Chicagoans may think of Nick Hornby as one of our own because of the 2000 film, High Fidelity. It’s set in a grungy record shop in Wicker Park and features many Chicago actors and scenes. The film, directed by Stephen Frears, stars John Cusack as Rob Gordon, the record shop owner. Actually Hornby’s 1995 novel is set in London and Rob’s shop, Championship Vinyl, is set “on a quiet street in Holloway,” a London suburb.
Hornby’s novels are eminently readable (also see About a Boy. An Education and Juliet, Naked, among others) and many have pop culture themes. His latest, Just Like You, is no exception. This week the Chicago Humanities Festival arranged a conversation with Hornby and author Ayelet Waldman, an Israeli-American author, about books and writing. The conversation premiered yesterday on YouTube and is available there now. The 40-minute program was prerecorded so there was no Q&A session with viewers.
Just Like You is an engrossing modern love story filled with believable characters that thread their way among the shoals of race, age and gender issues. Lucy, a 41-year-old English teacher, ends up in a warm relationship with Joseph, a 22-year-old Black man who has jobs in a butcher shop and a leisure center and dreams of becoming a successful DJ. At first she hires Joseph to sit for her two school-aged sons, while she goes on a blind date. (She’s almost divorced.) Her boys love Joseph because he knows how to talk with them and they play video games and football (soccer). The relationships develop and deepen between Joseph and the boys and Joseph and their mother. The story is set just before and after the Brexit vote in the UK, so political and class issues enter into the narrative. Hornby‘s novels, as I said, are highly readable but there’s usually substance beneath the surface.
The CHF event began with Hornby reading a section from his book in which three characters—Joseph, a young woman co-worker, and the owner of the butcher shop where they work—argue about the coming Brexit vote. Waldman, whose books include the Mommy-Track Mysteries, asked Hornby how he writes so confidently about many different kinds of people—here a young Black working-class man, an educated middle-aged white woman, her children and Joseph’s family members.
“I look out my window and I see all kinds of people,” Hornby said. “The idea that I can only write about people like me…. I can’t write that way. I want to write about everybody.” He said you have the responsibility as a novelist to reflect your world. He also said he never writes about people he hates. His characters “may be flawed, but they’re not baddies.”
She also asked how he writes so naturally about children. “Are you sitting there thinking of yourself as a child?” No, he said, I look to my own children and their experiences. “Childhood has changed so much since I was a child, so it’s my own kids that guide me.”
Waldman commented that reading Just Like You gave her some level of hope about our world. She asked Hornby if he believes that reading novels can teach empathy. (Some research indicates that it does.) Hornby said he doesn’t think so because he knows plenty of fiction critics who should be the most empathetic people in the world, but they aren’t.
Moving on to his screenwriting, Waldman noted that Hornby has specialized in writing multilayered roles for female actors, such as Reese Witherspoon in Wild (from Cheryl Strayed’s book), Juliette Greco in An Education (from Hornby’s novel) and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn (from Colm Toibin’s novel).
Waldman asked if he is “one of those loathsome people who wrote six novels and seven screenplays during Covid.” Hornby denied that but said he had written a new series for Sundance recently, based on his 2019 short, State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts. He said that recently he’s been working on a new drama series about musicians, but “I can’t talk about it yet.”