Rob is a pop music junkie who runs his own semi-failing record store. His girlfriend, Laura, has just left him for the guy upstairs, and Rob is both miserable and relieved. After all, could he have spent his life with someone who has a bad record collection? Rob seeks refuge in the company of the offbeat clerks at his store, who endlessly review their top five films (Reservoir Dogs...); top five Elvis Costello songs ("Alison"...); top five episodes of Cheers (the one where Woody sang his stupid song to Kelly...). Rob tries dating a singer whose rendition of "Baby, I Love Your Way" makes him cry. But maybe it's just that he's always wanted to sleep with someone who has a record contract. Then he sees Laura again. And Rob begins to think (awful as it sounds) that life as an episode of thirtysomething, with all the kids and marriages and barbecues and k.d. lang CD's that this implies, might not be so bad.
Nick Hornby is the author of the novels How to Be Good (a New York Times bestseller), High Fidelity, and About a Boy, and of the memoir Fever Pitch. He is also the author of Songbook, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and editor of the short-story collection Speaking with the Angel. He is also the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award, and the Orange Word International Writers London Award 2003.
I'm always rather amazed when people talk about your books as being jolly accounts of popular culture. There are a lot of potential disasters for your characters and they're hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
Somebody said that it was the "comedy of depression." I think it is why a certain group of people respond so strongly to the books, all the characters are depressed.
I think you actually use the word depression in all the books?
I guess there are an awful lot of people out there who do feel depressed and don't find that low level depression reflected in many books that they read. Literature is usually much more crisis-focused.
You wouldn't describe your books as "domestic," but you write about daily lives and ordinary things, which maybe one doesn't get in a lot of books.
I don't mind my books being described as domestic at all. It was very much an impetus when I started writing. I read a lot books by women and identified with them much more because I lived a domestic life - and most of us do - and that really wasn't reflected in any of the books written by men. It seemed odd to me that most of us bring up families and go to work and yet the books our male representatives are writing about huge things in history and people on the edge. Of course we have a need for those books, but there did seem to be a bit of a hole where no one was writing about what actually happened.
Was that reflected in your own reading? Who are the writers you admire most?
At the time that I started writing I had just discovered the books of Anne Tyler and Lorrie Moore. I'd never read a book that more precisely articulated what I wanted to do than Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. There were some depressed and lost characters and a lot of humour, and I just felt this is what I want to be when I grow up. I had read two Lorrie Moore books, Self Help and Like Life, just before Fever Pitch came out. Again they had very sharp humour but were incredibly accessible and I think it was something particularly at the time that had been lost from contemporary British fiction.
Do you feel much more at home with American contempory fiction than British fiction?
Yeah, I feel much more at home. I think there's always been that strain of American writing that wants to write simply and accessibly, but intelligently. I think in this country we are much more hung up on demonstrating that you are writing a book and being clever about it, and consequently people weren't reading them much here.
Were not reading the British writers' books?
Yes. If you have a short-list of six Booker Prize books, people read the one that wins. Because it won the other five are completely disregarded and this is somehow supposed to be representative of our literary culture. I do think in the 1980s there was a huge gap between best-selling books and literature, and there really wasn't anything in between. For me Roddy Doyle was an important part of that. When I read The Commitments it was simple and funny. It was about things I understood and you could see a great rush of identification with Roddy's books.
You've mentioned the Booker Prize. Do you think that awards such as this misrepresent literature and the kinds of books that are out there?
I think that the Booker Prize sets a tone of a certain kind of literary writer. As a young writer you're looking at two polarities that you don't really like the look of. There was the Jackie Collins stuff on one side, and there was this very difficult, dark, inaccessible literature on the other.
I think there is a general desire to read good books. People read books on the way to work and before they go to bed. We've all had that terrible feeling that you're making no impression on a novel at all and you're 30 pages in and there's 472 pages left and you've been reading it for three weeks already. I think the Americans have always understood that once you have a price on the back of your book there is some kind of contract you're entering into.
Yes, and American authors do have that pop-culture feeding in too.
It seemed obvious to me that popular culture is an important part of all our lives and it should have some kind of reflection in the books we are reading. I've never understood why people didn't describe or just mention what TV programmes people were watching, I've always suspected it's something to do with having an eye on posterity.
Take us through an average day in the life of Nick Hornby.
I wander to my office, a small flat just round the corner from home. I smoke, mess round on the Internet, email, and, eventually, start writing—usually just when it's time to pick up my son from school.
What's on your bedside table?
Back copies of The New Yorker, Andrew Rawnsley's book about New Labour, the new Michael Chabon novel and indigestion tablets.
What was the last film you saw?
At the time of the interview, You Can Count On Me, which I loved to bits.
You are now the pop critic for The New Yorker—could you see yourself ever living there?
My domestic circumstances wouldn't allow it at the moment, but I'd love to live in the US for a while at some stage—San Francisco is the place I'd choose.
What are you working on next?
I'm having a go at co-writing a screenplay, with Emma Thompson. She was shown the first draft of something I'd written, and she was so smart about what was wrong with it that I suggested we do it together. We did a bit of plotting last summer, but we haven't started the actual writing yet. I'm looking forward to it.
- Why is Rob so conflicted about remaining in the relationship with Laura? Does it have more to do with his age or his particular eccentricities? Do you think many men—and women—go through internal struggles similar to Rob’s when it comes to commitment?
- What issues are at the center of Rob’s dissatisfaction with his life? If he had to make a list of the top 5 reasons he was dissatisfied, what would they be?
- Why is it so important for Rob to contact and meet the women who have dumped him? Does he find what he was hoping to discover? What does he learn that surprises him?
- Why does Rob turn to familiar songs in times of crisis? What solace do they provide? What does the book reveal about the ways in which popular music affects our lives? What role does popular music play in memory and emotional attachments? Can you think of an example from your own experience, where a pop song provided an uncanny soundtrack for your life at a particular time?
- Rob, Barry, and Dick have an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. What are the benefits and liabilities of this particular talent? How do they use that knowledge in social situations?
- Why doesn’t Rob stay in regular contact with friends? What is behind his emotional distance from friends and family?
- What is the significance of lists in Rob’s life? Why are they used as a recurring motif in the book?
- On page 247 Rob says “I saw, for the first time, how scared I am of dying, and of other people dying….” What role does death—and the fear of death—play in fidelity and infidelity? Is that fear a crutch for Rob, an impediment, or another matter entirely?
- In what ways do Barry and Dick represent different parts of Rob’s personality? In what ways are they completely unique individuals, different than Rob? How does each one help him as a friend? What, if anything, does Rob learn from them?
- Compilation tapes—collections of different songs on the same tape—carry a special significance for Rob. What meanings do they embody for him, and what does it mean when he gives someone a tape he’s compiled? What is he really giving to a woman when and if he gives her a new compilation tape?