David Nicholls is an author and screenwriter, whose novel One Day was adapted into a film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. His latest novel Us was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Here, he reveals his reading habits growing up and the books that most impressed him from the Moomins to Evelyn Waugh and many more:
Q: What role did books play in your childhood, what got you hooked on reading and at what age?
David: 'It wasn’t a book-strewn household that I grew up in. There were very few paperback books to read. As soon as I was old enough I’d go to the library on my own. It was a very old-fashioned Victorian library in Eastleigh, a railway town in Hampshire. It’s moved to a new building now but I have great memories of the smells and the little nooks and corners.
'I also had The Puffin Book Club, which was a masterstroke as a way to get books to kids that didn’t necessarily read a lot – getting a badge and choosing a book every month. I read things like the Narnia novels and Enid Blyton books but also non-fiction – books about disasters and nature. I was very eclectic in my reading, not a particularly smart kid or a fast reader but reading was what I enjoyed.
'I was really haunted by the Moomin books [by Tove Jansson] when I was about seven or eight. They were, perhaps not quite disturbing, but slightly disquieting. The gloomy, Scandinavian atmosphere and the loneliness haunted me. I’d read adventure yarns like the The Secret Seven, The Faraway Tree and The Famous Five but they weren’t always written with care and there were just so many of them. They didn’t affect me in the same way the Moomins did.'
Q: Did you write for fun as a child and if so what?
David: 'I only wrote what I had to in school. I didn’t have exercise books full of poems and I was as interested in maths and science as fiction. I had no pretensions at all to being a writer. I was very pedestrian but I did a lot of reading and watched a lot of TV. Two big influences on my childhood were watching Dickens adaptations and science fiction – both novels and TV shows like The Tomorrow People. I was very much part of that sci-fi and Star Wars generation and then I became a horror nut and I loved the Hammer Horror Double Bills.'
Q: Which authors or books fired your imagination as a teenager or young adult and inspired you to write?
David: 'At 13 or 14 I really wanted to be a scientist. But the first grown-up author I fell for was [Charles] Dickens followed by [George] Orwell. I loved the politics in Orwell and I found the stories thrilling. I also loved Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Waugh wrote about a world I had no experience of - prep schools and the aristocracy - and it made me laugh.
'Then I fell for American writers like John Irving, who wrote The World According to Garp. I got the same sense of the epic, of gripping stories about communities, sudden deaths and extremes that I found in Dickens. That led me to slightly more literary writers like Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey. I remember reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest while waiting for my A-level results. It was absolutely harrowing and I thought it was the best book I would ever read. I didn’t want to go back to it because I thought I might be disillusioned and I’ve never read it again.
'I also read some great books for A-level – things like [E.M. Forster’s] Howard’s End, [F.Scott Fitzgerald’s] Tender is the Night and [Thomas Hardy’s] Tess of the d’Urbervilles. But the desire to write came much later. The great novelists seem to have fallen into it and being a novelist is not a job you can apply for. At 17 or 18 I had to choose between science and maths or the arts and I was taken with the idea of performance. I studied English and Drama at Bristol. I was a slightly obsessive letter writer and I wrote letters filled with little gags to friends I was seeing the next day. I was part of a comedy double act and that’s the only other writing I did. I loved Monty Python and The Young Ones and we’d write things down and perform sketches.'
Q: Do you have favourite books that you re-read?
David: 'I like to re-read a book by J.D. Salinger called Franny and Zooey. I find it very moving and it really struck a chord with me. I’ve always preferred it to The Catcher in the Rye. I also re-read certain short stories over and over again, things by John Cheever and Raymond Carver. I’m aware there are only so many more books I can read, so I want to keep moving forward. But sometimes if I’m stuck as a writer I go back to remind myself of what to aspire to and as a source of inspiration.'
Q: How much do you draw on personal memories in writing fiction?
David: 'If anything I write away from them. I rarely write about somewhere I haven’t been to and if I haven’t been somewhere, then I’ll go. But it’s not me in the stories. I might use the occasional anecdote but most of the time it’s fiction. My first book, Starter For Ten, is a university novel and the places are real but almost nothing that happened in it happened in real life. My memories of places provide a background I know and I can believe in that allows me to write.
'In my latest book, Us, I wrote about places in Europe I was enthusiastic about. But I also like to show different sides to places. Paris can be a tough city, quite an abrasive place, and it’s not all about holding hands by the Seine. Venice, as lovely as it is, can also be a complete tourist trap.'
Q: What are your most vivid memories of having your first book published and do you view it as a watershed moment in your life?
David: 'I was amazed. It’s always a big moment to see your name on a book. It would be hard not to be shocked by that. It was exciting. It was the first book to win the Richard & Judy Book Club and that was really my big break.
'I never liked the cover. I did express an opinion on that but I was starting out so I didn’t push it. Writers tend to want their books to look like Penguin Classics and publishers want them to sell and the two don’t always go together.'