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

Nick Hornby, Talking 'Bout 'An Education' (And More)

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This is FRESH AIR.

Nick Hornby is best known for his novel, "High Fidelity," about a guy who owns a record store and is obsessed with pop music. Hornby returned to the world of music obsession in his latest novel, "Juliet, Naked," which just came out in paperback.

The new novel introduces a British couple, Duncan and Annie. Duncan is an expert on singer-songwriter and guitarist Tucker Crowe, who suddenly gave up recording and performing decades earlier. Duncan has since become an expert on Crowe's music and runs a website 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 demos from his most famous album. Annie posts a negative review on Duncan's site and Crowe responds to it. Annie and Crowe meet, and a weird triangle is formed.

Terry spoke with Nick Hornby last year and asked him to start with a reading.

Mr. NICK HORNBY (Author, "Juliet, Naked"): (Reading) 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.

TERRY 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, having a website 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. Something about it stuck in my mind, and 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: Well, more valuable, and also the information that 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.

GROSS: Children play a very interesting role in the book. You know, the couple in the book doesn't have children.

Mr. HORNBY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: 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: Partly, I wanted to dramatize that thing that probably all parents know, which is that 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. And 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 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: Yeah, 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.

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 as, to bully her.

She says: (Reading) 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 feeling 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, and, 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: 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?

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But the question is...

Mr. HORNBY: Okay, good.

GROSS: - 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. And 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. And I was 45, I guess, when he was born. So it wasn't, you know, 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: Even though I am atheistic in my own beliefs. 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

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

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

BIANCULLI: Nick Hornby, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His new novel, is "Juliet, Naked," is now out in paperback.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews Oliver Stone's sequel to "Wall Street."

This is FRESH AIR.

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