Music Inspires 'High Fidelity' Author's New Novel Nick Hornby's latest novel Juliet Naked is kaleidoscope of characters: Tucker Crowe, a washed up and reclusive singer songwriter; Duncan, an obsessed fan; and Duncan's girlfriend Annie. The action takes place in America, when Duncan and Annie take a tour of places that figure into Tucker's life and work, as well as in the English seaside town of Gooleness.
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Music Inspires 'High Fidelity' Author's New Novel

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Music Inspires 'High Fidelity' Author's New Novel

Music Inspires 'High Fidelity' Author's New Novel

Music Inspires 'High Fidelity' Author's New Novel

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Nick Hornby's latest novel Juliet Naked is kaleidoscope of characters: Tucker Crowe, a washed up and reclusive singer songwriter; Duncan, an obsessed fan; and Duncan's girlfriend Annie. The action takes place in America, when Duncan and Annie take a tour of places that figure into Tucker's life and work, as well as in the English seaside town of Gooleness.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Music was a muse for Nick Hornby's bestselling novel "High Fidelity." Music is the theme for his latest one as well. "Juliet Naked" is a kaleidoscope of characters: Tucker Crowe, a washed up and reclusive singer-songwriter, Duncan, an obsessed fan and Duncan's girlfriend, Annie. The action takes place in America, when Duncan and Annie take a tour of places that figure into Tucker's life and work, as well as the English seaside town of Gooleness. Nick Hornby is in the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. NICK HORNBY (Author, "Juliet Naked"): Hello. Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: You have said in some interviews that you didn't base your musician, Tucker Crowe, on anyone specific.

Mr. HORNBY: No.

HANSEN: So - but how would you describe the music your character played before he walked away from the business in 1986?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I would guess that he is one of those singer-songwriter guys, so, you know, sort of Dylan, Jackson Brown, Richard Thompson, that sort of thing. That sort of intelligent, slightly pained, world-weary rock music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: The title, "Juliet Naked," Juliet is the album that Tucker Crowe recorded, which was dissected endlessly on the Internet by Duncan and a very small group of obsessed fans. It was a highly produced record. In 2008, an acoustic - this is all in your novel - the acoustic version is released and it's called "Juliet Naked." And I don't know, it's frankly like J.D. Salinger releasing his notes to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: Well, yes. Well, he was in there, too, of course, Salinger, when I was thinking about this book. And there's a scene involving a photograph, which reminded me of that photograph that - or was inspired by that photograph that some nasty guy took of Salinger. Do you remember the one?

HANSEN: Yes.

Mr. HORNBY: And he snapped him from his car and Salinger looked so distraught to be caught like that.

HANSEN: Right. You have this similar thing happening.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, yes. There's a scene in the novel that involves a photo of somebody who may or may not be Tucker. But yes, that - sorry, I distracted you, that "Juliet Naked" is back. Yes, the sort of show your workings outside of this album Juliet.

HANSEN: Yeah. And Annie listens to it and then Duncan listens to it and releases this, like, amazing review on the Internet and says it's the best thing since, you know - I guess, the phonograph needle.

And Annie writes and says, you know what? This isn't so good. And thereby hangs your whole tale. You have this obsessed fan and his girlfriend disagreeing about…

Mr. HORNBY: Yes.

HANSEN: …something that has occupied 15 years of their life.

Mr. HORNBY: There are several things in that I wanted to write about. One is, you know, what has changed since "High Fidelity" came out, which is everything and as far as music is concerned, the record shops that those guys worked in (unintelligible), most of them are gone now. And, you know, the intimate is the main way of consuming music it seems to me. And that's new territory. I don't think too many people have written about that in fiction yet.

So, that was one thing. The other thing was about art and the authenticity about the meaning of art. Duncan thinks this "Juliet Naked" album is better than the produced one because he is the kind of person who thinks that if you strip something down and it becomes more, as it were, naked, then it's going to be more authentic. It's going to mean more.

Annie, meanwhile, takes the view that art is something that you work and work and work at. And, of course, you work with authentic feelings to begin with but you have to turn them into something that's going to make sense to a listener. So, they kind of conduct this debate on Duncan's rather pathetic Web site dedicated to Tucker Crowe. And Tucker Crowe happens to see the debate as it were and contacts Annie to tell her basically that she's right, he thinks.

HANSEN: One of your characters says, when a piece of music reaches a large number of people, it has dreamed of its worth. Do you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: …do you think that's true?

Mr. HORNBY: No, of course not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: And I think there are people who say that and really do believe it. They might not articulate it directly but it's probably at the basis of a lot of things that they believe. Now, I don't draw any distinction between popular music and unpopular music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: I think there was something I wrote in my book, "Songbook," about Bruce Springsteen. Just because millions of people like something, it doesn't mean it's rubbish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: It could, in fact, even imply the opposite.

HANSEN: Oh.

Mr. HORNBY: I guess that's my view.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Yeah. You introduced a couple of tangential characters in the seaside town where Annie is a museum curator. And they are into something that's called Northern Soul. What is Northern Soul?

Mr. HORNBY: I think this is an idea that would baffle American listeners both - in the north of England in the '70s, late '70s and early '80s, all these clubs sprang up where they were playing what was effectively old Tamla Motown music or labels that sounded like Tamla Motown - quite often sort of cheap and tinney(ph) versions. And it became this sort of county thing and people collected the 45s and the rarer ones became especially prized.

So, this is what all these people danced to in the north of England and it was kind of a scene for a while. It still exists. You can look up northern soul on YouTube and see these actually now rather middle-aged guys dancing somewhat between sort of (unintelligible) and kung fu.

HANSEN: Oh.

Mr. HORNBY: …very peculiar moves, but they listened more or less exclusively to dance music made between, say, you know, 1960 and 1968.

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. HORNBY: In the USA.

HANSEN: You mentioned names like Dobie Gray and Major (unintelligible).

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. Dobie Gray is, like, the most famous person that they listen to.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOBIE GRAY (Musician): (Singing) Oh, I'm getting' my kicks out on the floor.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey…

HANSEN: I'm curious about this museum thing and the fact that you've got these middle-aged characters, Tucker Crowe, you've got these, you know, gray-haired guys dancing to old soul. Are you making some comment that they're museum pieces?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: It is a novel about the past and regret and not maybe making the most of what's been offered to you. And Annie having a job working in a museum seemed pretty appropriate in lots of ways that one of her battles is to triumph, live in the moment. And I think that this is actually a battle we all have as adults that we focus a lot on the past and a lot on the future and don't necessarily recognize that we're occupying our own skin in our own time now. And it's sort of dramatized a little bit in her case.

HANSEN: What was the seed that actually germinated into this novel?

Mr. HORNBY: I don't know if there was one seed. There were several seeds over a couple of years. One was a piece I read about Sly Stone in a magazine about three or four years ago. Sly Stone had sort of disappeared for 10 years or so. And the journalist - I think it was in Vanity Fair, who was trying to track him down, eventually succeeded. And suddenly Sly Stone appears on his motorbike in the middle of a desert somewhere in front of this journalist.

And just a narrative charge of a recluse coming back seemed to me something that would be great for a novel. So there was that. But lots and lots of things that I've been thinking about: books and music, and how we relate to them and how music means more to some people and to others, how one piece of music is always going to mean different things to different people.

Whether the artist knows more about what the work means than the person consuming it, which I think is doubtful. And there was a book I'd read a while before called "What Good Are the Arts?" by Professor John Carey, which really, really affected my thinking about culture. He says, if you think something's a work of art, then it's a work of art and it's the only definition that matters.

And I think he's absolutely right. I think that nothing else makes any kind of sense. And of course that blows up a huge field revolving around aesthetics and the attempt to prove that some things are better than others.

HANSEN: What music is on your playlist?

Mr. HORNBY: Oh, I've got it in my pocket, I think.

HANSEN: Take a look.

Mr. HORNBY: Hold on a second. Well, I know I've been listening to Steve Earle's son, Justin Townes Earle, a bit recently and also Elvis Perkins. He's, I think Anthony Perkins' son. The most recent playlist that I made myself had a band called Roman Candle on it, Los Lobos, Phoenix, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. An English rapper called Speech Debelle. There's a lot of stuff. It's been a good year, I think, for music.

HANSEN: Really, that sounds like good. How often have you changed that playlist?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I make a playlist twice a year for friends who feel that they're touching with music. I think, you know, when you get older, it's much harder to carve out room to investigate new things. And because I'm a writer and therefore have nothing to do all day, I've taken it upon myself to keep my friends in touch.

HANSEN: Nick Hornby. His new novel is called "Juliet Naked." And he joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you so much.

Mr. HORNBY: Pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Spinning")

Ms. SPEECH DEBELLE (Singer): (Singing) The world keeps spinning, changing the lives of people in it, nobody…

HANSEN: You're listening to "Spinning" by Speech Debelle. It's on Nick Hornby's playlist right now. If you'd like to read a review or an excerpt from "Juliet Naked" or any of the latest fiction, go to the new npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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Nick Hornby's Latest Novel: New Tune, Same Key

Juliet, Naked
Juliet, Naked
By Nick Hornby
Hardcover, 416 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt.

Nick Hornby's previous books include About a Boy, High Fidelity and How to be Good. Sigrid Estrada hide caption

toggle caption
Sigrid Estrada

Nick Hornby's previous books include About a Boy, High Fidelity and How to be Good.

Sigrid Estrada

You don't buy a Van Morrison CD hoping to hear him do something radically new and different, and you shouldn't crack the latest Nick Hornby novel, Juliet, Naked, expecting anything more, or less, than another smart, soft-centered tale of hapless manchildren, precocious actual children and sensible women. This is what Hornby does, he does it well, and he's done it again.

For the past 15 years, Duncan and Annie, an unmarried couple on the verge of middle age, have stagnated together in a dumpy British seaside town. Duncan, a classic Hornby type, is an obsessive fan of Tucker Crowe, a singer-songwriter who, after producing a brilliant breakup album called Juliet, mysteriously dropped out of sight in 1986. Duncan devotes himself to parsing Crowe trivia and posting scholarly disquisitions on a fan site.

Annie — intelligent and more attractive than she knows (another Hornby type) — has recently begun to find Duncan maddening. For one, she wants a baby, and Duncan is just not a family man. For another, she's wearying of his condescension: "Listening to music was something that she did, too, frequently and with great enjoyment, and Duncan somehow managed to spoil it, partly by making her feel that she was no good at it." Then he has an affair.

Annie posts a tart essay on Duncan's Web site that attracts the attention of the actual, elusive Tucker Crowe, thereby lucking into the sweetest revenge ever dreamed of by a woman who squandered her youth on a faithless loser. It's darkly comic material, the Duncan-Annie-Tucker triangle, and Hornby could exploit it more ruthlessly. He could delve into Duncan's humiliation at losing his lover to his idol — and, perhaps even more painfully, his idol to his lover. Hornby could, reasonably, question Annie's motives. Or he could plant a sordid secret in Crowe's past to explain his long ago disappearance.

But that is not the kind of fiction Hornby writes. He wants the best for his characters, and ultimately expects the best from them as well. Uptempo, charming and occasionally wistful — this is Hornby's music.