A Fan’s Notes
By Emily Gordon
`FOR THE FIRST, but certainly not the last, time, I began to believe that Arsenal’s moods and fortunes somehow reflected my own,” wrote Nick Hornby in “Fever Pitch,” a memoir of his obsession with his local English soccer team. At the time, this proved to be a faulty theory, but today it seems perfectly apt. Just as Arsenal captures the soccer grail - winning the league championship and the FA Cup in the same season (“an event that’s happened only six times this century,” he reports) - Hornby is scoring writerly goals with his new novel, “About a Boy” (Riverhead, $22.95). On a tour wedged into the off-season, ending just before the World Cup, Hornby stopped to talk at lunch in New York.
“About a Boy” follows Hornby’s first novel, “High Fidelity” - starring Rob, record-store owner, dumpee and maker of lists - which has become a cult favorite in both Britain and America. The new book, too, is about a 30-something guy in London; Will, though, is single and comfortably unemployed, living off the royalties from an excruciatingly well-covered Christmas jingle composed by his father in 1938.
Surely something can alleviate the dullness of an existence consisting of soccer matches on TV, movies, shopping and a top-notch stereo: “It’s a little short on soul,” as Hornby observes. Will’s got the answer: attractive single mothers, to whom he will look great after the accursed ex. Inevitably, both moms and kids soon fill Will’s life - in particular one irony-impaired man in the body of a 12-year-old boy. His name is Marcus, he’s never heard of Kurt Cobain and, once the child-phobic Will has (reluctantly) let him infiltrate his ordered world, nothing can, of course, be the same.
Much like “High Fidelity’s” Rob, Will is winsomely familiar. (As a friend of mine put it of Rob, “I don’t know if I am him or I’ve dated him.”) This is no doubt why fans feel they know, in turn, Nick Hornby. “I get letters addressed `Dear Nick,’ ” he says, riffing on the likelihood of other novelists’ receiving similar greetings (“Dear Don”? “Dear Norman”?). In person, his demeanor does little to formalize matters; with an Englishman’s healthy lack of reverence for the press, he leans forward on his elbows, simultaneously casual and intent, with bright blue eyes focused in a thoughtful, impish gaze.
Easily as amusing as his characters, Hornby also comes off as kinder and more circumspect. Since the success of “Fever Pitch,” though, he has, like Will, been able to make his own schedule. “Some of Will’s TV routines correspond very neatly to the routines of a writer,” he says, grinning. “I live a charmed life. I have a little apartment around the corner from where I live where I try to go from 10 to 6. Of course, I don’t actually write from 10 to 6.”
When he gets distracted, he walks around Highbury, his North London neighborhood, which is full of “perfect writing material” (not to mention the Arsenal grounds). “When I can’t write I go to the record shop; I’ve made friends with the guy who works there. He told me he wanted to put the jacket for “High Fidelity” up against the register with a sign: `Yes, I’ve read it!’ He used to give me a 10 percent discount, but when the news that I sold my first film rights came out, he rescinded it.” (These days, Hornby likes pop bands from Ben Folds Five to Radiohead.)
Though Hornby’s life does overlap with Will’s, 12-year-old boys are not a regular feature (his own son is 4 1/2). He recalls that some of the inspiration for “About a Boy” came from being invited one day to “hang out with guys of all different ages, just spending the day doing whatever they would normally do.” The boy he spent time with was 11, and the two of them spent the day “playing Gameboy, playing football in the street, going out for chips.” Unlike Marcus when he first meets Will, Hornby’s companion wasn’t suspicious. “The funniest thing he said was when we were talking about marriage. He said he couldn’t wait to go on honeymoon, and I was startled because we hadn’t talked about sex or anything. But he said, `Yes, because you get to go to places like Hawaii and Cornwall.’ “
Hornby has taught high school, which was exhilarating at times, but also draining. “What kind of bad day could a writer have compared with the worst day a teacher could have?” Now, he often gets called into schools to read to students. “They think since my first book is about football, I’ll be the magic route into literature, and before you know it, they’ll be reading `Great Expectations.’ After all, `Fever Pitch’ is kind of a book. But afterward the kids usually come up and ask me who looks good for Arsenal this year, or who has the best haircut.”
Hornby will soon have a new wave of admirers, since both his novels are being made into films (“High Fidelity” stars John Cusack as Rob) set in America. “People from North London ask me how the films can be set anywhere but North London, as though all I’ve done is set down a list of street names.” He’s not worried about how the movies will turn out. “If it’s a decent book, it has a life far beyond the film,” he says. “Does anyone ever say about Joseph Heller, `Why did he have to sell the film rights to `Catch-22?’ ” He’s now working on his own screenplay, about an American musician who defects to England after his sister dies.
Hornby’s work, like that of Lorrie Moore, whose writing he loves, is deceptively fun to read. Some critics have mistaken his light tone as unserious: “If you put a joke in your book, you’re doomed,” he says without concern. He’s also not afraid to put references to current culture in his books. A lot of contemporary writers, he muses, are “interested in posterity - they don’t want to put anything in that will date it. I don’t think anyone will be able to read `High Fidelity’ in 40 years.”
Doubtful, since his characters - churlish, wistful, morally vague - are so resonant. In Will, Hornby says, “I tried to make a character with no redeeming qualities. I saw `As Good as It Gets’ on the plane, and it’s a similar situation: Both Will and the Jack Nicholson character are forced into a situation where they have to break out of their routine.” As Will discovers, kids can do that to you, a fact Hornby knows well: “You don’t notice your life is changing.”
So has literary success changed his life on a grand scale? He cocks his head. “The particularly strange thing for me is that my first book is about being a fan, and now I have fans, I think.”
—Published in Newsday, June 21, 1998
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, an editor, critic, copywriter, and pre-web internet nut. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent many years as a New Yorker fan blog. The project garnered some nice compliments and press.
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