Many creatives aspire to excel in just one medium. Nick Hornby tells stories across many. Most would be familiar with Nick from his contributions to the film and literary canons.
Best known for his memoir Fever Pitch, as well as his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, all of which were adapted into feature films. Nick is an award-winning author, a teacher, a literary critic, memoirist, philanthropic founder of a non-for-profit, and an Oscar nominated screenwriter.
In 2010, Hornby co-founded the Ministry of Stories, a non-profit organisation in East London dedicated to helping children and young adults develop their writing skills. Hornby’s most recent novel, Funny Girl, is about a Sixties beauty queen determined to make her mark upon television comedy.
He also adapted an autobiographical memoir by the journalist Lynn Barber for the screen as An Education. A feature film for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and for two BAFTAs for writing the screenplay.
In 2014, Hornby adapted another autobiographical memoir, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Nick also wrote the script for the film Brooklyn, an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, for which he was nominated for his second Oscar. In 2016, he adapted Nina Stibbe’s book Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life into a television series.
Question: What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Answer: Anne Tyler’s Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant. I don’t think anything else comes close. I stopped whatever it was I was doing and tried to write like her.
Q: What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
A: Almost certainly my Spotify renewal. I know that Spotify has been bad for artists, but it’s incredible for consumers, and I’m an enormous consumer of music. It goes in and comes out as something else. It’s fuel.
Q: How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?
A: I started off trying to write screenplays – or something resembling screenplays – and didn’t get anywhere with them. Publishing takes a chance on younger authors in a way that movies can’t afford to. Nobody’s going to spend ten or fifty or a hundred million dollars on a promising script; a big publisher might decide that a small advance and the costs of printing a book might be a good investment for the future.
Q: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
A: “What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glassware
Q: What is one of the best investments in a writing resource you’ve ever made?
A: There are only two things that make a difference: a computer and, if you’re writing screenplays, the Final Draft programme. I sometimes, when I’m being disciplined, use an app called Freedom, which locks you out of your own internet and email. Nothing else can help you.
Q: In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
A: Switching from cigarettes to vaping.
Q: What advice would you give to a smart, driven aspiring author? What advice should they ignore?
A: You should ignore any advice about writing apart from “Read!” and “Write!” There is a famous book about writing that contains the following line:
“It takes years to write a book-between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant.”
Well, I disagree with that profoundly. Tell that to Jack Kerouac, who wrote On The Road in six weeks. Or PG Wodehouse, who wrote 96 books and a whole bunch of other stuff. Tell that to Marilynne Robinson, whose second novel was published twenty or twenty-five years after the first. People are always telling you there’s a right way of doing something. I always do things the wrong way. It doesn’t stop me from being a writer.
Q: What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession often?
A: Some of the best and, as it turns out, most life-changing pieces of work I’ve done have been on spec. Yes, turn things down because somebody’s trying to rip you off. But don’t turn anything down if you want to do it just because it doesn’t pay at all. Contacts may be made. The piece of work you’re doing for free may change your life. An Education was a passion project of mine for a long time – no money, no encouragement from anyone outside my immediate circle. But it brought me an Oscar nomination and a new career.
Q: In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)?
A: I think I’m becoming worse in terms of distraction. I think everyone has. When I first got myself an office away from home, I was very careful not to put a TV in it, but my work-tool turned into something much more than a TV – it’s a box that contains every film and piece of music and TV show ever made, just about. And then there’s Facebook, Instagram, Words With Friends…digitisation has adversely affected every single writer I know, in some way or another.
Q: What marketing tactics should authors avoid?
A: Don’t make an arse of yourself. Don’t quote your own reviews. Be modest and humble. Don’t bombard friends and Facebook acquaintances with fresh news of your genius. Tell them there’s a book out and that you’re reading in their town. They don’t need to know any more.
Q: When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
A: I have several gigs going on at any one time, so it’s hard to be permanently stuck. Being blocked, though, is about losing confidence, and I find that the best thing to do when I have lost confidence is to consume – books, music, movies, TV. Sooner or later, the urge to do something that people might like overcomes the feeling of pointlessness.
Q: Any other tips?
A: Jigsaws. I’m not kidding. They don’t occupy brain space in the same way that the Internet does. Messing about on your computer stops you from thinking, but jigsaws don’t. And you can’t get stuck on them, in the way you might get stuck on a piece of work or a crossword. There is always progress of some kind. Sometimes you have to take progress where you can find it.