♪ Go to any high-school English class, and listen to the kids talk about "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Romeo and Juliet."
Whether they realize it or not, they are revealing what scares them, what thrills them, the kinds of people they hate and love.
So it is with us.
What author's work have you returned to over and over?
What lines do you know by heart?
What albums have you been playing for years?
These are the signals to the world and to ourselves about our values, about our intellectual and moral influences.
Nick Hornby-- author of "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy;" screenwriter of "Wild," "An Education," and "Brooklyn"-- believes it's what you like, not what you are like, that matters, and he likes Dickens and Prince.
I'm Kelly Corrigan.
This is "Tell Me More," and here is my conversation with bestselling author, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and follow-on philanthropist Nick Hornby.
♪ I grew up from my late teens onwards, I guess, being a big Dickens fan, which is around the time I discovered Prince, but what happened more recently was that the Prince estate released this box set for "Sign o' the Times."
Usually with these special editions, you get 3 or 4 extra tracks and some, you know, instrumentals or B-sides or whatever, but this "Sign o' the Times" box, I think it had something like 86 extra new songs in it...
yeah, which, as I pointed out in this book, is more than the Eagles recorded in the 20th century and more than Hendrix ever recorded.
As it turned out, he'd been working on 3 different projects at once, and you'd think with music, well, that just means a lot of extra songs, but they were so specific.
Then you think, "How can you keep that straight in your head?"
but then I remembered that Dickens quite often used to write two novels... At the same time.
at the same time.
He certainly did it with the first few books because they were serialized, and he set plates spinning, so he'd be finishing the publication of one book, and that would quite often coincide with the publication of the next, so-- And it wasn't just any book.
I mean, it's, like, some of the greatest stuff that's ever been written.
Well, all the novels sur-- You know, there was no novel that hasn't survived, like "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickleby" or whatever at the same time, finishing one, starting the other.
It was a mixed bag with Prince, but they reckon they've got enough material that he recorded to put out something like two albums a year for the next 30 years that's locked away literally in a vault and is still being released.
OK, so that makes me want to ask two questions.
One is, do you do things at the same time-- like, you're in a lot of projects, a lot of books, a lot of screenplays, even some songwriting-- and two is, is there something about them working on multiple things simultaneously that benefits the work?
I could never write two novels at the same time, and the idea that you could write two of the greatest novels ever written, I mean, they're long books with casts of thousands.
The idea that you could keep these stories and characters separate while writing them both at once, his capacity for that was otherworldly, astonishing output, and Prince's was, from the age of 19 or 20 onwards, he didn't have a family life, really.
It was only work for him, so these two people seem to me to belong together just in terms of the prodigiousness of their output.
They're such an inspiration just in terms of the hard work.
And you're a hard worker, and you're sort of prodigious.
Well, it really doesn't feel like that.
My working day feels most of the time like I'm not working.
I always end the day thinking, "Oh, man, I did nothing," and, you know, the funny thing with writing is, if you write a thousand words a day, as you know, that's a pretty good day, but if you copied a thousand words out of a book, that would take you about 15 minutes, so...
So what are we doing?
what are we doing?
It's time in between the sentences that drives you mad.
So you're not one of those people who likes writing, are you?
I mean, do you like it?
I like having written.
OK, so another thing that Prince and Dickens had in common is that they both had rough childhoods... Yeah.
and it seems like you have a point of view about the role or usefulness of a certain kind of suffering, and in particular, you talked about poverty that's touched by catastrophe.
I mean, Dickens' father was sent to debtors' prison, and the family circumstances were such that Dickens was sent out to work in a blacking factory when he was 11 or 12.
It was a weirdly temporary family catastrophe in that he didn't work from the age of 12 onwards-- he eventually went back to school-- but there were some very rough patches.
Prince, I think, was abandoned by his mother.
His dad was an itinerant jazz musician who really never earned very much, and he ended up living in a basement at a friend's house, so it seems like the instruments that they used for their band practice were kept in this basement, so it may have been that Prince had nothing else to do apart from noodle around on these instruments.
It's interesting to me to think about how suffering ages a kid.
We interviewed Judd Apatow for this series, and his mother left when he was 13... Oh, wow.
and decades later on her deathbed, she said, "I only meant to be gone for two weeks"... No.
and then you quoted ?uestlove, who said that absent mothers create a fault line.
I thought that was a very interesting observation from ?uestlove, but one of the things that I'd been thinking about for a while now is that if you look at, especially 20th-century, celebrities in popular music, how many of them had completely traumatic childhoods.
You can make a list of people that would be the most iconic stars of the 20th, early 21st century-- you know, the Marilyns and the Elvises and the kind of poverty-- Dolly.
Yes, Dolly, and, yeah, if you have two teams of artists-- one has an upper middle class life and a private education, and the other grew up dirt poor and possibly with family catastrophe in the background somewhere-- if you take these top 10 artists and these top 10 artists from the poor side, this side kicks the arse of the other side.
I mean, there's just no one, really, who's in the same league as these people here, which I think is really interesting.
You can make an argument for Virginia Woolf or Byron, but I would argue they're not in the same league as Dickens and Jane Austen.
Shakespeare wasn't dirt poor, but he wasn't rich, but most of the real icons of certainly music and movies had unbelievably difficult backgrounds.
♪ There's such a popular idea that Malcolm Gladwell put out about 10,000 hours.
Do you buy it?
Well, when I was thinking about Dickens, I mean, he didn't have any school education as such, so there was no writing went on at school.
There's no 10,000 hours.
He just had it right from the beginning.
He used to go to the theater musical, like, 5, 6 nights a week, and he used to learn the routines of his favorite performer.
Like, memorize it.
Yeah, yeah, and then when I was comparing with Prince, Prince had an extraordinary appetite for listening to music when he was a young kid.
He used to copy out all the lyrics of the songs that he liked to see how to write songs and where the lines broke down, and also, he listened to everything, so he listened to a lot of hard rock and Led Zeppelin.
He was a huge Joni Mitchell fan, and Joni claims that she remembers him coming to shows, so in the end, I thought, "Oh, maybe it's the consumption that's the important thing."
Like, 10,000 hours of consumption.
10,000 hours of consumption.
I was always the teenager who took things way more seriously than everybody else.
I saw more shows than everybody else.
I bought more records.
I mean, you were the "High Fidelity" guys.
Yes, but it was in the field of the arts and movies and everything.
I just consumed, consumed, consumed, and maybe that's as helpful as the practice.
♪ You called out this terrible sadness that I recognized, which is, you can only listen to a great song for the first time once.
Can you talk about how we get cold to things after tremendous exposure?
Yeah, and I think probably pop music suffers from this more than any other art form because, A, is ubiquitous and we carry it around in our pockets now and, B, you can't walk into a shop without hearing a song you love, which, again, didn't used to happen when I was a kid.
It was amazing to hear the songs I loved outside of my own bedroom.
It was like a little miracle.
A little miracle because top-40 radio wasn't playing Led Zeppelin.
Is there a song that you're just desperate to hear again for the first time?
I think mine probably would be "Sign o' the Times."
I mean, I did know Prince, but it sounded different to a lot of things that he'd done, and it was so spare, and it had such different sounds in it for him.
Is there a book you wish you could read again for the first time?
"Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant."
Oh, Anne Tyler.
That book made me write, and it came at me like a bolt from the blue.
I was transitioning between writing scripts, which is how I started and not getting anywhere at all, to writing prose, but I thought, "I can't write prose like Salman Rushdie "or Julian Barnes, so maybe that means I'm not a prose writer," and I just picked it up in a book shop and started reading in the shop, and it was the voice, and I thought, "Oh, you can talk in your voice," and I thought, "I can do that."
I didn't know you could do that, write as if you're talking, and that sort of conversational third person became second nature to me quite quickly.
I remember I was getting my master's in English literature, reading Dickens and Shakespeare, and then I fell upon Anne Lamott... Oh, right.
OK. and I was like, "Oh, is this also a book?
"Is this also called "a book"?
Because this is so different and--" That's the interesting thing about writers, I think.
There are so many different kinds.
If a young writer says to me, "I don't know if I am a writer," I would say to them, "You know what?
"At the end of your writing career, you still wont know."
The only markers, really, are, are you writing?
If you're writing, you're a writer.
I always think about sport, the clarity of sport.
There's never been an underrated 100-meter runner...
just people who run really fast and win.
It's like you can't say, "Yeah.
I didn't qualify "for the Olympics, but I still think I'm a lot better than people give me the credit for," whereas artists go around bitching about that all the time because there is no marker.
One of the most, I guess, moving things for me in my career is when I'd been doing it for 20 or 25 years and kids started to come up to get "High Fidelity" signed, and you think, "Oh, wow.
You know, I've skipped a generation.
That's so cool," and that's a good marker.
You're super good friends with Dave Eggers, and he has created the unbelievable 826 Valencia program which inspires young writers and storytellers, and you sort of copied it for the UK, yeah?
Well, I got to know Dave, I think, when his first book came out, and then the first book I had out after meeting him, I went to San Francisco, and he showed me around 826, and I was just blown away-- the beauty of the design and then the perfection of the project where young, creative people who are not fully employed yet are working with young, inner-city kids who need help with their reading and writing-- and every time, I thought, "Oh, God, I wish I was involved "in something like this.
I'm gonna be involved in something like this," but eventually, two people who really wanted to do the same thing came to me and said, "Will you help us front up this similar organization?"
so we started a place called the Ministry of Stories in quite a poor area of London which is also an up-and-coming area of London, so the young creatives were around as well as lots of kids from what you call projects and we call council estates, so we had, you know, this huge potential intake of kids and lots of people who wanted to volunteer to help them, so it kind of took off pretty quickly because what's not to like, actually, when you tell schools and parents that we're gonna provide smart people at no charge to sit around and help your kids?
You tend to me pretty overwhelmed.
And you have 3 sons... Mm.
and your oldest is severely autistic?
Tell us about him-- Danny.
Well, he's not verbal.
He's very affectionate.
He makes fantastic eye contact.
The biggest problem we have is not his autism, but his health.
He has a stomach condition which is a subset of autism, and that's what makes life tricky, but he lives in a care home.
He's quite settled, independent.
He has round-the-clock care provided by our wonderful local council.
The two younger boys are now of an age where they can help with the care, as well, so there's a pub trip once a week with me, 3 boys, and a carer, which is wonderful.
What goes down at the pub trip?
Danny stims, which is, you know, you usually got a bunch of keys and rattles it and listens to us talk about our football teams for an hour, and then we go back again.
Ha ha ha!
Is it enjoyable?
It's really enjoyable.
♪ Corrigan: You made kind of an interesting distinction in your writing and your characters between people who have obstacles of their own making, internal obstacles, and people who are up against external obstacles that life has put in their path.
It was one reason I stopped writing about guys of my own age.
You know, with the first 3 books, like, "Fever Pitch" was about me and my ridiculous, self-imposed obstacles and then "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy," and one of the freeing things about writing the movie "An Education" was thinking about, you know, this 16-, 17-year-old girl in the past and what she had in mind for herself and what was stopping her from getting there, and those things were real, and as a dramatist, of course, that's actually much more interesting... To watch.
interesting to watch and easier to write and "Brooklyn" especially, that girl, and I love adaptation because I get access to someone else's head other than my own, and it's nice to have a break from my own head, but it did make me think about what I wanted to write about, and so, I guess, women generally have become much more of a feature of the work because, it seems to me, those are where the real obstacles have always been.
Speaking of your head, you've done a lot of therapy.
What have you learned?
I think the thing you learn in therapy is about patterns and patterns of behavior, and maybe it takes a therapist to draw them out, being challenged on the way you think.
You don't want someone just clucking sympathetically when you go to therapy.
You want some actual help and some glimmer of light in the darkness, you know, because I can be quite a depressive person.
Yeah, yeah, and that, I can see, goes way back in my family, as well, and I don't think I would've necessarily talked about that if I hadn't been to therapy, so I'm a great believer in it, and I think everyone should have it at some point in their life.
How is your depression right now?
Ha ha ha!
There have been patches the last few years where, you know, we've all had difficulties with our mental health the last couple of years, so I think that's one of the great uncalculated things of the pandemic.
We don't know what that's going to do to us...
♪ "Tell Me More" at its heart is really curious about how we affect one another and how we influence one another, so you're such a perfect guest for us because you were talking about the ways that these great artists have affected you.
I want to ask you for your Plus One, but before I do, I want to tell you that your Plus One for me is Mr. Stanley, so can you tell us about Mr. Stanley?
Well, Mr. Stanley was my English teacher, I guess, between the ages of about 11 to 15 or 16.
He used to have all these ongoing gags with, more or less, every pupil.
With me, as an Arsenal fan, he always used to ask me about how a guy call Alex James played.
Alex James was an Arsenal player of the 1930s, so he'd been retired about 40 years when he made this joke.
Every Monday, he said, "Did you go on Saturday?"
I said, "Yes, sir."
He said, "How was Alex James?"
I said, "He retired in 1938, sir."
He said, "Oh, really?"
and he had this going with everybody.
He took me to one side and gave me a couple of books which made a big difference to me.
He gave me "Scoop," by Evelyn Waugh when I was about 14.
It was amazing.
I was just walking out, and he said, "Hornby, I've got something for you," and he just fished it out of the cupboard and gave it to me.
He said, "I think you'll enjoy this," and he wasn't doing it to anyone else, so I remembered that moment, but his famous thing was setting lines as punishments.
Did you have that in your schools?
We had to write, "I will not tell a lie.
I will not tell a lie."
"I will not tell a lie," so he had two different lines-- one for talking and one for forgetting your equipment.
I can remember both lines perfectly still.
I guess you wrote them a lot.
Yeah, and the talking was, "My natural verbosity is in direct antithesis "to the effective consummation of my academic career"... Oh, my God, that's so good.
and he said, "Hornby, 25 "Natural Verbosities," and then you'd have to bring them in for next time... Its so good.
so good, and then forgetting stuff is, "Failure to bring to English classes the necessary--" It just makes me laugh, I know it so well.
"Failure to bring to English classes "the necessary materials for working "will result in my rewriting these lines "a considerable number of times in order that my memory be refreshed."
Oh, my God.
It's genius, right?
Genius, so here's to Mr. Stanley, but who is your Plus One?
Well, I think my Plus One is probably plus two.
I'm not a cheater because they only did things together, and it's pair of radio comedy writers called Ray Galton and Alan Simpson who I think wrote some of the greatest scripts that have come out of the BBC, and they also wrote "Steptoe & Son," which is better known in this country as "Sanford and Son."
When I started to write and people used to ask me who my influences were, eventually I realized that no one had been as influential as these two guys because they were serious.
The jokes were funny, but they were serious, and it gets towards Beckett.
You can imagine the English original of "Sanford and Son" when it gets really dark and miserable, this dismal relationship between this man and his son.
If it'd been in a different medium, it would have been praised critically and given all kinds of theater awards.
When they were kids, teenagers, they both had tuberculosis.
It was London at the end of the war, and we had a health crisis and a housing crisis and everything, and they were both inpatients in a TB sanitorium, and one of them was given the Last Rites, in fact, he was so sick, and that was their initial spark, was talking about comedy in the TB clinic, and for the next 30-odd years, they became these extraordinary writers that I think people don't recognize enough as being extraordinary, but they were incredible.
♪ You really admire productivity.
I do admire productivity.
I mean, as a consumer, I've got no use for someone who writes a book every 10 or 20 years if I like them and same with my musicians.
The modern world with its album every 5 years is quite a strange place when you think that The Beatles recorded their first album in a day.
Like, you're sort of calling bull... on-- Yes.
I'm calling bull..., and also, it seems to me that the people who are productive, it's because they have ideas spilling out of their ears.
They're not squeezing this stuff out.
Dickens wasn't squeezing this stuff out and thinking, "Oh, God, if I could only find more words to write."
He could barely hold it in.
couldn't hold it in, and he was prolific and prolix and wanted to get on with the next thing and didn't know where this energy should go or this energy should go, and it was the same thing with Prince.
Like, I feel in safe hands, actually, with someone who is so creative that they don't know what to do with it.
So you have people who are churning out material... Mm.
like Dickens and Prince, and then you have people like J.D.
Salinger, Harper Lee.
How do you think about that?
Well, clearly, there are many different types of writer.
I think that the writer who produces a book every 10 or 15 years tends to be more highly thought of.
They're in some different literally echelon, which I think is weird because no one knows which books are gonna last and which books are not going to last, and, I mean, I think the extraordinary thing about both Dickens and Shakespeare is, they didn't give a second's thought to longevity.
♪ OK, so "Tell Me More" has a little speed round.
The Irish blues rock musician Rory Gallagher.
Best live performance you've ever seen?
Prince in London in 1986 where he had this massive soul revue, and I'd never seen anything like it.
Last book that blew you away?
Oh, I think Elizabeth Strout, "Oh William!"
All those Lucy Barton books, I think, have been incredible, but this one is really in another league.
What's your go-to mantra for hard times?
If your high school did superlatives, what would you have been most likely to have become?
The most average.
That's not a superlative, Nick.
It's got "most" in front of it.
Ha ha ha!
Is there anyone you would like to apologize to?
Maybe my dad, actually, who is now no longer with us.
I thought he was a square in a suit.
When you're a kid, you don't give people the interior life that they deserve.
Thank you so much for saying yes.
I love your work.
I loved being here.
Thank you very much for asking me.
Of course, of course.
♪ If you enjoyed this conversation, you'll love our episodes with Lily Singh, Steve Kerr, and Kate Bowler.
You can find them all at pbs.org or on my podcast "Kelly Corrigan Wonders."
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