Sunday, October 2, 2011

Nick Hornby’s Comic Take on Suicide in "A Long Way Down"

(This interview appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in June 2005)

By Dylan Foley

Earlier this month, British writer Nick Hornby began his one-man American invasion to support his new book, “A Long Way Down”(Riverhead, $24.95), by setting himself up in a two-room suite at a hip New York City hotel for an interview marathon, with extra cigarettes, bottled water and coffee.

His fourth novel is a grim departure from the fractured romance of “High Fidelity” or the dysfunctional middle-class family in “How To Be Good,” being a black comedy about four people failing to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve and coping with the aftermath.

“I’ve been looking for a way to take things further, to make a novel that’s a bit darker and a bit funnier, to stretch what I do,” says Hornby, with a bemused smile on his face as he lit his first cigarette.

In the new novel, Hornby sets up the action quickly. Four people--a TV personality disgraced after a sex scandal, a foul-mouthed teenage punk, the mother of a disabled child and a failed American rock musician wind up on the roof of Topper’s House, a fictional tower in North London. Their chance meeting on the verge of suicide on December 31st stops them all from killing themselves for the time being, and they set up an awkward self-help group of four to decide whether they should live or die. Hornby tells the novel in four intertwined monologues.

“When I wrote a short story for the (2001) collection ‘Speaking with the Angel,’ I really enjoyed writing in a voice that was not a literary voice, but a speaking voice,” says Hornby, as his publicist hands him a large coffee. “That is how I conceived this, weaving four monologues together. I could almost see them as four people standing side by side on stage.”

Hornby made his potential jumpers be driven by circumstances, not depression. “I wanted to deal with four separate narratives, where the weight of their lives pushed them up to the roof,” he says. “They had problems that I was autobiographically interested in. For me, it was the opportunity to be soulful, funny and painful within 300 pages.”

“I don’t really see this book as different,” Hornby says. “I always feel like each book is a station on the same track. I feel they are utterly consistent, traveling on this path.”

“Fever Pitch,” Hornby’s memoir of soccer fanaticism, put him on the literary map in England in 1992. “High Fidelity” in 1995 and the success of “About a Boy” in 1998, his wry and somewhat bleak novels about tortured human relations with a bit of hope mixed in, earned him a firm place on the lower tiers of the American bestseller lists. Hornby has branched out to other areas in his writing, such as writing on the 31 songs that changed his life in “Songbook” (2003) and literary criticism in “The Polysyllabic Spree”(2004).

Hornby says that he is not concerned with joining the pantheon of major literary bestsellers like Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. “I have the money I need for my purposes, and I write the books that I want to write,” he says. “I don’t feel pressure in anyway, in any aspect of my professional life.”

Riverhead, Hornby’s publisher, has high hopes for the new book. They are shipping an astonishing 175,000 hardcovers of “A Long Way Down,” very unusual for a literary novel.

Unlike other authors who grumble about book tours, Hornby finds them fulfilling. “The American readings have been really good,” says Hornby, who will tour from Boston to San Francisco for 11 days in July. “When you get hundreds of people to a reading, it becomes a motivation in itself. They are grueling, but there are a lot of highs for me on American book tours. You don’t get people to come out at home.”

To create the very different suicidal main characters, Hornby looked into his own experiences. For Martin, the TV host who sleeps with a 15-year old, is sent to prison and loses his job and family, Hornby tapped into the strange attention he’s gotten as a minor celebrity in London. For Maureen, the mother of a severely handicapped son, he crafted her out of the emotions he experienced when caring for his own autistic son Danny, who is now 11, and meeting the stressed parents of other handicapped kids.

“I never met a flesh-and-blood Maureen,” says Hornby. “What I had was the experience of meeting parents who were frightened and desperate. I’ve isolated the feelings involved and I’ve spun out a character who dramatically it exemplifies those feelings.”

Despite three bestselling novels, Hornby is a refreshingly candid and unpretentious interview subject. He admits that the character of J.J., the 31-year-old failed American rock musician, was closest to a young Nick Hornby. “When I was in my late 20s , early 30s,” Hornby chuckles, “it was easily my worst time, in terms of morale. I was teaching at a language school when I needed money, which was pretty frequently. I was getting to the point in my life where I wondered whether I could by a decent coat, let alone a house. I felt like I was walking the plank and couldn’t go back. It was my own despair that informed the character.

Much has changed for Hornby since his thirties, and even in the last four years, since his last bestselling novel, “How to Be Good.” He lives in his beloved North London with his girlfriend Amanda Posey, and they now have two sons under the age of three. He has also just finished a comedy screenplay with the actress Emma Thompson.

Hornby himself has no doubts that even such success and happiness will not stop him from producing his darkly comic novels.

“I have a melancholic personality,” says Hornby, “ that will probably never go away, no matter what happens. The other thing is that Danny is a good source of darkness, because bad things can happen. I wouldn’t change my experience with Danny for the world, but there is still a hard core of difficulty that cannot be reduced any further.”

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