My favorite author Nick Hornby was recently in town promoting his new book, Funny Girl. You probably already know that I’m a massive Hornby fan, but if you need a primer on why, I turn you to my post from the last time he was in town promoting Juliet, Naked.
I hadn’t finished Juliet, Naked when I wrote that last piece six years ago. It is a beautiful novel. It is at the top of my Hornby list, and that is a very high position to occupy. I’d have to read them back to back, but Juliet might even beat out High Fidelity as my favorite Hornby work. Or, it might not be discernible. High Fidelity is about obsession and music in youth (20s). I was young when I read it. Juliet is about obsession and music as an adult (30s-40s), and I was an adult when I read it. High Fidelity introduced me Hornby. Juliet made me cry.
Which brings me to all the wonderful tidbits about High Fidelity and Nick’s books and other books and screenplays and movies that came to light during this recent forum, which I will now present here, in no particular order and in a far too wordy manner for the sake of preservation. The reading/talk took the form of an interview with an unknown (to me) Seattle comedienne who brought the questions back around to herself far too often. The really good questions came from the audience during the Q&A session at the end, because we as audience members were much more interested in Nick than ourselves, which is more than I can say for the interviewer. One question about how Nick develops characters led him to admit that the character Laura in High Fidelity was not fully fleshed out. She was supposed to be the adult in that book, and Rob the immature one, but he doesn’t think that she was particularly realistic. So now in every book he writes, he includes least one, to use his words, “fucked up” female character.
Hornby as you may know also wrote the screenplay for Wild, which stars Reese Witherspoon and is based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed. He said he got sick of people asking the question of how he got into Cheryl’s mind, the mind of a woman, to write the screenplay. He said it wasn’t hard, because she wrote a memoir. He writes from different perspectives, man, woman, child, adult, and is often asked how he does this. He says he has a wife and a sister and a mother all of whom are women, and parents and children too, so if you even half pay attention, you know what’s going on. Word.
The funniest question came from a first-year teacher who wanted to know how to implement Hornby’s somewhat famous advice to abandon books you are not enjoying reading (because they destroy your love of reading) when she had to have her students read certain books. He told her she knew the answer to that question, and that it wasn’t possible and that was too bad. He then told a story of a letter he got from a student who had to choose between doing a paper on Pride and Prejudice and one on Fever Pitch. The student didn’t like the look of the Jane Austen so he went with Nick’s memoir, but was upset that an internet search revealed no Cliff’s notes. So this young man had some questions for Nick, the first of which was, “can you please provide a synopsis of the book.”
I love the advice to abandon books you aren’t enjoying. Hornby just wants people to read, he doesn’t care what it is you’re reading. It’s a wonderfully nonjudgmental way to bring joy into a process that too often is relegated to the status of “work.” He said this idea came about from writing his column in The Believer. The magazine has a “no snark” rule, so he can’t say bad things about books he didn’t like. He finally stopped reaching for books he knew he wasn’t going to like just because they won a prize or someone recommended them. I also liked his response to the teacher, that every kid shouldn’t have to read every book because it’s just not going to work for everyone. I don’t think I’d be the reader I am today if it weren’t for my senior year American English class. I finally had room in my schedule for an elective, and I wound up in this class, which was a regular English class with a mix of juniors and seniors. Every single English class I’d taken since the sixth grade had been honors or AP English and I cannot remember anything about the books I read except a few of the titles. Nothing captured my attention. But the American English class offered up Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, and I fell in love. I’ve read The Great Gatsby more times than any other book and I still remember much of The Grapes of Wrath. These aren’t exactly fluffy reads, but they were my kind of books, and I’m stunned all these years later that all it took was a less pretentious class to figure that out.
He also mentioned that sometimes when we reach 30 or 35, we’ll think, “how bad can Dickens really be?” and go back to read the authors we loathed in high school again. I’m planning on trying this with Jane Austen and maybe even Shakespeare someday.
A young woman asked him for tips for aspiring writers and he said that when he started out, he was writing screenplays, but the thing about screenplays is no one is going to take a chance on you when what they’re producing costs a lot of money. If you write a “quite good” novel, and the publisher things the next one will be really good and the next will be great and makes lots of money, they’ll publish the quite good one and let you work your way up to great. No one takes that same kind of stance on a screenplay that’s going to cost $10 million to make.
I did not ask a question this time because last time I did ask a question, and it was a really good, thoughtful question for which Nick gave a really good and thoughtful answer. I didn’t want to sully that memory.
My favorite part of the evening was the signing. I didn’t know what I was going to say. I’ve met Nick twice before at signings and well, what could possibly be left to say? I didn’t have anything planned but I did have a bunch of post-it flags in my book, which I started reading the day it came out, less than a week before the signing. He wanted to know what they represented, and I told him, in a not-super-eloquent way, that when I find sentences or paragraphs that I particularly like, I flag them. When I’m done with the book, I type them up with a word processor. Then he asked if every book in my house was like that, with all the flags, and I said I took the flags out and reused them after I typed up the quotes. He asked, “but you’ve done this for every book in your house?” I said,”yes” and he said, “stop it.” I laughed and told him I couldn’t, and then I was on my way, thinking once again, what a nice man.
You really want people in this situation to be nice. It is, honestly, their job. We’re the fans, the authors must be nice to the fans. Nick Hornby is nice. Dave Barry is nice. I even met Drew Carey once at UW because somewhere in history he wrote a book, and he was nice too. You know who wasn’t nice? David Sedaris. David Sedaris was a jerk, and I don’t buy David Sedaris books anymore. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I was telling him that I liked his stories of learning French because I too had a really bad French teacher. He was aloof and disinterested and it really colored my perception of him. I doubt I’d be able to stop reading Hornby if he wasn’t nice, but I’m glad I don’t have to think about that.
So there you have it. I wish I could edit this down but I’ve decided on quantity over quality here, because at the rate of approximately one new novel every six years, I just don’t get enough Hornby in my life. I love when I get to listen to him talk. Like his books, the time just engages me and puts me in a good head space and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. So I’m leaving this how it is so that, like the phrases I so carefully flag, I can come back to it whenever I need to.