David Nicholls catapulted to literary fame with his 2009 novel One Day, which became an international bestseller and was adapted into a major film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, for which Nicholls himself penned the script. He’s recently published his fourth novel, Us, which follows a middle-aged couple, Douglas and Connie, as they take their teenage son on a Grand Tour of Europe before he heads off to university. Douglas also hopes the trip will resuscitate his marriage, as Connie has recently announced she wants to leave him after their son moves out. Nicholls sat down with HuffPost Books to talk about his views on the term “romantic comedy,” our idealized conception of travel, and the challenges of writing a follow-up to a blockbuster.
After One Day was such a runaway success, did you find, when you sat down to write Us, that your expectations or your process were altered or affected in any way?
It took me a long time to have the time to concentrate, really. Because One Day came out quite slowly around the world, I spent literally years talking about it, and it was very hard to talk about Emma and Dexter in the evenings and then sit down the next morning and start on something new. And I didn’t want to rush a follow-up or knock off something that felt like a pale imitation or a disappointment or the same book in disguise. So it took a long time for me to come up a story and characters that felt as compelling and interesting to me. But once I did, it was really enjoyable. And yes, there was a weight of expectation, but I can’t ever imagine publishing something in a kind of casual, lighthearted way. It’s always terrifying to me. In a way it’s much nicer to write following a success than the follow-up to a failure. At least you know there will be interest and that there’s enthusiasm for the work.
Us and One Day are different in many ways, but they do both contain stories about the passage of time and how it affects love, especially romantic love. Why do you think you’re drawn to stories like this?
Perhaps it’s my own age. I think maybe inevitably when you reach middle age you get a little nostalgic or introspective about the aging process. After One Day I was sure that I wouldn’t write another book about the passing of time. That was so much about how we get old and what changes, and I didn’t want to write the same book. But this felt like a kind of emotional sequel, even though stylistically and tonally it’s quite different. One Day was "will they/won’t they get together," and Us is "should they/shouldn’t they stay together." I think I wanted to get away from the idea of marriage or people getting together as the end of the story. I want to kind of write love stories but not write the obvious and familiar, and this seems to be much less written about. Married love, family, how having a child changes a romantic relationship. That all seemed really rich material to me, and significantly different to the subject matter of One Day, which was a much more kind of youthful book, about a time of life which is all about friendship and fun and discovering yourself.
Us is funny at many points. It’s romantic at many points. I’ve seen it described as a romantic comedy. Do agree with that characterization?
I try not to think too much about it. It’s not close to my understanding of a romantic comedy, which is quite a kind of constricted genre, but it does have elements of a romantic comedy. You do see their courtship, the kind of mishaps and misunderstandings you get from a romantic comedy. I thought this one was much more of a kind of family drama, but then again I’m loathe to give it a label. I try not to think too much in those terms when I’m writing. If I’d had to pitch it, I would have called it a love story about a family, because it’s also about parental love, as well as the love between a husband and a wife. The working title for the book was Married Love; that’s what it was called until quite late in the process. But Married Love didn’t seem to take into account the love that he had for his son, so it seemed a misleading title. I love romantic comedy, but I like it when it’s sort of stretched and distorted. I certainly don’t object to it as a definition, but it’s only part of the story.
The topics that your book addresses -- family estrangement, possible divorce -- are usually handled by novelists very seriously, often very self-seriously. What do you think using humor so prominently in your book adds to that narrative?
I tend to just do it instinctively. The book I started writing was much more somber and mean, and much less funny. I scrapped that one, probably for those reasons. I’m wary of being pompous and pretentious, and too mawkish. I love the friction you get with the close proximity of comedy and almost tragedy. I love uneasy laughter, and I love to be moved by a book, and I’m really happy when those two things happen quite close to each other. It’s in a lot of the writers I love -- Dickens, or, on screen, Billy Wilder -- they’re both serious, but they can spin in a moment into a kind of awkward, pained laughter, and I think that’s a really enjoyable combination. But I don’t know if it’s because as I’m a writer I’m kind of scared. Certainly when I started I was quite scared of being serious, and I’m fond of the early books, but I think often they’re a bit like standup comedy. They’re too gaggy.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that your first draft was centered much more on the relationship between the father and the son. Why did you eventually choose to add the story of the marriage, and how do you think it changed the way the novel turned out?
Well, the characters were completely different. The old version of the dad, he was a bit of a loser, irresponsible, selfish. I just didn’t like writing him. He was meant to be an unpleasant character, but he was no fun to write. I felt that it lacked fondness and kindness, that draft, it was very mean. And I wanted to know where the child had come from. Writing Connie into the action rather than have her off the page was one of the breakthroughs that made it fun to write again. I think that question of what keeps people together -- what brings people together and what makes them stay together, and is that a good thing -- that seemed to me really rich material that was completely lacking in the first draft, which was just two people being mean to each other on a train.
Us does still have a focus on parenthood, specifically fatherhood, and you’re a father yourself. How did you find that your own experience with parenthood showed itself in writing this?
Well, I try actively not to write my own experience. I mean, often you kind of write away from life, just because to me that seems like the honorable, decent thing to do. I’d hate for my son to one day read this book and feel like I’d cannibalized his childhood. So there’s hardly anything of my relationship with my son. But inevitably some of your own emotions find their way onto the page. There’s a point in the novel where Douglas finds himself rather thoughtlessly parroting phrases from his own childhood -- exactly the sort of remarks he objected to as a child, he finds coming out of his own mouth. I suppose I’m surprised at how those conservative, cautious elements of my own childhood pop up sometimes. I’m still much more liberal and much less strict than my own dad, but I have moments when I hear the exact same remarks and I’m sort of taken aback. There’s a wonderful book by Roald Dahl called Danny, The Champion of the World. That was the perfect portrait of fatherhood. He’s caring, and he’s responsible, but he’s quite hands off, adventurous, and masculine. I’m quite far from that sort of Roald Dahl vision.
The novel takes place on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, which is a very Victorian tradition, and contains epigraphs from Victorian and turn-of-the-century novels -- there’s a lot of consciousness of the Anglo literary tradition. What books specifically inspired you or influenced you?
Well, it’s not 19th century, but I obsessively love Tender Is the Night, which plays a lot on the idea of Europe as a place that’s liberating but where, nevertheless, you can still feel very much an outsider. This European idyll is always on the edge of disaster. So that’s a book that always influences me, though I’d be hard-pressed to find a single page of Us that reads like F. Scott Fitzgerald!
I love that idea of a journey through Europe. That’s why I read Portrait of a Lady [by Henry James] while reading this book, which is full of the idea of Europe as a place where you’re improved and the mind is broadened, but again a place where things can go horribly wrong.
I’m a writer just because I love her -- Lorrie Moore, who writes about ordinary family relationships but makes them feel epic, poetic and rich. There’s a brilliant short story of hers about a mother and daughter going to Ireland to see the Blarney Stone, which again I thought was just fantastic about the hope that we place in travel to change our lives and refresh relationships. We do expect so much from it, and expect it to bring out qualities in us that we don’t have in our day-to-day lives, and often those expectations are thwarted.
You’ve also done a great deal of screenwriting, and you have a pretty extensive background in theater as well. You wrote the script for One Day, of course. Is there one type of writing that you tend to prefer or find more rewarding?
I really, really enjoy fiction. I really enjoyed this one and One Day. Both books took a long time to pin down, but when I sat down to write them, they were pretty fully formed. I’ve enjoyed the film "Far From The Madding Crowd," which we’ve just done, but I think I’m going to try to do more original writing now. I think when you adapt someone’s work you’re always aware that someone else has done the hard bits. Someone else has come up with Bathsheba Everdene or Miss Havisham, and you’re primarily an editor. It feels a bit like copying someone’s homework during an adaptation.
But if I had another good idea for a novel I’d have already started, because I love the control you have, and the independence, and the discipline that’s required. I like writing a thousand words a day. I like working on the structure and the characters. All of that is great when you have the idea. It’s the scratching around in between that’s no fun. But even then it’s not that bad; writers always make it sound like it’s this excruciating, painful, like giving birth, ordeal. It’s not at all. It’s sometimes difficult, but it’s a privilege, and I really love it, especially when it’s going well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.