David Nicholls: ‘At 16 I felt repulsive. That’s quite a thing to carry around’
The author of Us and One Day on fatherhood, turning 50 and writing from a dark place
English novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls. Photograph: Hal Shinnie
Award winning author David Nicholls is sitting in the offices of’ publisher, with a view of airily-dressed passers-by along the River Thames on the hottest day of summer so far, considering if there are any themes that tie his repertoire together. “It’s scattershot” is how he eventually describes his sizeable bank of creative projects.
Far be it from me to correct a Bafta-winning, Man Booker Prize-nominated screenwriter and author, but Nicholls’s modesty is hidden in that description - “effortlessly broad” might be a more truthful fit, given the calibre of work evident as he runs through his explanation.
“For the first 10 or 15 years, it was all a bit random – I was leaping around from Thomas Hardy adaptations, to rom-coms like One Day, to ongoing TV dramas like Cold Feet, to very dark material like Patrick Melrose, and adaptations of American plays like Simpatico,” he says. “There wasn’t really one voice or anything to cling on to. I still feel that a bit, but maybe it’s not a bad thing. I love that I might get asked to take on a horror film or a romantic comedy. I’m pleased that there’s no particular thread.”
Now, eight million book sales into his writing career, after re-thinking his original intention of becoming an actor, a closer look does find some emerging constants. Shakespeare is the timely example – the Bard was omnipresent at drama school (Nicholls studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York), and later, Nicholls re-scripted Much Ado About Nothing for a BBC adaption.
In his new book, Sweet Sorrow, an amateur production of Romeo & Juliet is the excuse that the teenage protagonist of Charlie needs to spend time with the object of his affection, Fran Fisher, who’s cast in “the eponymous role”. Told in flashbacks – present-day Charlie is engaged to Niamh from Dublin, no less – we first meet him in a stifled state; his mother has abandoned the family home and he’s left to care for his troubled father, while stuck with a group of oafs for friends, because his unnamed town is small and there’s no clear escape route.
But over the course of a character-building summer, his thespian friends help tease out his own strengths, capabilities and morals, making it a classic coming-of-age novel with its universal truths teased out with remarkable perception. An example: “’Get into pairs!’ shouted Ivor, three words that always caused a wave of panic, heightened by the necessity of showing no panic. Etiquette demanded that we refrain from simply hurling ourselves at people we fancied.”
Summer is the right time to release Sweet Sorrow; just like many a Shakespeare play, a hazy air is tonally present. Nicholls described that the design team were directed to make the cover “more then less nostalgic, modern, pastoral, romantic, lyrical, suburban, muted, colourful, abstract and specific”, neatly summarising the feel of the book.
It’s no coincidence that those formative years absorbed Nicholls as he approached, then celebrated, then passed his 50th birthday.
“When I wrote Us,” he says of his previous novel, about a straight-laced dad trying to keep his family together while holidaying around Europe, “I was still in my mid-40s, and I was putting myself in the mindset of this strange, older man. And then suddenly, that’s you. You’ve turned into the thing you’re speculating about. I didn’t want to write about being 50 again, but these landmark birthdays are a catalyst for looking back at the things you feel warmly about and the things you regret.”
Today, dressed smartly in a shirt and trousers, spectacles absent, Nicholls is softly-spoken, and enjoyable company simply by being so engaged and astute. It intrigues me as to what Nicholls was like as a youth, growing up as a middle of three children of a factory engineer and a local council worker, in the outskirts of Southampton in Hampshire.
And like Us, the complex relationship between father and son is explored in Sweet Sorrow
“I didn’t think I was a particularly successful 16-year-old,” he reflects. “I regret it often, actually. I don’t look back at my teens and think, ‘wow, you really made the most of your youth’. I remember it as quite a difficult and lonely time, and that’s seeped into the book.
“I had very bad skin, so I did feel very ugly – I mean repulsive, and that’s quite a thing to carry around with you when you’re 16. But I also had very intense friendships in a way that I didn’t even at university. It wasn’t a romantic love, but a feeling that as a gang, we were unstoppable and friends for life. I suppose the biographical truth was both far less fun and romantic, but also not as full of tragedy and disaster either.”
More constants emerge with his fifth book. Like much of his work, Sweet Sorrow avoids a straightforward narrative – for example his big-hitter One Day tells a romance on July 15th, St Swithin’s Day, of each year over 20 years, while Us uses flashbacks to tell the supporting story, rather than the main one. And like his other works, the novel mostly avoids the internet and mobile technology “because where are all the Friends Reunited novels now,” he says.
Subject-wise, Sweet Sorrow mirrors nicely with his first release Starter For Ten, later adapted into a movie starring James McAvoy, which is a coming-of-age novel based about entering University Challenge, and the class differences and romance found therein. And like Us, the complex relationship between father and son is explored in Sweet Sorrow.
“At the end of Us, there’s a part where Douglas speculates about how the story would look if it was told from the point of view of his wife or his son. I thought maybe that’s a nice idea, to flip the points of view,” says Nicholls.
“So it’s a mirror to Us in some ways; Us was about a son escaping his father’s influence and his father trying to rescue him, whether he needs it or not. And an element of this is about a son trying to save his father and build some kind of relationship.”
It’s another non-coincidence that in his own life, he’s grappling with fatherhood as his children – Max and Romy, to whom the book is dedicated along with his wife Hannah - enter their teens.
“We get on very well, but I’m fighting the clichés and trying not to fall into the predictable patterns of behaviour – being a bore, constantly complaining, becoming too much of a ‘dad’,” smiles Nicholls, who lives in north London. “But the opposite is even worse, if you’re constantly trying to ingratiate yourself and be a pal. So I’m searching for the middle ground.”
The theme of parent-child dynamics is also present in his screenplay for Patrick Melrose, albeit on a much darker level. The Sky TV adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical novels finds the affluent Melrose, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, overcoming the addictions caused by his abusive childhood. The affecting drama landed quite rightly earned a Bafta for best miniseries, plus best actor for Cumberbatch and best drama writer for Nicholls, over the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Russell T. Davies.
`With this, every day, I watched the material and thought ‘no, that’s exactly it. That’s exactly what I had in mind’.
“I’m very pleased that Benedict got the Bafta, because he really was committed to it and it was an amazing performance,” Nicholls said. “Quite often when you watch rushes [raw footage], you think ‘that’s not quite right’, or ‘that’s not what I meant’. And with this, every day, I watched the material and thought ‘no, that’s exactly it. That’s exactly what I had in mind’.
“It was quite a scary project for me, because I’ve never done anything as dark and tonally strange. But a lot of people contacted me to say that they’ve had either similar experiences with drink and drugs, or similar experiences in childhood, and that they’d found the depiction of that and the aftermath of that to be both accurate and sensitive. We did a lot of work to make sure that was the case, so that was really gratifying.”
While there are rumours of a second series to continue the success of the first, Nicholls has already ruled out his involvement.
“I saw that crop up, but I haven’t actually spoken to anyone about it,” he says “Speaking for myself, I was so reliant and dedicated to the books, I feel like it had a clear journey and a clear ending, and it’s not something that can usefully be extended. What could he do now except fall off the wagon? I don’t know how interesting that would be. Which isn’t to say that if someone else took the character and found another life for him, that I wouldn’t be intrigued. But I wouldn’t want to do myself. I had a great time working on it, but it was quite a dark world to live in for five years, and I’m pleased to have come out.”
His forthcoming projects are a little lighter; he’s currently adapting Us into a BBC miniseries, and he’s also written a script for a film adaptation Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.
“It’s very much in development so it’s not going to be out anytime soon,” he says. “I read the book, not as a child but as a parent, about six or seven years ago, and I thought it was wonderful and touching. It’s kind of different kind of Roald Dahl, it’s much more grounded. It doesn’t have a supernatural element. And it has an autumnal, pastoral feel, so it’s kind of a companion piece to Sweet Sorrow.”
But first, some time off; because the production of Us and the release of Sweet Sorrow is taking place at the same time, it’s enough to factor in a much-needed break for straight afterwards. Just like the rest of our summer, we’re assuming, it never rains but pours.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton on July 11th, RRP €14.99. An evening with David Nicholls in conversation with Eithne Shortall takes place the DLR Lexicon on Monday July 22nd at 7.30pm. Tickets available online https://events.dlrcoco.ie