David Nicholls: “I wanted to write something a bit more grown-up”

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 7 May 2015. This may have been the most star-struck I’ve ever been in interviewing someone, but Nicholls was extremely polite and professional about the whole thing. As usual, this has been lightly edited for re-upload. This was an absolute pleasure to do.

Even with his last book six years in the past, David Nicholls has been keeping busy. Since the publication of the hugely popular bittersweet love story One Day (and the slightly less hugely popular film), Nicholls has written the wonderful two-part TV drama The 7:39 (starring David Morrissey and Sheridan Smith), as well as the screenplay for the upcoming film adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd, starring Carey Mulligan. His new novel, Us, detailing the struggles of a middle-aged couple on the brink of divorce, comes out in paperback this month. Nicholls was kind enough to meet with me to discuss middle-class angst, the genius of Thomas Hardy, and the pressure of following up a literary smash hit.

The conversation opened with Us, which is in some ways reflective of Nicholls’ earlier work. “It’s another love story. I’d never really written about family before, so I thought it was time. It’s about a man who’s been apparently happily married for twenty-odd years and is woken by his wife one night and told that she isn’t happy, and she’s leaving. When their son goes to college, she’s going too. And suddenly this man who’s become rather complacent and set in his ways is faced with the possibility of life alone. He’s horrified at the prospect, and resolves to win her back, and the novel follows them as they go on their last ever holiday as a family, what’s potentially their last time together, on a grand tour of  Europe. So it’s a story of marriage, and separation, and family, and it’s a kind of road movie around the great cities and museums of Europe and it’s a comedy about divorce and loneliness.”

What attracted Nicholls to such themes, especially as they stand in such stark contrast to his previous novels? “I’d never really written about parents and children. I suppose maybe I felt too old to write another ‘will they, won’t they’ twenty-something love story. I won’t say I won’t go back to that, but I wanted to write something that felt a bit more grown-up, a bit darker. I wanted to write about Europe and the English abroad. When I was publicising One Day I went on a kind of protracted road trip around a lot of cities that I’d never visited before, and I really loved them – I wanted to write about misadventures abroad. And I still wanted to write a love story, I just didn’t want to write the same love story as One Day. I wanted to write something maybe a bit tougher. I have no hesitation in calling it a love story, but it’s rougher than ‘will they, won’t they get together?’. It’s ‘can they, can’t they stay together?’”

One Day was of course enormously successful, selling upwards of five million copies. Did Nicholls feel any pressure writing the follow-up? “Of course, but I would never complain about that. I mean, it’s a very privileged kind of stress, and I was really grateful for the way One Day took off. I didn’t feel it was a terrible yoke around my neck – I was delighted. I think the problem was not really one of anticipation, more one of distraction. You know, it’s very hard to find the time to concentrate, and there came a point where I just had to kind of pull down the shutters, refuse to talk about One Day any more, and concentrate on writing something new. Once I finally got this character’s voice and got the story and worked out what it was, I really loved writing it. It wasn’t a case of writer’s block, really, it was more a case of just too much going on, and the old characters’ voices remaining in my head. It took a long time, four years, really, to find the space necessary to write something new.”

Has Nicholls’ perspective on Us changed at all over the few months it’s been out? “I suppose there’s a certain kind of relief that it hadn’t flopped or disappeared or been torn to pieces. I think it’s gone down, critically anyway, better than anything I’ve written before. It probably won’t sell as many copies, and that’s fine because what happened with One Day was sort of freakish, really. The important thing for me is I think it’s an improvement, it’s a better book, and it’s more sophisticated and more grown up. It’s been great, actually. I’m aware that when something does well, there’s often a backlash and the next thing’s a disaster, but actually, so far, anyway, it’s been fine. It’s not autobiographical – I’m nothing like Douglas, the main character – but it’s quite a personal book, and it means quite a lot to me, so I’m pleased that people seem to have liked it.”

Shifting the topic a little towards Nicholls’ career as a screenwriter, I asked how it compared to prose writing. “Adaptation is very different, because someone has had the inspiration, and someone’s done the difficult bits. Someone’s already made Bathsheba Everdeen, Gabriel Oak and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Someone’s had the genius to create those, and you’re slightly more at arm’s length. You’re not drawing on your own life so directly and there’s an element of précis involved in the whole thing. It’s not creative, it’s more editorial. But writing an original like The 7:39, I hadn’t done that for a little while, and I had a really good time. That was much more like writing fiction, in the sense that you’re a bit more engaged, and you have to sort of pull this stuff out of the air. It’s scarier, but ultimately really satisfying.”

“But there are loads of different things. In a novel, no-one particularly worries about length, whereas on the screen, every minute costs, I don’t know, a hundred thousand pounds, something like that? Inevitably there are a lot more voices involved. In a script there are certain things I don’t have to bother writing. I don’t have to write any description, because they’ve got designers for that, I don’t have to write the facial expressions because they have actors for that, so all these responsibilities you have as a novelist are taken out of your hands when you write scripts. That’s both fun and frustrating.”

Thomas Hardy has been a real influence on Nicholls – as well as writing the script for Far From the Madding Crowd and a TV version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Nicholls references Hardy in both One Day and Us – what does he find so attractive about him? “I don’t write at all like Hardy, and I’m slightly regretful of that. He’s a great poet, a great writer of nature, and I wouldn’t even try to do that. But I love the emotionalism of Hardy, I find the books very moving. I love the notions of fate and missed opportunities in Hardy, I love the bittersweet nature – even when he’s writing quite dark stuff like Tess or Mayor of Casterbridge there’s still comedy and warmth there. I like the fact that he writes strong female characters, who aren’t demure and modest. They’re brazen and noisy and defiant, I love that about him. He’s a great writer of unrequited love, unrequited passion. He’s quite a sexy writer, for the nineteenth century anyway. I haven’t read a new Hardy novel since I was a teenager, but the ones that I know I go back to again and again, and really, really adore.”

With Us already out and Far from the Madding Crowd on the horizon, Nicholls has certainly had a busy few years- he plans to take a break for the time being, but hopefully we can look forward to plenty more from him in the future. With his immense skill for character and consummate wit, Nicholls is a writer whom I doubt the reading public will be willing to give up easily.

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