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One Day - Episode 4 [Jun. 9th, 2009|06:17 pm]
David Nicholls

The latest in the YouTube videos backing my book One Day.
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On not reading reviews [Jun. 8th, 2009|01:02 pm]
David Nicholls

Three days to publication, and the reviews are starting to appear.

Before becoming a writer I worked, or failed to work, as an actor. So as not to bring any shame on the other ‘David Nicholls’ I was obliged to adopt a stage name, Holdaway, my mother’s maiden name. ‘Holdaway’, a name that screams showbiz. During those eight years as David Holdaway I only received one specific mention in a review. It was for a fringe play in which I gave a performance of more than usual coarseness and ineptitude, and the review in Time Out proclaimed;

‘What David Holdaway lacks in the first half, he makes up for in the second.’

That was it. My agent at the time, a 21 year-old Australian actor who sometimes attended the same auditions as me, suggested that I put the review on my CV, to intrigue potential casting directors; what did I ‘lack’? How did I ‘make up for it’? I decided not to, and that was the last time I was ever mentioned in a review. Some years later I received an amazing write-up in The Sunday Times for my non-speaking performance in a play at the National Theatre, but only because the critic got me muddled up with someone else. I don’t count this one.

Now, as a writer, I sometimes find myself reviewed, and it sends me into an absurd spin of anxiety. Even when the responses are kind or encouraging, I find my fingernails digging into the palms of my hands, and for this reason I do my best not to read them. This is not always easy. My parents send me anything which mentions me by name, even if its ‘David Nicholls’s script frequently disappoints’. I once lived above a particularly mean-spirited and waspish neighbour who made it his mission in life to lie in wait in the hallway and draw my attention to unfavourable press. ‘Your film’s reviewed in Empire this month,’ he’d say ‘but I don’t think you’ll want to read it.’

And now the new book is out, and it’s all beginning again. It is, of course, entirely unreasonable to moan about reviews. In these days of shrinking books pages and tightening budgets, any coverage from the press is invaluable. Refusing to read reviews can seem precious, thin-skinned and, worst of all, arrogant, as if no critic could possibly have anything useful or constructive to say. I can understand an actor refusing to read their notices – they do, after all, have to go on stage again night after night, even if the man from the Mail thinks that they’re hopelessly miscast, or can’t do the accent, or the play stinks. But there’s a fine and noble tradition of intelligent critical writing, and isn’t it just a little effete and conceited to withdraw from that debate? If you’re lucky enough to get your work produced, shouldn’t you at least have the guts to hear the response?

Perhaps. But the desire to get involved in a debate with a critic is incredibly strong and utterly futile. I still feel my shoulders tighten, for instance, when I think of a reviewer who criticised the film of Starter for 10 because the characters listened to a Buzzcocks song from 1979 when the film was set in 1985. As if people in 1985 only listened to songs from the last twelve months! Even typing that now makes me want to track the critic down and jab my finger in his face, and all this over a review that came out three years ago. Even when the criticism is shrewd and reasoned and intelligent, it’s still an uncomfortable experience and for me the most compelling reason to avoid reviews is that they come too late. By the time a piece of work is finished I’m all too aware of its failings. I’ll know that some chapters are weaker than others, or that the casting is wrong, or that I should have rewritten the voice-over. I will have lost enough sleep about it already, and to be confronted by all those mistakes after the event just revives the anxiety.

But putting my fingers in my ears and shouting la-la-la only works up to a point. Some indication of the responses will always seep through and, besides, the days when there were only four or five responses to your work, officially sanctioned by the national newspapers, have long since passed. On Amazon and IMDB and in online newspapers such as this, readers and viewers can tell you what they think, how many stars out of three or five or ten you get, whether you get the thumbs up or the thumbs down, and this process goes on for years and years, rather than just the week of publication. Clearly I’m going to have to toughen up a bit, take my hand away from my eyes and look. Then take a deep breath, and get on with something else.
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One Day - Episode 3 [Jun. 3rd, 2009|09:30 am]
David Nicholls

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The books that made me cry [Jun. 1st, 2009|05:29 pm]
David Nicholls
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There are lots of things that I’m not particularly proud of; my driving, the sight of my feet in sandals, my behaviour at a free buffet. I am also, it must be confessed, an easy crier. Tales of adversity, children sleeping, Thora Hird, any of these things can have me shielding my eyes with my hand. It’s not a particularly attractive tendency, but one I’ve learnt to live with, and at least I’m a little tougher now than I once was. As a child I used to fall to pieces weekly at the closing theme to The Incredible Hulk, and one of my earliest, most shaming memories, is having to leave the room during a Royal Variety Performance when a plucky red-haired orphan girl sang about how the sun was going to come out to-mor-row, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’d be sun.

I’ve toughened up a bit since then, I hope. There was a time when, say, Truly Madly, Deeply could make me gulp like a landed fish, but I rarely cry at movies now, and often find myself resenting it when it happens. More often than not, it feels as if some terrible trick has been played on me, that I’ve been manipulated into an emotion I don’t really feel. The Shawshank Redemption is a particular bug-bear of mine for this very reason. Its like Morgan Freeman is sitting in the chair on one side, Tim Robbins on the other, both of them pinching me very, very hard. A film-maker has all kinds of equipment in their arsenal to get an emotional response – sawing strings, snot-nosed actors, fine cinematography, the communal experience of sitting in the cinema in the dark. A book has only words, and crying at a novel seems to be a far less common experience. There’s an old movie poster cliché – ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry’ – and I suppose my latest novel, One Day, is a direct attempt to get exactly this reaction, and to revive that most unfashionable of genres, the ‘weepy’, but to make it feel modern, timely, and hopefully appealing to both men and women.

The books that made me cry

Of course, such a response is highly subjective, and one reader’s pathos is another’s mawkishness. Here then, is a particularly personal list of books that have, at some time in my life, caused me to shed a slightly embarrassed tear. In compiling this list I’ve left out many fine books which are genuinely upsetting; Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, for instance, a truly great book, but also a deeply distressing one. The books listed here provoke another kind of tearfulness, perhaps a more shallow, sentimental kind, but one that’s simultaneously sad and yet strangely uplifting.

Meanwhile, One Day, episode 2:

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Can you hear me at the front? Going on tour at Hay [May. 26th, 2009|04:44 pm]
David Nicholls
I’m on the early train to Hereford, for this year’s Hay-on-Wye festival, nauseous from too much coffee and a certain amount of nerves.

I’m three weeks from publication of the new novel and it seems that every day brings some new opportunity to say the wrong thing in front of a very small number of people.

The first words I always expect to hear at a reading are ‘Would everyone like to move down the front, please?’ Six years ago, shortly after publication of my first book, I travelled to a bookshop in Bournemouth, only to be told by the manager that they hadn’t managed to give away - give away - a single ticket, but not to worry because the bookshop staff were going to pretend to be the audience. The audience were literally being paid to hear me read. I hope that they were at least on time-and-a-half.

Even at a literary festival, there is always the anxiety that no-one will turn up. Just three weeks ago I spoke about adaptation with two other writers in a marquee in the pouring rain. The marquee was a cavernous affair of the kind that is usually found at society weddings, with seating for two hundred and fifty people. Twenty-five people were there, damp but enthusiastic, and we spoke and chatted and answered questions, some of which were a little eccentric (‘Do you think, as a rule, that writers are good at drawing?’). I sold perhaps six books.
It isn’t always like this. I once did a reading at a literary festival in Cologne for two-hundred people, which is practically Wembley Stadium for me. As my publisher explained, listening to an author read is a serious business in Germany, and a reading isn’t a reading unless it lasts at least an hour. But even with the constant pausing for translation, the audience were responsive and engaged. Defying national stereotypes, they laughed a great deal, even at jokes in a second language, and the whole experience was completely exhilarating, the nearest I’ve ever come at a reading to punching the air. The tour rolled on, and the next evening in Hamburg I read for nine people in a four-hundred seat theatre.

But afterwards, I talked with the same nine people in the bar, and it was fun to see Hamburg and to spend time with my publisher, and I was glad that I had come. Like a sixteen year-old’s birthday party, it’s tempting to see the attendance at a reading as a barometer of your popularity, and I suppose in a sense it is. But even when the crowd is small, I usually find that I’ve enjoyed myself. Selling ten books might seem like a small return for the hours spent, but if those readers enjoy the books, and recommend them to other people, then it has been worthwhile. In this respect, reading in public is a kind of low-tech viral marketing. I’d quite happily read to one person if I thought they were interested, though I would still want my train fare paid for.

Perhaps a less appealing truth is that I like the sound of my own voice. Throughout my twenties I was a professional actor, specialising in non-speaking servants and animals, and I once spent a year of my life in a play in which I spoke six words. Acting is not an obvious career choice for the chronically shy, so I ought to confess a certain amount of satisfaction if a joke gets a laugh, or if no-one reads their newspaper while I’m talking. I also take a childish delight in staying in hotels. All those towels. Breakfast buffets.

In this respect, I’m a sort of anti-JD Salinger. Despite my anxieties, I will go practically anywhere. Because writing a book is so lonely that any contact with readers is invaluable. A playwright or screenwriter can always slip into the back of the auditorium and watch the audience’s response, but reading and writing are entirely solitary acts, self-contained acts, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine that anyone at all is actually enjoying the thing that you’ve just spent three years creating.

I’m writing this on the morning after my reading at Hay. The crowd was respectable – forty or so perhaps – but they laughed at the jokes and didn’t shift about too much, and I sold some books too. At breakfast this morning, returning from the buffet for the fourth time, I overheard an illustrious Booker nominated literary novelist anxiously asking her publicist how many tickets she had sold – two hundred in a four hundred seater. Not bad. She seemed relieved, and I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed to know that the anxiety doesn’t go away.

So I went back and got a little bit more bacon.

ONE DAY, David Nicholls's new novel - a taster:

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Screenwriters - step away from the talent ... [May. 18th, 2009|12:28 pm]
David Nicholls
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In just under a month’s time the new novel will be published. The finished copies arrive from the printers this week, and then I’ll be invited to actually leave the house and promote.

In the four years since the publication of my last book I’ve been writing screenplays, and it seems that I very rarely get invited to anything. Screenwriters are famously held in low-regard in the industry and, equally famously, never stop moaning about the fact.

Unless he or she is one of a very select group, the screenwriter will wait in vain for their invitation to Sundance or Toronto or Cannes. On the rare instances that I’ve attended press junkets, I’ve sat entirely mute at the end of the table. At the premiere of my first ever produced screenplay a publicist asked if I wouldn’t mind stepping away from Sharon Stone. Instead I was placed at the very end of a long line while the photographs were taken. I smiled of course, delighted and surprised to be there, but unless that was a very, very wide-angle lens, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t in the picture. 
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Not that I mind, or not much. I did mind when an actor claimed to a journalist that they had improvised something that I’d written (‘in order to fill the gaps in the script’). But to make a living as a writer, let alone have your work produced – is both a privilege and a tremendous stroke of luck, and it feels ungracious to complain, as I’ve just been complaining for the previous two paragraphs.

The truth is that, as subjects for journalism, actors inevitably tend to be more flamboyant, entertaining, outspoken, more attractive and better dressed than the whey-faced neurotics who put the words into their mouths. Acting is gossipy, it involves stunts and costumes, foreign travel, emotional outbursts, extra-marital affairs, money. Writing the script involved a lot of sitting down, some arguing, some moaning, perhaps some dozing, and who wants to read an interview about that? Screenwriting is a little less solitary than writing fiction, but it’s still pretty lonely, and screenwriters who stray onto the set are like parents at a teenage party; no-one really wants them there, they look anxious, they get in the way. I, for one, turn into an idiot within fifty metres of an actor. I either fawn or offend, I babble with a stalker-ish demeanour. Besides, catch an actor’s eye and chances are they’ll ask for a rewrite. Much better to stay at home.
But with a novel, you’re invited out simply because there’s no-one else to invite. Movies are collaborative; a script is a starting point, a set of instructions that has no value until it has been performed, photographed, very probably rewritten, edited, scored. A book is just a book. If it works, it is because of the author. If it fails, it is because of the author. 
So the new novel will be published in less than a month and I’ll be attending festivals, readings, radio studios, signing each and every copy that comes near. I’ll be stripping hotel rooms of their toiletries and shaming myself at the breakfast buffet and I’ll be delighted to do so, if only because, as my nan used to say, it gets me out of the house. 
I’ll write another time about what happens when writers leave their rooms, but for the moment I might also take this opportunity to add that I’m speaking at Hay Festival on 25th May, just after actor, writer, presenter and national treasure Stephen Fry and at the same time as movie director Stephen Daldry. Please do come. I’m pretty sure there will be tickets. 
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The luxury of writing screen adaptations [May. 13th, 2009|12:09 pm]
David Nicholls
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 At a Literary Festival last week, a young writer came up to me and asked how she might start a career working on adaptations. The question startled me; working on an adaptation seems like a luxury, something that you move on to once you’ve experimented and established your own voice. It’s also something a writer is usually invited to do – there’s little point, as a novice, sitting down and cracking open Middlemarch if no-one’s asked for it. Adaptations are expensive, they frequently involve complicated copyright issues, writing them requires some technical experience and collaboration.

Yet the first screenplay I ever wrote was an adaptation, a version of Sam Shephard’s stage-play, Simpatico, which I co-adapted with the film’s director, Matthew Warchus. Starring Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney, Sharon Stone, Nick Nolte and Catherine Keener, the movie was very far from a box office hit, but received some fine reviews, and still shows up fairly frequently on late-night TV. But as novice screenwriters, we floundered horribly. Scenes were too long, too short, made no sense, led nowhere. We struggled to find a filmic equivalent for the strange, poetic stage language of Sam Shepard, and constantly found ourselves torn between respect for the stage material and something that would engage a cinema audience, something more conventionally ‘thriller’-like. We didn’t even know how to lay the script out on the page; we’d never heard of Final Draft, the screenwriters’ essential tool. The film’s producer had to show us how to use it.

My favourite adaptations are on the Independent site, here.

Since then I’ve worked on many other adaptations alongside my own original scripts and novels. I’ve been lucky enough to write scripts based on works by Charles Dickens, Blake Morrison, Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare and Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve also adapted each of my own novels for the screen (the latest, One Day, is currently underway). Some of these projects have been produced, some of them are still ‘in development’ and some of them will almost certainly stay that way.

Some adaptations have been faithful – Tess was, for long stretches, almost a scene-by-scene transcription of the novel, with almost every word of dialogue taken from Hardy. In contrast, my adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing for the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold season, set in a provincial TV news studio, was scarcely an adaptation in the traditional sense, more an original play inspired by Shakespeare’s work. A modern screwball-comedy based on the very first and greatest screwball-comedy, it bore the same relation to the original as West Side Story does to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare, after all, was the great adaptor – barely a single one of his plots is his own creation, yet each of his re-workings easily surpasses the original.

But if adaptation is a pleasure, it can also sometimes seem like an indulgence, a way of avoiding the imaginative part of the creative process i.e. the difficult bit. Given a choice on a grey Tuesday morning, it’s far more reassuring to sit down with a much-loved, beautifully constructed masterwork rather than face the blank page. I must confess to sometimes feeling guilty about doing this – it’s a little bit like being caught tracing in an art class – and this is why I’ve always tried to combine it with original work. Adaptation utilises a different part of the brain; technical, editorial, practical, rarely - in my experience anyway - very personal or emotional. While writing One Day, my forthcoming novel, I simultaneously worked on the adaptation of Tess, and found it perfectly possible, a pleasure in fact, to alternate between the two. I certainly couldn’t have switched between two original works, but it was a relief to be able to leave the recent history of One Day at lunchtime, and spend the afternoon in 19th century Wessex.

If it sometimes seems the safe option for a writer, that’s not to say adaptation can’t be creative or inspiring. The best of them can bring a book to life, widen the author’s audience, draw out themes or ideas that the reader wasn’t initially aware of. Sometimes a good adaptation can transform pulpy, mediocre source material turning the conventional and clichéd into real art.

There’s a great deal more to say about the subject, and I hope to return to it in later postings. But in the meantime here are ten notable adaptations, plus one of the absolute worst. I make no claims to these being the ten greatest films of all time, or even films I particularly love. These are just movies and TV series that take the source material and either capture its essence or transform it into something new and wonderful. 

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