You would be amazed how far a little letter can get
you. Either by means of the old hand written epistle or the more mod
e-mail, failbetter has been extremely fortunate when
it comes to landing interesting authors to interview. Thus, when an
e-mail response ended up in our collective INBOX from one of our favorite
writers, Nick Hornby, saying "I'm up for it. Hit me with some questions."
....Well, we were more than happy to oblige. What we didn't realize
was that rather than talking about his popular novels-turned-movies
like About A Boy and High Fidelity, or his more recent
writing and editing efforts such as How To Be Good and the story
collection Speaking With The Angel, Hornby would end up talking
tunes. But that's understandable, given his newest work, Songbook,
a collection of short, personal essays on 31 of his favorite songs and
It has been said, that no matter how successful
or famous one becomes in his or her chosen career, everyone wants to
be a rock star. Several of the characters from your previous novels
would agree with this statement, but how about yourself? Even now, with
your professional path in life fairly apparent, do you still have such
Really not, any more! I still maintain that music
is the best way of getting the self-expression job done. But publishing
is still, despite it all, a very pleasant industry - unlike the music
business. I said to a musician recently that I thought his work was,
in a way, an aural equivalent of mine, in that we both seemed to believe
that the old ways of telling stories and writing songs are basically
unimprovable, so it's best to focus on stuff like wit, truth, nuance,
accessibility, freshness. And while he's struggling to be heard, I'm
doing OK. The music industry is always looking for the next big thing
(and trying to exploit ten-year-olds), whereas the book industry is
still, despite novels by models etc, quite interested in good writing,
in books that work. A good book is enough in a way that a good song
isn't, any more. In other words, it's too tough to be a musician at
the moment. Plus, of course, I'm 45 - my career would almost certainly
be over in the rock industry!
Early on in Songbook, you make the point
that the songs you chose to discuss were not selected because of a nostalgic
memory they may bring to mind, but on the merit of the music itself.
Nevertheless, whether it is the relationship of Gregory Isaacs "Puff
the Magic Dragon" to your son, or the rite of passage associated
with Santanas "Samba Pa Ti," there is a relationship
between music and life. In this regard, do you think that songs give
life meaning? Or does life give meaning to a particular song (perhaps
more than the songwriter ever intended)?
I don't think that most songwriters can ever anticipate
quite what their songs are going to mean to people. I have quite often
been convinced that some song or other contains the meaning of life
- or the meaning of my life at a particular moment. And then, when you
revisit the song, you're shocked at how little is there, and you can't
imagine how it came to bear that much weight. A lot of the songs I write
about in there are literally soundtrack - they're not the same without
the accompanying images. But, then, part of the job of soundtrack music
is to make sense of the accompanying images, and that's what music does,
at its best.
We were impressed by the list of pop songs discussed
in the bookranging from the classic to the contemporaryfrom
Van Morrison to Mark Mulcahy, from Bruce Springsteens "Thunder
Road" to Teenage Fanclub. Perhaps, in addition to your love of
music, your duties as the writer for The New Yorker require you
to remain musically "hip." Yet given that you admittedly listen
to these favorites at "alarmingly frequent intervals" (i.e.
listen to Thunder Road at least once a week) and, at the same
time, confess that you have "become old, and so therefore Jackson
Brownes sedate music holds more appeal"
well, do you
ever take a look at your music collection and suddenly say, "Damn,
I havent gotten a new CD in months!" Or worse yet, find yourself
curmudgeonly barking, "there arent any new bands out there
worth a damn!"?????
No. I buy new music every single week; I'm much more
likely to think, Damn, I bought six albums this month and I've only
listened to three of them. For me, it's to a large extent about novelty
- I don't mean novelty as in 'Disco Duck', but as in freshness. I love
Astral Weeks and Blonde on Blonde, but I'm not sure how many more times
in my life I'll play them all the way through - I'd rather play something
I've heard maybe three or four times and am just learning to love. That's
the best. But that means you gotta keep shopping!
Many of songs you have chosen to discuss in Songbook
share a strong sense of storytellingsomething any writer can appreciate.
But when considering which songs you were going to talk about, was there
any stupid tune that, while you may secretly love, you couldnt
bring yourself to include in the book? Not that, to a real enthusiast,
neither J. Geils or The Bible represent the pop-cultural highbrow, but
did you have to fight the urge to include anything like "Everybody
Wang Chung" tonight? (i.e. some song that your characters
from your earlier novels would really give you grief for?) Or worse
yet, a song that thanks to parental influences, or haunting 8 track
tapes, leaves you with a soft spot for "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
or Andy Williams "Cant Get Used to Losing You"????
The closest to that is Bert Kaempfert's 'Swingin'
Safari', this crappy Lawrence Whelk- type thing that my mum used to
have. But I didn't know what to say about it. But to tell you the truth,
I think that whole 'Guilty pleasure' thing is overplayed. Once you get
outside the Marvin/Dylan/Joni "pop as art" canon - which is
actually a pretty small group - everything's a guilty pleasure, if you
want to look at it like that. The (English) Beat did a great cover of
that Andy Williams song on their first album; and what's the difference
between Abba's 'SOS' (sort of hip) and, I don't know, Lou Christie's
'I'm Gonna Make You Mine' (resolutely not!) I certainly can't tell the
difference in terms of cultural significance!
Some writers need complete silence to literally
compose their thoughts. Others like a little familiar noise in the background
as they type away. Do you normally play music while you write?
No, I find it distracting. I've been playing a little
Nick Drake today in an attempt to help me out with the tone of a scene
- I do that sometimes - but for the most part I prefer not to listen
to other people's words as I try to produce my own. The only thing that
has ever worked for me is a nice spot of minimalism - Reich, Glass,
Your comedic use of pop cultural references is
often questioned because of the old artistic "test to time"
argument. Leaving that aside, your last novel, How To Be Good,
was inherently more serious in nature, and at times, even bleak. How
much of this would you attribute to your "maturing" as a writer?
Too often, things "literary" are equated to mean, "serious."
Is this something you have had to consciously grapple with as a writer?
Do you think one becomes more serious in life the older he or she gets
given the trials and tribulations of life experience? Do you ever envision
a time when it may actually be more difficult for you, as a writer,
to be funny rather than somber or "serious"?
It really doesn't feel anything to do with "maturing"
- I profoundly disagree with those who equate "literary" with
"serious" - unless "serious" encompasses "po-faced",
"dull", "indigestible". Anyone who does anything
that seems easy or light or which actually entertains people always
tends to get overlooked - apart from by the reading public, the only
people who really matter. But I reserve the right to write the kinds
of books I feel like writing. Funny + sad is what I'm pitching for,
every time. But of course as you get older, the characters tend to be
playing for higher stakes - that's true of most writers, I think. And
some of my recent life experiences have been....sobering. That's got
to come out somewhere.
I don't worry too much about what I am, what I do,
what I want to do. That's sort of the easiest part. I could, I think,
write a literary novel, but I have no desire to - even my bleakest book
has some jokes in it, and I'd feel nervous writing a book with no jokes.
I mean, I get pissed off with a certain kind of snooty critic, but mostly
I think I manage to occupy my own space without too much discomfort.
Songbook got reviewed by the Poet Laureate the other day in the Times,
and though I didn't read the review, it seemed absurd, wrong; it really
wasn't written for him, or anyone like him. But he apparently quite
enjoyed it, so in the end, you think, well, I'm pulling off something
pretty unique here. Because the kind of person who will enjoy that book
the most is not a Poet Laureatey kind of person...
Football fanaticism aside, you admittedly have
been more influenced both as a writer and a person by American culture
than that of your homeland. While Britain remains the setting for your
books, your sense of style and storytelling is arguably more American.
Perhaps this is why your novels have been so well received in the US
(and coincidentally, why they seem so ripe for successful movie adaptations).
But at the risk of alienating your American audience, what negative
cultural observations have you made of the States? To what extent is
the superficially fashion and trend-conscious character of Will in About
A Boy the unfortunate result of the economic and cultural Americanization
of the world?
Well, I'm becoming more and more anti-globalization;
I get sick of small bookshops and record stores closing down and being
replaced by Starbucks. It's funny, but Anne Tyler's wonderful Accidental
Tourist, written in 1985 or thereabouts, makes almost no sense now
- her central character is a guy who writes guide books for cautious
Americans travelling abroad, and his indicates his personal nervousness
and lack of adventure. But now, of course, it seems to us as though
every American is an accidental tourist; there's no longer anything
that makes Macon special. He's just an American. And then there's your
politics, your death penalty, your scary Christian Right...But I see
none of this when I tour the US. My book readers seem impeccably liberal,
delightfully unsnobby folk.
In the past, many critics and readers alike have
been inclined to track your evolution as writer via the gender roles
you have explored, starting with the male-character confessionals of
Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, and About a Boy, to
the female-lead in How To Be Good. Both the current work, Songbook,
and the previous short story collection you edited, Speaking With
The Angel, were both created in effort to raise funds for you sons
school, TreeHouse, an educational centre for children with autism. That
said, you are already on record that, given your own experience, you
will need more time before you write about the father-son relationship.
So perhaps, as a fiction writer, possible future topics may be come
from within? Can you see yourself writing about spirituality, for example?
What plans are in the works for the next work? Or does the attempt to
categorize a work before you even begin to write add needless pressure
to the process?
I'm writing a novel about four people who want to
kill themselves. So, you know, another happy one. (I'm hoping that it's
paradoxically going to be a lot less bleak than HTBG) It's not
coming from within, although of course the whole relationship between
a writer's psyche and a novel is complicated! I don't really like talking
about work in progress because I don't think my books sound terribly
interesting when they're synopsised; in fact, they sound disastrously
thin! I remember trying to tell people that I was writing a memoir about
supporting Arsenal, or a novel about a guy who works in a record store
and who splits up with his girlfriend, and the pitying and mystified
looks on these people's faces made me want to kill myself!( Which is
maybe how I got the idea for this new book.) I tend to be too embarrassed
to give the books any kind of hard sell, and that of course means that
they sound as appetising as a regurgitated Big Mac. So it's not really
secrecy that makes me tight-lipped; just a need for a little self-confidence
during the writing. Books are long. Even mine. You don't want to feel
bad about them as you're writing them.