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Nick Hornby and 'A Long Way Down'

Nick Hornby talks about his most recent book, A Long Way Down, which is now out in paperback. Many of Hornby's novels have been made into films, including About a Boy and High Fidelity. He also writes "Stuff I've Been Reading," a column for The Believer magazine. This segment originally aired on June 15, 2005.

20:59

Other segments from the episode on May 19, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 19, 2005: Interview with Nick Hornby; Interview with Pete Seeger; Review of the film "Da Vinci Code."

Transcript

DATE May 19, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: British writer Nick Hornby talks about his novel "A
Long Way Down"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News sitting in for Terry Gross. Our guest is the British writer Nick Hornby.

His first novel, "High Fidelity," made him a favorite of rock 'n' roll-loving
readers. It was adapted into a film starring John Cusack. "High Fidelity"
was about the owner of a used record store who defines himself by his taste in
music, movies and books, and judges other people by theirs. Hornby's memoir,
"Fever Pitch," and his novel, "About a Boy," were also adapted into films.
His latest novel, "A Long Way Down," has just come out in paperback.

"A Long Way Down," tells the stories of four people who have decided to end
their lives on New Year's Eve by jumping off the roof of a building in London
well known as a destination for jumpers. But when these four strangers run
into each other on the roof, instead of jumping they end up talking and, in
doing so, distract themselves from their plans. They agree to postpone their
suicides, and in the meantime the disparate members of this group become
enmeshed in each other's lives. The novel is told from the alternating points
of view of the four characters.

Terry Gross spoke with Nick Hornby last year when the novel was published.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Nick Hornby, welcome back to FRESH AIR. One of the characters in your novel
who gets to the roof and intends on committing suicide is surprised to find
that there are three other people already there with the same intention, and
he looks at them and he thinks, `Suicide wasn't invented for people like this.
It was invented for people like Virginia Woolf and Nick Drake and me. Suicide
was supposed to be cool.' So obviously you've thought about the whole romance
surrounding suicide in popular culture. Did you want your novel to kind of
have a conversation with other books and movies and poetry in popular culture
about suicide?

Mr. NICK HORNBY (Author): Yes, in part. I mean, it's very much, I think, in

our culture to do something that is romanticized by a certain section of a
kind of hip, young population. But there are all kinds of books and movies
mentioned in "A Long Way Down," and JJ, the musician, he is somebody who buys
into that myth. But one of the things I wanted to do was point out at the
same time the kind of banality of it as well.

GROSS: Yes. And another thing I like about that quote there is it shows even
if you think you're on the verge of suicide, you can still be very snobbish
about other people and about popular culture.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, yeah. One of the things that kind of was interesting to
me about writing the book was that, you know, of course life goes on until it
stops, and you're gonna have the same attitudes and you're gonna have, you
know, songs that you're thinking about, people you're thinking about, bus
tickets in your pocket. The detritus of life is carried right to the very end
if you're gonna cut it off like that.

GROSS: What about the reality of suicide as opposed to, like, the pop culture
mystique around it? Do you have friends or family who have ever tried or
succeeded at suicide?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I lost a friend when I was quite young, 21, 22, round
about then. That was the most shocking loss of that kind that I've
experienced.

GROSS: Were you surprised?

Mr. HORNBY: He was one of those guys, he had scars on his wrists from a
previous attempt, and I suppose we all thought it was something he'd outgrow,
that--yeah, there was no sign of it as far as we knew prior to it happening,
so I was surprised.

GROSS: How did he do it?

Mr. HORNBY: He did the rubber hose and the exhaust pipe.

GROSS: Which strikes me as a relatively painless way to go. Not that I've
ever experienced it. But the characters in your novel who plan to take their
lives, plan to jump off the roof of a high rise, and that always seems to me
like one of the most horrible ways of doing it. I mean, I think, you know,
pills, a gun, gas, less painful. You know, jumping off a high roof always
seems to me like the most self-punishing--or one of the most self-punishing
forms of suicide, 'cause there's not only that sense of impact, there's also
that fear, I think you would have, that on the way down you would have all the
anxiety, thinking about that moment of impact, and there'd be that--those
extra few seconds where you could entertain doubt.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, one of the most remarkable things I read when I was
preparing for this book was a magazine article in The New Yorker about people
who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and, in fact, I do quote this line in the
book, an interview with a survivor, someone who'd hit the water but survived,
and he said that he realized very quickly after jumping that there was only
one thing wrong with his life, and that was that he'd just jumped off the
Golden Gate Bridge.

GROSS: Huh. So why did you choose--why did these characters choose, you
know, suicide by jumping off a roof? Or entertain the con--the idea of
suicide by jumping off a roof?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I have to say--and I try and be practical and pragmatic
wherever possible, rather than talk about artistic myths, but I have to say
that the idea wouldn't have worked very well if they'd sat in their own cars
and taken pills. I wanted them to meet each other and, you know, I wanted
them to be in a place where people killed themselves. But there was also the
sense, yes, that it's a very self-hating thing to do, I think, and at least
three of the characters are in a very self-loathing state of mind.

And I liked the idea, when I was thinking about it, that if you're talking
about circumstance, then every single character is going to have some kind of
a dramatic story which, of course, is something that you're looking for if you
write.

GROSS: Why did you choose suicide in the first place? Why examine people's
lives who are on the verge of ending their lives?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, there are various answers to that. One of the things is
that with my books, I want to try and go as dark as I can and as funny as I
can within a domestic context, because I know that my characters are never
actually going to do anything that extreme in terms of the big picture. I
don't think they're ever going to go to war. I can't imagine writing about
history. So I'm stuck with people in the here and now, and if you want to
push things on in writing about that, then obviously I'm looking for
situations where people are in extremus and, you know, it is something that is
among us, that people want to take their own lives or feel like taking their
own lives, you know, probably within a few hundred yards of where we're
sitting now.

GROSS: One of the characters in the book wants to kill himself because he
always wanted to be a rock star and his band fell apart and he doesn't think
he's gonna make it, and that's a character that anybody who's read you knows
that you would be familiar with. Another character has, like, a morning TV
show in England and he's been disgraced because he slept with a 15-year-old,
and it's pop enough people would kind of get your connection to it. There's a
character who is very, very unlike you and unlike the kind of characters
you've written before, although there's one connection, and she's a single
mother of an autistic son, and your fans and readers know...

Mr. HORNBY: She's--I don't think she's--the son is autistic but is extremely
disabled in the book, so just to...

GROSS: Oh, OK. I guess I've been reading that wrong. I've been projecting
my knowledge of you onto her.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah.

GROSS: How would you describe her son?

Mr. HORNBY: I'd say extremely disabled, but it's left vague in the book.

GROSS: OK. OK. Well, you do have a son who is autistic.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah.

GROSS: And--but she is in--so much unlike you, and let me first have you read
a little bit of her story about why she plans on taking her life. One of the
ways--I should say, before you read this, one of the ways she's not like you
and not like what you usually write about is she's not ironic, and she's not
into popular culture. She wants to kill herself because her son has been such
a burden--why don't you read this passage?

Mr. HORNBY: Sure.

(Reading) "I only ever had intercourse with one man, and I only had
intercourse with that one man once, and the one time in my entire life I had
intercourse produced Matty. What are the chances, eh? One in a million? One
in 10 million? I don't know. But, of course, even one in 10 million means
there are a lot of women like me in the world. That's not what you think of
when you think of one in 10 million. You don't think, that's a lot of people.
What I've come to realize over the years is that we're less protected from bad
luck than you could possibly imagine, because though it doesn't seem fair,
having intercourse only the once and ending up with a child who can't walk or
talk or even recognize me, well, fairness doesn't really have much to do with
it, does it? You only have to have intercourse the once to produce a child,
any child. There are no laws that say you can only have a child like Matty if
you're married of if you have lots of other children or if you sleep with lots
of different men. There are no laws like that even though you and I might
think there should be. And once you have a child like Matty, you can't help
but feel, well, that's it. That's all my bad luck. A whole lifetime's worth
in one bundle. But I'm not sure luck works like that. Matty wouldn't stop me
from getting breast cancer or from being mugged. You'd think he should, but
he can't. In a way, I'm glad I never had another child, a normal one. I'd
have needed more guarantees from God than he could have provided."

GROSS: That's Nick Hornby reading an excerpt of his new novel, "A Long Way
Down."

Mr. HORNBY: It's got jokes in it as well.

GROSS: Yes. Can you talk a little bit about the tone of Maureen? And I
should mention here that when someone uses an expletive in talking to her, and
this is her narrative, you know, she censors it. She...

Mr. HORNBY: She can't bring herself to repeat.

GROSS: It's like F dash.

Mr. HORNBY: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: So--and I think you're very respectful for her--to her in that sense.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I mean, I think in some way she's the soul of the book
because--I mean, she's absolutely not the author of her own misfortune, even
though her religious beliefs mean that sometimes she thinks she is. But
you're right, that my characters typically, I guess, tend to be pretty tuned
in to what's going on, and one of the reasons she's up on the roof, in fact,
is because she's been tuned out. I mean, she really hasn't lived a life for
these 20 years that she's bringing up the child, so technically she provided
more of a challenge perhaps because there was an absence where a life should
be, and she's done nothing, whereas all the others have done something.

GROSS: As a father, was it difficult for you to even entertain the idea that
somebody's life would be so burdened by a disabled son that she'd want to take
her own life?

Mr. HORNBY: No, it's not as much of a stretch, unfortunately, as you'd
imagine. It's tough, and I think any parent of an autistic child or of a very
disabled child has had some long, dark nights of the soul during the child's
upbringing, so I knew that I had the empathy for the character to embark on
this. It's--you know, she's obviously not me, and her kid isn't my kid, but
through having my kid, I've kind of entered into a world that I didn't really
know very much about before.

GROSS: She's not a character who defines her life by popular culture, unlike
a lot of your characters, and there's an interesting detail in there. She has
posters on her walls of, you know, pop stars and stuff, but they don't
reflect--and actors--they don't reflect her tastes. They reflect the tastes
that she thinks her son would have if her son was capable of comprehending or
responding to movies and music. How did you come up with that? It's an
interesting detail.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I think, again, it's something that you might find
yourself thinking about, because there comes a point, if you do have a
severely disabled child, where they're given lots of kit when they're born and
when they're toddlers and it's got pictures of dogs on and this, that and the
other. And then they kind of reach a point where a normal kid might be
exercising his or her own taste, so you start to think as a parent, `Well, is
it appropriate now if I start to choose things for my five-year-old or my
six-year-old, you know, clothes to wear, pictures to put up on the wall?'
'Cause, you know, babies, we all make the same decisions equally because they
are not capable of expressing anything, so it really came from that, that, you
know, would you do it for a teen-ager? Would you just keep going and, as
Maureen says, you know, `He wouldn't understand if he had Gap on his shirt
or--I don't even know if he recognizes colors.' So any decision that you make
is going to be made on his behalf, and she sort of takes it to what--one step
further by putting football players and what have you up on the wall.

DAVIES: Writer Nick Hornby speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after
a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2005 interview with British writer Nick
Hornby. His latest novel, "A Long Way Down," is out in paperback.

GROSS: Let me ask you about other characters in your novel besides Maureen.
What I would like to do is run through the characters quickly, just ask you to
tell us how these characters relate most to you.

Mr. HORNBY: OK.

GROSS: OK? So let's start with Martin, who has a morning TV show and he's
been disgraced because he slept with a 15-year-old and he's kind of lost his
wife and kids. He's kind of sacrificed his family by doing that. What do you
relate to about that?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, that's something that I'm actually interested in which is
an increasing tendency in our society to glamorize people who have no talent,
and this seems to be a...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HORNBY: ...new situation. I mean, I was thinking actually that, you
know, a couple of these characters at least couldn't have existed 50 years
ago, and Martin is one of them. And once you're in this situation where
you're famous for having no talent whatsoever, what inner resources do you
have to cope with anything that might happen to you, or are you just the
bubble? And my personal relationship, I suppose, is that over the last few
years I've had my own very, very minor experience of very, very minor
celebrity, and it's a weird world, and it does mess with your head a bit. So
there were things in there that I was wanting to explore a bit.

GROSS: Then there's Jess and she's--What?--about 18?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah.

GROSS: And she's really out of control. She has a terrible temper. She's
very difficult to be around. She's very rude and insulting. She's really a
troubled kid.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I used to teach a couple like this. Obviously if you were
a teacher, these girls were just completely uncontrollable, and I can remember
my Jess equivalent when I was teaching suddenly producing a cigarette in class
and lighting it, and me having this argument with her which ended with the
compromise of her sitting near the window so the smoke went out of the window
and me feeling at the end of the lesson that I had managed to exercise some
kind of control. But she stayed with me a lot, that girl, after I stopped
teaching, and one of the reasons I think she stayed with me is she became a
kind of metaphor, in a way, for a creative process because she makes things
happen, and when you write, you just spend all day trying to make things
happen and usually failing. But she can start a fight in an empty room, so
all you've got to do is follow her around and pick up the pieces, which was
what I was doing as a teacher, literally, and as a writer metaphorically, but
it's much more fun as a writer.

GROSS: OK. The final character who's on the verge of suicide is JJ. He's
the American who was in a rock band. The band's fallen apart. He feels like
he's never gonna get any further and certainly not going to fulfill his dream
of being a rock star. What do you relate to about him?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, he's the most directly autobiographical in that when I was
JJ's age, I thought that was me. I mean, I'd graduated in 1979 and by, I
guess, 1989 I hadn't had anything published and I was drifting in and out of
work, and I found it really scary because peers, you know, fellow college
graduates were kind of disappearing off into the distance in terms of jobs and

careers and family, and I just didn't want to be pathetic, and that to come
back when I was 40 or 50 and say, `No, no, I really think the next book I
write will be the one,' and I found it a very frightening time in my life.

GROSS: Johnny Depp has bought the film rights to your new novel, "A Long Way
Down," and which character is he going to play in it?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I'm not sure. I mean, he's talking about being a
producer, but if he's mentioned a character, it's the character of Martin,

which, I think, you know, in respect to him, because he's good-looking enough
to have played the character of the rock star, but he knows that he's a man
over 40, so I think it's interesting that he should look at that one.

GROSS: Have you--I figure you have, but have you gone to see all of the movie
adaptations of your novels?

Mr. HORNBY: Oh, yeah, yeah. I've been--I haven't been standoffish. I
haven't really been involved, but people have been really nice to me and
respectful and inclusive, and they've always wanted me to go and see cuts of
movies, and they've wanted me to read drafts. And actually it's more a lack
of patience rather than a lack of interest that--of course, you know, when the
first draft comes, you're really excited to read it, but by the 11th, you
really can't remember the difference between this draft and the last draft.

And I can remember Stephen Frears when he was making "High Fidelity," I'd seen
it some--I'd seen a cut on something like the Monday. On the Wednesday I got
this phone call, and he was very excited. He said, `You've got to come down.
It's a completely different movie.' And so I--you know, I went down there, and
on the way I'm thinking, `How can it be a different movie? What is it now,
you know, this movie about a guy and a whale or what?' And you watch this
movie, and they'd taken out the scene of John Cusack sitting in a car, and I
just think these people are crazy, you know. It's really, really not a
different movie. It's exactly the same movie minus the scene of somebody
sitting in a car. But it's that thing that--you know, they sit in an editing
suite all day, and they can convince themselves that they're making some kind
of difference.

DAVIES: Writer Nick Hornby speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. His latest
novel, "A Long Way Down," has just come out in paperback. Let's hear Bob
Dylan's song from the soundtrack of "High Fidelity," "Most of the Time."

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite from "Most of the Time by Bob Dylan")

Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) "Most of the time, I'm too focused all around.
Most of the time, I can keep both feet on the ground. I can follow the path.
I can read the sign. Stay right with it when the road unwinds. I can handle
whatever life stumbles upon. I don't even notice see gone most of the time.
Most of the time."

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews the film "The Da Vinci
Code"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Dan Brown's best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code" is second only to the Harry
Potter series as the best-selling novel of all time, and it's inspired a whole
slew of books on biblical puzzles, Opus Dei, and the life of Mary Magdalene,
as well as some debunking Brown's premise. Now comes director Ron Howard's
long-anticipated film, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou. Film critic
David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Columbia Pictures wouldn't let anyone see "The Da Vinci
Code" until a couple of days ago. So there was nothing much for the media to
report on except the protests of Catholics and other Christian groups, but it
turns out the real story is that the megabudget movie is an embarrassing
nonevent. Any Catholic leader who actually sits through it will probably tell
the picketers to go home. I should mention that those leaders aren't
paranoid. Dan Brown's best-selling novel really is an assault on the
foundations of their faith. Brown isn't the only person to speculate on the
political intentions behind the writing of the Gospels, but he ratchets up the
stakes by spinning a countertheory revolving around Mary Magdalene and by
making the Catholic Opus Dei sect a bastion of homicidal zealots determined to
suppress the truth. Throw in car chases, a mutilated corpse in the Louvres,
skulking bishops, a mysterious criminal mastermind, a self-flagellating killer
albino and cryptogrammatic clues hidden in masterpieces of Western art, and
you've got yourself a publishing phenomenon that even a lot of churchgoers
couldn't resist.

The director Ron Howard and the screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have made little
of all this. The movie is divinely uninspired. It's a shaggy grail story
without a whisper of passion, not even the passion for intellectual
gamesmanship that buttressed all the sentimental glop in their best-known
collaboration, "A Beautiful Mind."

What keeps you turning pages in the novel is the mixture of Hitchcock and Will
Shorts, a man wrongfully accused of murder hurdling from place to place while
madly solving the puzzles left by the dead guy. But Howard and Goldsman have
come up with a deadly blend, a movie both really slow and impossible to
follow.

I feel a little sorry for Tom Hanks who plays the wrongfully accused puzzle
solver, the famed Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. The Da Vinci code was
obviously a money job for him and the money was obviously great, but it has to
be rough on a smart actor when there's nothing to play. No subtext, no strong
objective and no one much to play against. His co-star is Audrey Tautou,
miscast as a French cryptologist and the granddaughter of the dead Louvre
curator. As an actress, she seems bred for airy enchantment, not earthy
gumption, and her very approximate English diction turns even rudimentary
dialogue into a linguistic adventure. Here, she and Hanks contemplate
something pulled from a safety deposit box called a cryptex.

(Soundbite from "The Da Vinci Code")

Ms. AUDREY TAUTOU: Cryptex. They are used to keep secrets. It's Da Vinci's
design. You write the information on a papyrus scroll, which is then rolled
around a thin glass vial of vinegar. If you force it open, the vial breaks,
vinegar dissolves papyrus and your secret is lost forever. The only way to
access the information is to spell out the password with these five dials,
each with 26 letters. That's 12 million possibilities.

Mr. TOM HANKS: I've never met a girl who knew that much about a cryptex.

Ms. TAUTOU: Saunter made one for me once.

Mr. HANKS: My grandfather gave me a wagon.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: While she describes the cryptex, we see the interior workings
of it. It's like an insert in "CSI," and I normally find things like that
hard to resist. But Ron Howard can't manage to generate any momentum or
suspense, and Goldsman does such a poor job of storytelling that the
subversive goddess worship doesn't have any impact either. The only
diversions in the movie are Sir Ian McKellen's scenery chewing and the miscast
but game Paul Bettany doing his best to embody religious dementia as the Opus
Dei albino. If there's anything to be learned from this dud, it's that when
you adapt an explosive property like "The Da Vinci Code," playing it safe
isn't safe. Either swallow hard and make the damnable thing or give it to
someone with more guts and/or less to lose. Here's a saga that strikes at the
heart of Western religion, and it plays like there's absolutely nothing at
stake.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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