Just Like You is everything you want from a Nick Hornby novel: a tender but unsentimental romance, full of brilliantly drawn characters and outright belly laughs.
It is also the author’s attempt to grapple with the most fractured social and political times of a writing career that stretches back to Fever Pitch in 1992 and his first, hugely adored novel High Fidelity in 1995.
Here we discuss the state of the nation, the inspiration for Just Like You and the art that has been getting Hornby through the great lost summer of 2020.
There’s an age gap of almost twenty years between Lucy (41) and Joseph (22), the protagonists of Just Like You. Tell us about that.
Well, I knew I wanted to write about a couple separated by as many things that could possibly separate a couple, within reason. The three big obstacles between them are age, education and race. It seemed to me, the more I thought about it, that age was probably the biggest obstruction to a relationship, or at least one that’s serious.
Do you mean in a practical sense, or in terms of values and perspectives?
Both, but mainly values and perspectives. And you know, it’s an interesting time to be writing about value clashes between older and younger people.
Much is made of the gap between boomers and millennials. Do you buy into that?
I think you can’t not buy into it. My generation has to be one of the luckiest to have ever existed. I was born at the end of the 50s: most diseases were eradicated, there were no world wars and my educational opportunities were just unbelievable. I went to a state school, I went to Cambridge and every tier of my university education was paid for. So I can understand why younger people today feel bitter and I sympathise, while not really knowing what to do about it. I think they have a lot to feel angry about.
Some of the scenes in Just Like You skewer the more narrow-minded opinions of Lucy’s middle-aged, middle-class friends. Is that purely observational, or did it come from fear of seeing them in yourself?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I think if you’re a writer, you have an advantage – and I’m not talking about any talent I have, I’m talking about what my job actually consists of – which is being completely on my own, thinking about and observing my community. And of course, if you haven’t got anything else to do, you end up being a bit more aware than most people. I don’t have to teach kids, I don’t have to work in a hospital, I don’t have do any of those things that would occupy mental space. And so, to a certain extent, if you can’t get [observing people] right, then what the hell are you doing being a writer?
You wrote an essay for Penguin.co.uk over lockdown about the importance of the BBC, and you have said you believe some of best writing today is on TV rather than in novels. It sounds like you’re quite happy with that?
Yeah, completely. Ideas for education, entertainment, laughs, excitement, empathy… it will come out where it will. I think what writers want most is to be part of the cultural conversation, and that’s why they keep drifting around from form to form. That has happened throughout history. There used to be such a broad, big division between mass entertainment and more literary entertainment but those distinctions have become very blurred over the last few years.
What have you seen recently on TV that’s hit those heights?
I May Destroy You. That is a writing talent on fire. It’s so complex and so instructional about the world. And TV seemed to be the perfect form for it. Parts of it are a tough watch, as you'd expect, but there was also irony and humour and all sorts of things.
Are you finding it hard to feel hopeful for the future at the moment with the Covid-19 crisis?
I don’t think it’s going to make any difference to me professionally. It’s the teenage and early 20s people I feel the sorriest for. We can delay our holidays or whatever until next year, but there are so many markers for young people that have gone and are not coming back. Your study year abroad, your school prom, your Freshers week, your graduation… things that are such an important part of growing up that have been wrecked. My boys [Hornby has two teenage sons] and their wider group are being incredible pragmatic about it and have found distractions, but I don’t know whether it’s going to have a knock-on effect later on, none of us do. In terms of the country, it’s certainly the worst government in my lifetime.
Do you mean in terms of ability, or ideology?
Well, it’s never been my ideology but I’ve lived through semi-competent Conservative governments in my lifetime. But this is just a shambles. Telling people that they have to believe one particular thing – which seems to me unbelievable – which is that the Brexit project is going to sweep all before it and lead us to national glory. It means that you leave out half the people with brains from your front bench, basically.
As though we’re governed by soundbites…
And focus groups, yeah.
It can feel a little 'Trumpian'.
Yeah, well, that’s the big thing isn’t it? If Trump gets re-elected, I think, then not just me but certainly, my kids and everyone they know will be much, much less hopeful about the future.
What do you think will happen in the November election?
I think he’ll lose the election but I don’t think that will be the end of the story. Everything we know about him suggests that it won’t be the end of the story.
It’s getting old, isn’t it? I mean, at the beginning, you’d watch bits on Twitter and think: ‘I can’t believe a sentient human being said that.’ But those things happen seven or eight times a week and you can no longer even see all of them. You no longer bother with things that, if they’d happened 20 years ago, you’d talk about forever. My 17-year-old and his girlfriend watched All The President’s Men with us over lockdown, which they enjoyed but I think there was a certain part of it that mystified them, which was: how can a newspaper with an investigation provide information that brought a government down? Because there’s no way that could happen now.
What can we expect from you next?
No book for a while, but I’ve written a second series of [TV comedy] State of the Union, which features a different couple. I’ve also got this huge TV project that I’m not allowed to talk about yet as it’s sort of edging towards a deal, but it's a show about music and about real people.
Just Like You is out on 17 September.