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Interview: David Nicholls

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Few books have captured our hearts and imaginations like One Day. As the film version of this unlikely love story hits cinemas, we speak to the book’s author, David Nicholls.

It’s never ideal, crying on a packed commuter train; stifling mild sobs so you end up doing that thing where you cough a bit to try and cover it up. For that reason, it probably would have been better to read David Nicholls’ novel, One Day – a huge, decades-spanning story about love – at home. Alone. Although, thank you to the nice lady who handed me a tissue.

For those who haven’t read One Day (do it now), the book (which was the biggest-selling British novel of 2010 and has been published in 31 different languages) begins in 1988 and revisits the characters, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, on the same day, every year for 20 years.

Now Hollywood has got its hands on it and One Day starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess is released on 24 August. We’ll say it now – we had concerns. Would they butcher it? Would they take out all the quirky nods to Nineties raves and New Labour? But mostly – Hathaway? As Emma? Our beloved Emma? Really?

It turns out the majority of our fears were unfounded – the film really is lovely – and that’s largely, we suspect, down to David Nicholls. The author, 44, who lives in north London with his partner and two children, also wrote the script – and the funny, sharp love story has survived. This could be because while Nicholls spent his 20s acting (including a three-year stint at the National Theatre), his 30s saw him move into screenwriting, contributing four scripts to Cold Feet and garnering a nomination for a British Academy Television Craft Award for Best New Writer (Fiction). Then in 2002 he wrote his first novel, Starter For 10, which was made into the 2006 film starring James McAvoy.

Now, as screenwriter on One Day, Nicholls is a serious Hollywood player, albeit one who’ll keep one foot planted in a leafy residential street of London. Here, Stylist catches up with the most exciting British writer of the year…

Why do you think the story of One Day has such an impact?

From the letters I get, it’s about a connection with people’s own lives. It’s quite a bittersweet book – the choices that we make and the friends we lose. It makes people think about their regrets, their old friends and opportunities that they didn’t make the most of.

So you wanted us to be crying on the bus while reading it?

I wanted it to be funny but, yes, I wanted a big emotional response; the kind of response you have to a favourite song. I think it’s quite hard to get that rush of emotion from fiction. So that was the intention. Because I like crying at things.

What makes you cry?

Films. Nothing too embarrassing! I just get slightly teary eyed especially now I’m a father. I cry at the last scene of The Railway Children where Jenny Agutter is reunited with her father.

You’re clearly not alone. One Day proved hugely popular with men too. Did that surprise you?

I think when a man comes to the end and looks back at his major life events they’re usually to do with love – falling in love, falling out of it. And it seems strange for men not to write about that and to not want to read about that. Things that are emotional without being sentimental tend to be very moving.

The start of One Day and Starter For 10 take place at university. Why was that?

As a student I was constantly falling unsuccessfully in love. It was three years of unrequited love. But it was a very intense time with a great idealism and hope. The whole point of it is to be in and out of love. It’s the only opportunity you have for that in life. If you behaved like that in work you’d be out of a job very quickly.

Have any of those relationships lasted as long as Em and Dexter’s?

Not romantic relationships. I don’t have an ‘Emma’. But I’ve had friendships that have lasted as long and have had the same ups and downs and frustrations where you shout at each other and fall out. But always with the confidence that we will always remain friends.

Part of what people love about One Day is the way you captured the cultural elements of the Nineties. Was that all etched in your memory?

Actually the Nineties were difficult to recapture; it was a very murky time for me. Much like Em, I really wanted to find something that I was good at, acting wasn’t it and I was failing again and again. I feel very close to her in the first chapters when she’s insecure and a bit self-pitying. Because all I can remember are the terrible flats and jobs and the anxiety.

How about the Nineties’ hedonism? Was that personal experience?

I was involved in a minor way. But like Emma I always worried about getting to work the next day. I never drove around the M25 looking for a rave.

It’s so clear that Em and Dex love each other. Why can’t they see it?

It’s down to personalities. Dexter needs to grow up and Emma needs to shake her lack of self-confidence. If they had gone out when they were 24 it would have lasted two weeks.

Both of the characters have unlikeable qualities and I didn’t want to soften that. I didn’t want to do a slightly milkier Em and Dex.

Why write a love like that?

Their series of confusion, arguments and separations is more realistic. The strongest relationships I know have been quite protracted affairs that often began as friendships. That Romeo and Juliet, eyes-across-a-crowded-room model doesn’t seem to happen in real life; I wanted to write a love story that reflected the complications and the slow burn.

Is that how love happened for you?

It didn’t take 20 years but I did meet my partner, Hannah, a few times over a six-month period before we went on a date. I was 31 and it couldn’t have happened before then. In my 20s I thought dating was a performance. I was like Ian in the book. You’d line up your repertoire then get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at the end of the evening. Not surprisingly it was usually a ‘no’. But there came a time when I wasn’t quite so… desperate.

It must be hard handing over your novel to the big screen. Was there anything you insisted should stay in?

Both of the characters have unlikeable qualities and I didn’t want to soften that. I didn’t want to do a slightly milkier Em and Dex. Though, inevitably, they are a little bit more likeable because Jim and Anne have a warmth and likeability. Jim is wonderful. Without compromising the material he makes Dexter’s journey very moving.

There were some fairly fierce reactions when it was announced Anne Hathaway would play Emma. What were your initial thoughts?

I’d just seen her in the 2008 film Rachel Getting Married [Hathaway plays Kym who checks out of rehab to see her sister getting married] where her character shared the same qualities – a kind of social awkwardness and anxiety – so I could see it working. You think of her glamorous life and can’t imagine that she would identify with Em, but Hollywood actors don’t stroll around in an aura of confidence – Anne has anxieties and insecurities. I think she’s a fantastic actress.

Wasn’t it slightly tricky making one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women seem ‘plain’?

I suppose there was a worry we’d just stick glasses on her and it would be some kind of Clark Kent/Superman affair. But there are parts of the film where Anne doesn’t look great and she had no anxiety at all about the greasy hair or bad clothes. I think she has about three nice outfits in the entire film otherwise it’s terrible high-waisted jeans.

Why has Emma become such a modern heroine?

Possibly because there hasn’t been anyone like her in a while. There was in the Thirties – I think of her as a smart-talking Katharine Hepburn-type. In fact, she had lots of archetypes; she has a cynicism about love like Beatrice for Much Ado About Nothing and the moral decency of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride And Prejudice. Saying this, I watched Bridesmaids the other day and the Kristen Wiig character was very smart and decent. It was refreshing to see that character in the lead as opposed to a sidekick.

As a male author, is writing a female character more of a challenge?

I try not to think about it too much. The worst thing to do is call up your female friends and ask what a woman would do in this situation. I think you just have to write people. Many of my very good friends are female and there’s a lot of them in Emma. Although I don’t think I could write a sex scene from a woman’s perspective – that would be a terrible idea.

One Day is in cinemas on 24 August

Words: Katie Mulloy

Images: Rex Features

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