White author Nick Hornby says he had to ‘think very carefully’ before putting a Black character in his novel ‘Just Like You’

He wrote “About a Boy.”

Now, he’s all about Lucy, his inner 41-year-old divorcée.

Add to that: a younger Black dude, Joseph, a butcher-turned-babysitter, as well as May-December boyfriend.

Those two make up the marrow, after all, of the latest Nick Hornby, “Just Like You”: a love affair set across generational lines, as well as race ones, with a pinch of the political, too, set as it is in London against the backdrop of the Brexit referendum.

Never charged with being a one-trick pony — the “High Fidelity” maestro has also written screenplays, including the Oscar-nominated ones for “Brooklyn” and “An Education” — Hornby confirmed to me this week that this, yes, is the first time that he has summoned a Black character, eight novels in. “Of course, I had to think very carefully. But, in the end, I felt not doing it was kind of worse.”

His voice coming to me from his home in the London borough of Islington — a chippy patter that is part BBC presenter, part bloke in the pub two stools over — he continued: “My kids go to very multicultural schools. When I look out my window that is what I see. I was nervous … but being scared of doing the wrong thing is worse, in that I wanted Joseph to be in the centre of my novel because Black people are at the centre of London life.”

The gestation process for “Just Like You”? It took hold when the 63-year-old one-time teacher noticed two people “having a flirt” in a shop. She was Black, older. He was white, younger. And at first, he thought: they are so not going to get together. But the more he marinated on it, he asked: why not? Doing a racial swap for his characters, he thought it would be interesting to peer at it all not only in terms of class, but of taste. The central question being: how do we end up with who we end up with?

“We live in a culture where we almost have arranged marriages,” he added, making a broader point about how people of similar castes and concentric circles bind together, consciously or not.

With his latest book being all things we’ve come to expect from a Nick Hornby novel — equal parts sweetness and chagrin, unaffected prose, the kneadings of modern life, musings on music and Arsenal — I asked him about his gift for dialogue. “I cannot pretend that any of it comes easily,” he responded surprisingly. “You always worry it is going to become baggy.”

Condensing. Condensing. Condensing. That is what it all comes down to, ultimately. A practice that has been honed even more via his second career — writing for movies — where it’s all about boiling things down.

One thing that he will not do, he confirmed, is adapt his own novels, be it the film version of “Fever Pitch,” the aforementioned “About a Boy” (with Hugh Grant playing the ultimate Peter Pan), or either one of the two “High Fidelity” adaptations.

Asked, specifically, about the latter of those — one that took the shape of a Hulu series earlier this year — Hornby told me: “When Zoe Kravitz emails you to ask if she can do it, you think: how lucky am I? It is incredibly flattering that the book made sense to her, she being a person of colour and much younger. I am just grateful it (first published in 1995) has survived different iterations and generations.”

Indeed, as I told him, in a world of endless remakes, the Kravitz-led “High Fidelity” — transplanted to Brooklyn and using the female gaze — was one of the few reboots that actually made sense doing. It made it fresh.

Turns out the writer has something of a knack working with women in Hollywood. Worth pointing out because in the ’90s he was often characterized as ushering in a fresh book trend of Lad Lit. Example: some years back — after having read and loved the memoir “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed — he pitched himself to Reese Witherspoon, who had the rights to the movie. She was persuaded.

Likewise, the Carey Mulligan breakout “An Education,” which was his first film script in 2009. A categorically female coming-of-age, set during the 1950s, he admits that it was “a big leap for me, in terms of subject matter and moving into the movies.” In fact, of all his characters, Hornby said it is Jenny in that movie that he ranks as his favourite.

It is always interesting to me how, and when, inspiration strikes — and how it can metabolize. For Hornby, that person was Anne Tyler, author of two dozen-plus novels, including “The Accidental Tourist,” who has a devoted readership but gets a fraction of the media oxygen as the Atwoods of the world. “She changed my life,” he says of her, praising her humanity, her ease and her warmth.



Warmth,” he repeated, chewing on the word.

The man who has always worn his status as a populist as a badge of honour went on: “I need heart, at the end of the day. Optimism. We do not need to be told constantly how miserable everything is. We already know that.

Shinan Govani
Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani