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'I didn't want to write about boy-meets-girl at the age of 48'


Enjoying a treat: Author David Nicholls with Edel Coffey at Dublin’s hip Etto restaurant

Enjoying a treat: Author David Nicholls with Edel Coffey at Dublin’s hip Etto restaurant

Etto in Dublin

Etto in Dublin


Enjoying a treat: Author David Nicholls with Edel Coffey at Dublin’s hip Etto restaurant

Meeting the author David Nicholls is a bit like meeting a character from a Richard Curtis film. Author of One Day and the writer behind television dramas like Cold Feet, Nicholls is diffident, well-dressed, bespectacled, floppy-haired and the right sort of handsome - accessible, non-threatening. In fact, he could be a character from one of his own books.

We meet for lunch in Dublin's hip Etto. He has the carpaccio and hake - staying trim on a book tour is a challenge - and I, with no such motivations, have the malfati and risotto. "I usually have a dreary bowl of gruel in my office so this is a treat," he says, and even though it's hard to believe that a man who has sold over five million copies of his breakthrough book One Day would be so self-flagellating, there is a touch of the ascetic Englishman about him. You get the sense that he's a bit of a worrier. Again, in a very familiar way.

Nicholls earned a reputation for writing about young English people coming of age in his debut novel Starter For Ten. He then wrote about slightly older English people finding their one true love in One Day. Now, with his latest book Us, he's writing about slightly older English people again and this time they're breaking up.

The book opens with husband and wife Douglas and Connie. Their son Albie is going to college and so they have planned to spend the summer taking him on a grand tour of Europe. But Connie surprises Douglas before they depart by telling him she thinks their marriage has run its course.

It's the first time Nicholls has moved away from the romantic territory he is known for and into the thornier side of 'what happens next' in long-term relationships and marriage. "I just didn't think I had it in me to write another romantic comedy," he says with a sheepish grin. "One Day was so much about the dating years and making that transition into adult life and settling for a career and starting a proper relationship and I thought I'd said everything I wanted to say about love in your 20s and 30s."

While it might reflect the fact that Nicholls himself is moving into a different era in his own life - he's now 48 - he says the book is not particularly autobiographical. He is not married to his script editor partner, Hannah, but they have been together for over 18 years and have two small children together.

"We just haven't got round to it. I really like the idea, but we were swept up in our work and then we had children and we went to so many weddings that we were exhausted at the prospect of doing it ourselves," he laughs. "I do feel married. Our children are very keen for us to get married but at the same time they understand that we're not on a long date or they don't think that we're still on the market. They sense that it's pretty constant."

He says there are elements of his character Douglas in him. "I am a maddening travel companion because I do want to see everything. I do itinerise and book tickets in advance. I look at the museums if I have an hour. I love walking around. On this tour, I'm ending up in Berlin and the family are coming over and I'll have to restrain the Douglas in me that wants to hit the streets at eight in the morning and keep walking until nine in the evening.

"When I got the commission to write my first book all those years ago, Hannah and I went to Paris for the whole summer. We had a tiny flat and I'd work in the mornings and go on these crazy cross-city walks every afternoon and end up in these restaurants. She was a script editor and drama producer and she took a sabbatical and we had a great time. I love Paris despite not being able to speak any French. That was a golden time."

Instead of the romantic comedies he is known for, Nicholls said this time he wanted to write a book about family. "I wanted to write about parenthood. I wanted to write something that wasn't going to alienate every one who bought One Day but that wasn't inferior copy either. That was a difficult balance to strike." It has taken him five years to write Us, for all sorts for reasons, and there were false starts and side tracks in between, including a couple of days experimenting with a writing software that starts to delete words if you stop typing for a certain amount of time. "The distraction of two young children, the distraction of One Day, the weight of anticipation. . . and consciously I thought I had to broaden my range and write about something a bit more gnarly and difficult. I wanted to write something that felt a bit more grown up. I didn't want to write boy-meets-girl at the age of 48.

"I do think it's hard to strike a balance between writing what you know and being a bit braver and bolder. Even though I did work every day, I'm sure that was part of the reason for the delay. Whenever I publish anything I just have this terror of getting beaten up and having a really hard time because I find it excruciating if a thing is not doing well or getting bad reviews, but if you write in an ingratiating or inoffensive way you become a bit bland."

He was badly burned by the reviews for One Day and he has learned his lesson in that he won't offer the film rights for Us for sale until at least next year. "One Day put me off writing my own scripts. I don't' think I'd have the objectivity needed to cram it into 100 minutes, it's a horrible experience."

At the heart of the book is a father and son relationship between Douglas and Albie, and Nicholls's own father died during the writing of the book. "He was a very working-class man, he worked as a mechanic. He wanted me to do well and I was always good at school but I think he would have been delighted if I had pursued a career as an engineer or in medicine, something pragmatic or vocational. So when I did this I think he must have thought 'where did this come from?' because I didn't really make a living for most of my 20s."

Nicholls is the classic overnight success after years of trying. "I was 41 when One Day became a success so it was a good 25 years of anxiety. I don't know what he would have made of this book. It was a real battle to finish, to get to this stage but I really love this one," he says, pilfering half a dumpling from my plate as the waitress takes it away.

Before he started working as a writer, Nicholls spent years trying to make it as an actor but his beginnings as a writer has its germ in the time he spent studying acting in a graduate school in New York.

"That was the first time I was on an aeroplane. I was 22. It was thrilling and yet when I got there I was incredibly alone. I stayed there for 18 months. I wasn't at the right school. It was very focussed on musical theatre and as a non-singing, non-dancing actor that was frustrating.

"I worked in a bar and I was the worst bartender New York has ever seen. The first day at work someone asked for a martini and I asked if they wanted it with lemonade. My employers despaired of me and I had no money so I didn't go out very much. The room I stayed in was the size of my bed and nothing more. I didn't have a girlfriend; I had a girlfriend in England, so there you go, that's how foolish I was," he says with a dry chuckle. "But I wrote a lot of letters. I think that's probably why I'm a writer because it was such a difficult time and yet funny that I tended to turn all that into anecdotes and write them and send them to people. I bought this incredibly basic word processor and you could store a page of text on it and that just seemed to be witchcraft to me so I wrote letters on this and I really worked on them. I used to sit at this little desk in this depressing room on the Upper West Side, trying to turn this failure and loneliness into a story."

As our lunch comes to an end, he talks about the fact that his novels, which are mostly scenes of domestic life between ordinary men and women, are treated differently to how they might be treated in the US, where the greatest literature is rooted in domestic life.

"Jonathan Franzen's novels are family dramas but if you transpose them to England they feel a little suburban. They don't have that scale. I don't know why that is. I was thinking of those novels when I started writing this, not just Franzen but Cheever, Updike and Roth. They're brilliant, brilliant books and they feel substantial. That's why the travel element of Us was important because it feels like a grander backdrop to tensions that are quite domestic and familiar."

His inclusion on the Booker longlist raised some eyebrows because his work is firmly in the commercial romantic fiction category. He knew it was never going to win, he says, but was pleased that a novel about marriage and parenthood had some critical recognition."

Us is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

A life in brief

FROM: London.

FAMILY: Partner Hannah, and their two ­children. His father died during the writing of his latest novel, Us.

KNOWN FOR: His novel One Day became an emblem for readers who came of age in the 1980s and was immortalised on the big screen by Anne Hathaway. He has also ­written for television, most notably the ­relationship drama Cold Feet.

LIKES: Indulging his inner nerd, like his character Douglas, and itinerising holidays, pre-booking museum tickets and walking around cities for hours.

DISLIKES: Bad reviews. He finds them ­excruciating.

Indo Review