An Evening with Nick Hornby

An Evening with Nick Hornby

Author discusses his love for comedy and music with an audience at the Reston Community Center's CenterStage Theater.

By the time author Nick Hornby had finished his performance at the Reston Community Center’s CenterStage March 21, a nearly packed audience of fans learned how a photo of a crucified Jesus made from a collage of a thousand nipples could be considered art, that there was a time when Rod Stewart was considered hip and that music tonally influences the award winning novels Hornby has written. Standing behind a lone podium beneath the iridescent blue lighting of the stage, the bald, thirty-something, casually dressed Londoner looked more football hooligan than former journalist turned Hollywood author.

Considered a representative voice for males in their twenties and thirties, Hornby has successfully created a handful of characters that expose the sensitivity and often misjudged inner workings of the male psyche. And while he may have all the answers for the brokenhearted, audiophiles and English football fanatics in the world, he is not as sure how he became the spokesperson for a generation of men.

“I don’t know guys, I know me,” admitted Hornby. “I’m sure it’s illogical to think that oneself is representative of a gender.”

Regardless, there is no denying the immense success his writing has achieved. Author of “High Fidelity”, “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch,” to name a few, Hornby has seen all three of these novels adapted into Hollywood blockbusters, most notably, the 2000 release, “High Fidelity” starring John Cusack as the love-sick record shop owner, Rob Gordon, which achieved a large cult following.

“It’s such a collaborative medium, film,” said Hornby. “But it always seems like the weakest things about them are the things they kept from my book.”

A GRADUATE OF Cambridge University in England, Hornby began his career writing as a journalist for publications including Vogue, The Independent and Elle. According to Hornby, it wasn't until he discovered authors such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford in the late 1980s, that he began to develop the sincere, informal voice that would become a trademark of his writing. Hornby believes that his combination of comedy and emotional honesty comes from his inability to differentiate between the two.

Hornby began his reading at the CenterStage with a story that displayed this marriage of human emotion. Titled "Nipple Jesus," the short story was part of a collection that benefited the London-based Treehouse School for autistic children, which his eldest son attends. Opening with a brief warning that some of the language and imagery might be "blasphemous and R-rated," Hornby told the story of a night-club bouncer who landed a job guarding a large piece of art which depicted the crucified Jesus made from thousands of little pictures of a certain female anatomy. Although seemingly controversial, Hornby's style approached the topic with a sympathetic voice of a low-brow Londoner who struggles with the process of defining the piece as art. Eventually falling in love with it, comedy and tragedy engulf each other in a series of unfortunate events.

On writing his novels, Hornby said that he enjoys, "the serious points in comedy and the comedy in serious points.”

"They feel completely, organically connected with me,” he said.

Hornby’s latest novel, “A Long Way Down,” is a shining example of how human drama isn't always void of laughter. A story about four individuals who have a chance encounter while contemplating death atop the roof of a popular London suicide spot, Hornby sent the audience at the CenterStage into laughing hysterics while reading a number of passages from the book.

“Its important to me that I care about the people I’m writing about," he later said. "I can’t imagine writing about people who are disposable to me.”

Outside of real life experiences, Hornby looks towards others for laughter. A fan of "Seinfeld," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," as well as Preston Sturges’ work and the prose of P.G. Wodehouse, Hornby is a captivated by television and film.

“I think TV and movies are the things that provide the laughs for me," he said.

AS THE FORMER pop-music critic for the New Yorker, Hornby admits that music has had a large influence on not only his writing, but his life as a whole. What became an obsession by age 15, Hornby recalls going to see bands like Rod Stewart and The Faces play raucous shows in London clubs.

“To the younger people, believe it or not there was a time when Rod Stewart was cool,” he joked. Growing up in an environment where drinking alcohol was a normal activity of the working class, Hornby was shocked the first time he saw such an activity glorified by the musicians he idolized. “The idea that art was made by people whose life was much like made life easier.” he said.

Throughout his career, music has been a medium that Hornby has always returned to. Whether its the pages of musical references in "High Fidelity," or the collection of essays titled "31 Songs," which talks about the music that changed his life, Hornby is a fountain of knowledge.

“Music is the purest [art form] because it has no literal meaning — its just all effect," he said.

Although not a musician himself — he claims he is waiting for the opportunity to learn with his children — Hornby says that he often attempts to convert the tone of the music he loves into the novels he writes. While he never listens to music while writing, much of his time away from the computer is spent listening to his favorite artists. Hornby believes that for every book he has written, there has "probably been a tune for all of them." For instance, Hornby claims that "About a Boy," a story about the cold-reality of dating, was more or less written to R.E.M's "E-Bow the Letter."

But even though he does not know how to play music, that doesn't stop him from appearing on stage with rock bands. He recently appeared on stage for a reading with Philadelphia based band "Marah," providing the soundtrack to his prose.

“It’s a bit frightening because they are a rock band and they really rock," he admitted. "But luckily my essays rock a little harder.”

JUST BECAUSE HE may be an expert on pop-music, it is still almost impossible for him to answer the loaded question, "What kind of music do you listen to?"

“Usually I just gape when people ask me that," he joked.

But accompanied with an iPod in hand, Hornby breezed through a recent playlist that included Cat Power, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis and Sufjan Stevens to name a few. It is hard to believe that the man who conducted an in-depth study on the mixed-tape in his book "High Fidelity," was reading songs from an iPod playlist. Hornby sees the two as separate entities, but still favors the hands-on approach to building the perfect mixed-tape.

“The thing with tapes is that they had to be made in real time," he explained. "You had three and a half minutes to think about it, as opposed to just dragging it over into a folder.”

But to say that Hornby is skeptical about new technology would be wrong. He believes that the reemergence of the "do-it-yourself" approach to making music is a positive thing.

“The message of punk was that you could do it yourself. That kind of died a little bit but technology brought it back," he said. "No one knows how that will change music. They let the genie out of the bottle but it all seems pretty healthy to me.”

THE AUTHOR IS CURRENTLY on a speaking tour promoting his newest release, "A Long Way Down." Already a number of successes under his belt, Hornby noted that the film rights to his 2001 release "How to Be Good," was recently sold to actor Johnny Depp. But while Hornby plans to keep writing, he is certain that his involvement with the book's Hollywood adaptation will be very limited.

"If you think about it, a book is like six times longer than a movie. That means five parts have to be taken out," he joked. "I don't want to adapt my own books because I just spent so much time putting those parts in."