Epic Soundtracks

NICK HORNBY WRITES with tremendous confidence about people who have lost their own. The author's previous work, High Fidelity, is a portrait of a lovelorn record collector who shuts out anyone whose tastes don't measure up to his own. The narrator is a loser of sorts, a man who has allowed his aesthetic passions to supplant his personal ones--a noble immaturity that won the book plaudits from rock geeks around the globe. Hornby's latest, About a Boy (Putnam), concerns an actual child, Marcus, and a foolish adult, Will, who are brought together by ludicrous, then tragic circumstances, and form a strange, mutually advantageous friendship.

Hornby, a 41-year-old Londoner, is genial and relaxed in conversation, and at ease in front of large groups of people; he taught public school before becoming a writer. It comes as little surprise that Hornby began as a playwright: His dialogue is crisp and tremendously funny. Naturally, both his novels are currently being turned into feature films. We spoke in the lobby of the hotel where the author stayed last week for a Twin Cities reading.

CITY PAGES: Did you realize what kind of impact High Fidelity would have? That book resonates with a lot of people.

NICK HORNBY: I didn't. My big concern at the time was that Fever Pitch [a soccer-fan memoir] had been very successful in England, and I felt the most pressure in coming out with a second book. Because Fever Pitch didn't happen in any sense [in America], it was a fresh start for me. So High Fidelity started things from scratch. I knew there were lots of people who thought like that. But you never really expect a book to find all those people for whom it might be real.

CP: Did anything in particular inspire the new book?

HORNBY: There is one thing that inspired the new book that wouldn't make sense to anybody but me, which was [R.E.M.'s] "E-Bow the Letter." I had a lot of very strong feelings about that song. The last time I was here, I did a little tour with the paperback of High Fidelity, New Adventures in Hi-Fi had just come out, and I listened to it a lot while I was traveling around. It's quite often happened to me that I've wanted to write some kind of literary equivalent to the music that I'm listening to. That's much more of a genesis for anything than any idea that I want to communicate to the world. That song had a mixture of depression and elation in it that I wanted to find some way of painting.

CP: A lot of your work seems to be about how popular culture affects people. Is that deliberate?

HORNBY: Yes. I think this book is the closest I've come yet to attempting to analyze that. Marcus is without popular culture, and I wanted to write about the value of that, as well as the limitations of it. I don't think that people, especially in fiction, tend to write about popular culture in a way that validates it, or gives it any soul.

CP: A lot of writers downplay its importance in society.

HORNBY: Well, I don't need to stop [exploring] it for a while. There's plenty there to write about.

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