The wonder years
With his new book, comic novelist David Nicholls snapshots characters over two decades. Kelly Apter hears why he has replaced laughter with tears
The accepted wisdom that you should ‘write about what you know’ has worked well for David Nicholls. In his debut novel, Starter for Ten, he plundered his time as a student to produce pages of well-observed situations, while in The Understudy, Nicholls’ former life as a jobbing actor proved a rich vein of cringeworthy material ripe for adapting. His latest novel, however, demanded even more emotional memory. Spanning 20 years, One Day follows the highs and lows of two young graduates as they grope around their 20s, fall into their 30s and contemplate their 40s. It’s a hefty book – both in page numbers and life experiences – during which, protagonists Emma and Dexter try to find their place in the world.
‘I wanted to write something more ambitious than the previous two books,’ explains Nicholls. ‘Something that was more epic in scope – a big, modern love story that would make people laugh and cry.’ He’d already proved he could do the former, with both Starter for Ten and The Understudy being masterclasses in British humiliation comedy. One Day shows Nicholls is also capable of making us reach for the tissues in a blubbery mess. While the fictional Emma and Dexter were growing up, Nicholls was also maturing as a novelist. ‘When I first started writing books I thought if I wasn’t being funny, I wasn’t being interesting,’ says Nicholls. ‘That I constantly had to crack jokes to keep the reader engaged. Starter for Ten and The Understudy were almost like stand-up comedy routines. But with One Day I tried to wean myself off that and to vary the tone more.’
The eponymous ‘day’ is 15 July, the date on which we encounter Emma and Dexter each year. Each chapter alludes to what they’ve been up to during the previous 12 months, but essentially we learn what the characters are doing and how they’re feeling on that very day. ‘I wanted to give the impression of looking through a photo album, so the people would remain fundamentally the same, but be changed in all kinds of subtle ways by their experiences.’
Nicholls’ talent for astute observation never ceases to amaze, and there are times during One Day when you feel as though he’s stolen your own thoughts. Is there a knack to such incisive writing? ‘I don’t think there’s any conscious technique. You just remind yourself how those things felt for you or the people around you. It’s hard to write about life, love and relationships and not draw on your own life and the lives of the people you know. And I’m delighted if anything in the book rings a bell.’
At the age of 43, Nicholls was perfectly placed to empty himself into the novel and capture the hopes and fears, joy and pain of Emma and Dexter. But doing so has left him with an unexpected worry. ‘Having written about dating, career anxieties, marriage and becoming a parent, I’ve pretty much used up everything I’ve ever experienced,’ laughs Nicholls. ‘So I don’t know quite what I’m going to write about next. I’ll have to go and do something terrible to provide myself with material.’
One Day is published by Hodder & Stoughton on Thu 11 Jun.