Nick bares all
12.06.09 | Graeme Neill
Eighteen months ago, Nick Hornby could not have foreseen that the latter half of 2009 would be so busy. Over the next six months Hornby will be working on a musical collaboration with American musician Ben Folds, his film adaptation of the Lynn Barber memoir An Adaptation will be released and a radio comedy series which he co-wrote will be broadcast on Radio 4. And his fifth adult novel, Juliet, Naked (Viking) will be published in September.
However, in February 2008 Hornby had hit a wall writing a book entitled Finsbury Park, which would look at the summer of 2005, with the London bombings, Olympic bid success and the Ashes cricket win through the eyes of a young narrator. "I hadn't done very much with it, I was very stuck and not enjoying my work," he says.
Hornby says that as he struggled, he kept coming back to an image he had from a long disgarded screenplay of a washed-up American musician in an English seaside town. He also read an interview in Vanity Fair about reclusive soul legend Sly Stone. "It wasn't strictly him I was interested in, it was more the excitement of the journalist as a fan meeting him."
Out of this daydreaming eventually came Juliet, Naked. It is about Duncan, an obsessive fan of American singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe, who wrote one of the great break-up albums, Juliet, before disappearing in the mid-1980s. When Duncan uncovers an acoustic version of Juliet, dubbed Juliet, Naked, he is initially delighted, then horrified when he finds out his girlfriend Annie listened to it first. And hates it. Their subsequent argument leads to the ending of what was already a pretty shoddy relationship. But not before Annie is contacted by the reclusive Tucker Crowe, who has read Annie's negative review of Juliet, Naked, online and agrees with her. From the initial email emerges an unlikely friendship.
While a frequently hilarious read, there is a bleak undercurrent to the book, which Hornby describes as "that English ‘can't do' spirit". "It's a sad book because there's a sense of people who have not achieved what they wanted to achieve with their lives," he says. "And I think there's a truth to it. That great philosopher [and Arsenal manager] Arsène Wenger said on turning 50 that he realised he was not going to live the life that he wanted to. If Arsène Wenger is saying that, it must be a pretty gloomy time!"
One theme that fascinated Hornby is how people consume art. Music's transformation by the internet features in the book as Duncan frequently spends time on a message board full of fellow Tucker Crowe obsessives. Hornby is circumspect about how music consumption has changed. "[The internet] factionalises people and to a certain extent makes you lazy. You don't need to leave the house in order to find somebody who thinks the exact same thing as you. Also, you are never exposed to anything outside of the immediate little culture that you have created."
However, a few minutes later he is more effusive, talking about how he would have loved someone to give him 400 albums on an iPod when he was a teenager, something he recently did for his niece. "My niece and nephew will somehow get into the same [intensity as I once did]. They find their song, they play it a million times a day and they own everything by that artist."
While he is devoted to his iPod, Hornby is less enthusiastic about the e-book reader having the same success. "People don't read enough. Their consumption is during summer holidays and they like to take a couple of paperbacks away with them. That's a three-for-two offer. They read maybe seven or eight books per year. You don't need one of those machines to do that."
Another theme Hornby explores in the novel is people's relationship with art and the people who produce it. He says he thinks the confessional, mainly first-person, narratives have led fans to believe they "know" him. "I knew what I'd get [when I started writing fiction] but I got what I hoped I would. That is, a friendly relationship with readers. I don't think they feel a distance that they might feel with a writer like Ian McEwan. I think they feel their interests and concerns are reflected in the books. They recognise the world and the details of that world. I'm Nick, I'm not Mr Hornby," he laughs.
Unlike many writers, this fandom has crossed gender. Hornby says that he gained a male readership with Fever Pitch and High Fidelity but more women began to read him following About a Boy. "These books are quite emotional and I want people to feel more than anything . . . I think guys can see where I am coming from with the cinematic and musical influences on [each book] and women can see it from the other fiction that they read."
Art should be entertaining
Possibly another reason for Hornby's success has been his accessibility. He recently blogged an impassioned defence about the importance of art being entertaining. He wrote that writers who challenge the audience without entertaining them sometimes forget they are "people with jobs and worries and dependants, people who are tired after a hard working day or week". When asked whether that describes who he writes for he replies immediately. "Absolutely. I completely understand people's reluctance to pick up a literary novel that is not going to entertain them in the 30 minutes they have before they go to sleep at night. I think the world of books forgets that because so many of us do our reading during the day. That's a luxury so many people forget."