Anyone who has read David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day will know it’s not just any book. Not only is the structure a little quirkier – it follows the twists and turns of a relationship between two people on the same day (July 15) over 20 years – but it seems to seep a little further into your consciousness than your average page-turner. Also the author of novels Starter For Ten and The Understudy, as well as a prolific screenwriter for TV shows such as Cold Feet, we caught up with one of today’s most successful writers to find out exactly how he does it.
Do you remember the moment when the idea for your smash hit novel and now film One Day first struck you?
I was approaching 40 and didn't want to write another book about young love: my first book [Starter for Ten] was about being 19, my next book [The Understudy] was about a character in his late 20s. The structure came from a passage in Tess of the d'Urbervilles [by Thomas Hardy] that I'd read when I was 17. So it was the combination of the two: the passage in Tess that had always haunted me, and the process of growing old. I didn't mind turning 40, but inevitably it leads to a certain amount of introspection and nostalgia and I wanted to write about that. I'm quite an inexperienced writer so I'm always intrigued as to how authors select, limit and control what they include. I like the way that that this structure is like a puzzle: you have to fill in certain boxes to create a larger picture.
Do you think its structure is the key to its huge popularity?
I do wonder if it had been more conventionally-structured whether it would have been a bit more ordinary. The reader has to be active and solve the bits inbetween the years. I think that's what made it so readable: you'd want to know where they'd be in the next chapter, in a year's time. I'm thinking about this a lot: I'm trying to think of an idea for the next book and I'm wondering if I need another gimmick [laughs]. But I don't think the next book will be as unusual as this one.
Can you talk about the next book?
I wish I could, but it's just an idea and still so early in the day. It will have to be different, but not so different that it alienates anyone who loves One Day. But it won't be so focussed on a will-they won't-they romance.
What genre is One Day?
I don't know: it has elements of romantic comedy, but it's a lot darker than most romantic comedies. The premise - two people who argue but belong together - is the original romance flourish: Much Ado about Nothing [by Shakespeare], Pride & Prejudice [by Jane Austen], it's every Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn movie. I love romantic comedies, but I don't like very conventional ones. I prefer things which are a little darker. Perhaps it's romantic drama? It's very self-destructive to think of yourself as one genre. All the books I've written have elements of romantic comedy, but even the first two books go in other, darker directions, even though they are more conventional comedies. When I started I thought that I was a comic writer, but now, after 13 years, I don't think of myself in the same way anymore. But again, I try not to think about it, I don't think it's good to be too self-aware.
Who are the One Day characters Em and Dex? Who inspired them?
Again, there's no single answer. My partner, Hannah, was very wary of reading it because she thought there'd be a lot of us in there - and actually there's hardly anything from our own lives. I've taken a lot from female friends for Emma; a certain amount of their outlook and certain specific lines of dialogue. There's some of me in Emma in her early years, and a bit of me in Ian, unfortunately. Emma is a kind of archetype I think - the watcher and rye observer. There's a tiny bit of me in Dexter but not very much. London in the '90s was a weird time and place, and it had a very specific feel to it. A lot of my male friends had a good, wild time; I never did that, I was much more on the outside of that experience. There's a certain amount of those male friends in Dexter, but none of them are quite as annoying [laughs] or irresponsible as he is. I used to be an actor and know a lot of these young, good looking, up-and-coming actors that were having a fine time, being self-absorbed and not worrying too much about it.
Were you pleased with the film version of One Day?
Yes, I liked it very much. But, like all writers, I wish it was longer. Writing the screenplay you have to walk this awkward tightrope: you know that people who loved the book are going to ask why certain things are missing, and you know that people who don't know the book wonder why certain things are there. I liked the film very much but I found working on it incredibly stressful; I would probably not adapt my own work again - you need to have distance from the book.
Is it still odd to spot people reading it?
I'm always especially amazed when I see people outside England reading it. It's been very exciting, but I must admit the other day I went into my office and got every single copy and put them in a big box and put them in the attic, as I feel a little haunted by it now. I would never complain, every author wants to be read, but I would also like to move on and I think [EAFL] in Dubai will be one of the last times I talk about it.
Last One Day question then: how did you feel about the criticisms of Anne Hathaway's performance in the film?
I think she's really wonderful in the film. The criticisms began before anyone had even seen it and I think there was a certain amount of prejudice that was completely unwarranted. Casting isn't my department so being constantly drawn into a conversation about it is tiring. It actually is the first question people ask me about the book now.
Moving on to you. Who would play you in the movie of your life?
It would be a very boring movie because I all I do is sit at my desk. When I was younger, at university age - the time of life I wrote about in Starter For Ten - I love that era of British cinema, of Tom Courtney-era films like Billy Liar; those slightly awkward, ill-at-ease underdogs: I always identified with those characters. I think a young Tom Courtenay would be as good as it gets.
How do you write?
I haven't written very much recently because I've been talking about One Day and working on scripts and watching at edits and things like that. As far as I remember I was quite disciplined and I used to be pretty good at writing to a deadline, writing in the mornings, and planning - that's the only thing I do that's different to some other novelists. I need to plan things out. When I started writing it was for television, and television people are very strict about making you do scene plans. So when I started writing books I ‘ve always worked it out, chapter by chapter. I used to spend a lot of time doing that before I actually wrote the book. I do get very anxious about it, I'm not a particularly relaxed writer; I get very annoyed with myself if I'm not getting anything done and I hate missing deadlines, so I'm quite reliable, or at least I used to be. I've been writing scripts and mostly writing scripts involves rewriting and meetings, there isn't that much imaginative work. That's what I'm trying to get back to - coming up with ideas.
So novels are more rewarding for you?
Not always. With novels one has more control and more satisfaction. The best thing about filmmaking is the team work, and the worst thing about filmmaking is it's a team. Whenever I'm in a script meeting I think I'd love to be by myself making my own decisions, actually sitting down in front of a blank document and trying to come up with stuff. But then, when you are doing that you long for the structure and collaboration of making a script, so I'm constantly flitting between the two.
Do you think you'll ever act again?
I used to write myself little cameos. But I always ruined scenes and was a terrible mugger and over-actor. I was really awful. I'm always envious of the actors on the bus at lunch time, I miss the camaraderie.
What's your number one tip for novelists?
To read and read. To read widely and constantly. Everything I've ever written is drawn from the books I've read. I can't imagine writing One Day without having read Tender is the Night [by F. Scott Fitzgerald] or writing Starter For Ten without reading Great Expectations [by Charles Dickens] or Billy Liar [by Keith Waterhouse] or Lucky Jim [by Kingsley Amis].
What are your thoughts on e-Books?
I'd love it if it led to a revival in reading [novels]. I would love it if people picked up a Kindle rather than read a free newspaper. Like all authors I worry about copyright and piracy. Personally speaking, I'm not opposed to it. I wonder if it will change the nature of books: you look at the ‘most read' books in paperback and the ‘most read' books on Kindles and they're very different. I wonder if people will start writing for the new medium. I should start reading on a Kindle just to see how it changes your experience, whether it leads to shorter books or more humorous books or lighter reading. I found myself next to someone on a train the other day and they had the print very large, and they were flicking through the pages incredibly quickly, which must be very satisfying as I'm such a slow reader [laughs]. But reading on an iPad I found to be disastrous. I'm constantly checking emails and playing on Angry Birds. I'm such a child.
Finally, have you been to Dubai?
I haven't. I'm really badly travelled. I've never been to that part of the world at all. The image always seems based around skyscrapers and man-made islands, I don't even know if there's an older part of the city. I never did my year abroad travelling. I've never been much further than Europe, New York or Los Angeles, so it's a new experience for me. But everyone is saying I must go to the Emirates Airline festival; it's a very well-liked festival.
Hear David Nicholls at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Wednesday March 7 at 7.30pm. Tickets Dhs65. InterContinental Dubai Festival City (04 353 4002).