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David Nicholls on the Fond Embarrassment of First Love and Community Theater

by on August 10, 2020

In David Nicholl’s hilarious and tender Sweet Sorrow, the impending marriage of thirty-eight year-old Charlie Lewis causes him to look back on his formative first relationship, a summer romance with a fellow cast member in a community theater production of Romeo and Juliet over twenty years earlier. As the present-day Charlie recalls the highs of falling in love with the ebullient Fran and the many embarrassments of his first foray into acting, he also recounts the darker moments of that summer: the loneliness of being left behind as his school friends prepared to leave for university and his recently divorced dad grappling with the collapse of his beloved record shop. The result is an emotionally rich look at a man reckoning with his past and the relationships that guided him to his present, one that stands proudly alongside Nicholls’ previous books, which include the beloved One Day and Starter for Ten. Booklist praised Sweet Sorrow for its “fully fleshed-out characters, terrific dialogue, bountiful humor, and genuinely affecting scenes,” and Amazon labeled it one of their Best Books of 2020. Brendan Dowling spoke to Nicholls via Skype on July 24th, 2020. Author photo courtesy of Sophia Spring.

Charlie describes himself at the beginning as a “vaguely familiar figure” with no “anecdotes or associations, no scandals or triumphs to their name.” What appealed to you about centering a novel around this character?

Often in a Shakespeare play there are these very secondary characters, like Benvolio, who don’t really seem to have much in the way of a quality to them. They’re sort of slightly in the background. If you’re an actor and you’re cast in these roles, you have to do quite a lot of work to uncover who they are, to endow them with qualities. I liked the idea of having this everyman character at the center. Actually he does have certain qualities. He’s quite courageous and loyal. He’s funny and he’s smart, but he’s just not aware [that he is]. I suppose it’s more about how he sees himself rather than how he is. He sees himself as unremarkable. I liked the idea of somebody who seems, at least to himself, a bit of a blank and grows into himself as the novel continues.

It’s so funny he recognizes a lot of qualities of  Benvolio in himself, calling him “a conformist” and “an observer.”

I auditioned for Romeo and Juliet several times, and always for Benvolio. He’s not as romantic as Romeo or Mercutio, not a particularly funny role, a commentator, someone you have to dig into a little bit to invent, to give them a personality. That’s just a much more interesting journey. When I was planning the novel, the idea was that he’d get cast as Romeo, and discover that he had this extraordinary talent. When I started writing it, I discovered it was much more plausible and interesting never to be revealed as a brilliant actor and never to find this talent in that respect, but to find out other qualities in himself.

How did your background in theater and acting influence this novel?

I had always wanted to write about putting on a play. I’ve had actors in previous novels, characters who’ve been involved in film and tv and theater, who usually fail. It’s a very hard thing to write, but it’s also really funny. It’s such a rich world, especially for plays when the production isn’t particularly good, there’s so much comedy in that. It seemed to me much more fun to write about young people putting on a play than adults, because it lends a kind of intensity to the experience, an earnestness that’s quite compelling. I suppose I wanted to try and work out why I loved it so much when I was fifteen or sixteen, because it wasn’t from going to the theater. I never went to the theater until I was eighteen or nineteen. I never sat in an auditorium and watched a play. So why did I decide that it was for me? I think it was something to do with the camaraderie and the friendship and the intensity of that experience. But it’s a very hard thing to put on the page. It can feel quite excluding. It can feel quite pretentious and precious. It can feel off-puttingly arty. At the same time, for a lot of people, it’s a very important rite of passage. So it was finding a way to write about it that wasn’t excluding for anyone who didn’t share that passion.

I’ve adapted Shakespeare before. I did a TV play based on Much Ado About Nothing, a modern rewrite. I wanted to write about Shakespeare again, but I didn’t want to write a novel where the action miraculously mimics Shakespeare’s plays, which quite often is the approach when people try to adapt Shakespeare. Rather I wanted to point out the differences in Shakespeare and real life. In Romeo and Juliet, they’re both hit by Cupid’s arrow and they fall in love. Whereas in real life, especially when you’re the age of Romeo and Juliet, it’s a much more tawdry, confusing, difficult, and embarrassing kind of experience, and I wanted to write about that as well. So writing about that particular play with performances at this particular age, that became a winning combination for me.

My experience as an actor—I was an actor for about eight years in my twenties—has constantly informed my writing.  Just through the mechanisms you have as an actor for creating a character, for working out what’s going on before the scene begins, all those things come through theater for me, the business of writing fiction. A lot of the techniques I use when I sit down to write a piece of prose come from the rehearsal process—improvising, inventing. It’s all proved useful, even though I had a horrible acting career. (laughs)

One of the real joys of the novel was how it celebrated a lot of the under-reported aspects of community theater, like the dip of the second show during a four-show run. It seems to be a real love letter to community theater.

I never wanted to jeer at amateur theatrics, I wanted it be a celebration. Neither did I want it to be the kind of production where at the end everyone stands up and goes, “It’s amazing!” and it transfers to the West End. That isn’t the point of community theater. The point of community theater is community, there’s a sense of everyone working together. The enmities, the fears, the friendships, the love affairs—all of the other stuff is as important to the participants as the idea of putting on a wonderful show. Of course you’re ambitious and you work hard, but it’s fine if the production isn’t the most extraordinary production. I was under no illusion that the plays I was in were great. What you wanted was someone to say afterwards, “You were really good.” That was enough.

It’s such a great thing for people, especially at that age, to learn the discipline of putting on a play, but a discipline that’s also playful, that’s not stern, that’s creative and collaborative. Even if you never go near a professional theater in your life, you get a great deal from stage managing, designing, getting the costumes, all of that stuff. I got so much from that when I was at school. If I’d never performed ever again or had anything to do with that business, it still would have been a character-forming experience.

The book tells the love story between Charlie and Fran, but it’s also a love story of friendship among Charlie and his new friends as well as the relationship between him and his father. Can you talk about what went into crafting these other equally important love stories in the book?

I saw it as three strands really. There was the first love strand, there was this business of finding a new group of friends who change Charlie’s life—in many ways in a much more material way than Fran, they really do rescue him—and then the third end of It, which is the family story. [The family story is] a journey from enmity and anguish and anger to a kind of acceptance and care. All three of those elements were there from the very beginning, they run right alongside each other.

I found that the father-son relationship was the one that changed the most when I was writing. That’s the one I was surprised by, the one I found most affecting. In the beginning he finds his father a bit pathetic, a bit weak, and embarrassing to be around. They learn to communicate while still making mistakes. The father doesn’t become heroic, he doesn’t snap out of it. He’s still depressed at the end of this story, but they’ve found a way of dealing with his condition in an honest and frank way. I didn’t want there to be any sense that the dad was cured—he isn’t. Charlie grows up and learns to talk to his father like another human being. I loved the idea of that all running parallel.

Also the idea of friendship being incredibly important. At that stage in my life, the point just before I went off to university, I was obsessed with my friends. It was overwhelming. I wrote letters, we talked for hours on the phone, and my heart would race when I’d see them. I wanted to get some of that intense platonic adolescent love in there as well, the way meeting someone can take over your life, even if it’s not a love affair.

The book is set in 1997. What was the experience of writing a book about being a teenager during a period where you weren’t a teenager?

I wonder sometimes if there’s a little bit of shock when this old man turns up who clearly wasn’t sixteen in 1997. My sixteenth year was 1983, and I’d written about the 1980s in my first novel, a novel called Starter for Ten. I felt that I’d mined that cultural moment and written about it quite a lot, the Thatcher years. I also didn’t want this to be a novel about a fifty-five year-old man looking back. I think it’s sometimes important, even if you do it quite artificially and self-consciously, to put some distance between you and your character so you’re not writing your own photograph, you’re not writing the family records. It seemed to me the narrator needed to be here rather than there.

I asked a lot of my younger friends, “What did you listen to in school discos in 1997?” It turns out that they pretty much listened to all of the same records as we did. They were still listening to “Come on Eileen,” “Twist and Shout,” so that didn’t change. The main difference I suppose were the eighties, my adolescence, were a very angry, quite defiant time and the mid-90s were much more culturally confident. Britain had a sort of artificial high, a kind of sugar high on its cultural success, its political change, its place in the world, a new government, and a new millennium. I think 1997, especially looking back now, was a time of optimism and confidence culturally. At the same time some things are universal. The passion you have for culture and music at that age is universal. In other words, things were reassuringly familiar.

In the book, Charlie is in his late 30s looking back on the summer he was 16. We get really intriguing clues about where he and other characters are in their present day lives throughout the book, but of course don’t find out the exact answers until the end. What went into structuring the book in terms of dropping these breadcrumbs about where people were in present day?

The very first draft of the book was very chronological, almost in a kind of Victorian way. Starting with “I am born,” and then a child growing up, and his parents drifting apart, and the story of his parent’s marriage. It meant you didn’t even get to see Fran until a good forty percent of the way through the novel. Clearly that wasn’t right.

The role of the narrator is a fascinating one, the narrative trope, because you want to know where they’re speaking from. Are they speaking from a prison cell or a mansion? The story you’re being told, the narrator has a point of view that is revealed as the story goes along. I find that really fascinating. It’s a technique that I always enjoy in other novels. In Great Expectations, you wonder where Pip is all that time. To me it’s a much more effective novel because it’s told from the point of view of a successful middle-aged merchant, rather than young teenage Pip or twentysomething Pip. All the way through there’s a question of where does he end up? I like the idea of a stew coming to a boil, that the present will bubble up more and more. That seemed to me a nice narrative trick. So the question you’re asking yourself all the way through is, “How do these people he meets then take him to where he is now?”

Also I didn’t want to write in the voice of an adolescent. I didn’t want to write from the point of view of someone very young. I didn’t want to write in that Holden Caulfield, authentic adolescent voice. I wanted to write in the voice of someone who is wistful, regretful, amused, a little bit wiser, but still with issues not solved or cured. Someone with things still going on in his life, but someone who had a certain distance from the past, so that he could look back at it with a certain eye of fond embarrassment, that’s kind of the key term.

I feel like that term  “fond embarrassment” sums up Charlie’s voice so perfectly.

There’s humor in that. There’s a sort of humor in the “what was I thinking quality” of it. At the same time I didn’t want to write a book about how the past is great. I don’t wish that I was sixteen. I think his ability to look back and be almost ashamed and regretful at some of the things he said is a common experience. At the end of the book he talks about how he finds himself reaching for the phone book at low points. When we’re not happy in the present we dig up the past. I wanted him to get better in the present and put the past to bed. It’s not about “I wish I was back there,” it’s about laying it to rest.

You’ve adapted a lot of literature for television and film. How has that work affected your approach to your writing in novels?

I was originally a screenwriter before I was a novelist. I wrote a lot of original television and a lot of TV series, so I learned my craft as a writer working on TV shows. I think you learn a certain economy. You learn structure. You’re very aware of voice. The first show I wrote for, I was writing for specific actors. You have to be able to impersonate them, take on their persona on the page. Without being pretentious, getting into character is quite a big part of writing.

When you write a script, everything you write, someone is going to ask, “Can you cut this?” Everything. Because everything you shoot has to do something. That isn’t the case with a novel. With a novel you have alternatives. Not everything has to be moving the story forward, that’s the great luxury. But there’s always a part of me asking, “What is this scene for? How can I come to into this later? Can people find that out at a different point? How can I get this information across in the most economical way?” A very important part of screenwriting is when to let the audience know things. Holding stuff back comes structurally from screenwriting.

From adaptation what I think I’ve got is a kind of confidence to widen my range. With Dickens or Hardy or Edward St. Aubyn or Shakespeare, these are all writers I love, they’ve allowed me to write about things that if it was just me alone in a room I probably wouldn’t feel confident about. I feel that having written about grief, alcoholism, ambition, and class in quite a serious way through the work of other writers has increased my own range as a novelist. I feel like I’ve been given a little leg up by all of those writers, a little encouragement, a little push. When you adapt you always have to invent stuff in the style and the voice of another writer. You often find yourself writing quite major scenes in a voice that isn’t necessarily your own. It’s a great exercise and I’ve learned so much from those brilliant novelists.

It seems there’s a parallel to learning an actor’s voice and writing for that actor and learning the author’s voice and writing for that authors.

I think what’s also analogous to that is also recognizing your limitations as well. I know there are things that aren’t my voice, that are outside my range. I don’t think I’d ever write an original historical novel for instance. I’m not going to write something in the eighteenth century. I learned that I probably wouldn’t write a first person female voice because I would be too self-conscious. Sometimes an actor takes on a role just to show that they can, and then it turns out they can’t. I’m wary of doing that as a writer. You want to be ambitious, but it’s important not do things that other people can do better.