Get Lit: Q&A with Nick Hornby
British novelist/essayist Nick Hornby will be in town Sunday to promote his latest novel Slam , a story about Sam, a teenager who gets his first girlfriend pregnant. Houston Press Assistant Night & Day Editor Dusti Rhodes talked to Hornby on the phone about the book (which she highly recommends for both kids and adults).
Dusti Rhodes: What made you decide to tackle a story from a younger character’s perspective? And also to write a young adult novel?
Nick Hornby: I’m not sure if there was anything conscious about the decision. When I thought of the idea it was just a regular novel as far as I was concerned, but that the protagonist happened to be 16 years old. I then remembered that somebody had asked me a while before if I was interested in writing a young adult novel and I kind of went to her rather than to my regular editor because it seems like that was what I was planning out.
In the book, it seems like you’re not trying to pander necessarily to a younger audience as far as writing style and word usage. It seems like anyone at any age would enjoy reading it.
Well, yeah, hopefully. [Laughs] It wasn’t the intention necessarily that I would only reach the one audience. You know, I wanted to write about this kid and what he was going through, and it seems to me as kind of senseless to say this is only for a young audience as it would be to say this is only for an old audience if you’re writing about a 75-year-old man. Pretty much all the books have had characters of different ages in them and it never occurred to me then that it would only appeal to a certain age range.
Have you received response from older audiences about the book?
Yeah, I mean, because of the way books are published I’ve heard more from those people than from kids because it tends to be adults that come to signings and it tends to be adults that buy hardcovers. The proper response from kids comes later when the paperback’s out, when maybe it’s been passed around by a few people.
Have you had much interaction with the younger audience?
I did a bit of that in the UK and one or two of the signing here are like that. I’m trying to talk to teens as often as possible but their not the easiest crowd to reach – not with books anyways. [Laughs] People keep asking me if it’s a commercially motivated decision in any way and I say, “You’ve got to be kidding why would you write for an audience that doesn’t read?”
[Laughs] Another thing I thought was interesting was your decision to write about a teen pregnancy. I read in another interview that you weren’t aware until after you’d starting writing the book that Britain had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates.
The highest in Europe. I think it might even be higher than in the U.S.
So, what was behind that decision? Was it just for the sake of the story?
It was the story as much as anything. I think if I look at the books as a whole then I’m trying to find relatively ordinary people under ordinary situations but actually have some impact on the characters’ lives. I don’t tend to write about things involving, you know, guns or ghosts or anything which is kind of extraordinary in that way. Pregnancy is one thing that bends any life out of shape, but when it’s a 16-year-old it’s a pretty enormous thing. So it seemed to fit in with the books in that way. And it’s of course, even thought I didn’t know the statistics, you could see the evidence of it in London: there are lots of kids pushing buggies around.
Yeah, I thought that was interesting how Sam (the main character) frequently encounters girls or is just familiar with the attitude that young girls want to be mothers.
I think clearly that is what’s happening, because it’s pretty easy to get hold of birth control and it’s pretty easy to get hold of abortions in the UK, but yet we still have this incredibly high teen pregnancy rate. We’re a pretty irreligious country, so it’s not that either. It’s some kind of motivation to have a baby and that’s what the government has to address, but frankly it’s not wanting the job.
So was your intention at all to address that and tell why it may not be such a great idea?
No, absolutely not. I think that’s a really good way of flattening the book out – to start with the message. But I think it’s pretty clear from the narrative that it’s not the best idea. But I wanted to do that in a kind of truthful way, rather than a preachy way.
Was it hard writing from a younger perspective together with the fact that you had never experienced something like this yourself?
Well, it didn’t feel hard. I’ve kind of done it before with the character Marcus in About a Boy and Jess in A Long Way Down wasn’t very old either. I do feel a kind of connection partially. I used to be a high school teacher, that was quite a while ago and I have nieces and nephews. I think kids have started to pick up on the books a bit, as well. A lot of kids read About a Boy after seeing the movie and Fever Pitch has actually been on the examine syllabus in the UK in the last couple of years. So, I’ve been hearing from kids.
Sam progressed with me how I might assume meeting a 15-year-old would be. When I first started reading the book he annoyed me, but then he started to grow on me and everything I first thought were immature and brash ways of looking at things became what I really liked about him. As you were developing him was there a conscious effort to create this sort of “punk kid”? And did anything about him change from your original intentions after you began writing the book?
No, he was pretty kind of complete in mind before I started writing the book. I knew he was going to wobble quite a few times. And it just didn’t seem to me realistic that a kid would just take all this stride and just step up to the plate and behave like a man, and of course he’s going to think about other alternatives in a way that of course would run the risk of possibly alienating the readership.
That’s what I thought was funny because the more he made these bad and selfish decisions the more I started to like him and identify with him.
[Laughs] Well, I think that especially now that we can all think back to our teens and our escapades that we had and therefore it’s kind of relatively easy to identify, because of what he was having trouble with, the whole idea of it.
I was also interested in the format and structure of the story. You said you went to a editor familiar with young adult novels, but you chose to go with a format of flashbacks and the last wrap up that I thought could be kind of confusing to younger readers.
The flash-forwards, there were several reasons. One was that it seemed to me like a funny idea, you’re in your own body but you don’t know how to live your own life. The other is I wanted to try and write about being a parent, about how what it seems like from the outside is very different from what it feels like from the inside. And I think that’s one of the key things about parenting for any age is that on the outside it looks pretty much as if none of us are going to be able to cope and also it’s going to prevent us from doing a whole bunch of things, which of course it does. So, the simplest connection you have with your child gives you the kind of competence and ability to overcome obstacles where you may need a strength within you. The Q&A, I don’t know, it just seemed like fun. There was some things that needed wrapping up and there was a boring way of doing it or there was a quick, fun way of doing it.
I read in an interview where you talked about how the books kids are told to read are really boring and that was one reason you were trying to write a book that addressed important issues in a way that would be interesting to them.
That’s absolutely what I would want to do with adult books, anyway. I think we’re all told to read books that are boring, kind of unspeakably boring. It’s one thing I really resent as a reader and it’s one thing I’m fearful of a writer. The idea that you change that policy for teenagers seems to be particularly suicidal.
Is it ever weird for you that these unintentional factors of your story, like teen pregnancy, end up drawing a lot of attention to your book from certain advocacy groups? For instance, your trip to Houston will be co-sponsored by a teen crisis hotline.
Well, it’s been a weird byproduct of my career. My first book was about soccer, so people still come to the signings wearing Arsenal shirts and of course there are a lot of music geeks that come because of High Fidelity. And you know I have an autistic son and the book Speaking with the Angels was to raise funds for autism, so there is always a couple of parents with an autistic child in the audience as well. I think the books tend to address these subjects very head on. I accumulate all these special interests groups, which is fine by me as long as they’re not fighting.
[Laughs.] Have you had any thoughts about turning Slam into a film?
Well, people have asked. So, yeah I guess. I can’t ever think of a good reason not to sell the film rights to somebody. I just don’t know what the argument would be. I think this one maybe more than all the others I can see as a film.
Hornby will be reading and signing Slam Sunday at 2 p.m. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-521-2026 or visit www.inprint-houston.org. Free. The event is co-sponsored by InPrint and the Teen Line of Crisis Intervention of Houston.
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