Sometimes the Movie Is as Good as the Book: Nick Hornby Interviewed, Part the Second

Nick Hornby photographed by Sigrid Estrada

I spoke with the the great novelist and essayist Nick Hornby about a month ago, just prior to his swing through Our Nation’s Capitol to promote his swell new novel Juliet, Naked, which we discussed at some length. His other current release, the film An Education, for which he wrote the screenplay, opens here in DC at the Landmark E Street Cinema tomorrow. I haven’t seen it yet, but the great and good Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and At the Movies tells me it’s “awfully charming.”

Herewith, the second part of our conversation, wherein we discuss his thoughts on the movies derived from his books, favorite music of the moment, and wither The Believer.

You’ve written the screenplay for the film An Education, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir. Some of your books have been adapted into good movies. Coming at this from the other side, now, where you’re responsible at least in part for how another writer’s work survives on its journey to the screen — what has that taught you about the compromises of adapting something?

Well, this is different, really, because the memoir began life as a ten-page essay in the literary magazine Granta. Lynn has since expanded the essay [to cover] the rest of her life, but what I was adapting was basically one chapter of the book where she had an affair with a guy in the beginning of the 60s, when she was sixteen. So it’s a slightly different process in the sense that there was not a movie in that essay. There was a suggestion of characters and a narrative, but you’re not adapting in the same way you would with a novel. I had to create 95% of the dialogue and the scenes.

I’d say the thing I learned from my own experiences [having my books adapted] is to make sure [the author of the source material is] on your side and happy. Not just with the work I’m doing, but that’s something that frustrates a writer: Your book disappears for three years and you can’t get any sense of where it’s gone or who it’s with. So I made sure [Barber] knew that sort of thing.

Which of the movies based on your books has been the most satisfying for you to see?

I was pretty happy with the first three, really: The English Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, and About a Boy. I think High Fidelity and About a Boy took very different stances on adapting. High Fidelity was very unfaitful in the sense they moved the setting [from London to Chicago], and in every other way was incredibly faithful to my words and characters. About a Boy was a looser adaptation: Probably more mainstream, in a good way, in that it really did open the book out.

I think the happiest one for me was High Fidelity, just because of the number of friends I made who came out of that process. People I still see and speak to.

Besides creating some memorable music obsessives in your fiction, you’ve worked as a music critic. But the nonfiction book where you really addressed your own fandom was Fever Pitch, and it’s your soccer mania that’s the subject of that book. What do you think are the shared characteristics of music and sports-related obsessions that overlap so frequently in men?

I’ve thanked God for both of those things on countless occasions, simply because of the value they have in befriending people and making conversation with people. I think in some ways, guys have life a lot easier if they have one of those things to fall back on. They’re endless in the opportunities they offer for one to accumulate detail and knowledge. You can never exhaust them.

For me, music is only pleasure, whereas sport is really a pain in the ass about three-fourths of the time [laughs]. You can’t control results, and they do have they ability to lower mood and morale and generally wreck a weekend. Which music never does.

So even dissecting music while you were writing criticism never drained any of the pleasure out of it for you?

Yeah, it did, but I stopped and I’ve got it back now. I’d say the Internet has really reinvigorated my interest the last couple of years because of the access it gives you.

What are you hearing now that you really like?

Oh, there’s a few things every day. I really like Elvis Perkins in Dearland and the new Brendan Benson.

I became aware of the band Marah simply through your championing of them, and now I’ve actually spoken to [frontman] Dave [Bielanko] a few times.

How was he?

Well, he sounds great, but I was a little concerned for his health the last time I saw him.

Was he drinking?

He seemed to be drinking again, yeah. When I saw him play last year, he was saying he had stopped.

He’s so talented. He’s an incredibly talented guy. There’s been a lot of foot-shooting over the years.

I think Serge [Bielanko, Dave’s brother] might permanently have left the band now. He wasn’t with them the last couple of times I saw them play.

I’d be surprised if Serge went back, yeah. I saw a show in Utah earlier in the year, in fact, because we took the movie to Sundance and Serge lives right near there. He looks pretty content doing what he does. I just commissioned him to write a piece, actually. I’ve just guest-edited an issue of Esquire and Serge has got a piece in there.

I really loved your column in The Believer about the books you bought each month versus the books you read. Was that a revealing thing to do, to examine your consumption in that way? Did you discover anything surprising about your habits?

It taught me a lot, that column. It taught me to become a better reader and a better picker of books. Because of the generous-spirited nature of the magazine, it stopped me from picking up books I might hate so I wouldn’t have to tell people I hated them. So I enjoyed that side of things. It probably never quite occurred to me how much money I spent on books and how many of them I left unread, but I probably could have guessed that.

I really miss doing the column now. I really missed the way it helped me to organize my thoughts on reading books. After all this stuff is out of the way, I’m going back to it next year.

Read Part One of this interview here.

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