Getting 'An Education' (And More) From Nick Hornby Author and screenwriter Nick Hornby joins Fresh Air host Terry Gross to discuss his new novel, Juliet, Naked, and his screenplay for the new movie An Education.
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Getting 'An Education' (And More) From Nick Hornby

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Getting 'An Education' (And More) From Nick Hornby

Getting 'An Education' (And More) From Nick Hornby

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Nick Hornby, is best known for his novel "High Fidelity," about a guy who owns a record store and is obsessed with pop music. "High Fidelity," and Hornby's books "Fever Pitch" and "About A Boy," were adapted into films. Hornby returns to the world of music obsession in his new novel, "Juliet, Naked."

The novel starts with a British couple, Duncan and Annie, making a pilgrimage to America that includes a stop in Minneapolis at perhaps the most important toilet in musical history: the toilet where singer, songwriter and guitarist Tucker Crowe apparently had a life-changing experience in the middle of a set. When he walked out of that men's room, he gave up recording and performing. That was in 1986.

Duncan has since become an expert on Crowe's music and runs a Web site devoted to every known detail of Crowe's life and work. There's big news in Duncan's world when Crowe releases a collection of the demos from his most famous album. Annie posts a negative review on Duncan's site. Crowe responds to it, Annie and Crowe meet, and a weird triangle is formed.

Nick Hornby, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed your novel. In fact, I'd like you to start with a reading from it. And this is from early on, when Annie is describing how the Internet has changed her boyfriend Duncan's relationship with Tucker Crowe, the songwriter and singer than Duncan is obsessing about. Here's her description of how the Internet has changed everything for Duncan.

Mr. NICK HORNBY (Author, "Juliet, Naked"): The Internet came along and changed everything. When, a little later than everyone else, Duncan discovered how it all worked, he set up a Web site called Can Anybody Hear Me, the title of a track from an obscure EP recorded after the wounding failure of Crowe's first album.

Until then, the nearest fellow fan had lived in Manchester, 60 or 70 miles away, and Tucker met up with him once or twice a year. Now, the nearest fans lived in Duncan's laptop, and there were hundreds of them from all around the world, and Duncan spoke to them all the time.

There seemed to be a surprising amount to talk about. The Web site had a latest news section, which never failed to amuse Annie, Tucker no longer being a man who did an awful lot - as far as we know, Duncan always said. There's always something that passed for news among the faithful, a Crowe night on an Internet radio station, a new article, a new album from a former band member, an interview with an engineer. The bulk of the content, though, consisted of essays analyzing lyrics or discussing influences or conjecturing, apparently inexhaustibly, about the silence.

It wasn't as if Duncan didn't have other interests. He had a specialist's knowledge of 1970s American independent cinema and the novels of Nathanael West, and he was developing a nice new line in HBO television series. He thought he might be ready to teach "The Wire" in the not-too-distant future.

But these were all flirtations, by comparison. Tucker Crowe was his life partner. If Crowe were to die, to die in real life, as it were, rather than creatively, Duncan would lead the mourning. He'd already written the obituary. Every now and again, he'd worry out loud about whether he should show it to a reputable newspaper now or wait until it was needed.

GROSS: That's Nick Hornby, reading from his new novel, "Juliet, Naked." Why did you want to focus a novel around an artist who stopped recording and someone who's devoting much of his life to analyzing that musician's body of work and figuring out what elements are autobiographical, you know, having a Web site devoted to this artist? And then also the girlfriend of the guy who's obsessive about the singer-songwriter? And the book rotates between the points of view of each of these three characters. Why did you want to focus around the artist who could no longer make art and the people who are obsessing on him?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I think this book started with an article I read in a magazine three or four years ago about Sly Stone, in fact, who at the time was a recluse. And the journalist had managed to fix up an interview with him, and eventually, he turned up for it. And there was such a sort of narrative thrill in that, somebody appearing after a long absence and a fan's excitement meeting this person, that I - something about it stuck in my mind, and a lot of the other ideas in the book accumulated around that.

There was also something about those guys' relationships with, you know, the Dylans and the Springsteens, the people who lecture on those people, and that idea of Annie meeting Tucker and possibly there being some kind of flirtation involved, I like the idea of what Duncan would think about that. I mean, half of those Dylan guys, if Dylan met their wives on the road, those guys would want their wives to sleep with Bob Dylan rather than not, if you see what I mean, because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It would make them more valuable.

Mr. HORNBY: More valuable, and also the information you would get out of somebody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: So there was something about that that appealed to me, too. But I wanted to write about art and writing, I suppose, and how music is received and talked about and how when an artist has made something, how it's not theirs anymore - all of these kinds of things, that this seemed like a good peg for it all.

GROSS: Are these characters all different sides of you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because you're both an artist and a fan.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I'd say that's where the book comes from, that I'm an artist and a fan. That's not the same, I think, as saying that the characters are me. I think that the moment you get characters to do things in fiction, the moment they start to live lives, then it takes them away from you. But clearly, I suppose, the ideas in the book are from me, even if there's no biographical detail that's taken from my life in there.

GROSS: You describe the relationship between Annie and Duncan in the book, the couple - and just to clarify, the guy in the couple is the guy who's obsessed with the singer-songwriter.

Mr. HORNBY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you say they were stuck in a perpetual post-graduate world where gigs and books and films mattered more to them than they did to other people of their age. Do you see anything wrong with that?

Mr. HORNBY: No, I absolutely don't. And...

GROSS: Good. I wasn't sure if that was a complaint or not, but I thought, what's wrong with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: It's absolutely not a complaint. I mean, it's really a complaint about everybody else. I think we all know that as we get older, we - it's more of a struggle to keep in touch with those things, and the things that usually stop us from keeping in touch is children, and Duncan and Annie don't have any.

GROSS: Children play a very interesting role in the book. You know, the couple in the book doesn't have children, and she's at the point where she's decided she really wants children and wondering if it's become too late for her. And at the same time, the musician, Tucker Crowe, he has children by women he barely remembers. He's having a grandchild through a daughter he's never met, but he's now raising a six-year-old who's the center of his life. And so for all the people in the novel, having a child or not having a child is nothing the way it once was. Like, there's a whole new calculus now.

Mr. HORNBY: Yes. Well first of all, families are a lot more complicated, I think, for more or less everybody.

GROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. HORNBY: And Tucker's an exaggerated version of that. He has - yeah, five children by four mums and dysfunctional relationships with all of them except his youngest. Meanwhile, Annie, yes, constantly fantasizes about having a child and feels that she's left it too late. She's been in the wrong relationship for too long.

Partly, I wanted to dramatize that thing that probably all parents know, which is you are not human if you don't spend a moment in your life fantasizing about having no children, and people without children, of course, spend parts of each day fantasizing about life with children. And there are these two parallel universes, and each looks equally attractive to the other.

GROSS: Has having a son changed your relationship to music and books and movies? You probably have less time, but how has it changed your relationship to that?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I have three sons.

GROSS: You have three sons. I'm sorry.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. That's okay. Now I've got my 16-year-old, and I have two little ones, a six and a five-year-old. The little ones in particular, yes, have changed my relationship with things. We are now devoted watchers of a program called "X Factor," which I don't know if you have here, but it's basically the same as "American Idol." And I completely see the point of this program now in a way that I didn't a year or two ago.

And it's interesting things like that. They pick up on music. They listen to a lot of music. I watch movies with them. We go and see all the animated movies. In some ways, I'm less in touch with the things that used to mean a lot to me and more in touch with things that didn't, but it's still - I still have very much a relationship with contemporary popular culture through them.

GROSS: So give us an example, I guess maybe you just did, of stuff that you've watching or listening to that would not have meant anything if you didn't have children.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I was going to say as we speak, but not quite, but certainly the last two weeks have been completely dominated by a band called The Plain White T's, who my little boys discovered through a program called "iCarly," which I also didn't know about before. And we've had to buy Plain White T's albums because they made an appearance in the "iCarly" show. And it's not music that means an awful lot to me, but it's pretty unobjectionable, and it's not a million miles away from things that I like. So, you know, it's a common ground that we have.

GROSS: Do you ever despair that your children like things that you think aren't good?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: Actually, they do - they like pretty good things most of the time. But no, I don't despair about that at all. I think that I would despair if they didn't like things. And I think as I've got older, I've come to realize that the most important thing is that we have emotional connections to music or movies or books, and it doesn't matter what those things are.

GROSS: May I ask? I know one of your sons is autistic. How old is he?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, he's 16.

GROSS: So has he developed an ear or an eye for music or film or books, the kinds of things that you're so passionate about?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, no, not books. He doesn't read. Movies, he quite enjoys when we take him to see a movie. He won't often stick it out all the way through. He's very honest in a way that adults and, indeed, other kids aren't. He'll reach a point and just stand up and walk, and you have to follow behind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: He can't be persuaded to watch the rest of the movie if he's decided he's had enough. Music is an important part of his life. He just asks for music. And it's difficult to tell - he's quite severely autistic, so it's difficult to tell what he's responding to, and he doesn't ask for anything by name, but he needs it on journeys, and he has his own iPod and things like that.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nick Hornby, who's famous for his novel, "High Fidelity." He wrote the screenplay for a movie that's about to open, called "An Education," and he also has a new novel, which is called "Juliet, Naked." And it's about a singer-songwriter who hasn't recorded or performed since 1986. And it's also about the guy who runs the Web site that obsesses on the singer-songwriter's work and absence, and the Web site guy's girlfriend who isn't obsessed with this singer-songwriter until she reviews his work, he responds to it, and then they end up emailing and actually meeting. So it's an unusual triangle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: It's not good for a one-line pitch, this book, I'm beginning to realize.

GROSS: No, no, do you want to give it a shot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: No, you did better than I could.

GROSS: Now Annie dislikes the way that her boyfriend, Duncan, listens to music because he writes about it. He considers himself, you know, like a pop-culture scholar, and she thinks that he uses his scholarship sometimes to bully her.

She says: Listening to music was something that she did, frequently with great enjoyment, and Duncan somehow managed to spoil it, partly by making her feel that she was not good at it. Talk about that line, that somebody is making you feel like you're not good at listening to music.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I agree with you when you use the word "scholar" about Duncan, I kind of conceived him as a scholar. If his obsession had been with, you know, Marlowe or Gerard Manley Hopkins, he would have been gainfully employed in a university somewhere. But because it's somebody that very few people have heard of, then of course he has to do another job.

But I think scholars can be particular bullies, in fact, and they are quite often the people who are telling you that you are reading something the wrong way, listening to something the wrong way. Of all people who are not so keen on a plurality of response, I would say it's the world expert in something.

GROSS: Do you feel like you've been guilty of that yourself, ever?

Mr. HORNBY: I think anybody who cares deeply about music or movies or books goes through a period where they can become intensely irritated by a lukewarm response or even a negative response to something. And it's been a long process for me, I think, the idea that people respond in their own way to things, and partly that's come through writing.

GROSS: And maybe through having children.

Mr. HORNBY: Maybe through having children as well, yes. I mean, the children have been good in that way, that you can see that something brings them joy and pleasure, and it might not be what you choose, but why on earth be snooty about it and try and lead them away from the thing they're enjoying to something that they would enjoy less? - which seems to me the job of a critic quite a lot of the time.

GROSS: In your new novel, "Juliet, Naked," you write a little about sexual relationships or about people wanting or not wanting sex. It's not explicit in any way, but I guess the point I'm getting to is that one of the characters in this - the singer-songwriter who hasn't recorded or performed in many years -he's in his late 50s and sex for him is different. He's older. He's had a medical problem. I don't want to go into too much, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But anyway, so you've had to deal with what a sexual relationship would mean for him at his stage in life, which is really different than the younger characters that you're famous for creating. And so I'm not sure what my question is exactly, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: How's my sex life now I'm getting old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, no, no, that's not the question.

Mr. HORNBY: Okay, good.

GROSS: But the question is - yes - but the question is more about, like, writing characters - writing about a character's sexual life and sexual desires or lack of desire - who is older.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, it would be very hard for me to write "High Fidelity" now, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: I'm proud of the book, but it was a younger man's book. And I think turning 50 was quite a big thing for me. I think it was the first time I actually did realize that I was going to get old and die.

GROSS: Did that change your life, that sense that you are going to get old and die?

Mr. HORNBY: Not as much as it should have done, I don't think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: But you know when you turn 20 or 30 or 40, you go around making all the same jokes about oh, my God, I can't believe I'm so old. And - but when you're 50, you don't say it anymore because you just are old. So it's not so funny anymore. And there is a lot about mortality and regret, I think, in this book, and Tucker's six-year-old son has a real problem with the idea of mortality. And that was lifted out of my own six-year-old and a stage he went through - which was pretty interesting and quite distressing, actually.

GROSS: A fear that you would die because you're older than the other parents, that you would die before he was grown-up.

Mr. HORNBY: I don't think he was too worried about that, even. I was 45, I guess, when he was born. So it wasn't like I broke the world record or anything. No, it was more him dying, everybody dying. It was just clocking that it was going to happen. And what I found hilarious in retrospect was how quickly I resorted to orthodox religion as consolation, even though I am atheistic in my own beliefs. And up until that point, I had always told him that, you know, there wouldn't be much talk about Jesus in our house because we didn't really believe in it. And then the moment he said, and you're going to die, and mum's going to die, and I'm going to die, and everybody's going to die. I said yeah, but it's okay because you'll see us all in heaven.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How do you feel about that, about telling him stuff that you don't believe in? Is it more like telling him about Santa Claus, or are you going to start actually telling him more about it and starting to believe it, too?

Mr. HORNBY: I think as one gets older, one realizes the value of pragmatism with children. And obviously I'm telling him something I don't believe, but very soon, he will be able to work out that belief for himself. And I think you cannot go around confronting children with the brutal truth at every stage in their lives.

At the moment, my six-year-old's convinced he'll play for Arsenal, which is our local football team, and he won't. He won't be good enough. But I don't really see the value of telling him that he's never going to play for Arsenal. He'll work it out for himself, just as he'll work out what happens to us all after he dies.

GROSS: Nick Hornby will be back in the second half of the show to talk about his new movie. His new novel is called "Juliet, Naked." Here's a song by one of the bands he said his young sons love, the Plain White T's. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Nick Hornby, the author of "High Fidelity," "Fever Pitch," "About a Boy," and the new novel "Juliet, Naked." He adapted his memoir, "Fever Pitch," into a film; now he's written the adaptation of a memoir by the British journalist Lynn Barber.

The movie, "An Education," stars Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and Carey Mulligan. One of the producers, Amanda Posey, is Hornby's wife. "An Education" opens October 9th.

I want you to just kind of set up what the story is about in "An Education" because I'll let you give away as much as you're comfortable giving away in that...

Mr. HORNBY: Okay.

GROSS: ...description so that we could talk a little bit about the movie.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, it's a movie about a 16-year-old girl who turns 17 during the course of the film, called Jenny, and her relationship with an inappropriate and slightly dodgy older man in London right at the beginning of the 1960s.

GROSS: The screenplay is based on a memoir by a woman, Lynn Barber, who's a journalist in England who I gather writes a lot of celebrity profiles and things like that?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. She - I guess she's quite famous for turning on people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: She's written the odd quite sort of notorious profile of celebrities. When she doesn't like them she let's you know that she doesn't like them. But she's a very good writer and an interesting person. And this memoir, when I first read it, was originally, it was a 10-page piece in the literary magazine Granta. It just dealt with this one episode in her life and she's since turned that into a book. Not the episode but she's written a memoir that's, incorporates other things. So I read it I guess about five years ago and I showed it to my wife. I said, I think you should do something with this; there's a lot in here. And that's how it started.

GROSS: So one of the things I really like about the movie is that it's about a really smart high school girl who really wants to live the life of the mind but she, you know, she lives in this working class neighborhood. There's no - she has no access to the kind of life that she dreams about. You know, she listens to her Juliette Greco records and imagines what life in Paris would be like and she's learning to speak French.

But you know, her life is actually pretty drab and her goal is to go to Oxford. But when she meets this older man, who we don't know much about, he can offer her what seems to be this really glamorous life. Like nightclubs and art auctions - and it's so seductive and it's so risky because it's taking her away from what she needs to develop a life of the mind, and who knows who he really is?

And I found it really interesting that you were so passionate about this story that you wanted to adapt it into a film. You're so well-known for writing mostly about a certain male point of view. Why did you want to write from this female point of view and from the dangers that a woman in high school faces?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I guess first of all I feel that - I accept that I'm famous for writing about a certain kind of man, but the last few books I think I've moved from that a little bit. When I read the piece, I identified with her completely. I felt the same. I grew up in a similar, I guess, suburb to hers and I felt I was going to be crushed by the lack of culture around me. It wasn't that, you know, it was a difficult upbringing in any way. I don't think Lynn's upbringing was difficult, but she was scared that she wasn't going to get access to the things that she wanted.

And so I started to think of it really as a female equivalent of my first book, "Fever Pitch," which was a memoir about soccer, but where soccer seemed to provide some kind of direct route into the life of the city. So there was that. That attracted me to it immediately. And then the more I started to think about it, the more I liked other things in it. I loved it tonally. I thought it was painful and funny at the same time. And most things just kind of go into a groove and stay there. They're either funny or they're not funny. And I love things that make you laugh and cry, and that material doesn't come around very often.

And I guess the third thing was Britain in 1962, so during the events of this film, the Beatles and the Stones were more or less literally in recording studios, but nobody had heard a note, so the country was going to change pretty soon but they weren't aware of that as a country right on the verge of change. And I think it probably has more in common with 1945 than it does with 1963. That character would've lived with food rationing for the first half of her life, for example.

GROSS: Yeah. In writing about British teenagers in the early '60s, when the movie is set, you write: London at the time, at the beginning of the '60s, still bore more than a passing resemblance to its wartime self. It is strange to think, for example, that Jenny would've experienced the privations of food rationing for the first half of her life. This was one reason why the UK needed interpreters of American music like Lennon and McCartney, people to transform it so that it made sense.

What didn't make sense about American music to British kids growing up after the war?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I think if you look at '50s American rock and roll, it was a product of affluence to a certain extent. You think about, you know, big cars and driving your girlfriend around and that's what a lot of the songs were about. Well, that just didn't happen in England. Nobody had cars. You waited for buses in bad weather normally. And we were completely ruined by Word War II and America was made in some ways by World War II. And it took a while for us to be able to recognize something in the music, I think, that made some kind of sense.

When I was thinking about music for this movie, I was looking on my iPod and realized that I don't have one song that was made in England before 1960. I have a great deal of American music made before 1960 but no English music at all, and then suddenly that changed with what happened obviously, and I think that's revealing of something.

GROSS: I want to end with a question that's based on your new novel, "Juliet, Naked." There's two quotes about art that are such great contrast to each other and I really think sum up so well what it's like when you're immersed in music or literature or film. Okay. So here's a quote about what it's like to be at a bad concert: "Mediocre loud music penned you into yourself, made you pace up and down your own mind until you were pretty sure you could see how you might end up going out of it."

And then here's a quote about great art: "One thing about great art, it made you love people more, forgive them their petty transgressions. It worked in the way that religion was supposed to."

I love that contrast because, you know, great art, it is almost like religion. I mean it's so - it has this kind of larger resonance that makes you glad you're alive and see things in a different way and - but bad art...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: can, especially when you're trapped in a theater or in a concert where it's taking place and you can't really leave, it can just make you just think about thoughts and obsess on bad things and make you really wish you could get out of there and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. And I think bad concerts and massages for me come to the same thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Massages?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. I hate massages for exactly the same reason. There's no escape.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: You're stuck with your own...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: But yes, the great art thing. I guess that's the position I've arrived at finally, is that anything that makes you feel more alive is good for you, and if that happens to be the "The Da Vinci Code" or the Backstreet Boys, well, you know, good luck to you. But if...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: ...if you feel more alert and more able to cope and more willing to communicate as a result of anything you might consume, then that thing is performing a valuable function in your life, I think.

GROSS: It's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. HORNBY: Lovely to talk to you again, Terry.

GROSS: Nick Hornby's new novel is called "Juliet, Naked." He wrote the screenplay for the new film "An Education," which opens October 9th. Here's Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan in a scene from the film.

(Soundbite of movie "An Education")

Mr. PETER SARSGAARD (Actor): (as David): I suppose you have homework to do.

Ms. CAREY MULLIGAN (Actress): (as Jenny): You have no idea how boring everything was before I met you. Action is character, our English teacher says. I think it means that if we never did anything, we wouldn't be anybody, and I never did anything before I met you.

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