Nick Hornby at Norwich library
As one of the nation’s favourite authors Nick Hornby has fans both young and old – but now he has written his first book dedicated to younger readers. KEIRON PIM spoke to him ahead of his visit to Norwich on Monday.
Nick Hornby's writing has always had the ingredients for a successful novel for teenage boys, with his down-to-earth style and acute observations about male attitudes towards relationships, so it is only natural that he should turn his hand to writing a book for younger readers. Slam is his first attempt and Hornby fans young and old will have a chance to sample it when he gives a reading at the Forum in Norwich on Monday.
“It's something I have been interested in the last few years because there have been young people coming to my book signings,” he said. “Fever Pitch has been on the GCSE syllabus, and it feels as though that is part of my readership now.”
Fever Pitch, his bestselling account of being an Arsenal fan, made his name as an author. High Fidelity took him to a new level of popular appeal: the music-obsessed hero Rob was a character with whom most men could identify, while women could gain an insight into the strange priorities of the male mind. Where Fever Pitch showed how men channel their emotions into football fandom, High Fidelity was a funny and wise account of how emotionally inarticulate men can gain a sense of order in their lives by exerting firm control over the way their record collection is organised.
Slam occupies similar territory. Until things change suddenly, throwing him into a state of confusion, 16-year-old Sam has been enjoying a pretty good life - he has a stunning new girlfriend, Alicia, and his 32-year-old mum has finally finished with her awful boyfriend.
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In terms of male obsession, for football or music read skateboarding. Sam's idol is Tony Hawk, the world's most famous skateboarder, and when Sam needs to talk to someone he turns to the poster of Tony on his bedroom wall. And when Alicia gets pregnant, Sam suddenly finds he has a lot to say to Tony…
“We have the highest teen pregnancy rate in Europe,” says Hornby. “We do have a situation where people who were teenage parents are more likely to have kids who themselves become teenage parents.”
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In Slam (the title is a skating term referring to taking a heavy fall, which applies to Sam's general predicament), Sam finds himself repeating his mother's behaviour, despite all his intentions not to.
“I wanted the situation to be not as formulaic as that - the pregnancy is accidental and devastating for Sam, because he had plans to escape that trap, so it's a question of how he could deal with it.”
The main way is through talking to Tony, who replies with relevant pearls of wisdom from his autobiography.
“I wanted the kid to have a conversation with a hero,” says Hornby, and originally that was going to be a footballer but he decided that footballers were too well known for the idea to work. “A skateboarder might be more of a private thing, especially in England. There's a generation gap - skateboarding isn't something that's understood by the older generation, whereas everyone knows about football.
“Tony Hawk came to me because he actually did a library campaign a few years ago where he chose High Fidelity as his favourite book. I have a poster of him standing with a copy of High Fidelity!”
That book holds an important place for Hornby, as it does for many readers.
“I think High Fidelity will always be special to me, because I think a lot of people thought Fever Pitch would be the end of me. High Fidelity proved to me that I could have a career in writing. I have particular reason to be affectionate for all of them but that was the first time I had reason to think maybe I could do this for the rest of my life.”
Slam is written with an interesting twist. Sam is projected into the future to experience what life will be like as a teenage dad - and he is horrified by what he sees. The result is a cautionary tale. “The way Sam sees it is that his confidante and hero Tony Hawk has sent him into the future to see what lies ahead. The future is the theme of the book. I think it's something you spend a lot of time thinking about when you're a teenager.”
Hornby read English at Cambridge and began his career as an English teacher before going on to write his string of bestselling novels, several of which have been made into successful films.
He's currently working on a screenplay about an episode in the life of the journalist Lynn Barber - “It's about an affair she had when she was 16, in the 1960s, and I have adapted that for film”.
He lives in Highbury, north London, continues to follow Arsenal and is aged 50, with a teenage son, Danny, whose autism Hornby has written about touchingly in the past. So how does an author of his age find a convincing first-person voice for a 16-year-old character?
“First of all I ignored and avoided all phrases that are particularly associated with this generation, on the basis that nothing dates a book quicker than seeing a 50-year-old using their slang!
“But I also used my own sense of confusion, of disorientation when I was 15 and memories that were painful and probably universal.”
The result, he hopes, will be to strengthen his established fan-base while perhaps drawing in new readers.
“I hope it does bring in more younger people and their parents. It's happened before, teenagers have come to readings of mine with their parents. I would like to think that it's something that parents and kids will get something out of.”
t Nick Hornby will be at the Millennium Library, the Forum, Norwich on Monday, October 8, at 6pm. Tickets costing £2 are available from the library or by calling Jill Adams on 01603 774707.
t Slam, by Nick Hornby, is published by Puffin priced £12.99.