Wow! What a way to start the week. We are thrilled and honoured that David has kindly taken time out to chat to us.
David, can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?
At the time of writing, I’m just finishing the second draft of my fourth novel, ‘Us’, to be published in September. I’ve been away from fiction for a while – it has been nearly five years since One Day came out, seven years since I started writing it – and I’ve loved getting back to books. For years after One Day, I found it impossible, but this one has been a pleasure, and has come relatively easily; a little over eighteen months from first sentence to publication.
What are you most proud of writing?
At the moment, the new novel. I suppose there are some similarities to One Day – a love story, the same mixture of happy and sad – but it feels a little more grown-up. It’s about family and married life – the working title was ‘Married Love’ – and it follows a couple from their beginnings, through eighteen years of parenthood, to the relationship’s (possible) end. I’m 47 now, and was starting to feel a little foolish writing about twenty-somethings on dates. ‘Us’ is still a romantic story, but maybe a little tougher, more varied and mature in subject and tone.
I also loved working on The 7.39, the two-part TV drama that was broadcast in January. Unlike the solitary world of fiction, film and TV are entirely collaborative and while that has its pleasures, it can also be madly frustrating, nerve-wracking, stressful. The final product rarely matches the story you told in your head, but The 7.39 was one of those rare times when everything came together. I loved the casting, the production team, there were hardly any rows or feuds or walk-outs and I think some of that harmony came across on screen. The only other time I’ve been as happy with a show was when I did Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the BBC, about six years ago now.
And One Day too. I’ve come to accept now that it’ll probably be the thing I’m known for, and I’ll always be proud of it.
In ‘One Day’, we know that Emma makes some mix tapes for Dex, but which three tunes would definitely feature on David Nicholls’ mix tape?
Probably some of the same tracks that Emma chose. There’s a playlist here – Emma Morley’s Mix Tape– that contains a lot of the music I looked to for inspiration while writing the book.
Of those songs, I think you’d choose ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ by Aretha Franklin, because of the incredible singing and the Bacharach melody, then ‘Protection’ by Massive Attack because of its sentiment, and finally ‘These Days’ by Nico, because it’s such a simple and beautifully bittersweet song.
Also in ‘One Day’, Dex is such a complex and interesting person, where did you get the inspiration for his character?
He was written as an antidote to the male characters I’d created in my first two books – rather modest, nice, arty, self-effacing men. I wanted to write someone who had an excess of self-confidence, a chauvinist, a philistine, but nevertheless someone who contained the seed of a decent human being. I used to be an actor, and a lot of the young men who started out at the same time as me had extraordinary success, and of course it affected them. They all became Dexter. I was a rotten actor, so never faced that dilemma.
What is your biggest challenge when adapting a novel for screen?
The first thing you lose when you adapt a book for the screen is the character’s inner voice. Books are about emotion and thought as much as action and dialogue. In a screenplay, it’s all about what people say and do, rather than what they think or feel. Conveying that is the great challenge. Of course, actors help, but voice-over on screen is useless, and how else do you convey an inner monologue? This was the great dilemma with Starter for Ten – all the best jokes were in the character’s head, and it made no sense to say them aloud.
Also, budget is not a consideration when writing a book. On screen everything costs a fortune so everything has to serve a need. You’re constantly being asked – do we need this scene? Do we need the rain? Does it have to be London? As a screenwriter, you’re spending someone else’s money, so of course you’re asked to change things. Books are ink on paper, and unless you’re being dull, no-one minds a little more ink.
Finally, accepting the loss of control is always hard. In fiction, there’s the novelist and no-one else. With TV and films, the writer has very clearly defined responsibilities – you’re not the designer, the composer, the casting director, the editor, you’re just part of the team. Trying to make the screen version look exactly like the story you have in your head is almost impossible. Sometimes the finished version might be better than what you imagined, sometimes not. But if you can’t accept that loss of control, then it’s best to stick to books.
Can you tell us a bit about the readings you’ve given and what inspired you to start?
As an actor I was largely mute, which was just as well given that I was such a shocking old ham. But I do enjoy readings, though I find them very nerve-wracking and worry a great deal about being dull, or pompous or indiscreet. I still over-act, but I do love meeting readers, and to be reminded of why I wanted to do this in the first place.
What is your ideal writing space, and do you prefer to work in silence or with background noise?
I’m lucky enough to have an office that I go to each morning. I try to be at my desk by 8. If I’m sensible, I turn the internet off immediately and hide my phone in a cupboard. (The internet is the enemy of concentration, especially for someone with no willpower, like me.) I try and write until lunchtime, though there are inevitably distractions. I write on Word, but try to edit on pen and paper then type that revised text back in; it’s too easy to let your eyes slip across the computer screen. I read for an hour at lunchtime, then work on scripts in the afternoon, though I rarely do anything good after 4pm. I use to listen to pop music, then only Bach – solo piano or cello – but now have to have silence. But distractions – the postman, the phone call – are always hugely welcome.
What makes you laugh?
Old golden-age Hollywood movies – Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges or Lubitsch. Walter Matthau films, David Sedaris, Lorrie Moore, Wes Anderson, Dickens. My children.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given to date in your career?
I’m not sure who said it, but I once read that the secret to writing was to decide how you want your reader to feel, and then work out how to achieve it. Which is easier said than done I suppose, but I think that’s why One Day worked. I wanted to write something that would have the big emotional rush you get from a great pop song, something that would be both funny, then heart-breaking, sometimes on the same page.
Everyone tells you this, but I do think reading – and watching – as much as possible is invaluable. Everything I’ve written has been inspired by, or stolen from, something else. There’d be no Starter for Ten without Rushmore, Billy Liar and Great Expectations, no One Day without Much Ado About Nothing, Annie Hall and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (no, really). Inspiration can be found in all art, high or low, and you have to give time to sucking everything up. I set my alarm so that I can read an extra hour a day. Of course it means that I’m asleep on my desk by nine-fifteen, but at least I try.
Any other creative passions?
I’m an enthusiastic but rudimentary cook, and I’ve been known to snatch Lego out of the hands of my children.
West End Musical or Night at the Opera?
Yorkshire Dales or Welsh Valleys?
Both lovely, but the Dales
Three Dream Dinner Party Guests, past or present?
Billy Wilder, Cary Grant, Kate Bush.
Favourite London Landmark?
St Paul’s from the southern end of the Millennium Bridge.
Checkov or Shakespeare?
That’s the hardest choice. Shakespeare at a push, though The Seagull is my favourite play.
Thank you so much for being our guest today, David. We wish you the very best of luck with your forthcoming novel ‘Us’ and needless to say, we can’t wait to read it.