One never knows quite what to expect from British novelist Nick Hornby, who is having quite a moment in the zeitgeist right now. After coming to fame with meditations on masculine paralysis in High Fidelity and About A Boy, the author has spent the past few years delving into the female psyche with his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education and the recently released adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild starring Reese Witherspoon.
Hornby’s latest novel, Funny Girl, continues in that vein with the story of a reluctant beauty queen in Northwest England who flees her provincial seaside village to seek fame in swinging London circa 1964. Under the tutelage of two brilliant writers, our girl reinvents herself as “Sophie Straw,” a sort of British Lucille Ball who becomes the nation’s sweetheart as the star of a BBC sitcom called Barbara (and Jim).
Sophie captures the imagination from the book’s first moments when our heroine hands off her crown to the runner-up at the beauty contest. Speaking from his home in London, Hornby sheds some light on his aspiring young actress’ motivations.
“It’s the realization that she’s going to be properly stuck if that’s all she is,” Hornby explains. “In that moment of gaining that very small victory, she realizes all the things that title, Miss Blackpool, is going to cost her, so it’s a kind of panic, really. In the back of her mind, she wants to escape, but that’s the moment she realizes she has to run.”
Hornby has largely written about contemporary characters but his work on the screenplay for An Education, starring Carey Mulligan, fed into his interests in exploring British culture through the prism of the 60s.
“There were lots of things I wanted to channel through Sophie,” he says. “I suppose I started to a certain extent with her Britishness, but one of the things that went into forming her came from getting to know Rosamund Pike a little bit when I was working on An Education. She’s the most wonderful comedienne, but she doesn’t get the chance to be funny very often partly because of how she looks. I found that completely fascinating that you could be denied the chance to be funny simply because you’re very beautiful. So that’s said in the novel. I also think, knowing the culture and the comedy of the time, the book had to surround a certain type of character anyway, someone who couldn’t be Lucille Ball simply because she wouldn’t be understood by the writers.”
Those writers, Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner, are the book’s other marvelous creations. They’re both questioning their sexuality, having met in a holding cell under questionable circumstances, but their chemistry in the writer’s room is undeniable. They’re partially modeled on scriptwriters Ray Galton and Tony Simpson, famous in the UK for Tony Hancock’s radio show and the long-running sitcom Steptoe and Son. But Hornby reveals that a different portrayal emerged as he was writing them.
“I realized that I ended up writing about Paul McCartney and John Lennon, or at least the myth of them where Paul is the crowd pleaser and John is the experimentalist,” he explains. “I wanted to write about a duo that are probably better together but can’t stay together. There was something intrinsically moving about that dynamic. Bill and Tony both know that they’re probably doing their best work with each other, but they’re going to have to move away from each other for the rest of their lives because there’s no way to stay in that same place.”
Funny Girl also captures the BBC of the late 60s, with all of its quirks, internal politics, and inherent strangeness.
“That representation was mostly drawn from reading and research, but there are still people around who remember what it was like then,” Hornby says. “My friend Stephen Frears, who directed High Fidelity, had his first experiences in entertainment at the BBC. I love reading about that era because the sense of possibility was very real then. There was this sense that nobody knew what they were doing, but they had this screen time to fill, so any smart person that came along with an idea was told that they could write it or direct it or act in it. The world is so knowing now, and so in thrall to audience figures that they figure there’s some kind of science to it. You just can’t break into it now like you could then. One of the things that attracted me to this environment was this idea that you could just walk in off the street and be funny and be allowed on television.”
Hornby’s film work is also gaining traction. He recently adapted Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel Brooklyn for director John Crowley, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month. He is also garnering well-deserved praise for Wild, a title he found an initial challenge to adapt.
“Wild is an interesting book to adapt because when you read it, you underline all the things you would like to see on the screen,” he explains. “You quickly realize that there’s a very powerful two-hour movie in that book that wouldn’t involve hiking at all. But the real experience of reading Wild is about a person who hiked a great long distance on her own, so you’re always fighting for the space to show her solitude. So I had to be sparing with other people. It’s a very populated book but it still portrays loneliness and solitary struggle, so we had to make sure we found a way to bring that across on the screen.”
It would seem that Hornby has finally found the rhythm between screenplays and novels, finding time for both while also supporting causes close to his heart, including the nonprofit Ambitious About Autism and its beneficiary Treehouse School, as well as the relatively new Ministry of Stories, modeled after Dave Egger’s San Francisco-based literacy nonprofit 826 Valencia.
“I’m kind of serious about it now,” Hornby says of his successful foray into the movie business. “Before, I was kind of suspicious of offers to write for film, but now I take those offers more seriously. When they come, one or two of the projects are often irresistible, just like Wild and Brooklyn. I’m doing something soon with (film director) Jason Reitman, and suddenly you have a few things stacked up and it’s what you’re doing for a while. Funny Girl probably took me longer than it should have, but the experience of doing the screenplay work fed into the book anyway, so I think it all worked out.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.