David Nicholls interview: Good films, bad decisions and the next novel

Everyone has always told me how nice David Nicholls is. Author, screenwriter, actor and a Bristol University English and Drama graduate. He is best known for writing One Day, the one novel that you recommend to everyone, and Starter for Ten, which became the film that made you want to come to Bristol in the first place.

Watch the full interview here:

After receiving an honorary degree in July and taking time to speak to students and graduates, he returned to Bristol last week as part of Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival to give a talk at the university. As ever, he is beaming and attentive as he addresses a full audience eager to hear what he has to say. When meeting me a few minutes before going on stage, he is polite and considerate, his knowledge and passion for film and literature is easily perceptible.

On his love affair with Bristol, Nicholls remembers his time as a student here: ‘I lived here for a little over four years, and I always think of it as a sort of hinge in my life. It was a huge event for me, coming to university here. It was a very happy time where I felt for the first time that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.’ He studied Drama and English and, like many of us, gratefully seized every opportunity presented to him.  A keen member of Bristol Dramsoc and sketch comedy troupe Bristol Revunions, it is fair to say that Nicholls left his mark on the university.

‘There’s always an element of sadness because of the friends you miss, the stupid things you did and the terrible decisions you made’, he admits, ‘but it was generally a very happy and rich time in my life. It really means a lot to me’. This awareness of the heterogeneous nature of his university years is an emblematic feature of his experience of life, and it feeds into his work. In his novels, stories of love and friendship are told; happiness and heartbreak are intertwined. This is what makes his writing so attractive, the sense of relating to how each reader is connected to the characters, and will inevitably feel at some point in their student life.

Discussing his own university experience, Nicholls compares it to one of his own favourite films, Rushmore. In one of Wes Anderson’s first features, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) navigates his way through high school, falling in love and making his way to the top– one extra-curricular society at a time.

‘Even though it’s about people a little bit younger, it seems to sum up the kind of gaucheness, optimism and romance of that time. It’s a really smart, funny, beautiful and touching film’, says Nicholls. On the topic of Max, and also relevant to Nicholls’ own literary creations, we discuss the importance of political activism as a student.

As he walks through his own university again for only a short period of time, Nicholls admits the tangible aura of protest in the air. In a time of such political change, he acknowledges the vital part that students play in such a discussion. ‘Older people like to think they were more radical, more angry, more involved and more committed than anyone has ever been– older or younger. Clearly that’s not the case and it’s a really complicated and difficult political time at the moment.’

Although we may think that this is a unique period in political history, the author teaches me that actually what goes around does indeed come around. ‘When I was at university in 1985, political opinions were really widely split. There was a huge divide between left and right, but in the 90s it all got a bit homogenised. I’m reminded again of the 90s now, as it feels as if opinions are very polarised and people are very passionate. There’s a lot of discussion about politics which has got to be a good thing, I think’.

As the university students of 1985 grew up, so did the characters in David Nicholls’ books, who seem to go through life extremely close to their author. Having written four books and a dozen screenplays, he admits that he is reaching a moment in his career where many authors write a very similar sort of book.

‘I don’t want my next novel to be about a novelist having a mid-life crisis’, he confesses. ‘I really want to avoid that because it’s what a lot of novelists end up writing – a novel about bourgeois, middle-aged novelists having some kind of breakdown.’ Although the likes of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and Steve Tesich’s Karoo are excellent in equal measure, I cannot help but agree with Nicholls that the theme of ‘middle-aged man despair’ is feeling somewhat worn out.

The reason that so many readers become attached to Emma, Dexter, Brian or even Douglas in Nicholls’ books is because they are written from a place of truth. ‘My first book was about being a student which was a huge event for me, my second book was about being a failed actor and I was a failed actor in my 20s. The third book One Day was about getting from 20 to 40 and what changes in that time, and I wrote that when I was 40. The fourth book Us is about parenthood and being a father and being in a long term relationship which is also my current situation.’

Thankfully, Nicholls reassures me that his own life does not have as many comical plot twists.  ‘My life is always much more content and not quite as outrageous and dramatic and comical as the novels, I’m pleased to say. They’re autobiographical in the sense that the spur, the catalyst always comes from reality, but I’ve never really had an argument and written it down– that’s where the imagination comes in’. In terms of what to expect from his next book, the future is still unclear. ‘I feel like I’ve run out of major crises that I can fictionalise and make into major events! The next book will be slightly more outside of my experience’. At least we can rest easy in the knowledge that the sequel of High Fidelity isn’t on the cards just yet.

Before we parted ways I asked Nicholls, for you, if he had any advice to impart on all of us who are standing where he was 35 years ago. We have all decided that we have made the best decisions, worst mistakes, and had the most fun than anyone who has come before while studying at Bristol. As a fond onlooker of our current lives, Nicholls remembers his own. ‘I wanted to meet everyone, tell all my best jokes, make the best friends in the first week and I was really passionate and intense, trying a bit too hard. It was a bit of a performance’, he admits. ‘I’d tell my younger self to take a deep breath and calm down a little bit. And my younger self would ignore me– which is fine.’ It was on that humble, endearing, and surprisingly sagacious note that we said goodbye.

I thank him and he tells me that it was a pleasure. A final note which is pretty emblematic of our conversation and of the way he is to the world. Honest, attentive and understanding of human emotions. The pleasure was all mine, David.

Originally published on Epigram

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