Nick Hornby, JUST LIKE YOU

Nick Hornby, JUST LIKE YOU

Nick Hornby, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch, joins Zibby to discuss his latest novel, Just Like You. The two talk about why his writing is so easily adapted for the screen, the occupational hazards that come with being a writer, and the inadvertent effects parenting can have on kids—both fictional and real. Nick also shares the encounter he observed that lay the groundwork for this story and which political events finally inspired him to write the book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nick. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, Just Like You.

Nick Hornby: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. In a way, it is just like me because I got divorced when I was thirty-nine. I’m now remarried, but I was a single woman for a minute, just a minute, back in the day. I didn’t end up with Joseph, but I did end up with someone younger.

Nick: Yes, this is the book for you.

Zibby: This is the book for me. You have found your audience. I also have to say that yesterday, as I just told you, I was in the hospital for one thing or another. I was very stressed out. I still had the end of your book to read. I would pull it out of my bag. After I was so worried, I pulled it out. Next thing you know, I’m in the waiting room hysterically laughing. I’m like, this is so bad. Then I was embarrassed looking around at the people who weren’t laughing. I was like, oh, no, maybe I should just put it back in my bag.

Nick: Actually, you made me look bad. You made yourself look bad, certainly, but you made me look bad too, laughing away while your son’s having a procedure.

Zibby: You are so funny. I love your sense of humor. It’s a dry, dark, kind of funny. Oh, my gosh, I just eat it all up. It’s hilarious.

Nick: Thank you.

Zibby: You are so accomplished, so many of my favorite books, About a Boy, oh, my gosh, all this stuff. Just Like You, why did you write this book? Why at this time in your career? Why now? Give me the whole spiel.

Nick: It literally started with me watching someone in a shop, a guy and a girl. The guy was older. The girl was of color, a young black woman. They had something going on. They had a little flirt. All the way home, I thought, why can’t those people get together? What are the obstacles? I knew they were not going to get together. What are the obstacles? I started to think about them, about age and race and class and thinking of inventive ways in which they could be overcome should these people wish to do so. It got parked there for two or three years. I could see that it might be fun to write, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. Then when we had our Brexit referendum and it felt like one side of the country would never speak to the other again — you in America have experienced something similar. I thought, maybe this is the time to write a book about difference and apartness. The idea I started with is that face-to-face confrontations, political confrontations, you cannot resolve anything if you just get in each other’s faces and shout at each other. There has to be a way around the back. Most of us have a way around the back with people, whether it’s our kids or our sports teams or whatever it is. You can always find common ground. The stuff that divides us can be temporarily forgotten. It seemed like fertile ground to try and write the novel. I didn’t have to predict what was going to happen. It was really just about those few months before and after the referendum.

Zibby: Interesting. Of course, you introduce us with the sign and the store. Should the sign say one thing? Mark, the store owner, is like, I’ll just put up the other one then. They’re like, what? You can’t just switch it. What? What is your point of view? That was pretty funny.

Nick: I became increasingly frustrated with my own side during the Brexit referendum. I voted to remain to be a part of Europe, which in your country is like voting for Hillary in 2016. The kind of smugness and my own team began to repel me. You’re never going to persuade anyone by just telling them they’re stupid over and over again. One of the funniest things about the referendum, I thought, was that the day after it happened, I got tons of emails from people who were trying to start a petition to have the vote overturned. They were saying, we’ve already got one million signatures. I said, yeah, but you need seventeen million signatures because that’s how many people voted for the other way. If you get up to seventeen or eighteen, let me know, and I’ll sign my name. The idea that one million signatures is meaningful in some way when eighteen million people have just voted the other way, I just wanted to throttle people. Why won’t you sign the petition? I said, because it’s not democratic.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s so funny. You have all these mass generalizations. Did you vote this way? My parents did, but they live in Kent. You just leave it at that. It did become some sort of a shorthand, in a way, people trying to figure each other out very quickly.

Nick: We judge people on mindsets and geography all the time.

Zibby: It’s true, or where they went to school. My husband, who is not from — I’m from New York City. He grew up in Florida. When he moved here with me, everybody would ask him, “Where’d you go to school?” He’s like, “Why does everybody ask?” He’s like, “I don’t know. I went to Venice High. Nobody’s ever asked me that before.” I’m like, “It’s how people figure you out.”

Nick: We have an equivalent in England, which is our private school/state school system. There’s this shocking fact that two schools in England have provided something like fifty prime ministers between them. Two schools. If anyone asks me where I went to school, I’ll tell you, you’ve never heard of it, so let’s move on. I’m sure your husband feels the same way.

Zibby: Yes. He’s like, “Enough of this. I don’t get it.” Wait, I probably won’t be able to find it, but there was that whole section in this book about when she goes to the dinner party. His kids — wait, now I’m getting it all wrong. She was so funny. Didn’t she say, I just want somebody who says, I don’t send my kids to your school because it’s full of psychopaths, and I would never — she’s like, I will date him no matter what he’s like if he says that.

Nick: That’s her first blind date, internet date where she’s set up. He says something about private school. She wishes people were honest about why they send people to private school.

Zibby: I think that’s part of your sense of humor in all these scenes. The thing that isn’t being said, you just make it be sad so that it’s very uncomfortable.

Nick: I think that’s the great thing about fiction, is that you can set up the scene and the people as realistically as you possibly can, but then you can just cross the line into making it explicit and have way more fun than anyone would have in real life.

Zibby: That’s Lucy’s whole approach to dating too. She’s like, well, I’m never going to see these guys again, so I might as well just say, oh, yeah, it didn’t work out with your ex? Why? How was your sex life? She’s like, why not? Oh, my gosh, it just made me laugh so much. I also liked — what term did you use to describe Joseph’s job? What did you call it? I have to look it up, but how so many people these days, you don’t just have one job.

Nick: It’s a portfolio.

Zibby: Yes, a portfolio strategy to a career and how he’s sort of a DJ, but really, he’s a babysitter or he works at the leisure club.

Nick: and he coaches kids.

Zibby: And he coaches.

Nick: I wonder if that will happen more and more as we go through all this.

Zibby: I found that, too, hiring. People would say, how many people are helping you run your business and all this stuff? I’m like, well, kind of seven, but everybody has another job. Everybody does everything.

Nick: It seems like a pretty great thing while you’re finding your way in life, actually, not to get too bored in one thing. Typically, when you’re starting out in your twenties, you do pretty bad jobs. If you can switch one bad job to another bad job in terms of repetitiveness and not being able to make your own decisions, if you can limit the time in that — my nineteen-year-old is currently working in a football club in the ticket office.

Zibby: I saw on Instagram. You were like, my son works in the ticketing office. You’re like, oh, yeah, it’s right there on his shirt.

Nick: I said to him, “How was it?” He said, “I had to send out 2,400 emails.” I said, “That’s the job we all did. There isn’t a job where you tell people to send out 2,400 emails when you’re nineteen. I’m afraid you have to go through that.”

Zibby: Of course, when I was nineteen, there barely were emails, but that’s okay. That’s funny.

Nick: I like that you got barely in there, Zibby.

Zibby: Say that again. Barely? Yes.

Nick: I like that you got barely in there because when I was nineteen, I think there were stamps. I think they’d been invented, but that was about all.

Zibby: We had to go to one place on campus. There was one center we could go to do email.

Nick: I was reminiscing with a friend the other day about how we used to get music to kids, which was to send a stamped, addressed envelope off to someplace. You had to get a postal order because I didn’t have a checkbook. You had to get a postal order from the post office, then get two stamps, one so they could send it back. I was thinking that one of the offshoots of this is that you get a lot of people at concerts who don’t really want to go to that concert, but it was easy to buy the ticket because it was one click or something or other. I miss that. When I looked around at the concerts I went to when I was a teenager, I looked at the other people, I always thought, they really wanted to be here. They all sent off their stamped, addressed envelopes. They showed commitment.

Zibby: It’s true. You’re just like, maybe I’ll go. I might as well. If not, I’ll just put it on the resell thing and then sell it off again.

Nick: Somebody once told me that the shows that are advertised one year in advance, like a big show in Madison Square Garden next summer, that quite often, the front row is empty because the first people who bought the tickets forgot that they bought them. It’s just incredible. They quite often do it drunk late at night as well.

Zibby: That’s why I have my settings to remind me of things like this.

Nick: Apparently, stand-up comedy is particularly affected by that.

Zibby: I could see that. My calendar is like, this was the JoJo Siwa thing you got for your daughter in the middle of the pandemic. It’s back on tomorrow night. I was like, I’m not doing that. What are you talking about?

Nick: Pandemic’s been great for spending money on tickets. You think, what happened to that? They postponed it. I don’t know if they paid me back. They told me it was going to be reorganized. I’m quite happy to give money to musicians, but it’s a right mess right now.

Zibby: Yes, it’s true.

Nick: Sorry, this is getting off the subject.

Zibby: I know. Of course. Okay, the subject, so your book, the other thing that was funny was when you had the two ladies talking. You do friendship so well. Lucy, who just tells it like it is, and her annoying, blond friend who follows her around, and how she is so into — this is a scene from the start, but how she’s so into her love life. Do you think you’re going to have sex tonight? Do you think? What’s going to happen? She’s like, I don’t know, what about your husband? She’s like, oh, we can’t talk about my husband. She’s like, why not? She’s like, well, we’ve been married for thirty years. She’s like, well then, why do you get to talk about who I’m going to have sex with? She’s like, oh, come on, it’s not the same.

Nick: It’s like single people are fair game. They provide vicarious pleasure to the rest of the world.

Zibby: It’s so funny. Also, you have the poignant stuff in here too like having alcoholism and drug addiction, all of that come roaring back. What is it like to be the child of an alcoholic? You take it less from the boys’ perspective and more from Joseph and the mom when, during their first interaction, the dad shows up drunk and ruins the whole night and everything. You have the boys finding out. They’re like, no, no, they know. They know what he’s like. It’s hard to just be so — not that it was flip, but if they were writing this book, what would it be for them? The effect of having this type of parent, what happens then?

Nick: I guess with kids, it depends on which day you’re asking them. Most of the time, I think they would rather be flip and not think about it very much. Then of course, on some occasions where it becomes overwhelming, then they would maybe want to splurge or get upset. In my experience, if you’re living through extreme circumstances, you reorganize everything pretty quickly so they’re no longer extreme. They’re just part of the fabric of your life.

Zibby: True. I do feel like there are many personality hits you take if you have a parent like that that may come out later.

Nick: Yeah. Who knows?

Zibby: With everything in parenting, of course.

Nick: I often wonder what my kids will be talking about on a therapist’s couch when they’re forty because I know they will be. It’ll probably be something I did or their mom did, hopefully their mom, not me. I remember being very struck once by talking about my grandfather, who I never met, to a friend who also had a grandfather she’d never met and thinking, wow, if these guys knew that some sixty years later two people would be standing outside a restaurant in North London talking about them when they didn’t even know we existed. The way that family runs through you and affects you in ways that no one could possibly predict is kind of great as well because you do stay alive. Even if you’ve never done anything, you stay alive in people’s minds.

Zibby: Speaking of grandparents, you had this really funny scene when Cassie is talking to Joseph. They both work at the butcher shop. She’s trying to ask him about if he has ever dated — he’s black. She’s asking, has he ever been with somebody who’s white? She’s trying to dance around it so she doesn’t offend him or something. He just wouldn’t let her get away with that. Finally, she says, “How am I supposed to know? Would you go out with a white girl? Why don’t you ask me whether I have gone out with a white girl? Oh, have you? Of course, I have. And did it anyone, like, disapprove? Yeah, her grandad. Was he a racist? No, he was a vegan. Didn’t like me working here. Really? No, he was a racist.” That made me laugh out loud because it just calls it out. The poor girl, you can just feel her mortification and everything.

Nick: It’s the tiptoeing around that’s so hard, and we’ve all done it, about gender and sexuality and race. I think it’s good that we’re having to learn the language and find the ways in which we are not offensive because so frequently, especially people of my age, we’ve sort of blundered on for years. I think this is a great time of putting it all out on the table and people telling us, we don’t want you to call us this. We don’t want you to call us that. I find that incredibly helpful.

Zibby: Have you gotten any pushback? I know there’s sort of a movement in fiction in today’s culture, is it okay to write from a point of view that is not your own? This book is a twenty-two-year-old black man and a forty-two-year-old white woman, neither of which you obviously are. Is it okay to write from their points of view? How do you feel about that?

Nick: No one’s said anything to my face about it. I don’t know what goes on online or anything like that. I don’t look. I live in London, which is this big, multicultural city. I would fight for the right to write about what I see when I look through the window. If someone’s telling me, you can’t see that, you can’t see that, you can’t do that, I don’t know, I think I’d have to pack it in, actually. I’ve got nothing left. My first two or three books were about guys like me, a bit like me. As my career’s gone on, I think I’ve got nothing left to say about guys like me, so I’m going to write about other people. It’s helped keep my career alive and fresh. I think it’s impossible to write movies or TV or fiction unless you’re given the permission to imagine what it’s like to be somebody else. I can’t take a position where, for a start, I can’t write about the half of the human race, which is women. That seems, to me, an absurd position to end up in.

Zibby: I agree, yes. You do it quite well, I must say.

Nick: Well, I took advice. I’ve always taken advice. I think that’s the best thing you can do, is imagine as carefully as you can what it would be like to be this person and then let somebody who is as close as you can find to being like that person reading the book and saying, I’m not sure it’s like this or I’m not sure it’s like that. Although, even that’s a dangerous game because you’re presuming that one or two or four women can speak on behalf of hundreds of millions of women. You have to take that with a pinch of salt as well.

Zibby: It’s true. Many of your other books have gone on to become something in the visual arena, movies, etc. When you’re sitting down to write, like for this book, for example, do you see it in your head kind of playing out like a movie? Do you see things visually? Does it matter to you where it ends up as long as you get it down on the page? What is your relationship these days to how things are depicted in what medium?

Nick: I think I see things visually because that’s the kind of writing I want to do. There are probably two kinds of writers in this sense, which is that some writers want to provide a clear pane of glass through which you can see the characters and the narrative that they’ve created. There are other writers who are much more interested in language, and so they are drawing attention to the glass rather than what’s beyond the glass. I know I’m the kind of writer who creates or wanted to create the clear pane of glass. If that’s what you do, then of course, you see things visually when you write. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it has a relationship with TV or movies. For a start, one of the problems with TV and movies is that everyone who is an actor is better-looking than the rest of us. It’s true. That is the definition of a movie star. If you’re not better-looking than the rest of us, you’re a character actor. The big ones are all good-looking. That’s the first qualification for the job. If they can act as well, then they’re really valuable. I’m writing these books which are about the people I sort of know and the people I’ve seen. They don’t look like Hugh Grant or John Cusack. When the movies are made, you think, whoa, that guy wasn’t who I was thinking of, but that’s what has to happen. If you want the movie, you have to have the movie star.

Zibby: Is John Cusack that good-looking? You think? I don’t know.

Nick: I think that if John Cusack were having a drink in a pub, you’d notice him. Don’t you think?

Zibby: I’ve never seen him in real life.

Nick: In whenever we made that movie, 1999, if there were a load of guys standing at the bar and one of them was John Cusack, I think you’d pick him out.

Zibby: I think you’re probably right. Yeah, certainly if he was holding the boombox over his head still. Then I’d definitely — I can’t even find my words today — motion him over or whatever you want to call it. When you’re writing, where do you write? Do you write where you’re sitting right now? What’s your process like? What’s your setup?

Nick: I’m on holiday at the moment. I have a studio apartment out of the home which I probably have no need of anymore because it came from a time when the kids were small and schooldays were really short. I needed to go somewhere where I could do a day’s work without people getting in my face. It’s a short walk to work. I do everything there like a nine-to-five.

Zibby: Then you’re able to just leave it, or does it sit with you all night and you’re mulling it all over?

Nick: I don’t think you can ever leave it. I think it’s a peril of the profession. I think there’s not really a lot of difference between your waking moments and your trying-to-get-to-sleep moments. You’re doing the same thing all day. You’re not really doing anything physical. You’re not writing. It’s always the thing I’ve struggled with with writing. If you write a thousand words a day, you’re having a good day. That’s a decent chunk. If you copied out a thousand words from another book, that would take you about fifteen minutes. You see what I mean? The difference between actual writing and what goes on for the rest of the day is, I think, the hardest thing to manage as a writer. That’s why you’ve got to be careful with YouTube and phone calls and emails and life, news, like with the pandemic and elections and things. If you’ve got constant access to a computer and you’re feeling vaguely anxious about the world, you’re refreshing every couple of minutes. When I’m being really disciplined, I use an app that blocks you out of your own internet. Also, I quite often have a jigsaw puzzle on the go because you can’t really get stuck with a jigsaw. You just kind of plod on. If you can’t find this bit, then you work on another bit. You make easy, slow progress. You’re not thinking about it, so it doesn’t take me out of the mindset of the world that I’m trying to think about. Whereas if I’m watching 1980s highlights of my football team, which is the other thing that happens on YouTube, I am out of the world of the book.

Zibby: The way you describe doing a jigsaw puzzle could also be the way you describe writing a book. If one part’s not working, you go to another part. You plod on. You take it slowly.

Nick: I’m not very good about going to the other part. If it’s not right, I can’t go on. I’ve never written a book or a screenplay unconsecutively. When I’m stuck, I’m stuck. I don’t move on. I’m not saying it’s a good idea.

Zibby: No, I find that interesting. My daughter had the same thing yesterday. She’s like, “I can’t figure out this math problem. Should I just move on to language arts?” I was like, “I don’t know. This is the big question. Do you keep trying to bang your head against the math, or do you want to take a break?” She moved on, but then she went back, in case you were wondering.

Nick: I’ve often found, actually, that when you can’t move on, it’s because something’s wrong further back. It’s like, you’ve got a bad shoulder because you have lower back problems. It’s that sort of thing. Quite often, if you’ve run out of road in a book or a screenplay, it’s because you took a wrong turn further back.

Zibby: Love it. Very interesting. What project comes after this?

Nick: It’s quite a busy year. I’ve got some things that are sort of done and ready to be read or seen. In a couple of weeks, I’ve got a TV show on AMC Sundance called State of the Union. That’s the second season. The first season was with Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd. The setup is it’s the ten minutes that a couple spends before they go into marital therapy. You never go into the room with them. When we were talking about a season two, I thought, I’m done with that couple’s problems. I’d now like to write about a different set of problems. This season is Patricia Clarkson and Brendan Gleeson. It’s much further on in life. Actually, the stakes are higher at that age. That’s coming out in mid-Feb. I’ve just written a very short book about Prince and Dickens, as in the Prince the musician and Dickens the writer.

Zibby: I thought so.

Nick: It’s about creativity. They’re the most creative people, that I’ve ever consumed at least. Stuff just poured out of them. It’s about what they had in common and what happened to them as a result of being over-creative. They both died, as it were, within six months of each other if they’d been born in the same year. Neither of them made it to sixty. I think work probably killed them both. Movies were a big part of their careers even though Dickens never knew about it until the twentieth century. They both had terrible childhoods, etc. I’m switching between these people to find out about the key to intense creativity. Right at the moment, I’m adapting two books that I love, one for TV and one for movies. One’s called Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I loved that game. I love Adrienne Brodeur. She is amazing. I’ve worked with her on Aspen Words and everything. I love her. I loved that book so much.

Nick: I think it would make a fantastic movie.

Zibby: I’m so excited you’re doing that. That’s awesome.

Nick: It is exciting. I’m working with a really great director on it. Then the other book I’m adapting for a TV series is Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss. I don’t know if you’ve read that.

Zibby: Oh, yes. That was also amazing. I loved that. Oh, my gosh.

Nick: I’m so lucky because they’re my two favorite books of the last twelve months or whatever. I’m working on both of those.

Zibby: I still picture those characters in Meg Mason’s book sitting on that couch. You know how they were all in that room for so long sitting on the tiny, little loveseat and watching? Wow, those are great books. Amazing. Very exciting.

Nick: Really great books. I cannot say that you’ll ever see them because it’s a very perilous profession, but I’m enjoying doing them.

Zibby: I can’t wait. I hope to see them. Fantastic. Last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Nick: It’s so basic, but I think people do forget. You have to read, and you have to write. You have to read a lot. You have to read for two reasons. You have to read to find out what sort of stuff is being published, what sort of stuff has already been published, and because you need to find out what good writers do. I think the more you consume, the better you get at it. It was something that was very clear, actually, in the Prince and Dickens research that I was doing. They were both unbelievable consumers of stuff. That Malcom Gladwell thing about ten thousand hours of practice, I’m not sure it always works, but I do think ten thousand hours of consumption gets you quite a long way. Lots of young writers are asking me about how to get an agent and how to get a publisher. That is not the problem. The problem is writing something that anyone wants to publish. If you write something good, you don’t need to worry about the agent and the publisher. That will take care of itself. The simplest advice is, if you’ve got a job or you’re a student or whatever it is you’re doing, if you can manage five hundred words a day, which is two long paragraphs, if you think about that, then in 160 working days, you’ll have a novel-length book. It’s pretty incredible. That’s within everybody’s grasp, I would say. You don’t have to work weekends. You can get a book finished in a year even if you’re doing other stuff, and not by staying way on into the night. I think the thing about writing every day and writing a decent piece every day is really important, not to leave things too long because between paragraphs or between — you can’t leave something for a month and expect to pick it up straight away, I don’t think. You need to be in a groove.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Thank you so much. This has been so fun.

Nick: Fun for me. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s been really wonderful. I can’t wait to see and read the rest and figure out the commonality between Prince and Dickens.

Nick: I’ll come back on, and we can talk about it.

Zibby: I would love it. Perfect. Take care. Buh-bye.

Nick: Bye.

Nick Hornby, JUST LIKE YOU

JUST LIKE YOU by Nick Hornby

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