I meet David Nicholls for coffee at his house one weekday morning. We talk about Henry James and he tells me that he read Portrait of a Lady last year. The novel obviously had an impact on him as he quotes from it in his latest, rather wonderful novel, Us. I want to get to the nub of what he enjoyed about the novel this time round which had eluded him in the past. He is just about to tell me when a nice man from a security firm pops his head round the door. Could he test the burglar alarm in the room we’re sitting in? Of course he can, the only problem is that, as the man says himself, he is “quite small”. It’s therefore left to Nicholls – mid-flow talking about Henry James – to prop a ladder on to a chest of drawers and then climb up the ladder, screwdriver in hand, to test the alarm. It’s almost the sort of thing that might happen in a David Nicholls novel except the protagonist would then have some kind of tragi-comic mishap, and nothing of the sort happens here.
Nicholls’ work is filled with hapless, basically decent men having ridiculous, hilarious accidents. In Us there is a scene in a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris when someone falls foul of some red chillies that had me weeping with laughter. Surprisingly, given how good he is at these comic set pieces, there’s nothing theatrical about Nicholls in person. He’s utterly polite and accommodating even whilst halfway up a ladder, but he doesn’t play anything for laughs or ham up the slight absurdity of the situation.
“We don’t have these big scenes in our lives that put everything right, so how do you shape, how do you give the satisfaction of a structured narrative with a beginning, middle and end that’s satisfying to read?”
Anyway, back to Henry James. “The authors I feel really bad about not getting, I definitely would have included Henry James until last year, when I read Portrait of a Lady which I’d started four or five times but I found the opening chapters really interminable. But I read it and really loved it. When I was at university certainly there was a sense that Dickens was fine, but a bit of an entertainer and a bit coarse and a bit patchy. George Eliot and Henry James and Tolstoy and Lawrence were on a different level. I always preferred the sort of slightly second-rung 19th-century novelists.”
I then somewhat patronisingly try to reassure this Booker-longlisted novelist that it’s fine if he doesn’t like Lawrence. Nicholls laughs and says “I would be more eloquent about this if I’d ever got to the end of one of his novels – and I never have.”
We talk about the structure of Us and he says “We don’t live through little arcs, we don’t have three-act structures, we don’t have these big scenes in our lives that put everything right, so how do you shape, how do you give the satisfaction of a structured narrative with a beginning, middle and end that’s satisfying to read and put down without distorting our experiences… I’ve never really talked about this so I’m waffling very pretentiously like a sixth former!
“I do sometimes think, watching a romantic comedy, that’s great, that’s all well and good that you’re at the church but in three weeks’ time you’re going to send each other crazy! And it’s striking a balance between the satisfaction of an ending that makes sense and is fulfilling and feels like an ending, and an acknowledgement that life isn’t like that. I think next time it would do me good to write a joyous, purely unambiguous ending where everything feels right and settled without any doubt or anxiety about the future.”
Nicholls, as well as being a bestselling novelist is also a highly successful screenwriter, and of screenwriting he says, “It’s a very tricky process and one that I’m keen to do less of in the future.” He has, however, already written the screenplay for a new version of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, with Carey Mulligan starring as Bathsheba. “That’s great, I think. There’s a teaser trailer which is really lovely.” Did he feel nervous because the Julie Christie/Terence Stamp adaptation of the book is so well known? “People misremember it… Terence Stamp is not really in it that much. They’re all great in it! In the book though, the love story between Troy and Bathsheba is really horrible, people misremember it. It’s like Cathy and Heathcliff, people think it’s this great love story but where’s the love? It’s horrible, it’s the tale of hate and spite and malice and abuse and rape, and you think where is the love?! It’s one of those things that people misremember as a great love story.”
He explains “People think of Gabriel Oak from that adaptation as being a bit of a lunk but there’s beautiful stuff that Gabriel says about mutual support and loyalty… he’s a sort of feminist, he’s a proto-feminist by the end of the book. The first thing he says to Bathsheba, he accuses her of vanity but the last words he says to her are so mutually supportive and a kind of very modern declaration of mutual support. Writing Us, I thought that a lot of the literature of marriage, particularly written from a male perspective, is of marriage as a kind of prison, a set of limitations or restrictions.”
We talk about fictional marriages and fatherhood. Of Douglas, the rather dull but thoroughly decent protagonist in Us he says, “He’s not that kind of old style of dad who’s always nipping off to the pub and is kind of resentful of time at home. My dad, and I absolutely understand why, but he came home from work and didn’t do a thing except sit down in a chair and have a cup of tea and watch telly and fall asleep because he was exhausted from physical labour and that was the division of labour.
“He was a maintenance engineer in a cake factory. He used to make Mr Kipling’s cakes. He worked on the production line, making sure the production line ran through the night so he was often on night shifts. So he was traditional, like all our dads were then. He often worked 12 hours, he often worked through the night so he was exhausted so it would have been bizarre for him to buy the school uniforms or make the Sunday lunch. But I can see… I don’t look back at that and think ‘Gosh what a set of shocking chauvinistic attitudes!’ He worked harder than anyone I’ve ever met in my life, so I get it. He died while I was writing the book and that made writing it quite difficult.”
Nicholls then opens my copy of the book to show me the point that his father died – at the beginning of Book Two. “I’d written Book One and then the kids broke up from school and had six weeks off and I stopped writing and in those six weeks he died. He had been ill but then he suddenly got very ill. He had been ill for years and he was quite ill when I started and I remember thinking ‘I’m not sure you’re going to get to read this one’ but then the second half of the book was written in the three months after he died. But he’s not really in it, he’s certainly not Douglas and he’s not quite Douglas’ dad although he has elements of that…”
I’ve read four Thomas Hardy novels now, I know how he feels about breasts and I don’t know if I want to know that about my authors.”
Douglas is a risky character to choose as a narrator. Was he worried about the challenge of writing a boring person but not being boring about it?
“Yes, I thought about that a lot. You don’t want to just end up making a lot of jokes about how boring they are, you want them to gradually reveal themselves to be less boring. There’s a very good Jonathan Coe novel called The Terrible Solitude of Maxwell Perkins where he does something similar and I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged how influenced I was by that. He writes about this extremely boring man who is divorced but nevertheless, goes on a journey and is so lonely that he has conversations with his SatNav. I liked that book very much and I thought it was an interesting attempt to write an interesting book about a boring man. But you know a lot of those American writers do it. All of Cheever’s heroes… none of them are people you would want to sit next to at dinner parties.”
How did you end up deciding that Douglas was going to be a geneticist studying the fruit fly, of all things? “We used to have a babysitter called Rhiannon, who is credited in the book, and she was the coolest, nicest person and if you met her at a party you would think ‘Oh she’s a graphic designer or she builds theatre sets or she works in TV’ and she was a biochemist and she was the person who took me into these labs to see these fruit flies. She was a biochemist taking some time off during her PhD.”
We talk more about biochemists but my time is nearly up and there are two final things I’m dying to ask, neither of which I suspect he is mad keen to talk about. First, the inclusion of Us on the Booker longlist this year surprised me (as it did many people) before I read it but having read it, I say, I’m less surprised. Nicholls reflects, “I was surprised too but er, how to put this… I was not upset but I was surprised at how surprised other people were, especially if people were surprised without having read any of my books, because I don’t think that formally they’re very conventional. The things that One Day did with time and structure and point of view were not thoughtless, they were thought through and there was a kind of literary quality to that, but more so with this book I suppose because it’s slightly more sophisticated, slightly more grown-up and a bit less romcom-y. I suppose the reason I’m so incoherent about it is that I don’t think it’s a good thing to think or talk about too much… I mean, I don’t mind talking about it but it’s ridiculous to put yourself in these camps. This will sound insincere but anyway, here we go… I’m glad it didn’t win because that would have been much more controversial than its inclusion on the longlist.”
He goes on: “I’m very thin-skinned. Quite often on Facebook people will say ‘I’m reading Us and I’m really, really enjoying it’ and the first response will be, I’ll be tagged into this post, “Oh I hate his books,’ or ‘He’s so shit’ or whatever, and I think ‘Hello, I’m standing here, I’m reading this!’ I get really, really upset.”
Nicholls is now late for his next appointment but is polite enough to let me ask, finally, “Did you not want to write about Douglas having sex, or did Douglas not want to talk about it?”
“There’s two answers to it: I think it would be very strange for someone as guarded and emotionally controlled as Douglas to write or speak graphically about sex, but in a third-person narrative like One Day it’s a valid criticism. I mean, I do always fade to black when that sort of stuff happens. It’s probably just that wretched Bad Sex prize and what does writing about sex reveal about the author? I’m wary of that. I just think, it’s not prudishness but it’s very hard to do well. I never know whether you’re writing to arouse or you’re writing strictly from a character’s point of view…”
Surely you’re writing to make it sound real? “I think you’re caught between, well either you become a bit lyrical and poetic and have the piss taken out of you, or you become kind of frank and brutal and obviously there’s a way in between. I mean, it’s crazy for there to be this whole area of human experience that you dodge so I’m prepared to accept it as a general weakness but not of this book in particular… I’m 47, 48 years old now and I should be able to cope with the idea of my mum reading it, but there’s a bit of that.
“Authors who do write about sex, they keep coming back to the same things. Even 19th-century novelists, Hardy is always talking about the breasts of his heroines and their curves. He finds euphemisms for them but you sort of think, well there we go, I’ve read four Thomas Hardy novels now, I know how he feels about breasts and I don’t know if I want to know that about my authors. Philip Roth writes about sex in a rather good way, in a kind of frank and vulgar, brassy way and you get a taste of what he likes, and that’s fine because Philip Roth is Philip Roth and he obviously doesn’t mind that readers know that but I… sort of do.”
And with that, it really is time to let Nicholls get on with his day.
David Nicholls trained as an actor before switching to writing. As well as his bestselling novels Starter for Ten, The Understudy, One Day and Us, he is a scriptwriter whose credits include the TV series Cold Feet, Rescue Me, I Saw You, the TV movies The 7:39 and Aftersun, and adaptations of Far From the Madding Crowd, Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and When Did You Last See Your Father? He has also written film adaptations of his own novels including the forthcoming The Understudy. Us is published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardback and eBook.
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.