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Getting 'An Education' (And More) From Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby is a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters' E.M. Forster Award and the Orange Word International Writers' London Award.
Elisabetta Villa
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Nick Hornby is a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters' E.M. Forster Award and the Orange Word International Writers' London Award.

Writer Nick Hornby is gearing up for a busy fall. He wrote the screenplay for the much anticipated film An Education, which will be released next month, and his newest novel, Juliet, Naked, hits bookstores this week.

Juliet, Naked, like Hornby's first novel, High Fidelity, explores the complex world of music fanaticism. Duncan, a young British man stuck in a post-collegiate mindset, is obsessed with an obscure rock musician named Tucker Crowe, who disappeared from the public eye decades ago after a mysterious event that supposedly took place in a public restroom. Duncan dedicates his time and energy to becoming an expert on all things Crowe, a "Crowologist." His obsession even leads him and his girlfriend, Annie, on a cross-country trek of America in search of Crowe landmarks (including the famous restroom;read an excerpt).

When Annie finally tires of Duncan's antics, she posts a message on his Tucker Crowe Web site that, in an odd turn of events, attracts the attention of the musician himself. Crowe e-mails Annie directly, which opens the door to a bizarrely unexpected triangle.

Hornby says his inspiration for the book came from an article he read about Sly Stone, the reclusive lead singer of Sly and the Family Stone.

"The journalist had managed to fix up an interview with him, and eventually, he turned up for it," Hornby tells Terry Gross. "There was just all sorts of narrative thrill in that -- somebody appearing after a long absence, and a fan's excitement meeting this person -- that something about it stuck in my mind, and a lot of the other ideas in the book accumulated around that."

In the novel, Hornby describes Duncan and Annie as "stuck in a perpetual post-graduate world where gigs and books and films mattered more to them than other people their age." Such a description might seem unfavorable, but Hornby means it as a compliment.

"It's really a complaint about everybody else," says Hornby. "I think we all know that as we get older, we -- it's more of a struggle to keep in touch with those things. The things that usually stop us from keeping in touch [are] children, and Duncan and Annie don't have any."

Children, and the effects that they have on adult behavior, factor importantly in the novel. Hornby, who has three children, says that they have had a profound effect on the way he looks at life.

"I watch movies with them. We go and see all the animated movies," he says. "In some ways, I'm less in touch with the things that used to mean a lot to me and more in touch with things that didn't. But it's still -- I still have very much a relationship with contemporary popular culture through them."

Another theme in the novel is the idea of popular culture as a subject worthy of scholarly attention. Hornby says it's important to note that while other people may view Duncan as an obsessive fan, Duncan sees his interests as much more elevated.

"I kind of conceived him as a scholar," says Hornby. "If his obsession had been with, you know, Marlowe or Gerard Manley Hopkins, he would have been gainfully employed in a university somewhere. But because it's somebody that very few people have heard of, then of course he has to do another job."

Hornby enjoys highlighting the differences in the way in which people view themselves, as opposed to the way in which they are viewed by others. And with his screenplay for An Education, Hornby seems to be taking steps to disprove a few theories about himself. The movie, starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard, explores the coming of age of a lower-middle class British girl who tastes a different type of lifestyle when she falls in with a moneyed set of semi-criminals in 1960s Britain. It's based on a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber.

"Well, I guess first of all, I feel that I accept that I'm famous for writing about certain kind of men. But the last few books, I think, I've moved from that a little bit," he says. "When I read the [Lynn Barber] piece, I identified with her completely.

"I grew up in a similar suburb to hers, and I felt I was going to be crushed by the lack of culture around me," says Hornby. "It wasn't that, you know, it was a difficult upbringing in any way. I don't think Lynn's upbringing was difficult. But she was scared that she wasn't going to get access to the things that she wanted."

An Education isn't Hornby's first foray into film; many of his novels have been made into movies, including About a Boy and High Fidelity. His novel Fever Pitch, about a soccer-obsessed English teacher, was adapted for the silver screen, then re-adapted for American audiences with a Boston Red Sox fanatic (Jimmy Fallon, playing opposite Drew Barrymore) as the lead.

Hornby says that he began to tackle the screenplay of An Education by looking at it as "the female equivalent of Fever Pitch, where soccer seemed to provide some kind of direct route into the life of the city." Once he established that similarity, that instantly recognizable drive to escape a small town, he says, the rest just came naturally.

"I thought it was painful and funny at the same time," he says. "And most things just kind of go into a groove and stay there. They're either funny or they're not funny. And I love things that make you laugh and cry, and that material doesn't come around very often."

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