Despite being wildly excited for a new Hornby novel, and having read Funny Girl in galleys, I would have missed this event completely if it weren’t for my husband, who (a) discovered it was happening, and (b) called to get us tickets about three hours before the event started (after a brief, “oh no, Nick Hornby is in town tonight but it’s sold out!” panic). Usually I detest surprises of any kind, but it turns out that “Nick Hornby’s doing a reading and book signing tonight and we have tickets” is in the good surprises category.
Hornby appeared in conversation with Ethan Gilsdorf at the First Parish Church in Cambridge in an event organized by the Harvard Book Store. Serena, the book store employee who introduced him, said that his new novel Funny Girl achieved the “Nick Hornby trifecta”: smart, funny, and a little bit sad. This was the first stop on the U.S. tour, so there was the obligatory joke about snow, and didn’t he wish he’d started in California and worked in the other direction? (Snow didn’t stop fans from attending; it was a pretty full house.)
Gilsdorf asked Hornby what intrigued him about the time period and setting (London in the 1960s), and Hornby answered that his interest was born out of his work on An Education, which ended in 1963, and a conversation he’d had with actress Rosamund Pike. “Beautiful women are not often allowed to be comediennes,” Hornby realized, and thus the fictional British Lucille Ball – the main character of Funny Girl – was born. He also wanted to write about “the joy of collaborative work…the joy of conversation about lines in movies.” Hornby said, “All this fierce intelligence goes into popular entertainment,” and that statement more than any other might best sum up Funny Girl, whose characters believe at their cores in the value of comedy.
Did Hornby think of Funny Girl as historical fiction, a sort of alternate reality? He worked backward from the ending, a coda in which all the characters are in their 70s, looking back on their careers. If that was in the present, then their early careers would have been around 1964, ’65 – where An Education ended. The 1960s “was a really fantastic time for television…if you had a hit show then, everybody watched it.” Funny Girl, Hornby said, is more about the birth, life, and death of a hit show than about any one character; having read the book, I have to agree. Sophie herself admits, “It was always about the work. She’d never been in love with Clive, but she’d been in love with the show since the very first day.”
Funny Girl includes images of ephemera along with the text: real photos from the time, mock scripts from the TV show in the book – called Barbara (and Jim) – and other bits and pieces. “Why don’t novels have photographs? Why shouldn’t they?” Hornby asked. He even included a cover for one of his character’s books, which a designer at Penguin created.
Though the book is mostly about Sophie – the eponymous funny girl – Hornby chose to read a section about her co-star, Clive. He read from the U.K. edition, and bent the cover back in a way that was almost physically painful to see (my husband saw the expression on my face and wondered if Hornby was bleeding. No, I said, the book is hurting). After reading, he talked again about Lucille Ball. “We didn’t have anything like that” in England…”Monty Python was so male.” He enjoyed creating an alternate history, giving England a comedienne. “I’ve done my bit,” he said, getting a laugh from the audience.
Next, Hornby and Gilsdorf talked about Hornby’s screen adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. Some people had expressed doubts about a man writing the screenplay, and Hornby admitted he was neither a hiker nor a woman. (Never mind that men have been writing female characters, and vice versa, for centuries.) But “it’s a book about being unable to hike…written with a liberal arts sensibility.” Furthermore, “it was a memoir, there [on the page] was the woman’s head!” In the book, Strayed reveals much in the first chapter, but Hornby decided to make it “an emotional mystery” so viewers “see the damage this grief has caused.”
Gilsdorf asked about the romanticized life of the writer, referencing a section of Hornby’s website, “An Average Day.” Hornby’s advice to writers is, first, “if you can stop [writing], stop,” and second, “if you can write 500 words a day…do the maths…we should all be capable of writing a book a year.” (I’m not a “maths” person, but this is the approach I take in my fiction writing as well; for my first manuscript, I set the bar even lower, at 250 words a day, then bumped it to 500. For my second manuscript, I aimed for 750 words a day. It really does add up.) Hornby mentioned the Freedom app to block the internet, though “it’s ridiculous you have to pay somebody money to stop you doing something you’re paying for…”
The audience questions were a varied lot, including far more questions about football (soccer) than I’ve ever heard at an author event. But the first question concerned not Arsenal but the Spree, Hornby’s name for the editors at The Believer, where he writes his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column. Vendela Vida first asked if he would write a music column, but he’d just finished writing about music for The New Yorker and wanted to write about reading instead, “about how one thing leads to another.” (Incidentally, the running joke about the Spree is one of my favorite running jokes in print. Though I’m not sure how many others there are.)
Another audience member asked about Hornby’s collaboration with Ben Folds, about which I knew nothing, and which I will now track down. Someone else asked if he had thought about Barbra Streisand when choosing the title – the working title was Miss Blackpool – and Hornby replied that Funny Girl is “one adjective and one of the most common nouns in existence…I don’t think [Streisand] can copyright it.” Another person asked if Hornby had researched band websites when he was inventing the Tucker Crowe sites in Juliet, Naked; Hornby replied that he’d done no research for the book, but had looked at about 900 band websites for “my own purposes.” With that kind of “intense personal engagement,” he said, “you can only ever disappoint creatively.”
One interesting question was about stumbling blocks in publishing for writers whose first language wasn’t English. “The bar is raised higher,” Hornby admitted, but “so many amazing writers [e.g. Aleksandar Hemon] have written novels not in their first language…The biggest obstacle to being a writer is the job itself, not the language.” Someone else asked what book or author had had the most influence on him; the answer was Anne Tyler, particularly Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, for her warmth, accessibility, and emotional intelligence. “I can’t be Salman Rushdie” Hornby said (and thank goodness for that), but Anne Tyler showed him there was another kind of book, one he could try to write. The last question was about tone, and whether the sense of humor in Hornby’s books was a conscious addition. “It is self-expression,” Hornby said. “It’s how it comes out.” The difficult part is compressing the parts that are easy to write – dialogue, in his case – so that every scene moves the story forward.
In my excitement about this event, I only grabbed novels before leaving the house (High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked), forgetting the essays entirely (I’ve got The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and my friend Josh has Shakespeare Wrote for Money; we bought all three together when McSweeney’s had a deal several years ago). When I reached the front of the signing line, I remembered to compliment the author on the track list for Juliet, Naked, which I’ve admired since I first read it for being able to tell so much story in so few words. (I also said the “top five” thing. Come on, wouldn’t you?)