Compact, wearing jeans and a gray t-shirt, Nick Hornby admits he knows a thing or two about a fan’s obsession with an artist’s work.
“When someone says they’ve read your book 15 times, you think, well, you should read something else,” he says, discussing a theme of his newest novel, “Juliet, Naked.” “That’s partly where the book came from. I started getting confused. But I realized that, in saying that, you’re denying someone their emotional connection.”
Hornby, 52, is sitting in a Manhattan hotel suite, ostensibly to discuss “An Education,” the Lone Scherfig coming-of-age film that opened Oct. 9 in limited release, for which he wrote the screenplay. But he’s also got a new novel, one that touches on some of his favorite topics and some new ones: rock’n’roll, the problems of romantic love and the demands of family relationships, the push/pull between artist and fan, the role of the Internet in helping to promote the obsessive dissection of one artist’s work.
“Juliet, Naked” focuses on a couple, Duncan and Annie, living in a dreary British seaside town. Approaching middle age, Duncan spends all his spare time focused on an obscure rocker from the late 1970s, Tucker Crowe, who disappeared in the early 1980s. When a collection of solo demo recordings of the songs from Crowe’s seminal album, “Juliet,” is released – called “Juliet, Naked” – Duncan posts a gushing review on the Crowe website. But Annie, by this time fed up with Duncan, posts a review of her own, saying the opposite – and winds up in an email correspondence with Tucker Crowe himself.
One of the book’s running jokes is that, while Duncan and his fellow “Croweologists” endlessly discuss and analyze every wild rumor about Crowe’s activity, they haven’t a clue what his life is really like. And they’re obsessed with a paparazzi photo of a wild-haired man – obviously angry at having his photo taken – that they believe is Crowe, when it’s not.
“Partly I was thinking of J.D. Salinger, the greatest recluse of all,” Hornby says. “I think of that famous photo of Salinger, which was kind of frightening because of how disturbed he was. And then it came to me: What if that wasn’t really him?”
The book was also inspired by a 2007 Vanity Fair piece, in which writer David Kamp tracked down musician Sly Stone, long MIA from the rock’n’roll wars. Having tried for years to arrange an interview with the reclusive Stone, Kamp actually met up with him in Vallejo, Ca., for a long talk.
“He’ d been a fan for a number of years and that was the narrative thrill of the piece,” Hornby recalls. “Sly didn’t show and didn’t show and suddenly there he was. Someone appears in front of you who has disappeared – that’s definitely an element of this book.”
Does Hornby – who has written extensively about his own rock’n’roll passions in novels like “High Fidelity” and the nonfiction “Songbook” – have a Tucker Crowe of his own, someone whose work he’s pored over to glean every last microbe of meaning and goodness?
“The closest I’d come to a Tucker Crowe in my life is Bruce,” he says, as though Springsteen’s last name doesn’t need mentioning, which, really, it doesn’t. “But I don’t want to own recordings of every show from the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ tour.” He pauses, then adds with a smile, “I’ve got one or two.”
The discussion of music leads naturally to “An Education,” which Hornby adapted from a brief memoir chapter by writer Lynn Barber. A tale of a 16-year-old girl in 1961 suburban London who becomes involved with an older man, the film captures a moment in time when rock’n’roll was still an American phenomenon – seemingly moments before the Beatles exploded on the scene and changed everything.
“In 1960, English kids were dancing to ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window’,” Hornby says with a snort.
Noting that the essence of cool at that point emanated from Paris – with the focus on Camus and the French new wave films – he says, “As I did research, I realized that was the last time in English cultural history that the cultural conversation was going across the English Channel, rather than the Atlantic. Once the Beatles and Stones came along, it was like everyone’s head swiveled around. But back then, everything exotic was European.”
Still, Hornby was only 4 in 1961 – and was surprised what he learned when he began researching the period for his script.
“I really enjoyed the books I read about that period,” he says. “I got into researching the language of the time. It was a really fascinating period. I didn’t know things like how long food rationing had gone on in England. I assumed that by 1946 or 1947, things were roughly on their way back. But I started to see how Britain in 1961 had much more in common with 1945 than 1963.
“Our 1950s were very different from your 1950s. America became rich during that period, but we were destroyed by the war. There were so many economic crises. You can see how American rock’n’roll was a product of affluence. There was no British rock’n’roll. I don’t remember a single song that was produced before 1960.”
Hornby’s writing has focused primarily on his novels and nonfiction. Though he adapted his book, “Fever Pitch,” for a British film version starring Colin Firth (not to be confused with the dreadful American version starring Jimmy Fallon), he much preferred the experience of extrapolating a screenplay from Barber’s writing.
“It was much more fun than doing one of my books,” he says. “Adapting something this length is very rewarding because you’ve got the structure and a suggestion of characters. Lynn had done the hard part and I was left with the fun part. That’s the difference between a 10-page chapter of a memoir and a 600-page novel.”
Though he’s tried his hand at original screenplays, he often finds that his ideas don’t lend themselves to that kind of abbreviation.
“There are some ideas that feel like novels,” he says. “It depends on the size and complexity. There was something about ‘Juliet, Naked’ that might make a movie but, in terms of what I wanted to do – about our relationship to art, complicated family life, aging – to start it as a 120-page screenplay, it would just be overstuffed. I wouldn’t have started there. It has to be a cleaner line for a movie script.
“Screenplays come more easily. Dialogue is something I don’t have to think about. The trouble with screenplays is you end up doing them 15 times and then it’s the structure that needs all the work. It feels less painful but the end result is probably the same amount of pain.”