Nick Hornby’s pedigree is a little intimidating. He’s a prolific TV and film screenwriter, novelist, essayist and columnist. He’s twice been nominated for Best Screen Adaption at the Oscars with An Education in 2009 and Brooklyn in 2015, and is also an Emmy Award-winner for BBC One’s State of the Union. His bestsellers include titles which form essential 90s reading such as Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About A Boy.
This week he appeared at Manchester Literature Festival’s (MLF) digital weekend. In the absence of a live audience, the 2020 festival’s online offering lacked the energy of previous events, but Hornby made up for it by delving deeply into topics such as the nature of Brexit and its bearing on relationships.
Katie Popperwell, writer and presenter for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, interviewed Hornby. He is undoubtedly one of the UK’s most zeitgeisty authors and the wide-ranging chat touched on, among other things, his ninth novel, Just Like You. Set during the 2016 EU referendum, much like his other work it manages to capture the mood of the nation, not least by addressing both sides of the Brexit debate and examining how race, class and education influence relationships. The novel centres around the fledgling romance between Lucy, a 41-year-old white, middle class teacher, and her sons’ babysitter, Joseph, a 22-year-old black man who works in the gig economy. She’s a remainer and he wants to leave. The story questions whether your age, job or political persuasion should be a barrier to love.
Hornby is known for his real-life dialogue. Popperwell begins by asking him how he managed to capture the intimacy between Lucy and Joseph. He explains that he first had the idea for the novel years ago after overhearing a female customer and a barista flirting in a café. They were both interested in each other and happened to be different ages and races. It got him thinking and he realised they’d probably never go out. But what if they had? This led Hornby to examine how most people tend to choose a partner from the same educational background. It made him muse on the idea that as you age, so does what matters in a girlfriend or boyfriend. Forget about favourite books and albums, he said, and “concentrate more on kindness and shared values”.
Hornby also discussed how he approached writing from the perspective of a 22-year-old black man and a female character and if this was appropriate. Although he was nervous about it and thought long and hard about whether to go ahead, Hornby said that he lives in a multi-cultural neighbourhood in London and wanted to reflect this in his writing. He didn’t just want to talk about white middle class guys anymore. Joseph’s character is unusual for a typical 22-year-old as he’s a carer and used to having responsibilities. In terms of the nuances of language, Hornby consulted his son and his friend and showed the first draft to a wide audience to check for elements of cultural appropriation.
For Hornby, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has been productive. As a writer, he revealed that he leads an isolated life anyway and that’s why he enjoys script-writing so much as it’s more collaborative. He is currently working on another series of the award-winning State of the Union and a variety of films for American actress and filmmaker, Laura Dern. He’s not a huge social media user and believes that Twitter amplifies division and soaks up energy. But he is still a prolific reader, regularly recommending books in his Stuff I’ve Been Reading column in The Believer magazine.
Just Like You is the first of what I imagine will be a raft of Brexit-influenced novels. But will they all be as warm and entertaining as Hornby’s 21st century love story?
Main image: Nick Hornby. © Parisa Taghizadeh
Just Like You by Nick Hornby is published by Penguin Books and available to buy now.
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