On Wednesday night as part of the Writing Lives Series, Nick Hornby, author of About A Boy and High Fidelity had a conversation with Saskia Hamilton. Voracious reader Julia Goodman fangirled.
I had been looking forward to seeing Nick Hornby since the Heyman Center sent out their calendar of events in January. Being a chronically late person, I decided to get there 45 minutes early–and I was still far from the first to arrive. Snagging a seat near the front, I watched the room fill with young women, young men, and more young women. I felt like I had stumbled into a surreal world where everyone is born with a moleskin and plaid button-down, and nobody ages past thirty.
The event began with a brief introduction, explaining how the talk came about. Turns out that Hornby, who wrote a song with Ben Folds called “I’m In Love With Saskia Hamilton,” had emailed Hamilton to ask permission. The idea became that if he came to Columbia, she would be the one to interview him. Describing the email as “one of the nicest emails [she’s] ever gotten,” Hamilton set the tone for the evening. The two were enderingly flustered at first, stepping on each other’s sentences, and I heard a woman behind me whisper, “It’s like they’re on a first date!” It was, indeed, a little like a first date. They were both so taken with each other that the audience couldn’t help but love both even more.
Hornby began with a reading from a novel he’s working on: Miss Blackpool, about the creation of a TV sitcom in the 60’s. He was down-to-earth, but his presence was commanding. Explaining the inspiration for his novel, he dropped carefully crafted phrases like “different imaginations,” and just as easily moved to a metaphor about teamwork in sports.
As he finished the excerpt, Hamilton’s first question was naturally about his collaborative experiences. Hornby lamented the solitary life of a writer, and explained that he had been missing the team aspect of “normal jobs.” One of the reasons he likes adapting screenplays from others’ work is the collaboration involved. Hamilton seemed intrigued, asking how he felt about movies of his own novels, such as High Fidelity– did he really not wish he could write the screenplay himself? He responded that he couldn’t have done a screenplay of his own work, and “there’s a reason” all the people who work on movies are paid so much: “because every single one of them can destroy a film.”
Exchanging literary references like names of old friends, Hamilton and Hornby seemed to be acclimating to each other. They talked at length about growing up in the 60’s, having parents who lived through World War II. In an intimate moment, Hornby explained that his difficult relationship with his parents was made more tense by the fact that they could not comprehend his easy waste of food or clothes. Hamilton, in turn, discussed her grandmother’s inability to walk without looking at the ground. Growing up during WWII, with her family hiding a Jewish man in their attic, she was afraid to look up and accidentally let a Nazi soldier see the truth in her eyes. Hornby offered a quiet, penetrating reply: “They must’ve thought that we were so spoiled. Because they spoiled us.”
I was most interested when Hamilton asked Hornby about his use of language and whether he considers himself a writer of “literary fiction.” He responded that he didn’t know, but that he wants his books to be accessible. He explained his dislike for “prose that calls attention to itself rather than the world it describes” and the pervasive idea that literary fiction should be for everyone when it isn’t. Hornby shied away from being labeled “literary,” clearly wishing to be identified as an average guy. And, to some extent, he is–writing about sports, working as a teacher, and penning rock songs, he’s not your average literary novelist. Yet at the same time, a man who writes a love song to the woman who translated his favorite book of poetry is hardly average.
Nothing shows the paradox of his style better than the fact that after he wrote Fever Pitch, a soccer fan interviewing him asked if he had any other books–and seemed worried, since he hadn’t heard of the others, that Hornby was struggling. Never did it occur to the man that Hornby’s other books might not be about sports. Hamilton called on some of her favorite quotes from his novels that focus on language, teasing out an admission that he does like language, he just wants his subject matter to speak for itself. “I like the idea of problems that nobody is too stupid to understand, but nobody is smart enough to solve,” he offered.
Hornby opened up the room to questions, and after the obligatory process question (“How do you do writing?”), one woman asked Hornby which his favorite character is. Naming Jess, from A Long Way Down, as one of his favorites, he looked charmingly disarmed to hear her respond, “She’s one of my favorites, too!” Asked about the less-than-happy parent-child relationships he has written about, he responded that we like to believe parents always love their children unconditionally, but “life is a little bit harder than that.”
While answering who his intended audience is, Hornby mentioned that he originally intended some of his books to explain men’s mindsets in a relationship, because there were so many books that seemed to say only women had emotions in a relationship. But soon he realized he had no idea who was reading his books – “I’m writing, they’re reading, and that’s good enough,” he concluded in what I had come to realize was his trademark plainspoken, insightful style. As the talk ended, the room broke into some of the most genuine applause I’ve heard in a long time.
Hornby via Shutterstock