When you're at lunch with newly minted young adult novelist Nick Hornby on an autumn afternoon in Washington, it seems appropriate to begin with a simple question:
What is he doing here during football season?
Hornby, who's British, is mainly known on these shores as the best-selling author of fiction such as "High Fidelity" and "How to Be Good." But he began his book-writing career with "Fever Pitch," a memoir about his lifelong passion for football. By this, of course, he means the game North Americans call "soccer," especially as played by the north London club Arsenal, with whom Hornby fell in love at age 11 and whose matches he still attends religiously.
He's in the United States for two weeks. Isn't Arsenal playing? Won't he miss games?
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"Three," he says ruefully. But his American publisher has "very sweetly" identified bars in three cities where he can at least watch them on TV.
He's making the sacrifice to talk up "Slam," the first novel he's aimed specifically at a young adult audience. His task has been complicated, Hornby says, by the fact that he's still not sure precisely what a YA book is. The notion of what constitutes YA literature has changed a good deal over the past 15 years or so, and it remains in flux. But "young adult" takes on another meaning when you get to know Hornby even a little.
Sure, he's 50 and looks it. And yeah, he's got a happy second marriage, three children he loves and a serious career. But Hornby is also a man who's tried to retain as much as possible of the fraught, joyful intensity that comes with lack of age.
Hornby's work has always attracted a lot of young readers. Characters such as Rob, the music obsessive in "High Fidelity," or the responsibility-averse Will in "About a Boy" are caught in what their creator calls "that kind of interregnum" between 19 and 35 when society tolerates their unwillingness to "grow up in the conventional sense."
The world he creates in "Slam" doesn't feel that different. And when he describes moments such as nearly 16-year-old Sam's first encounter with his scarily gorgeous girlfriend, it's hard not to feel that Hornby has been through the same thing recently.
"Slam" happened in part because an English editor who admired his work asked if he'd ever thought of writing a YA book. He hadn't.
Then one day he noticed "a very, very young couple pushing a buggy around." He thought he knew her story, "because there's so much coverage of teen-age mums. But the boy being there kind of took me aback a bit. So I started thinking about him."
Before long he was having a coffee with the editor, Francesca Dow of Puffin Books. He had an idea for a novel about a boy who gets his girlfriend pregnant and talks it over with the sports hero in a poster on his wall -- "a sort of guardian angel," Dow says, though not one who intervenes to protect you. Might that be the kind of YA thing she was after?
A writer, after all
When Hornby was Sam's age, he had been an Arsenal fan for nearly five years and was starting to develop an equivalent obsession with music. The latter, he once estimated, would cause him to attend maybe a thousand live concerts over 30 years, a few that left him "exhilarated, inspired, electrified."
He lives in north London now, but he grew up middle class in suburban Berkshire. Like Sam's, his parents were divorced, and "Fever Pitch" is in part about Hornby's discovery that he could connect with his otherwise absent father through soccer.
Hornby started to think about writing when he was about 19, but he had an idealized image of writers and "was afraid to compete with these people." When he took the plunge into journalism, "a couple of editors said, 'You're competing with nothing at all. We're desperate for people who turn copy in on time and it's clean.' ''
Eventually, he published enough clean copy to attract the interest of an agent. Hornby had two book ideas, "Fever Pitch" and what would become "High Fidelity."
"Fever Pitch" became "quite a big deal," Hornby says, still sounding surprised. But he didn't have long to revel in its success, because the birth of his son Danny followed, and "it was immediately apparent that things weren't going to be right with him."
Danny turned out to be profoundly autistic. Now 14, he's doing well -- "he's pretty much all of the time incredibly happy, happier than any of us," Hornby says -- but he will always need care.
Eyes opened to new world
You can't talk about Hornby's writing without talking about his humor, says novelist Vendela Vida -- and she should know. Vida recruited Hornby to write a column, Stuff I've Been Reading, for the Believer, the literary monthly she co-edits, and now finds herself relentlessly mocked as part of what Hornby calls "the Polysyllabic Spree, the 365 beautiful, vacant, scary young men and women who edit this magazine."
Lately, they have been treated to a dose of Hornby's new obsession: a whole category of books invisible to the grown-up literary world.
When Michael Cart was asked to put together a YA panel at last summer's American Library Association conference in Washington, Hornby was the first person he invited. Cart, a former librarian who now writes, lectures and consults about books for young adults, had read an advance copy of "Slam" and thought it was "absolutely terrific."
At the conference, Cart and others bombarded him with the names of YA favorites. Hornby says it was a "culture-changing trip."
"I've discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that's filled with masterpieces," he told his Believer readers.
He went bonkers over "Skellig," by David Almond, which he called "one of the best novels published in the last decade" and described as "the beautifully simple and bottomlessly complicated story of a boy who finds a sick angel in his garage, a stinking, croaking creature who loves Chinese takeaways and brown ale." He moved on to YA works by Francesca Lia Block, Philippa Pearce, Toby Barlow and Gene Luen Yang.
Ask Hornby and his YA publishers what the difference is between Nick Hornby, fledgling YA novelist, and Nick Hornby, best-selling adult writer, and they'll make a number of points:
- The main characters in "Slam," as is true in almost every YA title, are teens themselves.
- Hornby reined in his use of profanity somewhat.
- "Slam" includes sequences in which Sam is projected into the future, the sort of "Twilight Zone, graphic novely type of idea," Hornby says, that he might not have tried in an adult book.
Ask Hornby's adult publishers, however, and they'll tell you that there are way more similarities than differences between Adult Nick and YA Nick -- and that Adult Nick sells more books. Even Hornby -- who bought into the idea of YA publication because he really wanted to reach teens -- admits to some doubts.
"I go into bookstores," he wrote in an e-mail, "and see 'Slam' next to board books and (if I'm lucky) Harry Potter, and I know the kind of kids I was aiming for wouldn't look twice at a book kept in the kids' section of a bookstore."