the purpose for me.
Adapting Brooklyn felt easy. It had a lot of technical challenges; it’s a small story about big feelings, and we had to calibrate that right. The love triangle is not the center of the book, so it was a really tricky job of making sure that the character of Jim was able to create a proper case for himself in the tiny amount of space that was available for him. But everything was there for me, and my job I think was just to amplify it a little bit. Colm Tóibín leaves a lot to the imagination as the reader, which you can’t afford to do in film in quite the same way because those characters are standing right there; you have to commit in some way. But it really wasn’t the hardest job, just an interesting and enjoyable one.
Were you able to find any parallels between Eilis and yourself? Maybe instead of a love triangle you’re caught between the call of Hollywood and the familiar comforts of bookwriting?
[Laughs] No. I think it’s really that feeling of leaving somewhere that I honed in on. Pretty much all of us have done that, and it brings an overwhelming sadness knowing that you can’t go back again. That’s a real rite of passage for all of us in our own ways.
“It was ‘Oh, I see, that’s how they do it in Hollywood: They just say, “Call up Bruce Springsteen and ask him to say the lines himself.”‘ And someone in the room has his phone number, of course.”
Speaking of rites of passage, you’ve weathered a fair amount of criticism over the years, but you seem to be a lot more comfortable with it than so many other artists. Are you immune to bad reviews, these days?
I’m getting there [laughs]. I think the longer your career goes on, the more you think that the only thing you can hope for is that the work lasts. I think too many writers write because they have an eye on posterity, and they’re not responding to a contemporary audience. That’s the worst possible position to be taken seriously from! If you have no readership in your own lifetime, you won’t have any readership later on. I’m not talking about my own work here, but it really doesn’t matter how much fuss is made about something when it’s published so long as people read it. You know that Patty Griffin song “Time Will Do the Talking?” I think that applies to art as well as anything else.
Would you ever consider trying your hand at a superhero movie or something like that?
No. Never. Not in a million years. That seems to be the antithesis of everything that I enjoy and that I get out of writing. You couldn’t pay me enough money to do it. I’m much happier working in the independent sector of film. I could never see myself doctoring any scripts or writing any studio picture.
You’ve talked at length about a High Fidelity sequel, and even wrote an essay for Billboard Magazine about what it might be about. Have you given any serious thought to actually writing it since?
No. There are things that I’ve got lined up that I’m really excited about, and one of them is an original TV series that would be about a fictional independent record label at the end of the Seventies…I think that would scratch that itch well enough. I don’t particularly want to go back over old ground, and I know what the next novel would be if I had time to write it. Plus I’ve got another movie I’m writing for Jason Reitman, so it’s kind of hard to rule all that stuff out and go back to thinking about High Fidelity.
What are you listening to these days? I know that you tend to think of yourself as a traditionalist — is it just “Thunder Road” 1,000 times a week?
I do find it quite hard to listen to old rock music just because it’s exhausted for me. Most of the time I’ll be listening to new rock music. The last couple of years I properly taught myself to listen to jazz, which I’ve never done before. And I had a huge kind of crash course in everything made between 1955 and 1965.
But in terms of new rock music I think that Ryan Adams’ cover of the Taylor Swift record 1989 is genius. I really liked the original as well — I think the songs are terrific. I loved Ryan Adams’ critique of that album and what he found in those songs, so that’s on rotation at the moment. I also like this guy called Andy Shauf, a new kind of Elliott Smith type. He’s good.
You’ve said that challenging art often takes more time than adults are willing to give it. If you can open the door to jazz, do you think you might ever be willing to reconsider Kid A?
I don’t think so. It’s a funny idea to me. When I was writing for The New Yorker and I got sent that album, I must have listened to it five times a day for two weeks. I couldn’t find anything in it for me at all, and I voiced my irritation with that. But the idea of me now — with three kids, a job, an enormous record collection, an enormous DVD collection, Spotify — that the one thing I’d do is go “You know what? I’m going to give Kid A another go…” I don’t see how that would come up. I don’t see how it ever would with normal people. They get a considered opinion that they don’t like something and they leave it at that.
Do you listen to music when you write?
No. I listen to music in between bits of writing sometimes, and I go to the gym and listen to loud music, and then I listen to stuff at home when we’re cooking or whatever, but a lot of TV and movies get watched, and the music I listen to is always going to be the music I think I’ve got a chance of loving.