Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Juliet, Naked": Three Writing Lessons From Nick Hornby

I received Juliet, Naked as a Valentine’s Day present, and it turned out to be a perfect one. This is the old Nick Hornby, writing about the things he loves as much as I do: music and relationships and life in small sea-side towns. Writing a book myself, I devised a brief curriculum in creative writing from the sheer delight that reading this novel gave me.

First: Do the work necessary to make your writing seem effortless.

This means avoiding clichés and finding fresh ways to tell your story. Take this random paragraph for instance:

Duncan had fallen asleep quickly, but she had lain awake, listening to him snoring and not liking him. Everyone disliked their partners at some time or another, she knew that. But she’d spent her hours in the dark wondering whether she’d ever liked him. Would it really have been so much worse to spend those years alone? Why did there have to be someone else in the room while she was eating, watching TV, sleeping? A partner was supposed to be some mark of success: anyone who shared a bed with someone on a nightly basis had proved herself capable in some way, no? Of something? But her relationship now seemed to her to betoken failure, not success. She and Duncan had ended up together because they were the last two people to be picked for a sports team, and she felt she was better at sports than that.

Duncan is obsessed with reclusive rocker Tucker Crowe, whose 20-year silence has just been broken with an album of demo versions of the songs on his classic heartbreak record Juliet. Duncan loves the unadorned ‘naked’ songs, and writes a paean to them on his Tucker Crowe website. Annie disagrees and writes a sharp little essay laying out the reasons, which boil down to -- finished songs are better than half-baked early versions, and these early stumbling efforts are really none of anyone’s business. Duncan is furious. But Tucker Crowe (who keeps up with his scattered internet fan base) loves it, and e-mails her to tell her so. Thus begins a courtship by mail and eventually a full-blown romance.

Here’s another grace note, with Annie thinking about Tucker, invoking jigsaw puzzles without ever mentioning them:

She told herself not to ask too many questions, even though there was so much she wanted to know about him. She liked to think she was curious about people, but her hunger for information went beyond curiosity: she wanted to piece the entirety of his adult life together, and she seemed to be lacking even the straight edges that would get her started.

That brings me to the next lesson:

Give your readers what they want. But still surprise them,

The premise of any book implies certain events and complications, certain moments we can’t help anticipating. In this book, we want Annie and Tucker to meet, we want them to fall in love, we want Tucker to sort out his complicated family (Five children by three wives). We want his son Jackson to like Annie and her dinky little sea-side village. We want Duncan to realize that his ex-girlfriend is entertaining the object of his decades-long monomania … in her small-town kitchen. We want Tucker and his greatest fan to meet. We want Tucker to take Annie away from the damp boredom of her provincial life and we want her to inspire new music from her aging paramour.

Spoilers ahead: it all happens.

But not quite as you expect, which brings me to the third lesson:

Be kind to your characters. Let them shine.

Even Duncan. Duncan could have been the book’s comic relief, the obsessive stalking admirer, who’d break into the house of the woman who inspired his idol’s greatest music, just to snoop in the closets; the fanboy who takes any disagreement about cultural trivia as a romantic deal-breaker. When he finally meets Tucker Crowe you fully expect him to make a fool out of himself. And he does – up to a point. He knows too much trivia, most of it false. He insists on Tucker showing him a passport to prove his identity, and he's as officious as a customs agent as he inspects the picture ID. But there’s more to Duncan than abstract, gossip-grinding adoration. There’s a kind of tough-minded purity to his admiration. Listen:

“All I can say in my defense is that … well, you asked us to listen. And some of us listened a little too hard. This will probably sound silly and not what you want to hear. But I’m not the only person who thinks you’re a genius. And while you might think we’re … we’re inadequate as people, we’re not necessarily the worst judges in the world. We read and watch movies and think, and … I probably blew it as far as you’re concerned with my silly Naked review, which was written at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. But the original album … Do you even know how dense that was? I still haven’t peeled it all away, I don’t think, after all this time. I don’t pretend to understand what those songs meant to you, but it’s the forms of expression you chose, the allusions, the musical references. That’s what makes it art. To my mind. And … sorry, sorry, one last thing. I don’t think people with talent necessarily value it, because it all comes so easy to them., and we never value things that come easy to us. But I value what you did on that album more highly, I think, than anything else I’ve heard. So thank you. And now I think I should leave. But I couldn’t meet you without telling you all that

And you can’t help thinking – "All right! Go, Duncan." We all have someone, some artist, we want to make this speech to. I actually said something like it to John Fowles, after searching him out in Lyme Regis during the summer of 1972. Duncan rose to the occasion much better than I did, and Hornby uses the moment to engage us with Duncan, and make us respect him and even love him a little, just as Annie does. The speech affects Tucker also:

It had never occurred to him that his work was redeemable, or that he was redeemable through his work. But as he listened that afternoon to an articulate, nerdy man tell him over and over again why he was a genius, he could feel himself hoping that it might actually be true.

So Hornby teaches by example: he lets his characters shine, gives us what we want but still surprises us, in a meticulously crafted but apparently effortless novel that keeps us giddy with the pleasures of literature from the first page to the last. Now all I have to do is apply those lessons to my own book. A daunting task. Maybe I’ll re-read Juliet, Naked again, first.

And take better notes this time.

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