Writer Nick Hornby is sitting in his office, a small flat above a shop in North London. Since the 1990s this area, where he lives and works, has provided inspiration for his hugely popular books, beginning with best-selling debut Fever Pitch.
That memoir, about his devotion to Arsenal football club, instantly cast him as the poster boy for the then burgeoning “lad lit” genre. But it had, as all his books do, a sizeable female readership keen to discover insights into the mind of the average male. “I hope,” says Hornby on a video call, “that they discovered what was going on in there wasn’t as bad as they might have imagined.”
He’s wearing a T-shirt and khaki-coloured jacket, sucking on an e-cigarette and blowing impressive whorls of “smoke” through his nostrils. On a wall behind him is a corkboard on which a selection of black and white photos are pinned. It looks, intriguingly, like the inspiration for whatever project the novelist (recent books include State of the Union and Funny Girl) and prolific screenwriter of award-winning films such as Brooklyn is currently working on.
I make a note to ask him about it later. But first there’s his excellent new novel Just Like You to discuss.
The cover of the book depicts the two main characters embracing in their underwear: Joseph, a black, working-class butcher and DJ in his early 20s; and Lucy, a separated, middle-class, fortysomething mother and secondary school principal.
Hornby, like Roddy Doyle a former teacher turned writer, has sold more than five million books, several of which were made into films, including About a Boy, High Fidelity and two versions of Fever Pitch. This new one contains everything fans want from a Nick Hornby novel: flawed but endearing characters, buckets of humanity, his beloved Arsenal, humour, music, warmth, and observations about modern life that make you wonder how he got inside your head. (Just Like You contains the line about a woman wanting to kill her book club, a sentiment bound to resonate deeply with some.)
Up until now, Nick Hornby novels have been mostly concerned with the emotional struggles of his predominantly white characters, many of whom wouldn’t look out of place in a Richard Curtis movie. Hornby’s early protagonists were also male until How to Be Good, which, with his first female narrator, marked a move to what he calls the “richer” territory of women’s lives.
The idea for Just Like You, a love affair between a young black man and the older woman he babysits for, came to him while standing in line waiting to be served in a local shop. “I was just looking at two people having a little flirt when, and I’m thinking, they’re not going to get together. But then I started to think why wouldn’t they get together? What’s stopping them?”
He thought about this on and off for a while, about why the black woman serving the white man in a shop would not have a chance of a relationship. “I was just thinking about class in Britain and education in Britain and all the things that get in the way.” He reversed the genders and starting writing about Lucy and Joseph.
The book is being published as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum and heated discussions about cultural appropriation abound in the writing world. Hornby has a simpler, more personal explanation for why he wanted to include a black character at this time. “I couldn’t in all conscience continue writing about my community without including all members of my community. I live in a British city which has a very high number of ethnic minorities in it, they are parts of my life …”
One person of colour who read the book did mention how his white characters talked an awful lot about race
I wonder, did he worry about criticism of how he, a white 63-year-old, depicts Joseph? But he says to omit black characters “because you’re scared of doing the wrong thing, is probably worse actually … I didn’t want him to be at the margins of the book. I wanted him there in the centre because black people are at the centre of London life.”
Did a fear of “doing the wrong thing” influence his writing at all? “Worrying about it in advance would have been a disaster,” he says. “I had to find a voice that chimed with the people I know. Afterwards I got people to read it and tell me if I’d gone wrong … nobody raised too many objections.”
One person of colour who read the book did mention how his white characters talked an awful lot about race. And when he went back through the book he realised that it was true, that he had overcompensated “out of nervousness”. He deleted many of the references.
Having said all that, Hornby does not see race as the prism through which the novel will be viewed: “The book will succeed or fail on whether it’s any good.”
The book is also one of the first Brexit novels to come out since Britain voted to leave the EU. Joseph and Lucy fall in love against a backdrop of the referendum. Hornby was a Remainer, as were most of his friends although sensing the way the wind was blowing he put a 50 quid bet on Leave just before the vote. Neither side comes out well in the novel. At one point, middle-class liberal Lucy, arguing passionately for Remain, realises she and her like-minded friends are mostly talking about stuff they don’t understand.
“It was sort of remarkable to me that all my arty, liberal friends who I only ever talk to about football, books, movies and music suddenly were talking about the World Trade Organisation and getting very heated. I was thinking, I’m pretty sure you’ve never studied anything about that and you’d never heard of the World Trade Organisation until two weeks ago. So why are you talking about it with such knowledge now?”
A story he heard during the referendum ended up in the novel. In Stoke, which recorded the highest Leave vote in England, there was a project to buy council houses for a pound. “And then people were being told by George Osborne that house prices would fall if they voted to Leave. That’s not something that’s going to mean much to you when your house is worth a pound,” Hornby says.
I had begun to wonder whether in fact women were more interesting generally than men of my own age
Just Like You is as much about class as it is about race or Brexit. Hornby and his sister grew up in a single-parent household in Maidenhead and went to a state comprehensive school. His father, from lowly beginnings originally, made a meteoric rise in the business world. Hugely wealthy, he was eventually knighted and lived a rarified life with his second family.
Hornby has one adult son from his first marriage. Now a young man, his son’s severe autism led to Hornby co-founding a charity called Treehouse. He has two younger sons with his second wife, TV producer Amanda Posey.
Hornby is appalled by Boris Johnson, who who he calls “incompetent rather than evil”. He is also a staunch critic of the education system in Britain. “I don’t know any other country where the way to get on in politics and other professions is by attending one of a handful of private schools. The advantage that gives you in terms of confidence and social contacts seems unconscionable to me.”
We return to the 1990s “Laddism” culture in the UK, which he dismisses as a “snotty reaction against feminism”, and his reason for writing from a woman’s perspective in How to Be Good. “You can’t just write about yourself forever. And you can’t be scared of what people are going to say or think,” he says. “I had begun to wonder whether in fact women were more interesting generally than men of my own age …”
Working on screenplays featuring women lead actors such as An Education, Brooklyn and Wild cemented that belief. “Men’s struggles are mostly internal,” he says, “where these were actual external difficulties and obstacles these women had to be extremely brave to confront.”
I think writers have to realise they’ve lost their place in the cultural conversation a bit…
“In screenplay writing, what attracted me to writing for young women is that you get to work with the best talent in the world. Because if you write a big part for a woman they don’t turn it down because there aren’t very many parts. A man might say, ‘no, I like it but I am being paid $100 million to put on a batsuit’. And that’s hard to compete with, whereas women are thinking, ‘well, I can either be Batman’s girlfriend or I can be in this drama’.”
Hornby’s three screenplays have led to three Oscar nominations for Carey Mulligan (An Education), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and Reese Witherspoon (Wild), as well as nominations for himself for An Education and Brooklyn. “I’m really proud of that, but it shows the incentives on offer if you write parts for women,” he says.
We talk about literary snobbery and he says he is delighted to be a popular writer, saying the most successful artists in history “from Dickens to Austen, Mozart to Aretha” were huge in their day. As a writer of popular fiction, does he feel he gets the respect he deserves?
“It makes me laugh when people ask do I mind getting overlooked for this and that. I mean, there may be a snooty reviewer in The Irish Times who doesn’t like my book and if you’re desperate to be nominated for the Booker Prize then you might be in for a disappointment, but popularity wins every time … I think writers have to realise they’ve lost their place in the cultural conversation a bit and becoming less popular is not the answer to that.”
I peek over his shoulder at those black and white photos. Hornby says he’s working on “a dream job” which he can’t say too much about. “It’s 16 hours of drama and proper comedy about a real-life rock band set in the 1960s and 1970s. This band were a lightning rod for so much of what happens in those two decades…
“I’ve worked on lots of projects that haven’t happened and all you remember are some boring meetings in featureless offices. But already, even if this one collapses, I’ve had an enormous amount of fun.”
Just Like You is out now, published by Penguin Viking