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Pitch to the young reader

Nick Hornby, bestselling author of 'How to Be Good' and 'High Fidelity,' has written his first novel for a juvenile audience.

December 31, 2007|Bob Thompson | Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- When you're at lunch with newly minted young-adult novelist Nick Hornby on an autumn afternoon in Washington, it seems appropriate to begin with a simple question:

What is he doing here during football season?

Hornby, who's British, is mainly known on these shores as the author of bestselling fiction such as "High Fidelity" and "How to Be Good." But he began his book-writing career with "Fever Pitch," a memoir about his lifelong passion for football. By this, of course, he means the game North Americans call "soccer," especially as played by the north London club Arsenal, with whom Hornby fell in love at 11 and whose matches he still attends religiously.

He's in the United States for two weeks. Isn't Arsenal playing? Won't he miss games?

"Three," he says ruefully. But his American publisher has "very sweetly" identified bars in three cities where he can at least watch them on TV.

He's making the sacrifice to talk up "Slam," the first novel he's aimed specifically at a young-adult audience. His task has been complicated, Hornby says, by the fact that he's still not sure precisely what a YA book is.

He's not alone.

The notion of what constitutes YA literature has changed a good deal over the last 15 years or so, and it remains in flux. But "young adult" takes on another meaning when you get to know Hornby even a little.

Sure, he's 50 years old and looks it. And yeah, he's got a happy second marriage, three children he loves and a serious career.

But Nick Hornby is also a man who's tried to retain as much as possible -- and shouldn't we all? -- of the fraught, joyful intensity that comes with lack of age.

Hornby's work has always attracted a lot of young readers. Characters such as Rob, the pop-music-obsessed protagonist of "High Fidelity," or the responsibility-averse Will in "About a Boy" are caught in what their creator calls "that kind of interregnum" between 19 and 35 when society tolerates their unwillingness to "grow up in the conventional sense."

The world he creates in "Slam" doesn't feel that different. And when he describes moments such as nearly 16-year-old Sam's first encounter with his scary-gorgeous girlfriend, it's hard not to feel that Hornby has been through precisely the same thing in the recent past.

"Slam" happened in part because an English editor who admired his work asked if he'd ever thought of writing a book for young adults. He hadn't.

Then one day he noticed "a very, very young couple pushing a buggy around." He thought he knew her story, "because there's so much coverage of teenage mums. But the boy being there kind of took me aback a bit. So I started thinking about him."

Before long, he was having coffee with Francesca Dow, the editor of Puffin Books. He had an idea for a novel about a boy who gets his girlfriend pregnant and talks it over with the sports hero in a poster on his wall -- "a sort of guardian angel," Dow says, though not one who intervenes to protect you. Might that be the kind of YA thing she was after?

Yes, indeed.

The sports hero was originally going to be former Arsenal star Thierry Henry, but Hornby began to doubt that a kid today would have that kind of intimate relationship with a soccer player. The game has become "Nike-ized and corporate," he says, and so expensive that the average age of spectators at top division matches is now 43.

He chose Tony Hawk instead.

Hawk, in case you're too ancient to know, was among skateboarding's vanguard. He is a legendary skater, for as the board-obsessed Sam explains right away, "we never say skateboarding."

Why a skater?

"Weirdly, I have a poster of Tony Hawk," Hornby says. "He did an American library campaign a few years ago where sports stars were asked to be photographed with their favorite books, and he chose 'High Fidelity.' "

Reading Hawk's autobiography, Hornby realized that he wouldn't even have to invent the skater's part of the dialogue in Sam's conversations with him: Hawk's own words would do.

He got in touch with Hawk and asked if he'd mind having his life story appropriated.


A way to connect

When Hornby was Sam's age, he had been an Arsenal fan for nearly five years and was starting to develop a similar obsession with music. The latter, he once estimated, would cause him to attend a thousand live concerts over 30 years, a few that left him "exhilarated, inspired, electrified."

He lives in north London, but he grew up middle class in suburban Berkshire. Like Sam's, his parents were divorced, and "Fever Pitch" is in part about Hornby's discovery that he could connect with his otherwise absent father through soccer.

"There is a strong melancholy streak in Nick," says Penguin's Tony Lacey, who edits his adult books in England. "You feel a lot of the engagement with football and music is keeping melancholy at bay."

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