Exclusive Q&A: Nick Hornby Delights Us With Tales of Fan Worship and Internet Savvy

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Nick Hornby’s sixth novel, Juliet, Naked , picks up where his previous ones left off: with spoiled manchildren, precocious real children, and the women who surround them. But this go-round, it’s the female who acts as protagonist, both as the subject who breaks off a long-term relationship and the object of a reclusive singer/songwriter’s curiosity. Hornby’s latest is set squarely in the present, dedicating a great portion of its story arc to the role of the Internet in modern life, via the chat forums of crazed fans or email correspondence between strangers.

After the jump, our exclusive chat with Nick Hornby, plus a video interview by Penguin Books about autobiographical elements in Juliet, Naked.

Flavorpill: We cover all aspects of culture at Flavorpill, and we obviously love it, but it’s hard to identify with the level of obsession we see in Duncan as it relates to Tucker Crowe. Have you ever felt that level of hero worship for someone? Or been on the opposite side, for that matter?

Nick Hornby: On the receiving end of it, you mean? No… I love my music, but there comes a point when I feel I’ve heard all I need to hear from a particular person, and I don’t want to hear the bootlegs recorded from the bass amp. I’m not so interested in that stuff. And my readers seem like nice and sane people to me. I don’t think I’m the kind of guy that gets that level of obsession. I think my books are relatively straightforward and it’s the opaque [writers] that get the weirdos.

FP: When you were writing Juliet, Naked, did you identify more with Annie or Duncan?

NH: I don’t really identify with Duncan at all, and out of the three people in the book I probably identify with Tucker the most. But I have more empathy for Annie than Duncan.

FP: In a section where Duncan has recently left Annie for a new girlfriend from the university, you write, “Duncan couldn’t shake the feeling that he was living somebody else’s life, a life that was much more enjoyable than his own had been recently, but which didn’t suit him or fit him or something.” Do you think that people choose their own unhappiness?

NH: I would say that the vast majority of people living in the first world choose their own unhappiness.

FP: Do you have or have you ever had a pen pal?

NH: No, although I guess I’m in more regular contact with American friends through the medium of email than I would have been fifteen years ago. So to that extent I have pen pals, people I’m in touch with but don’t see very often.

FP: Right, but you knew them beforehand?

NH: There are a couple of people I write to whom I’ve never met that I write to.

FP: Meeting a stranger in person sounds kind of awful, actually. It’s always a letdown.

NH: Yes, exactly.

FP: In terms of the album the book is titled after, Juliet, Naked, have you ever written an ode to someone you loved or wanted to impress? Did it work?

NH: No, absolutely not. That’s where disaster, embarrassment, and humiliation lie.

FP: I’m curious about your film adaptations. An Education is coming out soon, and I’m wondering how that process is different than writing novels. Is it easier to adapt someone else’s work for the screen, or write your own from scratch?

NH: I don’t think I could adapt my own stuff anymore. I did it for my first book [Editor’s note: Fever Pitch], and I don’t know if it will ever happen again. Now I couldn’t return to my own work; after a year or two years as it is, I don’t want to spend another three or four taking it out again. It would drive me crazy. So I’m much happier doing somebody else’s work. This was kind of perfect, because when it started it was a ten-page essay [Editor’s note: by Lynn Barber for Granta magazine, issue 82]. So the suggestion of characters and the marriage it was affecting, I was given carte blanche to do what I wanted. That particular fit worked really well for me.

FP: Didn’t you executive produce several of your own, like About a Boy?

NH: Yes… Mostly they’re very keen for writers of books to approve. The old adage about somebody inside a tent pissing out and the other way around. The executive producer thing never really means very much. Your agent makes film people put it on films. It’s really an under-the-counter payment. It’s enshrined in a contract.

FP: What was your involvement with High Fidelity, then?

NH: More, actually, because the way that Stephen Frears likes to work. He wanted me to sit in on script meetings and I looked at the set and went to edits. I got very close to those guys, all of them really, on that film and I still see them. So apart from the first one that’s probably the one I feel most connected to, just because of getting to know the people pretty well.

FP: It’s a huge cult hit. People watch it over and over.

NH: Ha, yeah, they didn’t go to the cinema but they watch it a lot now.

FP: An Education is getting a lot of buzz, so that must be exciting.

NH: We are getting quite excited now, because we didn’t expect much from it at all. It’s already had quite a life. The time it’s set in, in the sixties, but not what we associate with the sixties, I think that gives it a fresh face.

FP: Coming back to Juliet, Naked – how did you develop the story idea? Was it a straightforward process, or…

NH: No, they’re never very straightforward; ideas kick around for awhile before I can see what it is I want to write about. The initial idea was someone luring a reclusive musician out of retirement through the Internet. Some other things start to creep around it, but I was very interested in notion of how we interact with pieces of art and whether how the artist thinks of that piece has anything to do with it at all. The idea of authenticity in music, or writing, or whatever, whether that counts for anything.

FP: This book has a lot to do with relationships formed over the internet. Are you internet savvy?

NH: Yeah, I am. I think being a writer really helps because I don’t have a proper job. So I have hours to kill, every single day.

FP: There are some writers who still claim to know nothing about the internet.

NH: Well… I don’t know what they do with their time. [Laughs]

Nick Hornby is reading tonight, Tuesday September 29, at Barnes & Noble in Union Square and in LA on October 6th at the Skirball Cultural Center. Visit Hornby’s official website for details on other tour stops.