Douglas Peterson is a worried man. Married to the love of his life Connie for over 21 years, his marriage now appears to be all but over. Their only son, 19-year-old Albie, is rebellious and is preparing to leave home, and Connie is planning to follow suit.
In a last-ditch attempt to rekindle the love in his marriage and repair a troubled relationship with his teenage son, the middle-aged scientist decides to take the family on a trip – a grand tour, if you may – of Europe’s major cities.
The plot of bestselling author David Nicholls’ latest novel Us is in some ways a logical culmination from his previous phenomenally popular One Day, which told the two-decade-long heartbreaking love story of Dexter and Emma, who struggled to get together. So, did he have this book in mind when he wrote One Day in 2009?
“Oh no,” says 47-year-old David, in an exclusive interview with Friday. “But if the engine for One Day was ‘will they get together?’ This one is ‘can they stay together?’
“Us is really a companion piece to One Day.”
Although the author had achieved some recognition for his earlier novels: Starter for Ten (2003) and The Understudy (2005) and for a number of screenplays including And When Did you Last See your Father? (2007) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008), it was One Day that catapulted him into the literary firmament and earned him millions of fans.
A phenomenal success, it sold more than five million copies, was translated into 37 languages, and was made into a Hollywood movie in 2011, starring Jim Sturgess and Oscar winning actress Anne Hathaway.
Was he surprised by the success of One Day? “Absolutely,” says David. “I still am. I knew that the structure of One Day – where the protagonists meet as students for the first time on July 15, 1988 and the story revisits the two on the same date over the next 20 years – was a good idea. And I knew that I was enjoying writing the book, which isn’t always the case but is always a good sign.
“But with One Day, as with everything I’ve written, you can never tell if you’re achieving the effect you want, or even if the book makes sense. So I was very, very lucky and I remain very grateful [to the readers].”
The genial British author admits that structure was only one of the factors in the book’s success.
“There was a combination of things; identification with the characters, a combination of comedy and more serious stuff, a strong structural idea, a ‘gimmick’ if you like. I think it was a twist on a familiar love story. But if I knew the exact answer to that question – why it was so successful – I’d probably be doing it all over again,” he says.
The idea of using the same calendar date each year in the life of the protagonists, as a thread to hold the entire story together, came from a passage in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, says David.
That passage had haunted him ever since he first read the novel as a teenager. “It seemed to contain a compelling, chilling truth – that while we mark the date of our birth each year, we unwittingly also go through the anniversary of our death every year.”
That idea provided the starting point for One Day, says the author, who lists the works of Charles Dickens and George Orwell as his first loves.
“Actually I enjoy a great deal of Twentieth century American fiction – [Philip] Roth, [John] Updike, [James] Salinger, John Cheever, James Salter. More recently I’ve come to admire Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro – beautiful prose stylists. Who else? [Thomas] Hardy, Muriel Spark, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Penelope Fitzgerald…”
This list from a man who moaned in a recent interview he was unable to read as much as he used to 10 years ago!
“There are two reasons I’m not able to read as much as I used to – a boy and a girl,” he admits. “Having children has pretty much eliminated the possibility of reading at evenings or weekends, and reading in bed tends to send me straight to sleep, no matter how great the book.”
But David, a self-confessed “terrible insomniac”, is happy that he is getting “a surprising amount of reading done now, between three and four in the morning.
“And if I’m not too tired, I set the alarm for half an hour earlier than I need to get up and try to read then.”
However, reading and writing novels are not his only passions. For those who came in late, David has scripted several TV series, including the hit comedy-drama Cold Feet, which earned him a nomination for a British Academy Television Craft Award for Best New Writer (Fiction), in 2000. He also co-wrote – with Matthew Warchus – the adapted screenplay of the Nick Nolte and Sharon Stone drama Simpatico.
And if that was not enough, he has also dabbled in acting under the stage name David Holdaway. So, has being an actor helped him in the process of writing screenplays?
“I was always a terrible actor, but I think I know when actors are enjoying themselves and I do my best to keep them happy. Dialogue is what I enjoy writing the most,” he says.
As an actor, David admits he “barely said a word, but it’s a luxury to now tell others what to say. And writing is what I truly enjoy doing”.
So which is his favourite book from his own written repertoire?
“Us, my latest,” he says. “It’s the book I’m proudest of. It feels like a step forward. I hope I can say that without sounding pompous.
“For all his foibles and neuroses, I love Douglas [the hero of Us] and was happy to spend that time with him.”
Was he under a lot of pressure when penning Us, particularly after the success of his earlier books?
“Yes,” admits David. “But in many ways that’s a luxurious position to be in. And I’d always rather follow-up a success than a failure.”
However, he is quick to add that he was never under pressure to rush into something just to cash in on the popularity wave. “I never felt any need to compromise, or publish a book just for the sake of it. I hate the idea of disappointing readers,” he says.
Another point he keeps in mind is to ensure he is not writing for any particular target audience.
“I always think that’s a mistake,” says David, who has fans from 15 to 80 writing to him in praise of his works. “Who can predict these things? One Day was a big success in Brazil, but it would be disastrous to sit down now and think ‘yep, Brazilian women between 21 and 36 are going to love this one’. I write the stories I want to write, and then I hope for the best.”
The seed for Us was born during his book tour of Europe with One Day. “I was touring, visiting wonderful cities that I should have gone to years ago, rushing around the landmarks and galleries if I had an afternoon off... I love exploring a new city – hell for me is a beach in August.” The experience led him to “want to write about the pleasures of travel, as well as the mishaps, frustrations and exhaustion.
“I also wanted to write about family – a family under pressure, and what could be more potentially fraught than a grand tour?”
So, are there shades of him in any of the characters that he has created? After all, David has admitted that he was constantly falling unsuccessfully in love…
“I tend to exaggerate those failures for comic effect,” says the author. “It’s the natural instinct of a writer to think of personal disaster as potential material; ‘that was awful, but I’ll get a chapter out of it’. So there are moments of personal experience in all my books, but nothing like a full-blown self-portrait.”
Then how would he like to classify his works? “I think it’s up to others to provide labels. I’m vaguely aware of occupying the middle ground between literary and popular, though I’m never quite sure what those terms mean,” he says.
“I’ve read literary books, which have seemed to me shallow and poorly written, and popular novels that are profound and written with great skill and flair. Certainly, popular’s always better than unpopular, but I hope there are ideas in there, too.”
At 47, David, unlike his protagonist in Us, who is worried about time slipping by, says he has no worries or anxieties about getting old. “Perhaps that’s all to come,” he says, admitting he runs, cycles, and thinks a little harder about what he eats.
And has he started thinking of the plot for his next book? “I wish I could,” he says. “But right now I have no time to think as I am so busy.” Maybe some experiences during the tour of Us will serve as inspiration.