A Darker View from Hornby: 'Long Way Down' British writer Nick Hornby's comic talents have been on display since the novel High Fidelity. Hornby talks about writing for the British and the American ear, and how music plays a role in his creative process.
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A Darker View from Hornby: 'Long Way Down'

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A Darker View from Hornby: 'Long Way Down'

A Darker View from Hornby: 'Long Way Down'

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(Soundbite of music)


Nick Hornby had the good fortune to have his first novel "High Fidelity," the story of a hapless 35-year-old record store owner, made into a movie starring John Cusack.

(Soundbite of "High Fidelity")

Mr. JOHN CUSACK (As Character): What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands, of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

HANSEN: Hornby's latest novel, "A Long Way Down," takes a darker view of life. The story begins on New Year's Eve on the roof of a high-rise building in London. Four strangers, each planning to jump, by happenstance meet and immediately bond with one another in their shared depression. They decide to postpone their death at least until Valentine's Day. Nick Hornby is in the studio.

Thanks so much for coming in. It's nice to meet you.

Mr. NICK HORNBY ("A Long Way Down"): Pleasure.

HANSEN: What a strange situation you've created here, a strange collection of characters. We've got Maureen, a middle-aged woman; Martin, a TV host; JJ, an American rock musician; and Jess, a punk teen-ager. How did things go so wrong for these four people that they ended up on a roof contemplating suicide?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, Martin's just been to prison for sleeping with a 15-year-old. Jess is damaged by, well, things that are sort of slightly revealed throughout the book. Maureen has a severely disabled son, and she doesn't feel she's lived any life at all, so there's nothing much to throw away. And JJ's a musician whose band splits up, and he feels he's come to the end of the road, as well.

HANSEN: So it's almost coincidence that they end up on the roof at the same time?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, coincidence apart from the fact that it is a well-known suicide spot that they've all been drawn to, and New Year's Eve is one of the nights of the year when the suicide rate spikes. So they think that they're the only ones with this idea, but, of course, it occurs to lots of people.

HANSEN: What prompted you to write about suicide?

Mr. HORNBY: I'm looking for ways with my characters--given that they're probably never going to go to war or I'm never going to write about a big period in history, I'm looking for ways of pushing my characters on in extremis.

HANSEN: The book alternates. It's kind of like the Rashomon story, where you get, you know, different peoples' interpretations of the same story. Each chapter is a different character. Was one character more difficult to find a voice? I'm thinking about Maureen, who is probably--I mean, 51-year-old Catholic woman, never left her home, taking care of her son. And, I mean, this is probably furthest from you as a person. Was it difficult to find her voice?

Mr. HORNBY: Not really. I mean, I have a disabled son of my own, and there are lots of things in her that I'm clued into. She presents more of a technical challenge because she's up there, really, because she hasn't lived a life; there's a hole where her life should be. And the others are all authors of their own misfortune. And she's not as switched on as the other characters. So she required a great deal of care, but I always knew where she was emotionally.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm. And the others, I mean, the teen-ager, this seems as though this is part of what you've been doing--I mean, looking at "High Fidelity," I mean, the rock music world, that kind of thing, or the rock musician, for example, would be a world that you know quite well.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. That sort of world I know, although with that character, I really felt as though I were writing about myself...

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. HORNBY: ...when I was his age just because I'd been spectacularly unpublished for some time when I was, you know, 30 or even older than him. And, again, I felt very tuned in to the kind of frustration and despair that you feel when you start to see your friends embarking on the path to success or at least some kind of career, and those things can seem a very long way away.

HANSEN: Yeah. Jess is kind of a lost girl. I mean, her sister's disappeared, and it seems as if that's her parents' whole life, so she's not connected to anyone at all. Again, where did she come from?

Mr. HORNBY: The roots of her came from my experiences teaching in school in terms of her energy and aggression. Yeah. It was teaching experience that got her in the first place.

HANSEN: And then there's Martin, who's famous. I mean, he was famous before he got in the tabloids for sleeping with the 15-year-old girl, but someone who has had an incredible amount of success that just--he blows it.

Mr. HORNBY: Completely blows it. And, you know, there's been something in our culture, I think, the last few years--people who are extremely successful for having no discernible talent. And I wanted to write about what inner resources he had, if that happens to you when you're essentially a cipher.

HANSEN: Your books have a heavy musical influence. "High Fidelity," for example, is set in a record store. "A Long Way Down," one character's in a band, and the other one, at one point, is drawing parallels between, you know, her life and the fact that The Beatles were only together for seven years and that kind of thing. Do you have music in mind when you're writing these characters?

Mr. HORNBY: I think all the books come from music. I mean, the critic Walter Pater, who said that all art aspires to the condition of music--I so identify with that, you know, because music's the kind of purest form of expression. It's not corrupted by images or by words. I think that's where I'm trying to get when I'm writing. I'd like to feel that the reader has been on the kind of emotional journey you get with music when you start in one place and end up in another.

HANSEN: Nick Hornby's new novel is called "A Long Way Down." It's published by Riverhead Books, and he came into our Washington studios.

I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Mr. HORNBY: Pleasure.

HANSEN: And you can meet Maureen, one of Nick Hornby's main characters. There's an excerpt at our Web site, npr.org.

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