October 6, 2009
Skirball Cultural Center, LA
Now that I’ve got your attention. . .
If I could sit next to one person on a long flight, it would be Nick Hornby. That is, of course, assuming he’s always in a good mood and likes flying. I’m sure I could think of other people I’d like to travel with if I really put my mind to it, but I don’t have time for that kind of thinking at the moment – I’m on my way out to another event.
That’s not to say I’m picking Hornby because I’m in a hurry. Quite the opposite actually. Hornby is one of my favorite writers and he also happens to love music (possibly more than writing). So we have at least two fundamental things in common. Though the topic of music was discussed tonight, we didn’t even scratch the surface of where we could go during a good eight-hour flight. “I wish I brought my iPod with me. It makes it a lot easier to answer that question,” Hornby said when I asked him what new artists he’s excited about. “I really like that Elvis Perkins record.”
“No, no. . . But I’ll check them out. Their names are easy enough to remember,” Hornby replied with a laugh.
So this is why I’d like to be on a long flight with Hornby – so we could discuss music at length; so that we could trade iPods for an hour and introduce each other to new music; so that I could subliminally (or perhaps overtly) encourage him to write more than one book every two to three years; but mostly so we could talk about music.
Music is an integral part of several of Hornby’s books. Music is the device utilized to unveil Rob Fleming’s stories of love and loss in High Fidelity. Music is the reason Will Freeman has never had to work a day in his life in About a Boy. Songbook is a non-fiction work by Hornby that is dedicated to discussing pop music and the ways in which it moves us. And, Hornby’s latest release, Juliet, Naked is about the connection between a couple and a rockstar who underwent a self-imposed early retirement.
Hornby doesn’t just use music to set the scene of his stories. He uses music to help define his characters. In some cases he uses music primarily to define his characters. We learn about their neurosis, fears, losses, and perception of love based on the music the characters choose to listen to. . . or choose not to listen to. When reading Hornby’s books, music adds another layer of emotional connection and understanding. We all remember the songs we broke up to, songs we made love to, the first concert we went to, our favorite mix tapes and who gave them to us (well, not everybody remembers the days of cassette tapes, but I do). . . so when Hornby references similar experiences in his stories, you don’t just read about them, you actually feel them.
Tonight’s free event at Skirball Cultural Center included a reading and Q & A session with Hornby. I’ve never been to a book reading before. Typically, I choose books (like Hornby’s) that are written so that I can hear the character’s voices in my head. I don’t need the voice of somebody reading to me cluttering my mind. Thankfully, Hornby read the characters exactly as I hear them which means he’s either a really good reader or a really good writer. The evidence seems to prove he’s both.
Following the reading, Hornby answered several questions from the audience. I was happy to learn that Hornby is as quick-witted in person as one might expect given his body of written work. For those of you who haven’t read Hornby, that last sentence is another way of saying he’s extraordinarily funny (as are his books).
Hornby answered questions about his influences, characters, story locations, and favorite music. About his writing process Hornby said he has an office that’s approximately a 10 minute walk from his home. “The office started mostly because of kids – just having a place they couldn’t mess up,” Hornby began. “I enjoy the walk to the office. I don’t work weekends or nights. I don’t bring my work home with me. I do a day’s work . . . which equates to about 43 minutes of writing per day. I dream of that 43 minutes happening at the beginning of the day and then I could leave, but that never happens.” Hornby went on to explain that he typically answers emails, hunts for new music online, gets a burst of inspiration and writes what he can (which generally lasts just a few minutes) and then he goes back to looking for new music online.
“You know, if you commit to writing 500 words per day – which isn’t really that much – then you should be able to write a book in under a year,” Hornby calculated. “But books seem to come out every two to three years. Something seems to have gone wrong. There’s a lack of productivity,” Hornby laughed with the crowd.
Hornby went on to to discuss some recent collaborations, including an album he’s working on with Ben Folds which they hope to put out in the Spring. Hornby sends Folds the words and Folds sends back the songs. I look forward to hearing that album.
In the spirit of High Fidelity, somebody put Hornby on the spot and asked him to name his “Top 5 Acts of all time.”
“Live? Or Recorded?” Hornby asked for clarification, also in the vein of High Fidelity.
“Whatever you want,” the man replied.
“This is really hard. . . Well, I guess in terms of lifetime plays: Springsteen, Dylan, Marvin Gaye, J. Geils Band, and. . .” Then, Hornby went on to explain that he used to listen to J. Geils Band all the time as a kid. “I used to think if I could be anyone, I’d want to be Peter Wolf,” Hornby added. “The thing is, sometimes your favorite music isn’t what gets the most plays. Sometimes, it sits on a shelf and you just know it’s there. . . that’s what makes this so hard. . . I like the new Elvis Perkins – I’ve been listening to that a lot.”
“What I really like is finding new music. That’s why I’m a writer. . . because you have all day.”
Hornby is currently on tour, promoting his latest release, Juliet, Naked. If you like music, or if you like to read or laugh, then try to go see Hornby during his remaining tour dates. If you don’t like music, reading, or laughing, then I’m not sure why you’re here.