Author Imagines 'One Day' For Connected People

David Nicholls' novel One Day has become one of the most popular novel in Britain. Each chapter is a snapshot of where July 15 finds the main characters over the 20 years following their high school graduation, as they keep finding — and just missing — each other.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

July 15 rolls around in about a month. For most of us, it's another day in the middle of summer. But readers of David Nicholls' novel "One Day," which has been one of the most popular recent books in Britain, will know that July 15, 1988, is the day that Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew meet on their last day of school in Scotland, then go their separate ways.

Each chapter of the novel is a snapshot of where July 15 finds Emma and Dexter over the next 20 years, as they keep finding and just missing each other, with dialogue thats been acclaimed for its crackling wit and observations.

Nick Hornby, the novelist, calls it the perfect beach read for people who are normally repelled by the very idea of beach reads.

"One Day" has just been published in the United States in time for July 15th, and David Nicholls joins us from London.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID NICHOLLS (Author, "One Day"): It's a pleasure.

SIMON: And talk about this technique of picking one day over a time span of 20 years.

Mr. NICHOLLS: Well, I wanted to write something quite epic, something about a large period of time and a large cast of characters. I myself turned 40 while I was - when I was about to start the book, and I was interested in the difference between my 20-year-old self and my 40-year-old self. Yet to cover 20 years seemed sort of exhausting.

So I hit upon this idea of just taking a day, seemingly at random, and showing that day 20 times. So some of the days are very eventful and very significant, and some of the days are just very ordinary. But it was a way of telling a big story but using snapshots, using 20 set pieces.

SIMON: We should mention that when the novel opens, these two people are in bed together, but they dont seem right for each other.

Mr. NICHOLLS: Yeah, I...

SIMON: Or am I wrong about that?

Mr. NICHOLLS: Well, I think it's certainly the wrong time for them to be together, so that the challenge was to constantly find ways to keep them apart - whether it's fate intervening or bad luck or bad timing, or the fact that they haven't quite grown up enough. Each year, I have to find a reason for them to delay, you know, what might seem inevitable.

And certainly, I think when they first meet, they're about as different as they could be. There's an attraction between them but Dexter is very self-confidant, very privileged, very complacent. Emma is very anxious, very insecure, very passionate and intense. So I think it would be the wrong moment.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a priceless paragraph from the book, where Dexter wakes up in Emma's room and points out some of the differences between them.

Mr. NICHOLLS: He exhales through his nose and shuffled up the bed, taking in the shabby rented room, knowing with absolute confidence that somewhere in amongst the art postcards and photocopied posters for angry plays, there will be a photograph of Nelson Mandela, like some dreamy, ideal boyfriend. In his last four years in this city, he had seen any number of bedrooms like this, dotted round the city like crime scenes, rooms where you were never more than six feet from a Nina Simone album. And although he'd rarely seen the same bedroom twice, it was all too familiar.

The burnt-out nightlights and desolate pot plants, the smell of washing powder on cheap, ill-fitting sheets. She had that arty girl's passion for photomontage too; flash-lit snaps of college friends and family jumbled in amongst the Chagalls and Vermeers and Kandinskys, the Che Guevaras and Woody Allens and Samuel Becketts. Nothing here was neutral; everything displayed an allegiance or a point of view.

The room was a manifesto and with a sigh, Dexter recognized her as one of those girls who used bourgeois as a term of abuse. He could understand why fascist might have negative connotations, but he liked the word bourgeois and all that it implied - security, travel, nice food, good manners, ambition. What was he meant to be apologizing for?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Welcome back to 1988.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Dexter wants to be thought of as cool.

Mr. NICHOLLS: Exactly, yeah. I think he doesnt really have a vocation. He just wants things to be fun and attractive. I think he has an idea of life as spread from a magazine. And as his life goes on, he discovers that things are a little more complicated than that.

SIMON: Having no particular talents or accomplishments or ambitions, he - I think we can say in this company - is naturally led into broadcasting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, it's interesting because some of the funniest sections are these satires of the world of theater and television. So if I could, let me ask you about an actor I've heard about, named David Holdaway.

Mr. NICHOLLS: Ah, yes. He's not been seen for a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NICHOLLS: David Holdaway was my stage name. I was an actor for about eight years in the '90s. I had to change my name because there was another David Nicholls, and I thought if I changed it to my mother's name, she'd be touched. But I think then she saw me in some plays and was horrified that I was bringing shame on the family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NICHOLLS: I worked as an actor, mainly on stage, through most of the '90s, but I was nearly always in non-speaking roles - animals, soldiers, silhouettes. I did a lot of big acting in very small roles.

And for a long time, I was very bitter about that whole period, thought of it very much as wasted time. But I'm getting a little more philosophical about it now. I think I learned a lot about dialogue and performance and good writing, what distinguishes good writing. And I met some extraordinary people. For three years, I was at the National Theater, and I ran on stage every night and nodded at Judi Dench, and that was my role - as a Russian peasant in "The Seagull." And that was kind of as good as it got.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NICHOLLS: But it was a privilege to be in that company.

SIMON: Its irresistible to observe: There you were, an actor running on stage, playing animals, trees, speechless peasants. As a novelist, you get to control all of that.

Mr. NICHOLLS: Absolutely. It's the great, sort of dizzy-making thing about being a novelist. You have a great deal more power. Youre involved throughout the process. And if a book goes well, it's completely down to you. And if a book goes badly, then it's also completely down to you. Working as an actor in theater, it's much more collaborative, much more social; there's a lot more debate.

SIMON: There are times in this story when Emma Morley is pathetic, and Dexter Mayhew is insufferable. But they see through to something else in each other.

Mr. NICHOLLS: I think both characters are very flawed. The great pleasure in writing a novel is, you don't get to just write the behavior; you get to write the inner thought process as well. And I think there are enough good intentions, enough self-awareness in their thoughts and in their inner monologue to redeem their worst behavior. But I think it was also - I also wanted to write a redemption story, and for there to be some redemption, then there has to be some bad behavior first. So I hope by the end of the book, theyve become better, decent people.

SIMON: Every year they find each other again and spend some time - for something like 15 years, they wind up just saying, see you later. But without giving away too much, the theme of your book seems to be it's worth it to hold out for that special someone.

Mr. NICHOLLS: Yes, I didnt want to be sentimental, but I think that there's a very familiar notion for most love stories - which is, you know, that they're meant for each other, and usually there's a sort of eyes meet and then a flash of lightning and that's it, they're together. And my own experience has been much more of a slow burn. So I wanted to write a love story that had all the passion and emotion of a classic, big, epic love story - but with no flashes of lightning.

I also think there's a lot of fate in the novel. I'm not a great believer in real life of fate, but one of the starting points for the novel was Thomas Hardy. There's a passage in Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" that inspired the novel, which I can't talk about without giving away the ending. But the idea that a missed letter, a phone call isn't answered, a chance remark can alter the course of your life, is quite a Hardy-esque idea, and there's a lot of that in the book. There are a lot of letters that should've been sent, and phone calls that should've been answered.

SIMON: David Nicholls. His hugely successful novel, "One Day," has just been published in the United States.

Mr. Nicholls, thanks so much.

Mr. NICHOLLS: A pleasure.

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