Five years on from the publication of his international hit novel One Day, best-selling author David Nicholls has written Us, a bittersweet comedy longlisted for this years Man Booker Prize.
On 1 and 2 October, Nicholls teamed up with The Guardian newspaper for two exclusive live events, taking place in Manchester and Edinburgh respectively. I was fortunate enough to attend the Edinburgh event, which took place in the four-story, book lovers’ paradise Waterstones store on Princes Street. On the top floor, comfortable chairs were arranged in front of stacks of copies of Nicholls well-loved novels, which also include university coming-of-age novel Starter for 10 and The Understudy, his comedic look at the acting world.
Many of the excited attendees were eagerly thumbing through their brand new copies of Us, whilst others discussed how affected they were by the generation-defining One Day. The event served as proof that Nicholls’ novels have a universal appeal: the attendees included teenagers with their parents, university students such as myself, twenty and thirty-somethings who had come after work, middle-aged couples and many more elderly fans.
Despite achieving international success, which has made him a household name, Nicholls has an unassuming, relaxed manner, which renders him instantly likable. He is a wonderful speaker, over the course of the evening he eloquently discussed the challenge of following up One Day, his love for the city of Edinburgh, how he fights writers block and the inspiration for his wonderful new novel Us.
Nicholls was first asked about his link to Edinburgh. Those who have read One Day will remember the novel begins in the Scottish capital: protagonists Emma and Dexter meet on 15 July 1988, the night of their graduation from The University of Edinburgh. In one of the most iconic moments in the book, the two friends and would-be lovers memorably climb extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat together.
Nicholls himself attended the University of Bristol, which is the alma mater of Starter for 10’s protagonist, Brain Jackson, but he first visited Edinburgh in summer 1988, as a student involved in a Fringe production. He describes how he instantly fell in love with the stunning city and spent a wonderful summer living in a tiny flat on Rankeillor Street.
Some twenty-years later, whilst writing One Day, Nicholls felt the inherent beauty and romance of Edinburgh made it the perfect setting for Emma and Dexter’s meeting. Interestingly, Nicholls explained he never climbed Arthur’s Seat during his summer in Scotland, but he was always hearing stories of people going up the mountain to admire the stunning views. Two decades later, when he looked back at summer 1988, Nicholls felt these pilgrimages up the mountain perfectly epitomised that time and place.
The settings in Us are equally as memorable and as important to the novel. Us introduces the reader to Douglas, a fifty-four year old biochemist who has been married to the carefree, passionate Connie, for twenty-one years. The two have a difficult teenage son, Albie, who has nothing but a thinly veiled disdain for Douglas, and who is about to leave home for university. The family is in the midst of planning one last holiday together, a Grand Tour of Europe’s cities, when Connie announces her intentions to leave Douglas as soon as Albie leaves for college. Despite this, the holiday still takes place and Douglas decides to view the Grand Tour as the perfect opportunity to save his marriage, win back Connie and find a way to bond with his son.
Nicholls says he was inspired to set the novel in European cities after his One Day promotional tour allowed him to explore many European capitals he had never visited before. He was struck by the comedic idea of a middle-aged man backpacking around Europe, following in the style of 18th and 19th century traditional Grand Tour. Nicholls wanted to write about travel not in the archetypal, picturesque way, but rather he wanted to capture its “coffee you spill on your trousers” element and so he wrote about a holiday where things do not always go to plan, your teenage son does not want to be there and you are trying your best to keep your family together.
Nicholls recognises that Us marks the first time he has really tackled the subject of family. In his earlier novels, the parents take a back seat, and the emphasis is on the mechanics of friendship and dating. Nicholls said he believes this was partly through a fear of writing autobiographically against his will. Whilst he was working on One Day, however, his son was born and Nicholls began to view that novel, which follows Emma and Dexter from their early twenties to their mid-forties, as a deliberate, fond goodbye to that period of his life.
Nicholls now has two small children and he felt it would be strange to continue to write about twenty-somethings in love. He wanted to write honestly about family relationships, although he is quick to stress Douglas’ family life is nothing like his own. Nicholls was struck by the tragic idea of unrequited love within a family and had thought a lot about how many young men have unexpressed relationships with their fathers. Douglas loves his son Albie, but he does not always express this fondness appropriately or effectively: he often ends up driving Albie away from him.
Nicholls wanted to find a way of balancing this melancholy family situation with comedy, although he says the resulting novel is more emotional than he expected. He explained to the audience in Edinburgh that halfway through writing the novel his own father passed away. Us is not autobiographical, but certainly Nicholls feels that his grief and frustration influenced the second half of the book.
Whilst discussing the novel, Nicholls noted Us could be seen as an “emotional sequel to One Day”. Us is the second chapter of a love story, charting what happens after two people have come together. Equally, whilst One Day was about two people who should be together but are not, Us is about two people who are together, but perhaps should not be.
Nicholls balances his career as a novelist with his career as a successful screenwriter. He adapted his novel Starter for 10 into an 2006 movie, in which James McAvoy leads a cast which also includes Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, all of whom were virtual unknowns at the time. Nicholls also wrote the screenplay for 2012’s Great Expectations and recently adapted Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd into an eagerly anticipated film which will star Carey Mulligan, and which is due for release in May of next year.
At The Guardian event, Nicholls discussed Hardy’s novel and linked it to Us. He stated that in his adaptation, he wanted to emphasis that when Bathsheba Everdeen chose marriage to Gabriel over her romance with Sergant Troy, her marriage was not going to cage or trap her in the way some adaptations have implied. Instead he wanted to show how marriage changes and strengthens us. This idea is also at he heart of Us.
When questioned on the link between his screenwriting and novel-writing careers, Nicholls commented that he sees them as two very different mediums. Nicholls is no hurry to sell the film rights to Us, he says he thinks the novel’s first person voice and multi-city setting of Us would make it more difficult to adapt. Nicholls originally intended to be an actor and he says he believes his fondness for first person narratives comes from this background. He explained in that he feels a sense of liberation when writing in the first person and enjoys adopting a character’s voice the way he would adopt a character when improvising.
The final question Nicholls was asked was the importance of poetry to his novels. All Nicholls’ novels contain epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter and often these are quotes from poems or pieces of classical literature. These epigraphs always offer an insight and a level of depth into the novel in question.
Nicholls studied English Literature at University, during which time he was particularly passionate about TS Eliot, John Donne and Shakespeare. He was also a big fan of the work of twentieth-century poet Philip Larkin, who remains an inspiration to him. Larkin’s iconic 1953 poem Days helped inspired One Day and so Nicholls ended the evening in Edinburgh with a reading from this thought-provoking poem. It was the perfect way to finish the evening, before the guests, including myself, queued up to get books signed. It truly was a wonderful evening: Nicholls was an interesting, engaging and thoughtful speaker. I cannot wait to begin reading Us and am excited to see what Nicholls will write next.