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David Nicholls: ‘I’m lucky enough to have lots of Irish friends and hope that I got away with writing an Irish character’

The author of One Day on his new novel, You Are Here; the Irish writers he admires; and father-son relationships

Tell us about your latest novel, You Are Here

It’s a love story that takes place on a long walk, in this case the famous English Coast-to Coast, devised by Alfred Wainwright – 200 miles from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. Two lonely people, talking and telling stories, with each day of the journey representing a new stage of the relationship. A kind of intimate epic, with maps.

You have always made a connection between literature and landscape?

As a reader, yes, but I’ve always been a little nervous about nature writing – there are so many wonderful writers out there, and perhaps I associate modern relationship stories with city life. The new novel definitely plays with that city-country divide. How do you respond to a beautiful landscape if, as in Marnie’s case, you really don’t want to be there?

You are responsible for one of the great modern love stories, One Day, and cut your teeth on another huge hit, Cold Feet. What was their appeal?

Well, Cold Feet was a lucky break, and I must emphasise that it’s very much Mike Bullen’s baby – I only ever wrote four episodes. But I was lucky to be involved in a show that matched my own sensibility; drama mixed with comedy, themes of family, marriage, falling in love. These seemingly small events are often the defining events of our life. Why wouldn’t a writer want to explore them?

You’ve adapted a lot of novels, including your own, into screenplays, including the Bafta-winning Patrick Melrose. What were the particular challenges and rewards?

Patrick Melrose is a character who hardly ever tells the truth, always ironic and indirect. How do you put that inner voice on screen without resorting to voice-over? And how do you capture the poise and precision of Edward St Aubyn’s prose? The answer, I think, is to work with amazing actors – Benedict’s performance is extraordinary, I think – and a wonderful director, Edward Berger, and to do all you can to capture the essence of those exceptional novels.


Father-son relationships and love affairs are recurring themes. Is that intentional?

I think it’s always important to write about what preoccupies you, and it seems that those two themes are always there. It’s not the kind of thing one can control, I suspect.

Did your training as an actor help your fiction? Sweet Sorrow and The Understudy both draw on that world.

I think it taught me a huge amount about creating a character, about dialogue and structure too. My own career was a disaster – I was at the National Theatre for years, barely spoke a line and often never left the dressingroom – but the training was invaluable, and to sit and watch incredible actors in rehearsal, shaping the play, was an invaluable apprenticeship, undertaken almost by accident.

You wrote an Irish character, Niamh, in Sweet Sorrow. Was that a stretch?

As in my acting career, dialect isn’t my strong point, and there’s always the danger – as with acting – of doing too much. But I’m lucky enough to have lots of Irish friends and hope that I got away with it.

I’m a huge admirer of Roddy Doyle, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright, Paul Murray and Sally Rooney. I read everything by Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth Strout and am a huge admirer of Marian Keyes’s comic brilliance

Which projects are you working on?

Nothing! Nothing at all. I’m very happily talking about You Are Here for the rest of the year and then I’m going to sit down and read and think and perhaps go for a long walk, and then we’ll see.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Many! Wilde and Beckett’s graves in Paris, of course, but also Bloom’s house on Eccles Street, Charleston in Sussex, Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, Chekhov’s Moscow Art Theatre, Victor Hugo’s apartment, the White Horse Tavern and the Algonquin in New York, Little Gidding ... I’m a terrible tourist.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

I do think there’s a lot to be said for Joan Didion’s habit of rewriting from scratch every day. Not just rewriting, but retyping. You quickly learn what’s superfluous when you’re obliged to put in the labour.

Who do you admire the most?

As writers, I’m a huge admirer of Roddy Doyle, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright, Paul Murray and Sally Rooney. I read everything by Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth Strout and am a huge admirer of Marian Keyes’s comic brilliance, as well as her tireless support for her fellow writers.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

I’m very passionate about the great Australian writer Helen Garner, who really should be better known. Her books are wildly different – reportage, diaries, autobiographical fiction, sometimes experimental, sometimes more conventional – but she’s always fearless, tough and honest.

Your most treasured possession?

I try not to own anything that can’t be replaced but I do love my bicycle. I realise how banal that sounds but I bought it as a present to myself for my 40th birthday, and we’ve travelled untold miles together now. It’s the fate of all bicycles to get stolen and I dread the day because I’m very sentimental about it – “her”? “him”? – as you can probably tell.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

I have an early edition of The Whitsun Weddings, a 50th birthday present, which I treasure.

What is your favourite quotation?

Where to start? There’s a line in Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, which always makes me laugh and shows that some things never change: “Beer was served in jam-jars, which was an affectation of the highest order, since jam-jars were at that time in shorter supply than glasses and mugs.”

A book to make me laugh?

I’m currently reading The Trees by Percival Everett, a deeply strange and disturbing novel but with some of the best comic dialogue I’ve ever read. I’ve laughed and then felt horrified, sometimes on the same page.

A book that might move me to tears?

Two spring to mind. The closing pages of Helen Garner’s wonderful The Children’s Bach are exquisite, and the final chapters of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson get me every time. It’s pretty much a perfect novel.

You Are Here by David Nicholls is out now in trade paperback. David will be in conversation with Marian Keyes at the International Literature Festival Dublin on Monday, May 20th, in Merrion Square. Tickets available online