DATE June 15, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Nick Hornby discusses his new novel "A Long
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My 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. Hornby's new novel, "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 that's 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 temporarily postpone
their suicides, and in the meantime this quite disparate groups becomes
enmeshed in each other's lives. The novel is told from the alternating points
of view of the four characters.
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
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 a 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. I didn't
want to deal with clinical depression. I wanted to deal with what you might
call circumstantial depression.
Mr. HORNBY: I think that there are some topics to write about that are very
flat and I think that clinical depression is one of them. It's not the same
thing as saying they're not important or they don't have meaning, but they
don't necessarily have a kind of narrative texture that you might want to
write about, and I felt that was true of clinical depression. 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: And they all feel that logically this is a sensible thing to do. Like
one of them has even made lists like--you know...
Mr. HORNBY: Yes, yeah. Pros and cons.
GROSS: Pros and cons of committing suicide...
Mr. HORNBY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...which is very Nick Hornby, of course, to have a list. But they're
convinced, you know, that they're being rational and this is a rational thing
Mr. HORNBY: Yes. They feel compelled by the force of their own logic, that
for one reason or another life is actually over for them and all they have to
do is kind of put the seal on that.
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
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
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.
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: My guest is Nick Hornby. His new novel is called "A Long Way Down."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Nick Hornby. His new novel, "A Long Way Down," is about
four people who meet each other on the way to their own suicides. One of the
characters, Maureen, has a severely disabled son. Hornby has a son who has
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: Did you meet people like Maureen, who were unable to cope with their
Mr. HORNBY: There are a lot of people who can't cope, yeah. One of the
things that interested me actually about writing Maureen was that I think that
a lot of people might respond to her in the same way that the characters
respond. I mean, a lot of readers might respond, which is I absolutely
understand why you would want to do this, why you would want to jump, and
please be my guest. Don't let us stop you. And all the time I was conscious
of the fact that I could kind of almost play a trick on the reader because it
required very small readjustments in her life to make her life tolerable,
whereas the other characters whose problems are not so severe, I think maybe
those problems are more intractable.
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
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, `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.
GROSS: Would you dress your son in a T-shirt that had, you know--that was
like, you know, a music T-shirt or a movie T-shirt or anything like that?
'Cause it would be reflecting tastes that he didn't really have on his own.
Mr. HORNBY: I think I probably would on the same basis that I don't know how
to reflect his tastes unless I run round looking for a very large T-shirt of a
very childish video character. So there comes a point where you have to make
these decisions. I live right by a football stadium, and quite often parents
give kids stuff that's been bought from the gift shop in the stadium, so he
tends to wear a lot of stuff connected with the football team and--you know, I
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...
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
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: Nick Hornby. His new novel is called "A Long Way Down." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Batman Begins," John Powers
considers how Michael Jackson's life reflects popular American obsessions, and
we continue our conversation with writer Nick Hornby.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with the British writer Nick
Hornby. His books "High Fidelity," "About a Boy" and "Fever Pitch" were
adapted into films. His new novel, "A Long Way Down," is about four strangers
who meet on New Year's Eve on the roof of a 15-story building where they've
each gone with the intention of jumping to their deaths. But when they meet,
they end up talking and, in doing so, distract themselves from their plan.
One of the four, J.J., is an American who's always wanted to be a rock star,
but his dream was derailed when his band broke up and his girlfriend left him.
J.J. quotes Oscar Wilde as having once said, "One's real life is so often the
life that one does not lead." So, you know, the life you imagine for
yourself, the one that seems most real, isn't necessarily what you're living.
Is that what you experienced?
Mr. HORNBY: Yes, and I think it makes kind of self-immolation more possible,
if you think that the time and space you're occupying is not interesting or
anything that you want.
GROSS: Or not even the real life.
Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So what are some of the things that you did along the way when you
were not living the life that you felt was a life you were supposed to be
Mr. HORNBY: Well, it was mostly teaching connecting--when I quit teaching
high school, I stopped to write for a while and then I drifted back to
teaching foreign students, and I ended up with this really cushy job which was
kind of a lifesaver, where I was employed by a Far Eastern electronics giant
to teach the guys that worked there English, but in fact, they were so
overstretched that we never got 'round to that. What they wanted me to do was
deal with English people on their behalf about the things that were making
their lives difficult, which could be anything from getting permission to put
signs outside, you know, and having to deal with local councils to dealing
with English dog owners because the chairman of the company was a big dog
collector, and they couldn't make these phone calls. And it was kind of a
crazy job, and they let me work half the day and paid me a decent amount of
money. And it actually very smoothly marked a transition between not writing
and writing. And I'm sure that they're partly responsible for it.
GROSS: What was the first piece you ever published?
Mr. HORNBY: Well, the first thing I ever sold was a short story to the BBC.
I ripped off Lorrie Moore.
GROSS: Oh. Which story of hers did you rip off?
Mr. HORNBY: I didn't rip off a particular story. It wasn't like I just
copied one out, but it was--I was trying to write a story in a Lorrie Moore
GROSS: That's interesting, 'cause people think of you as starting, quote,
"lad lit," an expression I can't say I like very much.
Mr. HORNBY: Well, I think it's meant patronizingly. I don't think you'll
ever catch anyone saying, `Hello, I'm a lad lit author.' So, you know, it's
meant rudely, and it's taken rudely.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, anyways, I find it interesting that the
voice you were emulating when you started to write was the voice of a woman
writer. Can you talk about what it was in her voice that you liked?
Mr. HORNBY: Well, there were two. There was Anne Tyler and Lorrie Moore, who
completely turned my life around really when I didn't know how or what I
wanted to write. And it's the tonal thing with them, that they can be funny
and sad, and there's a lot of soul in their work, but they--Lorrie Moore can't
resist a pun or a quip. And I was just aware of how she wrote kind of
standing on the balls of her feet so that she could dive this way or that way.
That first collection, which was called "Self-Help," I think, I just wolfed
that down. And she made writing look easy. And I know that it's not; I know
that she didn't find it easy, and I know that I don't find it easy. But so
often we're made to feel, as we're reading, that writing is hard work, and I
can't stand reading books like that.
GROSS: Well, it makes reading hard work.
Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. I just--and I don't think there's ever been a great
book--or one or two exceptions, but most of the really great novels that we
think of as being great novels are a pleasure to read. And I would include
Dickens and Jane Austen and "Huckleberry Finn" and "The Catcher in the Rye,"
and all the classics are joyful, I think, and they've done a lot of work on
behalf of the reader. And I don't think there's any shame in that.
But anyway, you know, she was light and quick, but she's extremely bright as
well, Lorrie Moore, and that was what I wanted. But in terms of the lad lit
things, one of the things with "High Fidelity" was that I wanted to write a
domestic novel. I'd never been particularly turned on by big men writing big
men's books. I did read a lot of women's fiction, and I did think--well,
there isn't really a male equivalent of this stuff. Men tend to go out and be
brave and conquer things.
GROSS: Updike would be an example of somebody who wrote a lot of--he's
written a lot of, like, domestic, pure...
Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, I hadn't read so much of him at the time, but I was
reading many more women than men. But a lot of the male novelists were, you
know, thriller writers or, you know, people who had the big canvas, and
certainly somebody like me would have felt intimidated out of that.
GROSS: You write a column for The Believer, which is a McSweeney's magazine,
and you even have a book that collects some of those columns, and the book is
called "The Polysyllabic Spree," as in the band, The Polyphonic Spree, and in
this column--every column begins with two lists. One is a list of the books
you've purchased that month, and the other list is a list of the books that
you've actually read that month. Why do you make these lists at the beginning
of each column? Why do you want us to know what you've bought as well as what
Mr. HORNBY: I think it's one of the most relevant experiences to reading. I
think everyone who reads books knows this feeling, that there's this, you
know, incredible thing that you're compelled towards a book shop again and
again, and you end up making purchases that you didn't mean to make, and
you've got this little pile by your bed, and every single one of these books
looks interesting. And then they kind of sit there, and three weeks later you
look at the pile again, and you can't imagine whatever possessed you to buy
any of them. And they start to sort of slowly lose their sheen without you
ever having done anything or even the books having done anything. So, you
know, I wanted to point out the randomness, in a way, of what we read and how
you get sidetracked in reading and maybe, you know, an old book that you see
lying around, you suddenly start and you finish that, and then you want to
read something else by the same author. So these hardbacks that you've
splashed your money out on--in fact, quite often I find the paperbacks are out
before I even begin to pick the book up. So I wanted to write about the whole
culture of reading.
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 it 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
GROSS: You're one of the few people who's not only had two movies made of the
same book, "Fever Pitch"...
Mr. HORNBY: Yes.
GROSS: ...but, like, from two different countries. There's a British version
that has Colin Firth in it. There's the American version with Jimmy Fallon
and Drew Barrymore that came out just a few months ago.
Mr. HORNBY: Yeah.
GROSS: So what do you think the differences is in the two movies, say, if
anything, about the differences between England and America, or, you know, the
English film industry and Hollywood?
Mr. HORNBY: Well, I guess the two big differences, if you see the movies, or
the two obvious differences between the film cultures, which is that one was
really, really cheap.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HORNBY: There was no budget whatsoever, and also I would say the American
one is a lot cuter than the British one.
GROSS: And is cuter good or bad?
Mr. HORNBY: Well, I think cuter works and cuter's fine, but the British one
was much more downbeat. The funny thing was about the "Fever Pitch" remake
was that the English movie ends with this great triumph that my football team
experienced in 1999, completely against all odds and against the run of play.
And the American producers couldn't find a moment that was the equivalent of
that, so they decided to make it more downbeat, about a guy that supports the
losing baseball team, a perennially losing baseball team. And it was going to
be perhaps even a grittier version in that way than the British movie. But
then because they chose the Red Sox and the Red Sox started to win the moment
they started shooting, it ended with an even more unlikely triumph than the
British version, with the Red Sox winning the World Series. I joked at the
time that it was the only known example of Hollywood taking a small, upbeat
British movie and turning it into a large downbeat American one. And of
course, they found the way of being more upbeat in the end.
GROSS: The end of the American version of "Fever Pitch" has one of these
incredibly improbable movie scenes, where, like, Drew Barrymore, to prove her
love, runs across the baseball field, kind of in the middle of a game, and
it's like not anything that could happen in real life. Did that bother you?
Did it seem out of character or out of the tone that you wanted, just like so
Mr. HORNBY: I never mind about things like that. I always wish I could
think up stuff like that when I'm writing the movie scripts, because, you
know, one of the problems for me when I do try--and I've been working on movie
scripts on my own, but you know, my characters are all internal, and when
they're not being internal, they're sitting around talking, and you have
externalize. You have to make things happen, and I just look at it with some
admiration and think, you know, of course it's never going to happen, but
that's kind of why we go to the movies a lot of the time.
GROSS: But part of the reason why we read your books is because your
characters tend to overthink everything, and their thinking--you can read
about an internal life when you read about characters who think all the time,
and it's one of the ways of getting at internal life, and that's why we read
Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. Well, I still don't really understand why everyone wants
to make movies out of them, because they don't seem cinematic to me, and I can
see that there is a pleasure to be had out of that kind of access to
somebody's internal life. But the moment someone's bought the movie rights, I
think they're sitting there thinking, `Why the hell did anyone buy this? You
know, there's just a guy thinking.'
GROSS: Nick Hornby; his new novel is called "A Long Way Down."
Coming up, John Powers considers how Michael Jackson's life reflects popular
American obsessions. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Commentary: Michael Jackson, a reflection of American cultural
TERRY GROSS, host:
Whatever you might think of the outcome of the Michael Jackson child
molestation trial, the story of his life has always been fascinating. Our
critic at large, John Powers, has these thoughts on how Jackson reflects
American cultural obsessions.
When the Michael Jackson trial finally ended, seemingly the whole world was
awaiting the verdict. Even Al-Jazeera interrupted its cavalcade of bloody
corpses to announce the deposed King of Pop's acquittal.
The Jackson case had been, of course, the usual tabloid fiesta. It's the
essence of modern media coverage that milks every drop of prurience from a
story even as it moralizes about it. An entire journalistic code springs from
this double helix of hypocrisy. The very cable channels that tirelessly
fixated on the case's most salacious details also ran pieces mocking the media
circus around it or bemoaning that the trial was receiving so much more air
time than the, quote, "serious news" they were ignoring.
Although I don't know many people who were interested in the specific details
of the trial--Most of us would rather not think about child
molestation--almost everyone I know is interested in Michael Jackson. And why
not? He's a great story. Social Security reform may be important, but it's
got a lousy plot. The reconstruction of Iraq is an epic story, but it's so
big and complex that you'd have to be smarter than I am to follow the
narrative from day to day. Not so Michael Jackson. From his bad plastic
surgery to the way he dangles his baby, his whole life has the vivid contours
of a train wreck. Even by today's hallucinatory standards of celebrity,
Jackson is the mother lode of schadenfreude-inducing follies--Neverland Ranch,
oddball marriages, friendship with Liz Taylor, a chimp named Bubbles, that
silly glove, the "Phantom of the Opera" visage, not to mention his taste for
sleeping with boys.
None of this can be separated from the fact that he's a brilliant musician.
If his songs had not been so popular, he would be a different man. He would
never have tried so flamboyantly to transcend ordinary categories--black and
white, male and female, young and old. Then again, if he'd been more
articulately self-conscious about his desire for total personal
transformation, he might today be seen as an avant-garde figure rather than
written off as a tragic loon. Nobody was ever this mean about David Bowie.
Starting from the childhood stardom that so clearly sent him off the rails,
Jackson's story is so rich in poignancy and social meaning that you could
spend years plumbing its depths. PhD students, start your engines. Although
some like to think him a freak or a martian, his life is fascinating precisely
because he's not. The man in the mirror is actually himself a fun-house
mirror reflecting many popular American obsessions. Take Jackson's
relationship to race. In making his skin ever whiter, he took the idea of the
crossover artist to a crazy new level. But then again, such racial blurring
is not his idea alone. You have to wonder what fantasy today's white suburban
teens are chasing when they don hip-hop garb or talk about their cribs.
And what about the gloved one's fetishistic interest in boyhood? Ever since
the 1950s, our whole culture has worshiped youth. Jackson's obsession with
Peter Pan has a special resonance in an era when the age of lost innocence
grows ever younger, an achievement-mad parents dream of perfecting their
Speaking of perfection, consider that calamitous plastic surgery. Sure, he
looks spectral, but Jackson's desire for total physical transformation--new
hair, new skin, new features--is merely an exaggerated riff on the lessons of
modern advertising. Jackson's changing look is almost a cautionary tale about
modern culture's pressure to perfect one's appearance through gym work, Botox,
breast implants, wrinkle removers, penis enhancement surgery and no-carb
Seeking to craft a brand-new physical self, Jackson made himself not only
grotesque but seemed to annihilate his inner essence. In fact, like so many
of our fabled artists, Michael Jackson is never more American than in his
self-destructive manias. Just as Orson Welles and Elvis Presley expressed one
aspect of our national soul, the wedding of astonishing creativity to bloated
consumption, so Jackson embodies the great tradition of ill-starred
utopianism. He's like the scientist Aylmer in the Hawthorne story who
destroys his wife trying to remove the birthmark that's the one flaw in her
beauty, or like doomed Jay Gatsby, who invents a new self to reach a magical
future that forever proves elusive.
In his attempt to create a perfect new Michael, surrounded by an idealized
Neverland reality, Jackson may be many things--a dreamer, a narcissist, maybe
even a criminal. But it's worth remembering, he's also one of us.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue, and the author of "Sore
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Batman Begins." This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
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Review: New movie "Batman Begins" starring Christian Bale
TERRY GROSS, host:
Bob Kane's comic book phenomenon "Batman" has inspired many adaptations, from
the 1949 movie serial to the campy '60s TV show to a darker, contemporary
animated series. The big-budget movie cycle began in 1989 with Tim Burton's
"Batman," starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Now there's "Batman
Begins," a new movie directed by Christopher Nolan with Christian Bale as the
Dark Knight. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
They call "Batman" a franchise. It's a word that once meant McDonald's, but
it's come to mean a series of films, sequels, prequels, spinoffs, plus book
and merchandise tie-ins. It's big business, those action figures and lunch
boxes and Burger King cross-promotions. And it accounts for the endless
procession of superhero movies like "Batman Begins." Look, I have nothing
against comic books, but I like them as disreputable, under-the-covers
adolescent pleasures and not hundred-million-dollar movies that dominate
public consciousness. Plus, I hate getting angry letters from teen-agers who
are shocked that I don't know the 287th issue of "The Hulk."
"Batman" at least is more compelling than other comic superheroes. He's
moody, he's twisted, he's self-created. The 1989 "Batman," directed by Tim
Burton, redefined the comic book genre. The screenwriter, Sam Hamm, made
Bruce Wayne a kind of addict, his whole crime-fighting persona, the embodiment
of a grief at the death of his parents that most grown-ups are finally forced
by life to move beyond. Burton created a grand, operatic film with Gothic
sets that captured the lonely, freaky hero's inner world of shadowed arches
But the studio ultimately passed the "Batman" franchise to director Joel
Schumacher, who drove it into the ground in the awful camp fest, "Batman &
Robin." After a decent interval of eight years, the director Christopher
Nolan and his co-screenwriter David S. Goyer have reinvented the series with
"Batman Begins." The film is nowhere near as emotionally expressive as
Burton's "Batman," but it's better structured, and its approach is bracingly
Where Burton's "Batman" was psychological, Nolan's is socially conscious.
Although the 20-something Bruce, played by Christian Bale, is haunted by his
parents' death, he's struggling less with inner bats than concepts of justice.
When Bruce Wayne is recruited by a lordly, mysterious figure called Ducard,
played by Liam Neeson, and trained in the art of ninja warfare, he's also
exhorted to lay aside this individual taste for vengeance. Although Wayne
parts ways with the vaguely fascist Ducard, he does absorb one lesson: the
need for symbolism, for something that takes root in the collective
consciousness. Here he explains this to Alfred, his butler, played by Michael
Caine, who must be the world's most high-priced help.
(Soundbite of "Batman Begins")
Mr. MICHAEL CAINE: (As Alfred) Are you coming back to Gotham for long, sir?
Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) As long as it takes. I'm going to show
the people of Gotham their city doesn't belong to the criminals and the
Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) In the Depression, your father nearly bankrupted
Wayne Enterprises combatting poverty. He believed that his example could
inspire the wealthy of Gotham to save their city.
Mr. BALE: (As Wayne) Did it?
Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) In a way. Their murder shocked the wealthy and the
powerful into action.
Mr. BALE: (As Wayne) People need dramatic examples to shake them out of
apathy, and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man of flesh and blood, I
can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol--as a symbol I can be
incorruptible. I can be everlasting.
Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) What symbol?
Mr. BALE: (As Wayne) Something elemental, something terrifying.
EDELSTEIN: "Batman Begins" is overlong, but in the second half there's some
excellent full-throttle creepiness, especially from Cillian Murphy as a clammy
psychiatrist who turns into a low-tech villain, The Scarecrow, with a bag over
his head that spews a high-powered hallucinogen.
There's some stuff in "Batman Begins" that doesn't measure up, though. Katie
Holmes intones civics lessons as a crusading assistant DA, but she looks and
acts like a student council president. Gotham City is mundane, with only an
above-ground rail system designed by Bruce's liberal dad to inject an element
of other-worldliness. The Batmobile is a Bat-tank with the sex appeal of a
Apart from a few tricky flashbacks, there's no indication that Nolan directed
the mind-bending "Memento" or the hallucinatory "Insomnia." The most original
touch is Bale's Batman. He underplays Bruce Wayne; this guy really
internalizes his pain. But Batman is a splendidly ham-bone creation. His
voice is a low rasp, and when he talks to people, he cocks his pointy-eared
head and looks like a winged creature at rest. In the fight sequences, Nolan
barely lets you see the Dark Knight. He comes at the villains from all
directions, which drives them out of their minds before they're cold-cocked.
It's fun to see a Batman that's still, for Bruce Wayne, a work in progress,
still wrestling with the idea of what a superhero should be, still figuring
out the franchise.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a recording by the late pianist and
composer Jaki Byard, who was born 83 years ago today. Here's his 1967
recording of "St. Louis Blues," with David Izenzon on bass, Elvin Jones, drums
(Soundbite of "St. Louis Blues")
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