An Interview with David Nicholls
Born in 1966, David Nicholls worked as an actor and as a screenwriter before shooting to fame as the author of One Day in 2009. Nicholls had previously achieved recognition for two earlier novels—Starter for Ten (2003) and The Understudy (2005)—and for a number of screenplays, including And When Did You Last See Your Father (2007), and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008).
A best-selling phenomenon since its publication in June 2009, One Day has been translated into 37 languages and sold in excess of 700,000 copies. Behind the book’s garish orange airport-fiction covers lies a carefully crafted masterpiece of British popular fiction. Spanning 20 years in the lives of its two endearingly flawed and irrepressibly likeable characters—the handsome, rakish, tender Dexter Mayhew and the witty, frumpy, principled Emma Morley—the narrative follows the tortuous trajectories of the protagonists’ lives and the fluctuations in their warm but tumultuous relations.
[Warning: this interview contains spoilers.]
One Day has been an astounding success in Britain and abroad. What is it about the novel that has struck such a chord?
I have no idea really. Perhaps because the book is both funny and emotional, a mixture of light and shade. There’s an old movie poster cliché which promises that “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry”, but it’s actually quite rare to find a story in which humour, drama, and emotional grip are combined. There is a good amount of contemporary, accessible, more or less well-written comic fiction—High Fidelity, Bridget Jones, possibly Starter for Ten. To find comedy and tragedy blended together is more unusual, and that may be part of One Day’s appeal. And I think the book has fared the better for being based on a really good structural idea—one that nobody, to my knowledge, had used before.
The idea being to organize the narrative around the return of the same calendar date each year. Thus “one day”—St Swithun’s Day—runs as a connecting thread through two decades of your characters’ lives. How did the conceit suggest itself to you?
The idea came from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There’s a passage in Hardy’s novel in which Tess gazes at herself in the mirror and a shiver runs down her spine at the thought that perhaps this is the date on which she’ll die. She realizes that while we mark the date of our birthday each year, we also unwittingly go through the anniversary of our death time after time. I thought it would be interesting to write about this anniversary, but as in real life, not to let on, to withhold the significance of the day in question and let the reader imagine that this might be an ordinary date, or a date chosen as the anniversary of some other event, only revealing at the end that it is, in fact, the anniversary of a death. That seemed to me a compelling twist. The concept also offered some handy solutions to some of the technical problems that confront a novelist: how to manage time and place, how to condense large swathes of time. Novelists tend to focus on the obviously significant events, like marriages and deaths. I wanted to use the “one day” structure to find significance in apparently insignificant episodes—a bad night out at a party, an awkward encounter, a disappointing date, a hair-rising babysitting episode.
Why did you choose to set the novel on St Swithun’s Day (15th July)?
For a number of reasons. The novel opens on graduation night, and 15th July is a plausible date for a graduation ceremony. I didn’t want a date that carried any weight, like 4th July or 14th February: 15th July felt suitably random. But I also needed a date, which, when seen in a diary, might conjure up a memory for the protagonists. “St Swithin’s Day” was to work as a kind of mental tag. I liked the mythology of St Swithin’s Day [according to old British lore, the weather on St Swithin’s Day predicts rain or sun for the next forty days: "St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain / For forty days it will remain / St Swithin's day if thou be fair / For forty days 'twill rain nae mair"], which is really about our desire and inability to predict the future. Thematically that seemed right. And there’s a really beautiful melancholy song about lost love by Billy Bragg that is called “St Swithin’s day”. To me that song was the unofficial soundtrack to the book. It helped me with the writing when I was stuck for words or tone.
Six epigraphs punctuate the book—there is one by Philip Larkin, two by Charles Dickens, one by James Salter, and two by Thomas Hardy. What role do these quotations play?
They’re really just apposite extracts from favourite books…almost like favourite lines from songs. The Hardy epigraph is key because it signposts the source of the novel’s anniversary structure. Coming immediately after Emma’s death, it proffers a kind of explanation, revealing why we’ve had our eyes so staunchly trained on this particular date.
The Dickens quotation enjoins the reader to “Imagine one selected day struck out of [any life] and think how different its course would have been.” This would seem to place contingency or perhaps fate at the heart of the book?
Yes. I grew up reading Hardy and Dickens, and in Hardy especially there’s a lot of emphasis on fate. While I was writing the book I was adapting Tess for the BBC, and I was struck anew by my own frustration and fury when the letter which might have saved Tess’s life disappears under the doormat. I remember feeling a little angry at the author for the contrivance. In life I firmly believe that we make our own destiny, but in fiction such seemingly fatalistic moments can be very compelling.
You put your characters through quite a lot in the course of the book. Does it feel at all like playing God with people’s lives?
Maybe. I don’t know if I feel sort of god-like in terms of having control over the characters, but I did want to emulate the ups and downs of real life, and for me that meant drawing on some terrible events in my own circle. Two of my friends died while I was writing the book. When you’re young you often have a very conventional notion of how the rest of your life will unfold: you think that first there will be a certain amount of floundering about and then you’ll start a family, find a job, work until 65, and then retire. You don’t expect tragic events to happen before you reach 40. I was very shaken by those deaths. And I’d read a number of books in which the death of a central character had come completely out of the blue. I’d found that very powerful—far more powerful than the traditional lingering deathbed farewell. I wanted these sudden, painful events to happen in my book as they do in life—without warning, without premonition, without too much tell-tale pathetic fallacy (although actually there is a little bit of pathetic fallacy in One Day when it begins to rain at a crucial moment).
The novel is infused with a kind of impassioned tenderness for youth, in all its idealism and its hopefulness. Is the book also driven by a terror of ageing?
Not terror, no. I really loved university. I was very aware of life changing, and of books and films and music and friendship being at the root of that change. I remember becoming more open-minded and embracing friendship. But I don’t have a fear of ageing. Actually I’m rather happier at 44 than I was at 28. I suppose it is true that, like Emma in the later stages of the book, I miss the intensity of youth—even if it is often the intensity of frustration or anxiety or unrequited love. The highs and lows of being 17 or 21 or even 28 are so much greater than the highs and lows of being 44. The arguments you have, the crushes, the sudden passions, the friendships, the zealous enthusiasms for a film or a book or a poem, the lack of embarrassment: I feel nostalgic for all of these, I do miss all of that. Yet at the same time I’m pleased to be rid of the attendant angst and madness. Middle age brings an even-tempered, level-headed open-mindedness to other political ideas and cultural preferences. It’s all far more sensible and equitable but not nearly as passionate.
A blurb on the back of the book describes One Day as a “fantastic Labour boom-years comedy”. Is the book partly about society or about a particular economic situation? Is it a critique or diagnosis?
I don’t think so. I really don’t want to become a kind of pundit, whatever my personal politics. What One Day I hope, is a book about political disillusionment, about selling out, or about the cliché that you necessarily go from being a socialist at 20 to a conservative at 40. The book isn’t about a loss of principle or a drift to the right. Emma is just as principled at the end as she is at the beginning. But the world around her has changed. The book opens in the late 80s, at a time when the political battle lines were clearly drawn. The major issues of the day—apartheid, the relationship between East and West, the CND—were starkly defined: the distinctions between right and left at that time were almost cartoonishly polarised. But after the resignation of Margaret Thatcher and the end of apartheid and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, you were suddenly left with Yugoslavia and the environment, and it was quite difficult to have a straightforward view on either subject. At one point in the book Emma tries to work out why she’s not marching about the war in Yugoslavia: she’d like to know where she stands, or where she should stand, but just can’t quite make sense of it all. The only real political point in the novel, I suppose, is that the old political demarcations became blurred in the 90s.
Do you feel your style has changed much since Starter for Ten?
The most significant shift is probably the shift from first- to third-person narration. When I started writing prose, first-person narration came naturally to me. It was a bit like acting or improvising. It was about getting into character. I found it quite easy to write in that mode. But if I re-read Starter for Ten now I’d wriggle a bit. I think the comic set-pieces are good and the voice is good, but it reads like a book written by a stand-up comedian angling for gags. In One Day, with characters like Emma and Dexter bouncing off each other in dialogue, the narrator doesn’t need to be looking for jokes in the same way. Also, by the time I started writing One Day I was no longer worried about serious, non-comic passages boring the reader. Having written scripts for TV that were not comedies, I was a little more confident of my ability to write a straight scene.
What pleases you most about how others have described the style of the book?
“Readability” springs to mind, but that’s probably the wrong word. I’m pleased when people say that they’ve read the book in one or two sittings. A lot of the writers I admire are not writers that you would think of as unputdownable. Novelists aren’t necessarily economical, nor should they be. Philip Roth or J.D. Salinger don’t need to be economical to ensure that their readers keep turning the pages because their prose is so superb and compelling in itself. I pay more attention to story. I concentrate on keeping things moving.
Do you think your work in screenwriting shaped One Day’s delightfully quick-witted dialogue?
I’m not sure. Watching a lot of movies probably had more to do with it. And the habit of acting scenes out in my head, trying to work out the pace and the phrasing and the rhythm, imagining performance. Graham Greene thought of writing as acting, and I relate to that. When he’d finished writing he’d feel tired because he’d spent the whole day getting up and down, crossing the room, and opening doors—without having actually left his chair.
How do you feel about the film adaptation of One Day, for which you’ve written the screenplay?
I feel a certain amount of trepidation. I’ve read the newspapers enough to know that after anything goes well there’s often a backlash. In adapting a book for the cinema, you inevitably have to make a lot of cuts. As a novelist you are completely in charge, but as a screenwriter you have a very limited area of influence. You have so many parameters. If I’m writing a book and I want it to rain, I just write “it’s raining”. On screen you have to fight for the rain because it costs so much money and it’s not your money. It’s a much more contentious process. If I had my way I would be in charge of the music and the poster and the casting and the design. But as the author of the book you have to take a step back. There are things that I would have done differently if I were directing, but overall I’m quite pleased with the outcome. As long as people don’t expect a page by page transcription, I think they’ll find the film is pretty close to the book they know.
The director, Lone Scherfig, is famous for An Education (2009), but also for the earlier Italian for Beginners (2000), which achieves a highly affecting blend of romance and gritty emotional realism.
That’s why Lone was everyone’s first choice. She’s interested in engaging the audience with the story and the characters but also has great artistic integrity. She doesn’t like fakery or manipulation. As a Dogme-95 artist, she won’t put a song on the soundtrack if it doesn’t fit the scene. The film is emphatically not a Hollywood version of One Day.
Which British writers do you admire and whom do you enjoy reading?
I like Zadie Smith’s work very much. I particularly enjoyed On Beauty. She’s ambitious and engages with the world, but she’s unpretentious and writes very accessible books. She’s interested in character and story and is a really fine comic writer. But her prose also has a wry, wise quality. I admire Alan Hollinghurst. The Line of Beauty was a terrific book. It’s neither startlingly modernist nor abstract nor inaccessible, but it’s a carefully, beautifully written book in the classic British realist tradition. And I love Edward St Aubyn. His style is arch, precise, spiky, mean, cynical. I think he’s an extraordinary, underrated writer.
You’re frequently described as a popular fiction writer. How comfortable are you with the label?
When I was at university all the writers I admired were experimentalists. In my early 20s I loved Beckett, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Kafka, Brecht, and other modernist greats. If I ever tried to write anything I thought I had an obligation to be progressive and avant-garde. But I had no gift for that and over time I came to realise that I’d be much better off writing situation comedy. Writing in an abstract or poetic way doesn’t come naturally to me—even if a lot of the writing I most appreciate is abstract, poetic, and difficult. In fact if I hadn’t written Starter for Ten I’m not sure if I would have read it when it first came out. I think I’d probably have been a bit of a snob about it.
For more information see http://www.davidnichollswriter.com/
Scarlett Baron is a fellow by examination at Magdalen College, Oxford.