David Nicholls is a British novelist and screenwriter. Us is his fourth novel and was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
In the novel, the father Douglas is a biochemist and is used to finding solutions and living his life according to a strict pattern, whereas his wife Connie is more free-spirited. In the course of the novel, he ends up questioning his life, his choices, wondering how his wife and his son really feel toward him, and becomes increasingly doubtful.
Absolutely. This is really about someone falling to pieces. When you first meet him, he is narrating the novel from the end point, and he feels that everything is fine. He thinks that life is good, that he has done his best for his son, and that if they don’t get on, that’s as much his son’s fault as his own. He is very certain and steady, just expecting to grow old and nothing to change. Then, this bombshell explodes, and he has to rebuild himself.
Without being too heavy about it, I thought it was a kind of redemption story—someone looking back on their life and trying to confront their mistakes, thinking about the things they would have done differently and trying to learn from it. He is a very different character at the end of the book than at the beginning. I think, when you first meet him, he is at his most extreme, his most controlled. He is absolutely sure that if you organize everything, you will be fine. But it’s quite a tough journey for him, and it does involve a kind of breakdown, really. That seemed to me to be potentially quite moving.
We follow the family on a Grand Tour of Europe, organized by Douglas, the father. They visit cities such as Paris or Venice that Douglas and Connie had already visited fifteen or twenty years earlier, and the memories of these cities appear like a palimpsest beneath the new story they’re writing again as a married couple with a 17 year-old son.
I liked the idea of this sort of pattern. I’ve been to Paris a lot, I’ve spent a lot of time here and wrote my first novel here, and coming back every time it reminds me of little stages of my life. You see your younger self walking the streets, you’re extremely aware of what’s changed and what’s the same. I thought that was an interesting thing to draw on in a novel that was about memory, regret, and past. It happens particularly in Venice, where in the past he proposes, and in the present he almost has an affair. That seemed to be a nice kind of symmetry. I like playing with structure. I like setting up these little echoes, these callbacks, it seems to me very satisfying. I tend to do a little planning before I start, and with this, there were too elements of planning: there’s the itinerary of the journey, and also planning the history of the relationship. I like this moment in the novel where the two intersect.
We read the story in Douglas’s own words, from his point of view. When he looks back on his marriage with Connie, what we get is only his own recollection. How did you decide that he would be the one to narrate the novel?
I wrote a whole other novel as a kind of ghost novel. It was about a father and his son traveling across Europe together, as a kind of bonding exercise, just the two of them. I spent almost a year writing this novel, and they were completely different characters. The dad in that novel is kind of the anti-Douglas, and the son was very kind of timid and cautious. There were good things in that book, but it was a bit cold and it was a bit mean, it was a bit shouty. It was just two people not getting on, and I ended up throwing it away. I still wanted to keep hold of the idea of a journey, and keep hold of the theme of parenthood, and trying to form a bond with someone you can’t really talk to, but I wanted to make it warmer, and more humane.
I started writing it again from a different character’s point of view. Having access to someone’s inner thoughts and intentions sometimes give you a kind of understanding. Writing in his voice was the breakthrough for me, it made him okay, because you realize that what he says isn’t what he means. It’s very often the case, with English people at least… So it was a way of humanizing him, of showing his intentions and his true aims.
Toward the end of the novel, he is often surprised by his own thoughts and his own actions…
One of the main themes that emerges in the novel is the theme of identity. Do you think that this theme in particular mirrors your evolution as a writer?
I don’t know. I tend not to think of myself that analytically, I suppose. I think, as I’m getting a bit older, the books are probably getting more emotional, more melancholy and a little bit sadder in places. When I started writing, I wanted to be funny. I just wanted to be as funny as possible on every page. It took me a while to realize that, actually, it was okay to be a bit more serious. I never think of the book in itself as self-revelatory. The books I write always stem from particular preoccupations, whether it’s becoming a dad or failing in a career, or thinking back on student days… The starting point has always been autobiographical, but the books are really rarely autobiographical.
I’m just wondering what this book might reveal about me, I don’t know… Probably something about my relationship with my father, which wasn’t a very easy one. Even though there is no character like my father in the book, there’s a lot about how culture and taste and class can separate you from someone.
What comes a lot in the book is how we change in our relationships and how relationships change us. I don’t know whether it comes from me being kind of middle-aged… I’ve spent up until the age of 38 thinking of myself part of a younger generation, and now I’m accepting that I’m not anymore! I think both in this book and in One Day, there’s the question of how do we get from there to here, how did our relationships change, how we stayed the same…
My twenty-year-old self is a kind of stranger to me, but at the same time I know we have some of the same failings and some of the same thoughts – I am interested in that. I think that’s probably just my midlife anxieties coming out.
Besides writing novels, you also write for TV and for the cinema. Does this activity helps you in writing fiction, and vice versa?
I think it does. For example, in Us, it leaps a lot between past and present and between different locations. You learn a lot about that writing scripts. You learn about when to start a scene and when to stop a scene, or how to get from a scene to the other. I plan a lot, either in my head or on the page, before I start writing, which is how screenwriters often do. I tend to approach a character in kind of the same way as an actor would, thinking about their biography, their tastes and their clothes and their music, their backgrounds and everything… I think that’s the kind of acting approach. I really like writing dialog, it’s the bit I’m happiest with. I could just write dialog all day. I find writing descriptive prose much harder. Writing dialog is my favorite part of both jobs—the hard bit is working out the structure, the point of view, what I want to achieve. The fun bit is the jokes and the dialog.
When I started writing fiction, someone had to tell me that it was okay to write what the character’s thinking and what the character’s feeling. In a script, you can’t do that, you’re not allowed. You have to find a way of showing it, that’s the biggest difference. I find it very hard, when I adapt a novel into a script, to lose all this stuff, because it’s very important.
I have worked on the movie version of Far from the madding crowd. In the original novel, Thomas Hardy would write a whole chapter on what the character’s like, and what’s happened to them in the past, and how they approach life, or what their philosophy is. He would tell it in a very bold, straightforward way. You can’t do that in a script.
You actually adapted your own novel One Day to the screen. How was it like to work on this transposition?
That was very hard, because you know it so well that you become a bit blind. You can’t really be objective about it. You can’t be objective about what might work and what might not work and what you might need to cut. I would resist really heavily doing it again, because you need a kind of surgical approach.
You just have to be very cool and objective and say “well we have to lose this, we have to lose that”, and if you’re the novelist, you want to say “well we can’t lose that, because that’s part of my life, that’s important to me, that’s part of who I am”, and the screenwriter has to say “well, that’s lovely in the novel, but it just won’t work on the screen”. That’s the toughest thing.
You need a certain pragmatism?
In westerns, if someone gets shot, there’s a scene where they have to pull a bullet out of their own leg while biting on a stick, then douse the wound with alcohol. That’s how adapting my book was like. It was so painful and difficult. I wouldn’t do it again.