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Writer Nick Hornby On 'High Fidelity' And Pop Culture Obsession


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry GROSS.


ZOE KRAVITZ: (As Rob) Desert island all-time top five most memorable heartbreaks in chronological order are as follows - Kevin Bannister (ph), Cat Monroe (ph), Simon Miller (ph)...

BIANCULLI: That's Zoe Kravitz as the lead character in the new Hulu series "High Fidelity," which streams its entire season today. She's playing the same role John Cusack played in the 2000 movie version of "High Fidelity" - the owner of a used record store, who has very strong and specific opinions about music, romance and lots of other things. It's an attention-getting approach to casting, going from a white man to a black woman, but there's a universality to the character's attitudes and obsessive top five lists. They come straight from the 1995 novel "High Fidelity," written by British writer Nick Hornby. We'll hear from him in a moment.

But first, here's a scene from the Hulu series with Zoe Kravitz as the list-obsessed central character from "High Fidelity."


KRAVITZ: (As Rob) Here's how not to plan a career - one, split up with girlfriend; two, ditch college; three, go to work in struggling record shop; four, become owner of said record shop and stay there for rest of life; and five - well, there is no five.

BIANCULLI: This new Hulu "High Fidelity" TV series arrives 20 years after the movie version with John Cusack, and it arrives 25 years after Nick Hornby first published his "High Fidelity" novel. That was in 1995, and that's also when Terry Gross spoke with Nick Hornby. She asked him to read a passage from his then-new novel, showing how Rob and his record store employees, Dick and Barry, judged people by their tastes in popular culture.


NICK HORNBY: (Reading) A while back, when the Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for prospective partners, a two- or three-page multiple-choice document that covered all the music, film, TV, book bases. It was intended, A, to dispense with awkward conversation and, B, to prevent a chap from leaping into bed with somebody who might, at a later date, turn out to have every Julio Iglesias record ever made. It amused us at the time, although Barry being Barry went one stage further; he compiled the questionnaire and presented it to some poor woman he was interested in, and she hit him with it. But there was an important and essential truth contained in the idea, and the truth was that these things matter, and it's no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films wouldn't even speak to each other if they met at a party.

TERRY GROSS: Well, that's the theory of how his relationships work - you know, you have to find somebody whose taste conforms to yours, and taste is everything. Let's hear how this works in practice. I'm going to ask you to skip ahead to Page 161, when a friend of the main character's, you know, has met a woman. The problem is, this woman doesn't have very good taste in music. Why don't you read it?

HORNBY: (Reading) And as a Simple Minds fan, Dick confides. Oh, right. I don't know what to say. This, in our universe, is a staggering piece of information. We hate Simple Minds. They were No. 1 in our top five bands or musicians who'll have to be shot come the musical revolution - Michael Bolton; U2; Bryan Adams; and surprise, surprise, Genesis were tucked in behind them. Barry wanted to shoot the Beatles, but I pointed out that someone had already done it. It is as hard for me to understand how he's ended up with a Simple Minds fan as it would be to fathom how he'd paired off with one of the royal family or a member of the shadow cabinet. It's not the attraction that baffles so much as how on earth they got together in the first place.

GROSS: Well, Nick Hornby (laughter), is this an obsession you understand, measuring the whole world by taste?

HORNBY: I understand it; I don't necessarily share it, but I've certainly had my moments, I think.

GROSS: How obsessed are you with your favorites in books, records, television, movies and other people's?

HORNBY: I'm always very interested in other people's stuff, and I guess it's something that I want to know fairly quickly. But I don't think I'm alone in this, and I think a lot of men in particular are like that, and they'd rather kind of cut to the chase in conversation and just get people to list things, really.

GROSS: So do you think that the male aspect is the list aspect, you know, the quantifying aspect or just the obsession with taste?

HORNBY: I think the quantifying aspect is very important.

GROSS: Now, I confess, I really am baffled when people get together who don't share the same taste. I mean, if somebody, like, is obsessed with movies and starts a relationship with someone who doesn't like to go to the movies, you wonder are their inner lives compatible?

HORNBY: (Laughter) Yeah, I would say that they probably aren't. I think it probably gets easier as you get older to form relationships and to find points of contact that aren't based on taste. But I think at the times when one is forming relationships, these things are very important.

GROSS: Pauline Kael, the film critic, once wrote in one of her essays that - I think she broke up with someone after they saw "West Side Story" together because he loved the film and she detested it, and she just (laughter) couldn't imagine seeing him any more after that. Have you ever been through something like that?

HORNBY: No, a friend has. Quite recently, they had an argument because a woman described a TV movie as a great film. And you could feel the doubt in his voice, you know, from a very early stage from there after, and it really didn't last very long.

GROSS: Why don't you describe the record store that your main character owns, Championship Vinyl?

HORNBY: Well, it's a rather seedy secondhand store for collectors, really, and it sells pretty well all vinyl, I would imagine. They don't have that conversation, but when I imagined it in my head, it's just rack-fulls of vinyl. It's pretty empty most of the time. So the three guys who work there spend most of their time arguing with each other, and they don't make a lot of sales. And it sells, I suppose, the pop music canon. You know, if Harold Bloom has a canon, these guys have a canon. And it's kind of R&B, new wave, '60s rock - all the kinds of things that rock critics would approve of, really.

GROSS: Plus a little ska.

HORNBY: Oh, yeah, yeah.


GROSS: Now, some of the customers in this record store are people who, really, virtually have no life outside of looking for rare singles. About one customer, the main character thinks, (reading) I can't imagine telling him anything of a remotely personal nature, that I had a mother and father, say, or that I'd been to school when I was younger. I reckon he'd just blush and stammer and ask if I'd heard the new Lemonheads album.

(Laughter) What made you think of a character like that? Do you find a lot of people like that who seem to have no life and who live in book or record stores?

HORNBY: Yeah, well, it was the thing I guess that interested me about people like the characters in the book, is that what they listen to all the time is incredibly emotive and yet they're very anal about stuff. And so there's this great dissonance between the music and its consumers, and it was that sort of area that I wanted to write about.

GROSS: You know, I find with people who are obsessive about music or books or whatever, that there's the kind of person who just has the list who just has the lists, who just has - well, these are my favorites. I like this; I don't like that. And then there's a person who has just a whole kind of constellation of thoughts surrounding it and for who those lists represent a kind of, like, deep inner life and a rich sensibility. Do you know what I mean?

HORNBY: Oh, sure. I mean, I guess it's the difference between a rock critic and a rock fan a lot of the time. I think music is a terribly hard thing to write about. And people like Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus, who are capable of these - I mean, they have very defined taste, but they are capable of striking sparks and thoughts off their lists, as it were, whereas there's a sort of lumpen rock fan who just can't do anything with a list apart from know that this is the stuff he likes.

GROSS: One of his early girlfriends back in 1973, her top five recording artists were Carly Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Elton John. And the main character thinks, I can imagine what sort of person she became - a nice person.


GROSS: Tell me how you chose that list for this early girlfriend.

HORNBY: Well, I guess that was pretty much a composite of the record collections that I saw in girlfriends' bedrooms at the time in the mid-'70s. They were all - one of those artists was always represented in any collection that I saw.

GROSS: You know, an interesting thing is, a lot of times - and I think this is particularly true of boys and men - they want to be the mentor in a relationship. So they'll almost, like, seek out somebody who's younger or at least more inexperienced or uneducated in something so that they can teach them.

HORNBY: Yeah, I think that's very interesting, and I think it's very representative of very common male behavior. And in the book, in "High Fidelity," Rob Fleming spends a lot of his time making compilation tapes for women that he meets. And it's - you know, I guess it's like - in a way, in a rather unpleasant way, it's like dogs and lampposts and setting your mark in some way.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HORNBY: And to that extent, virgin ears are very important to that kind of man.

GROSS: Tell us more about the compilation tapes he makes and how he uses them.

HORNBY: Well, they are a kind of means of seduction. And he meets Laura, who's the other central character in the book, at a club where he's a DJ, and he offers to make her a compilation tape of the music that she's been listening to and dancing to in this club. And so that becomes a very important thing, that he has introduced her to all sorts of things. And then there's an echo of that later on, where he meets somebody else and he finds himself making a tape for her, too, and Laura sees him and knows exactly what he's doing.

But he has very strict rules about compilation types, about what kind of music can go next to what kind of music. And he can't have black music and white music together, and you can't have fast stuff and slow stuff together; he has to build all these little bridges between tracks. So he's very finicky about the compilation tapes.

GROSS: You know, I have to tell you, I've always found that kind of - that male urge to mentor a girlfriend kind of irritating.

HORNBY: Yeah, I should think it is, actually.

GROSS: Yeah. It's like you - like somebody who doesn't want an equal, so someone who doesn't want somebody they can share an interest with, but they want to be able to, like, teach it.

HORNBY: Yeah. Really, you're trying to turn the other person into a female version of yourself, which kind of defeats the point of the relationship, really.

GROSS: Exactly.


GROSS: Right.

BIANCULLI: British author Nick Hornby speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1995 interview with British writer Nick Hornby. His book "High Fidelity," already adapted into a 2000 movie starring John Cusack, has just been remade as a new Hulu series starring Zoe Kravitz in the formerly male leading role. The series premieres today on the Hulu streaming service.


GROSS: Now, what about your top five singles of all time? Do you have such a list?

HORNBY: I guess the permanent No. 1 is Marvin Gaye, "Let's Get It On," which I think is the greatest piece of pop music ever made. And then the four after that change periodically. But there's always something like "Hey Jude" in there. And I have a residual fondness for "Maggie May" by Rod Stewart. So those three are always there or thereabouts.

GROSS: Now, your main character not only divides pop culture into top five lists, he divides up his life that way, too. And the book starts with, my desert island all-time top five most memorable split-ups in chronological order - and then the list are the five women or girls (laughter) who left him during his formative years. Did you ever find yourself doing that in real life, or is this just an extreme you invented for your character?

HORNBY: (Laughter) This is something I invented for the character, yeah. No, I tend to try and forget as quickly as possible. But...


HORNBY: No, I think it's something that he would do, and it's another difference between him and me.

GROSS: Now, when you were writing this book, did you have to do any research, so to speak? Did you hang out at a record store or observe certain people who you thought were really close to the character that you created for your book? Or did you just already know all this stuff inside out?

HORNBY: I think, really, I knew this stuff inside out. There's some stuff about women's underwear in there, which...

GROSS: Oh, I was just going to mention that.


GROSS: I was just going to - that's a really funny part. I mean, this is a character who is really disappointed because, you know, he finally figures out that women save their best, really sexy lingerie for Saturday nights when they expect to actually be sleeping with someone. But then when you actually move in with the woman, there's these kind of, like, tattered, torn undies all over the radiators hanging up to dry (laughter).

HORNBY: Yeah. I mean, that was something that obviously came from bitter experience. But...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HORNBY: But I did check it out with a lot of women friends, and so that was my one piece of research, was to ask women about their underwear.

GROSS: And did they concur that that was true?

HORNBY: Yeah, they did. Yeah.


HORNBY: I'm getting a nod here from the studio as well.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's embarrassing but true.

GROSS: This is your - that was your engineer (laughter)...

HORNBY: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: ...In England nodding?

HORNBY: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: So how big is your record collection? I'll move the subject...

HORNBY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Off of underwear for a while.


HORNBY: Well, I guess I have 700 or 800 vinyl albums and a few hundred CDs and quite a few tapes, as well, so - I've got to the stage when I have most of the things I want, really.

GROSS: That's actually pretty modest for a - by collecting standards.

HORNBY: Yeah. I'm not really a collector, and I have ditched loads of stuff as I've got older, which Rob Fleming, the guy in the book, would never do. I mean, he'd never get rid of anything - and because he uses his records as a kind of autobiography, whereas I practiced a sort of Stalinist rewriting of history.

GROSS: (Laughter).


GROSS: What do you mean?

HORNBY: Well, so, you know, you sell all the dodgy heavy metal albums, all the Black Sabbath records I bought when I was 16, and they are now no longer to be found in my record collection.


GROSS: Did you ever have to divide up a record collection after living with somebody for an amount of time?

HORNBY: No. I've always kept things very separate.

GROSS: Now, how do you keep your record collection - just alphabetized straightforwardly?

HORNBY: Alphabetized but with the first names first. So Bob Dylan would be under B.

GROSS: What (laughter)?



HORNBY: Because (laughter) I've always had a problem...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HORNBY: I've always found this problem with certain artist groups like - you know, like the J. Geils Band. If you walk into a record store, you never know whether to go to J or G. And it's firmly under J in my collection. I think it makes sense.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Well, I guess this answers the Sun Ra question. I mean, it would...

HORNBY: (Laughter) Absolutely.

GROSS: ...Help you deal with that.

HORNBY: Sun Ra - there's a band that used to be here called Danny Wilson, and everyone in the record store thought that Danny Wilson was a solo artist, so they always put their records on the W. But it was actually from the Frank Sinatra film...

GROSS: Right.

HORNBY: ..."Meet Danny Wilson." So, again, you see, that's the kind of little problem that this clears up. And I recommend it to all your listeners.

GROSS: Your main character in your novel works in a record store, then owns a record store. A lot of people, particularly, like writers, musicians, often work in book or record stores before being able to make a living as a performer or a writer. You apparently didn't go that route, but what kind of jobs did you have before you actually were able to make a living as a writer?

HORNBY: Well, I was a teacher for some years. And later on, as I started to write a bit more, I was a part-time teacher. And then I got a job working for a very large Korean multinational company as a kind of dogsbody.

GROSS: Excuse me, a what?

HORNBY: An English expression - a dogsbody, where, you know, you just do what they tell you to do. But anything where it was easier to be English than to be Korean, then I did the job. So I did a lot of letter writing and some speech writing and shopping and arranging and all kinds of things like that. I was actually paid very well, and I didn't have to work very many hours, so it was an ideal job. That was the last job I had before I became a full-time writer.

GROSS: Now, did you know then you wanted to write?

HORNBY: I'd always wanted to write since I was about 16 or 17, I guess like most people do. And also, like most people, I actually didn't do a thing about it. Each new job that I got, I just thought, well, I'm going to be a writer someday. And then it occurred to me that I actually had to sit down and do some stuff if that was ever going to happen. So it took me a long time before I sat down and did it, but I'd known for a long time that I wanted to.

GROSS: Well, Nick Hornby, I'd like to end with one of your favorite records. You want to choose a record to end with? It could be your favorite single of all time or something else.

HORNBY: Well, I think I'd choose the favorite singer of all time. I'd like to hear "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye.

GROSS: And defend your choice.

HORNBY: Because it's sort of 3 1/2 minutes long, which is the length that pop music should be. It has more voices than just about any other record since the Hallelujah Chorus. And they're all Marvin Gaye's voice, which is a beautiful voice. And it's a very sexy record. So...

GROSS: I want to thank you a whole lot for talking with us.

HORNBY: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Nick Hornby spoke to Terry Gross in 1995. His novel "High Fidelity" has just been remade as a new streaming series premiering today on Hulu starring Zoe Kravitz in the role originated on film by John Cusack.

After a break, we remember the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Joseph Shabalala, who died Tuesday. And film critic Justin Chang reviews the movie "And Then We Danced," set in the country of Georgia. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) I've been really trying, baby - trying to hold back this feeling for so long. And if you feel like I feel, baby, then come on, oh, come on. Let's get it on. Oh, baby, let's get it on. Let's love, baby. Let's get it on, sugar. Let's get it on. We're all sensitive people with so much to give. Understand me, sugar. Since we've got to be here... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.