Nick Hornby first became known as a bard of young men perennially stuck in place: Rob Fleming in his record shop in High Fidelity; Will Freeman trapped by his song royalties in About a Boy; even Hornby himself, cheering for Arsenal on an endless loop in his memoir Fever Pitch. But his new novel, Funny Girl, out this month from Riverhead, stars a young woman who’s constantly hungry for more: Sophie Straw, née Barbara Parker, who leaves Blackpool for London in 1964 and months later is starring on the country’s most popular television show, Barbara (and Jim).
Funny Girl extends a seemingly unlikely trend in Hornby’s writing: Once seen as the father of “lad lit,” he’s now established himself as one of the best writers of women’s stories in film. Nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for An Education, Hornby continued with this year’s deft and complex Cheryl Strayed adaptation, Wild. He's also written the screenplay for Brooklyn, John Crowley’s film of Colm Toibin’s novel about a young Irish woman’s adventures in 1950s New York, which premiered at Sundance last month and was snapped up by Fox Searchlight for release later this year.
Funny Girl, like those projects, follows an ambitious young woman as she comes of age in an unfamiliar place—in this case, 1960s London and the world of British TV comedy. It’s a totally charming novel, funny and full of heart, rich with period detail. I talked with Hornby this week in Slate’s New York offices about the joys of creating popular entertainment, about the legendary BBC writers who inspired Funny Girl, and about what kinds of script notes Reese Witherspoon gives. (Plus, I failed to identify his ring tone.)
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Nick Hornby: God, I love those books. From the very first one, the idea that you could plot the character changes in a country through politics, obviously, and social policy, which he does in those books, but also through culture. There’s a lot of TV and sports and books in those volumes. So I just started to think about the ways in which TV could say things about a country.
Is there something about Britain that allows for books like that to be written? The notion of trying to describe, say, American national character in a certain era seems impossible.
I think World War II was kind of Year Zero. There was clearly a schism in a way that wasn’t in America. But having been through this extraordinary experience in those six years, where half of the country was bombed, and then the massive landslide by the Labour government in 1945. And we were impoverished by the war. It’s kind of like science fiction reading how people lived between ’45 and ’55. Food rationing didn’t end until a couple of years after I was born–which I didn’t have any real idea about until I was an adult.
But that would’ve been a part of Sophie’s childhood.
Absolutely. There’s a story in Austerity Britain about the 1949 Cup final—a diarist writes about her dad traveling to London for the game. And when he gets to London, he takes another train to Isleworth, near Heathrow, because he met someone in the war who had a 9-inch TV set.
And that’s how he watched the game!
That’s how he watched the Cup final. He traveled for 4 hours or 5 hours to watch on the guy’s TV set. There's a lovely description, when he got home, of everyone waiting to hear what it was like ... to have watched the Cup final on a TV set. And he said, well, they lost the picture a few times, but it was better than being there! And to go from that to the Beatles in less than 20 years, it seems completely extraordinary.
That particular cultural shift seems to keep popping up for you. In Funny Girl, there’s a moment when Tony, one of the show’s writers, goes abroad for the first time. When he comes back he wants to grab everyone by the lapels and shout, “Why haven’t you bought tickets?!” That seems right out of the science-fiction world of these Kynaston books. But Jenny from An Education sort of lives in that world too. She’s seeing it happen in London and worrying that she’ll miss out on that.
One of the things that drew me to the period was that An Education ended in 1963 and this book starts in 1964. I was excited to move into the next stage of Britain, I suppose.
I didn't know Galton and Simpson, the English comedy writing duo who are an inspiration for some of the characters in the book. I know Sanford and Son, for example, but not the original Steptoe and Son. Tell me about them.
Well, one of the extraordinary things is that they met in a TB clinic when they were both young men. And they immediately started talking about comedy. And that was their journey. Throughout the ’50s, they were writing for an English comedian called Tony Hancock, who was a comedic genius—but partly because he had these two guys behind him. Hancock is this rather pompous loser, and there’s a sketch called “The Blood Donor,” which is one of the most famous half-hours in English comedy. He has a conversation with the guy in the next bed, which I think is one of the great comedic conversations, where they talk about what blood is for. And neither of them have any clue. “Well, the heart needs something to pump round, doesn’t it? You can’t just have it thumping all day with nothing to do.” After he’s listened to this for some time, the guy in the next bed said: “Are you a doctor then?” And Tony Hancock said, “No, I never really bothered.” I just love how that seems to sum up the particular mindset of a particular English person. I could’ve been a doctor, but I never bothered with the exams.
But the doctors who did are certainly no better than me.
Exactly. There’s a lot of English class stuff in there. Then they made Steptoe and Son, which was kind of extraordinarily dark. It seems to me every bit as rich as Harold Pinter, but he was writing for the theater and they were writing popular television, so they didn’t get the same credit.
What was it about those shows that was important to you, growing up?
They’re smart in a way that I love which is—they invented their smartness. It’s not referential. It’s not allusive. They just are smart about people in an incredibly creative way.
Are you a TV watcher now? Very few of today’s TV shows are meant to appeal to 18 million people at once.
No. Some of Galton and Simpson’s viewing figures … There was an episode of Steptoe and Son that got 29 million.
In a country of …
In a country of 52.
But you got three television channels: the BBC, the commercial channel, and then BBC2, which nobody watched, because they had educational programs and flower arranging. So there’s the choice of two channels. So Galton and Simpson weren’t selling themselves short in any way whatsoever. Getting this massive audience, and getting the reviews. It gives you chills, I think, looking back at that sort of career. I was reading an article about Mad Men, the last series: The actual figure of people who watched live on the night it went out was 60,000. Sixty thousand! You could fit them in a stadium! And yet, Don Draper’s picture is everywhere. And it’s “Don Draper’s style” in the color supplements. There must be a lot of people who are quite mystified by this Don Draper: who he is and what he does.
So much of this novel is about the peak moments of creative collaboration between the people making Barbara (and Jim)—between the writers and the actors and the director. And you talked a lot in other interviews about searching that kind of collaborative spirit being one reason you write films. Would you write a TV show? There is sort no more crazy collaborative enterprise in the writing world, I think, than the writers room.
Well, we don’t have the writers room, really, in British TV. We just don’t have the same infrastructural money as American network television. That aspect of collaboration is not necessarily available to us.
But it’s certainly available to you, if you wanted to come to America and try to take a crack at HBO or someplace like that.
Well, I had an agonizing crack at HBO.
So many have!
Two years of back and forth ... and then collapse.
What was the project?
It was a half-hour comedy series about marriage and marital sex. It got some way down the line and then no further. And in theory, it’s being taken over by the BBC. But I haven’t done any work on it for a while. I’m adapting a book for TV at the moment.
Have you seen that book Love, Nina? Well, I’m adapting that one for the BBC.
That’s about a nanny? Am I remembering this correctly?
Yeah, she’s a nanny at the beginning of the ’80s. And she was the nanny of the kids of the woman who edited the London Review of Books. And Stephen Frears was her ex-husband, and Alan Bennett lived opposite and came for tea every night.
Oh, man. Writing dialogue for Alan Bennett. That seems daunting.
We’re having an interesting ... We don’t know yet if he wants to be Alan Bennett or if it’s going to be an Alan Bennett equivalent who lives across the road.
Yes, exactly. He thinks Alan Bennett could have been funnier in the book. I think he’s pretty funny.
If you’re Alan Bennett, you always think you could have been funnier. This story fits well in this new mode of your work in the last five or 10 years, focused on women coming of age. Some of them are very young and coming of age like Jenny or Ellis in Brooklyn; some of them are in their 30s before they start to find themselves, like Cheryl Strayed. But they’re all sort of racing forward. And Sophie, in Funny Girl, too: She wants more, and she wants a big life. What is it about that story that appeals to you?
I don't know. I think I probably have all kinds of unsound views that young women enable you to become more articulate and sparkier in your dialogue. And beauty! Especially as everyone that works in movies is beautiful, beauty is kind of a superpower. If she opens this door and walks into the room, something will happen. Whereas, if you’re a bald, specky guy and you walk into a room, kind of nothing happens—so there’s this agonizing slowness of narrative.
And there are all these incredible actresses and no one writes parts for them. As we know, the rewards tend not to be the same as if you write for young men. They kind of can’t believe that they’ve been given a script where they appear on every single page and it’s not that they’re worried about whether a guy’s going to propose to them or not.
Have you ever gotten any flak from anyone for being a dude writing women’s stories?
Not as far as I know. I saw a few things on Cheryl’s Facebook page saying, “Oh, why is a man writing this movie?” but they seemed to forgive me once I’d done it.
Look, it’s more women that read fiction than men. That’s just the fact of it. Not many women read Fever Pitch when it came out. But then with High Fidelity, by the time the paperback came out, there were a lot of women coming to signings. These days, guys still come, but being a “guy’s writer” actually means that about half of your readership is guys.
What else could you do? You wrote an entire book about just loving football.
Exactly. That’s how you get 50 percent.
[Hornby’s phone goes off.]
I’m trying to identify the ring tone.
You’d be doing well if you could.
I don’t have it.
It’s an African guitarist called Bombino. It’s a great record. Of course now I’ve ruined it; I have it as a ring tone.
There are fewer music moments in this book than in other Hornby books, but Jesus, the very idea of Jimmy Page playing “Freddie Freeloader.” I assume that doesn’t actually exist, because if it did, the world would’ve melted.
No, I invented it for the book. There’s such great pictures of Jimmy Page from the time. Have you ever seen that clip of him on the kid's show? He’s in a skiffle band on some kind of talent show. He's really kind of shy and middle class, and he must be around 14. And the interviewer asks if he wants to keep playing when he’s out of school, and he says, “No, I want to do biological research.”
When was the last time you listened to Kid A?
Somebody asked me that last night at a signing! I find it a fascinating question because, you know, when I reviewed that record I listened to it solid for about three weeks and decided very firmly that I didn’t like it. I don’t know who all these people in the world are who watch or listen to something solidly for three weeks and then, four years later, think, You know what, I think I’ll give that another go. I didn’t like it, I’m not gonna listen to it anymore.
I love it.
You love Kid A?
No—well, yes, I love Kid A. But I really love that you’re never gonna listen to it again.
No. I decided it’s not for me.
We should create a Kickstarter auction for charity to force you to listen to Kid A.
It probably sounds like, you know, With the Beatles or something now.
I watched An Education again last night, and Funny Girl feels to me a little bit like an answer to that movie. Sophie becomes a TV star and she gets to live the life, in a way, that Jenny wanted for herself.
But Sophie isn’t punished for her big dreams. Was that something that you shared when you were a kid? Did you have these dreams, or did you ever anticipate any sort of creative life for yourself?
All forms of culture were really important to me from about the age, well, starting with football, age 11. And then rock music and then books. And I was consumed by all of that stuff. And I grew up in a town outside London where, you know, I had to get on a train to get books. I had to go to London to watch football. Obviously to see bands, to buy records even. So there was always that thing of being pulled towards the city because the city was where culture happened. It wasn’t necessarily where you could achieve ambition. It’s just that there was all this stuff there, and I wanted that stuff.
I can remember going to see Springsteen in, I think, 1981—the first time I’d seen him—and being sort of transformed by the show. It was one of those 3-hour shows. We had magical tickets, in the true sense of the word, tickets where we just kept being shown forwards until we reached the front rows. It was a group of about eight of us, and we were all completely knocked out by the show. But I could see that the other seven, that was it, that was the end of it. Whereas, for me, it was, I have to do something that is somehow connected to what I just saw. And I knew that that was going to separate me from proper jobs and all sorts of things. There was a sense that it made me quite weary and when I was 28, 29, and all my friends had mortgages and money and jobs, I was anxious about it. But there wasn’t anything I could about it.
So I completely understand Sophie and I completely understood Jenny in An Education—I understood that that was the middle-class girl’s way of doing it. And, in fact, the Oxford route, which was the route she had to take, is a lot harder and less rewarding than the instant glamour route that Pete Sarsgaard’s character was offering. But, in Jenny’s case, it’s mostly high culture. And, in Sophie’s case, it’s popular culture—but it’s still culture and still the things that make you feel alive.
In An Education, you were working off a short Granta essay. With Wild, you had a surplus of material—not just more plot, but there’s just so much of the character and voice in that book. Whose choice initially was it not to use voice-over?
It was my choice from the beginning. When I went to see Reese [Witherspoon] and [co-producer] Bruna [Papandrea] about the movie, I thought, I can see how to do this, but I’m gonna have to tell them something that convinces them that I’d be the right person. There were two things I came up with on the plane. One, I didn’t want conventional voice-over. I thought that would kill the movie and would be contrary to the whole spirit of the book, in fact. Recollections in tranquility and a kind of ordered prose over that story—I didn’t think it would work at all.
The other thing I said was I don’t want to start with the mother’s death. If we just play all our cards up front like Cheryl does in the book, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to carry us through the movie in the same way. It’s not going to have the same raw power that Cheryl gets through the prose. So there will be a sort of emotional mystery to it and the mom will die halfway through. So those were my two pitches, as it were.
Reese produced two really great movies this year. She essentially muscled those movies into existence, it seems. What kind of a producer is she, and what kind of notes does she give?
Well, I have to say that she was completely wonderful to work for. The email address that I had was clearly her email address, as opposed to somebody else’s. I heard from her within 48 hours each time I delivered a draft.
What producer does that?
Yeah, exactly. There was always a great level of excitement and determination to get it made. And, you know, I had this running thing with Cheryl: I worried that Cheryl was getting too excited about the movie happening. I was like a real awful, moany English person saying, “You know, Cheryl, they don’t mean anything they say.” And she said, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “I’m sure it’ll happen. But it might not happen this year, or next year, or the year after. All the projects I’ve been involved in have been four or five years.” And I said, “You know, have you seen the Kavalier & Clay movie, have you seen the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time movie? Because people attacked those with the same kind of enthusiasm at first.” And she was sort of crestfallen at the end of it.
But it was all driven by Reese, and she was really determined. I wrote fast, and her notes were not extensive. I can remember her saying that I’d completely copped out of the sex scene. She said, “I want to see this. I want to see this sex scene on the beach, we need to write that.” She gave me a note: “I love that bit in the book where Cheryl’s looking at her toenails and thinking, Oh my god, what a state they’re in.” I went through that book about 15 times and I had to say to Reese, “I don’t know what that says about you, but there is no scene where a woman is examining her toenails during lovemaking.” And she said, “Anyway, just don’t cop out of it.”
So I squeamishly wrote this sex scene that was pretty much as it was in the book, about him entering her from behind and then I think—well, anyway, it never got filmed.
How about a quick song of praise for Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern as the Oscars approach. Make your case!
Well, I don’t think we’ve seen Reese do anything like this before. I think she’s so raw and tough and credible and vulnerable and moving. It was so personal to her, and she’s subtle too—you know, you can see the shell that she has in the flashbacks being slowly chipped away. And then Laura—I think Laura is that character. I mean, obviously, they’ve had very different lives: Laura Dern and Bobbi. But Laura’s sweetness and optimism, she breaks my heart, Laura, in the way that she talks about everything. I thought, Oh, you must get hurt so many times if you allow yourself to be that open.
In Funny Girl there’s a running debate between the writers, Tony and Bill, which I think is also a kind of way of thinking about your career. Tony loves TV comedy, he loves its universality, he loves creating entertainment. But then there’s Bill, who yearns for art, who really feels that there’s something more he ought to be doing. You’ve written books that a lot of people view as essentially disposable entertainment. You’ve written a lot of things that have been embraced as “art.” Do you think of yourself as a Bill or a Tony?
I think of myself as that argument. That’s it. I mean, it’s something that I think about a lot. I never thought that it was going to be such an issue in my career. It seems to me that every piece of great art pretty much was popular culture at some stage or another. Dickens being the prime example: He was hugely popular, so he was dismissed as trash—I was amazed to read in Claire Tomalin’s biography that he couldn’t buy a review for Bleak House. Bleak House!
I do know that literature has a lot to do with sales. There was a time when I was a more literary novelist here—because I wasn’t selling as many copies. In England I was a best-selling writer, so I wasn’t literary and, in America, I was a cult writer so I was literary. But it was the same books. And, of course, in movies, which are so crass, then there’s no doubt about it. I’m, as it were, a literary novelist in the world of movies.
In movies, there’s no such thing as a nonliterary novelist.
Unless you’re writing Clash of the Titans 7. But anything that’s an independent movie is, by definition, pretty much a literary novel. It’s always going to have a minority audience, and it’s always going to be treated for better or ill as some kind of art.
All I know is that if you have a long enough career, then the terms of the debate change all the time. I was this “lad lit” person and that made no sense to me whatsoever. Then they forgot about that and I became something else, and something else, and something else. You just ride it out—like that Patty Griffin song, “time will do the talking.” Either the stuff is good and it’ll last or it won’t. None of us will be around to see it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.