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From stage to page
13.02.09 | Alice O'Keeffe
To be phenomenally successful in just one area of writing would be enough for most people, but David Nicholls manages it in two. Both a bestselling novelist and a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter, his much anticipated new novel is published by Hodder in June. One Day tells the story of two people, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, who meet at university in Edinburgh and follows their lives, together and apart, for the next 20 years. The striking thing about the novel is the structure—the story unfolds over the same day (15th July, St Swithin's Day) every year for 20 years from 1988 to 2008. It's an ambitious structure but Nicholls pulls it off beautifully: "I realised, as I started writing, it meant that hopefully as you finish a chapter it should be quite hard not to start the next one as you're always catching up, you're always filling in the gaps, you're always trying to work out what's happened."
One Day is Nicholls' third novel. His 2003 début Starter for Ten, about a hapless student obsessed with "University Challenge", was a huge hit. Selected for the first "Richard & Judy" book club it sold over 300,000 copies and was also adapted by the author into the 2006 film starring James McAvoy. His second book The Understudy (2005) was a painfully funny chronicle of the trials of a struggling and not-very-good actor. Of One Day he says: "I wanted to write something that was different from the first two books. I'm really proud of the first two books but they're both underdog stories, about useless, accident-prone, self-deprecating men, both about failure, and aspiration and ambition . . . I was really keen to do something that was a bit more wide-ranging, ambitious and on a bigger canvas".
Dex and Em are engagingly drawn; they lead messy, complicated lives in which plans made never quite pan out as expected; jobs, flats, relationships. As a couple they are never quite in the right place at the right time in their lives. Nicholls writes about modern life very truthfully; university is not necessarily the start of a glorious upward trajectory; people can flounder—for years—in the wrong job or with the wrong person. He says: "The best thing people can say about the book is that ‘it's like my life' or ‘it's like my friends' lives'."
One Day is also a move away from straightforward romantic comedy, which has come with growing confidence to tackle the darker stuff of life: "When I started writing I was very insecure about not being funny . . . I felt you always had to be telling jokes to keep a reader entertained."
Nicholls originally planned to become an actor, after reading English and Drama at Bristol University in the late 1980s, and dabbling in student stand-up comedy: "which I used to really love, it's my idea of hell now". Offered a grant to study abroad he found himself at drama school in New York on "a course designed to train musical theatre actors. I can't sing and I can't dance and I couldn't do an American accent and so I've no idea what I was doing there . . ." Returning to the UK he picked up bits and pieces of acting work, and also managed a spell in Waterstone's Notting Hill in the early Nineties. Understudying Constantine in "The Seagull", "a part I'd always wanted to play" at the National Theatre made him realise acting might not be the way to go. He remembers his sole performance (understudies are permitted to do one performance on stage in costume) was "to eight people on a Tuesday afternoon". He started reading scripts for theatres and film companies and, when offered the choice between a contract at the RSC in a production of "Twelfth Night" "saying one line every night", and a job at BBC Radio as a script reader in the drama department, he chose the latter.
He started writing his own scripts, including a sitcom about waiters for the late Geoffrey Perkins ("still technically in development" he says with a wry smile) but "Cold Feet" was his big break as a scriptwriter, earning him a BAFTA nomination and enabling him to concentrate on writing full time in 1999.
Nicholls believes that creating character, writing dialogue and what he calls "coming up with the right moment"—knowing what to show, and what to leave out, in terms of action and dialogue—are central to both screenwriting and novels. He's fascinating on the differences between the two mediums: "A screenplay is really just a set of instructions, it doesn't actually have any value of itself. You can read a screenplay and be entertained by it but unless it's made, it's worthless. You're always thinking: ‘How can we get this made? Is it as funny or dramatic or engaging as it can be? Will people pay to see it? Is someone else going to pay the money to make it? Will actors say yes to being in it?' A screenplay is written entirely for other people; consequently, decisions you make with a screenplay are for technical, practical or financial reasons."
Clearly writing for the screen is very much a collaborative process, in contrast to the novelist's autonomy which Nicholls relishes: "Writing fiction is inevitably much more personal. Not necessarily autobiographical, but much closer to your way of seeing the world, and much more demanding. I find it much harder. But that's also its great pleasure, that you have so much control. It's a personal form of expression as opposed to screenplays where I think you're second-guessing the director or the producer or the audience."
Nicholls wrote One Day at the same time as adapting Tess of the D'Urbervilles for the BBC, alternating days or mornings and afternoons. He plans to turn One Day into a screenplay, as he did for Starter for Ten and The Understudy, and is currently working on another Thomas Hardy adaptation, Far from the Madding Crowd for BBC Films. Given his Hardy connections it seems fitting that fate, a very Hardy-esque concept, plays a pivotal role in One Day. As Nicholls sums up: "there's no such thing as a ordinary day, everything has a resonance and a legacy."