Is This Normal?: An Interview with Nick Hornby

Hornby1Nick Hornby, a New York Times bestselling author, has written four novels: High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to Be Good, and most recently A Long Way Down. He also wrote the memoir Fever Pitch, and edited and contributed to the story collection Speaking With the Angel. Several of his New Yorkeressays on pop music can be found in a collection titled Songbook. During a March visit to Indianapolis, he spoke with Non-Fiction Editor Sarah Layden about the literary, the popular, and the gray area in between.

SR: There seems to be a mutual obsession between U.S. and British culture. When were you first aware of it, and how does it affect your work?

Hornby: Which particular obsession? There’s music, cinema, books…Growing up, contemporary American writing struck me as fresher, more direct, demotic. There’s a spate of American writers I kind of discovered: Anne Tyler, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore. I think it gets filtered through, that influence. I had a brief correspondence with Anne Tyler. She was very complimentary ofHigh Fidelity. She said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to spot the slightest influence.’ And I guess to her, it must have looked pretty strange, this novel about an Englishman running a record shop and being obsessed with rock and roll, which didn’t have anything to do with anything she’s written. But it’s about tone and spirit, not about language and subject matter. I knew what was in there.

SR: You write a lot about music and sports. What are some other obsessions? Do you think you write because of your obsessions, or do they develop because you write?

Hornby: The obsessions definitely predated the writing. I’d say those are my big things: reading and music and sport, but I think what those present obsessions give me is at least wanting to work within the territory. I think if you are obsessed with music then you come to value things outside of work. I was never really very career-oriented. And it was partly because what I did in my spare time meant much more to me than what I was doing in my working time. Until I found a way to incorporate the spare time into the working time. I had a real impetus to do it. There was a lot of desire to try and do something that was more hanging out than working.

SR: What do you think drives you to write about popular culture?

Hornby: I’d kind of ask the reverse question, then: why do so many people not write about it? Growing up all my life with it, I don’t know too many people who have no connection to it. In fact, most people I know have a pretty big connection with it, and it seems to me that actually not enough books reflect that. It seems weird to me not to have popular culture in books, because that meant it didn’t reflect anyone I knew.

SR: The terms ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ are almost always used exclusively. Why don’t they meet, or do they?

Hornby: I think they do meet, when there are literary successes that sort of transcend literary origins, as it were. We can all name books which have sold millions which we deem to have literary merit. I have to say, the older I get, and the more I work in the territory, the more confused I get about what it means. Popular versus literary and what defines a literary novel and so on and so forth. A lot of things seem to be defined as literary either because they sell below a certain number, or because they’ve achieved a certain level of antiquity. Dickens, who was not a literary novelist, I guess was a literary novelist. And Jane Austen, who was not a literary novelist, is now a literary novelist. You see what I mean? These definitions didn’t exist then. It’s a relatively new phenomenon.

I think it probably happened with modernism. For the first time, there was the idea of a readership that would not be a common readership. (Oxford Professor) John Carey wrote a book called The Intellectuals and the Masses about modernism where he argued that previously the ability to read and write was in itself the definition of being educated. So you didn’t have to worry about the masses – they couldn’t read any of this stuff. With mass education, everybody being able to read and write, the sort of cultural elite started to get worried about being encroached upon. There weren’t enough ways to define their turf. So they started speaking in this code, which was modernism, basically, and along comes Virginia Woolf. With that, you have the idea of the popular novel and the literary novel possibly for the first time ever. Because none of the people, at least none of the ones who survived the nineteenth century, seemed to be particularly exclusive in that way. And then it’s something that’s developed with mass literacy, a lot more genre writing as the novels developed, and prizes to define literary merit, and all of these things feed into separating these two apparently different strains of writing.

I’ve noticed in my own career, for a time, anyway, I was more ‘literary’ in America than I was in England. I think it was not because Americans have different notions of what literature is, but because my book sales were below a certain level in America and in England they were always above that level. It’s very interesting to see what difference it makes to the perception of your work.

SR: You were on the New York Times best-seller list recently.

Hornby: Right, for A Long Way Down. I think it’s probably stopped here now. I’m not a literary writer anymore, I’m just a normal writer now. I don’t mind either way because these distinctions have stopped making any sense to me at all. I think that the only things probably worth talking about are whether a book has an audience and whether a book survives. And the rest is kind of all hot air. I’ve stopped believing in any objective principle. I think we all buy into it, that some books are better than other books. But if you start to try and create some overarching principle that would govern all this, it all starts to fall down.

I was trying to write an essay before I came away which was in part about a history of The Da Vinci Code and its reception. It seems to have gotten a lot worse as (Dan Brown’s) sales have gotten into the billions. In 2004, I was finding writers in smart broadsheets recommending the book. Kind of as a guilty pleasure, but still, you know, ‘This is unputdownable, blah blah blah,’ and then two years later, ‘it’s kind of for morons’ and, ‘what’s wrong with the world that all of these people are reading The Da Vinci Code and not this book?’

SR: Is that an essay that’s going to come out soon?

Hornby: Yeah, I ended up being rude about some people, so I might have to reconceive it. (Laughs.) I write this column (Stuff I’ve Been Reading) for The Believer magazine, and my publishers are hoping to bring them out as a collection. This will be the introduction. My big revolution in my personal reading habits is not to read things that bore me anymore, and it’s been fantastic. (Laughs.) And they’re so easy to spot in advance.

SR: What tips it off?

Hornby: Well, it has to come with the packaging of the literary novel, first of all. And that’s my highest risk category. I think it’s probably everyone’s highest risk category, is the literary novel. That we know when we pick it up that there is a chance that it will be dull and opaque, and it might wish to draw more attention to its language than the world that it wishes to portray. Those are books that I struggle with, as someone who’s got a job and three children and whose reading time is limited. I don’t want to get bogged down in a book where I’m reading a paragraph or two paragraphs a night. I don’t read very much genre fiction. I read probably more nonfiction than I did. I read more older fiction than I did. And I haven’t read anything that I’ve hated in quite a long time as a result. It’s becoming my area of real interest, popular versus literary.

SR: You’ve been called “the maestro of the male confessional” and a diarist in mix tape form. Do you feel any sort of resulting pressure from labels like that?

Hornby: The only pressure I feel is not to write another book like it. If I see someone attempting that kind of label, then I feel like I have to be careful. I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t want to tread too much in the same territory again. I’ve only written one book that was a male confessional, which was my first book. And it seems to me that you can only confess things that are true. You can write a fictional confessional, because that’s what fiction is: telling people secrets. My first two-and-a-half books were about guys, and I just didn’t want to do it anymore because there’s only so much that you can say within the same territory, and I thought if I’m going to have a career that lasts, not just commercially but in terms of what’s going to keep me stimulated and focused, then I wanted to write about other things. Now I think I just write about people, not one thing or another thing.

SR: In your latest book, you have four first person narrators. Was that difficult inhabiting so many different voices?

Hornby: It was difficult in the conception of it to ensure at least to my own satisfaction that the voices seemed distinct. I didn’t want the reader to keep flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to see who was talking. But on the other hand, you don’t want it so contrived that they speak in wildly different ways when in fact people don’t speak in wildly different ways, by and large. I edited a book called Speaking with the Angel a few years ago, where I’d asked people to write first person with the possibility that some of them might possibly be performed on stage. I really enjoyed my story. It seemed to come easier than a lot of things happen, and it was partly because I was deliberately using someone’s speaking voice rather than any kind of literary voice. And that was something that kind of hung over with this book. I wanted to carry on with that. So the conceit is four monologues rather than a conventional novel in that form.

SR: Do you write many stories?

Hornby: No. I’d like to write more than I do. But I’ve got things stacked up. I never anticipated doing so much traveling. I never thought that the books would be so widely translated, and that’s a weird thing. When I started, I felt that it was so personal and so focused on a certain area of London, I didn’t necessarily think about being published in any other country. You start to sort of rationalize after the fact. Oh, OK, it wasn’t as personal and focused on a certain area as I thought it was.

After High Fidelity, which was my first sort of semi-successful book here, I got the impression that after readings and things that people didn’t even notice necessarily that it was British. They thought it was about them or about their brothers or their boyfriends or whatever. No one ever said to me, Oh, that’s what it’s like to live in London.

SR: Russell Banks once said, “Poetry tells us what it means to be human. We’re the only species that needs to learn over and over what it means to be itself.” I wondered if you had any thoughts on how contemporary fiction teaches us certain things.

Hornby: Well, isn’t it more that we’re confused that we’re selves? You know, it’s a very troubling and problematic thing, to not know where the self begins and humanity ends. The points of which we’re representative and the points of which we’re peculiar. We fret about this an awful lot, about what’s normal. ‘Is this normal?’ is kind of a running question through therapy, fiction, problem pages in newspapers. It’s pretty central. It’s a good title for a novel, actually: ‘Is This Normal?’