If his father hadn't cheated on his mother, Nick Hornby, the English novelist and screenwriter, might never have written the screenplay for Wild, whose two leads are up for Academy Awards on Sunday. That sounds like a random leap, I know. But Hornby's career is proof that no one gets into the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night without a series of twists and connections to propel them.
Hornby, 57, was in Toronto recently for an onstage chat at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which I moderated (we also did a private interview earlier that day). Modest, funny, unprepossessing, he wore a grey cardigan and mildly zany sneakers, and was fighting a case of the sniffles. His roundabout road to Wild, he told the capacity crowd, began with another movie he wrote, 2009's An Education. (Wild, as you probably know, is directed by Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a novice who hiked the gruelling Pacific Crest Trail. Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl, and Laura Dern plays her mother; they're nominated for best actress and supporting actress, respectively.)
In the mid-2000s, Hornby read a seven-page memoir by Lynn Barber in Granta that would eventually become An Education (starring Carey Mulligan as Jenny, a brilliant student who falls for a con man played by Peter Sarsgaard). He found it so electrifying that he convinced his wife, the producer Amanda Posey, to option it. But when Posey started to approach screenwriters, Hornby felt jealous – he realized he wanted to adapt it himself.
Now, a number of Hornby's bestselling novels have been turned into successful films: High Fidelity, starring John Cusack as a lovelorn record-store owner; About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant as a ne'er-do-well whose frosty heart is thawed by an earnest schoolboy (Nicholas Hoult); A Long Way Down, about four depressed Londoners who help one another not commit suicide; and the American version of Fever Pitch, starring Drew Barrymore as a baseball fan. But apart from an earlier, British adaptation of Fever Pitch, starring Colin Firth as a soccer fan – which happened at the beginning of his career, when he had a baby son and "was in no position to say no" – Hornby doesn't like to adapt his own books.
"It takes me two to three years to write a novel," he says. "A screenplay is 100 pages and takes five years. So [adapting your own work] is an eight-year project in which you write 300 pages, then take 200 of them out. I'd rather get on with the next thing than mess about with an old one."
Translating other people's work to the screen, however – that he likes. "However varied you try to make your work, you still bump up against the end of you," he says. "You keep knocking into a wall, and the wall is your own skull. But when you adapt somebody's work, it's like a door into somewhere else. It feels like a holiday from myself."
Screenwriting has its own battles – most often with people who don't believe, as Hornby fervently does, that small, real-life moments can be intensely dramatic.
"What you're looking for in a movie, or a book, is the defining moment of a character's life," he says. "It doesn't matter how big or small the incident is. As long as everyone's invested in it, and it feels authentic, a small moment can be emotionally completely devastating." In An Education, that moment comes when Jenny discovers, in the glove compartment of her lover's car, letters that reveal he's married. "One of the first directors we sent it to said, 'You've got to come up with something more dramatic than a glove compartment,'" Hornby says. But he stood firm. He knew it was enough.
"When I was 9, my mum found the truth about my dad in the glove compartment of our car," he explains. "My sister and I were sitting in the back seat when she found it." At this point, Hornby's shoulders are tensed, and he looks a bit ill. Clearly, he doesn't want to say much more, but the audience is craned forward, holding its breath. So I have to ask: What did she find?
"Because I'm a long way from home, I can tell you," he answers, slowly. "It was a birth certificate. For a child who was not my mother's. There's not much coming back from that." Hornby's parents divorced, and his father vanished from his life.
An Education – letters scene intact – arrived at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2009, with one goal: Land an American distributor. Almost the minute the first screening ended, they got one: Sony. The buyers felt it would earn Oscar nominations, they said. "To leap from the first screening right to Oscar – I just presumed it was complete pie in the sky," Hornby says.
But he soon realized Sony was right: "The Oscars are like a political campaign. You have to have the right candidates, and the people in Hollywood know what they are." The film landed nominations for Mulligan, Hornby and best picture. "The same thing happened with Wild," Hornby continues. "From the beginning, anyone could see Reese was going to be a candidate. In fact, if she hadn't gotten nominated, it would have meant that we'd all done something terribly wrong." The Oscars are a self-sustaining economy now: A film is made to be nominated, and then the nominations get it seen.
As part of An Education's campaign, Sony flew Hornby to L.A. for the heady roundelay of special screenings, glad-handing chats and schmoozy parties known as Oscar season. Amy Pascal, then studio chief (she recently resigned over the hacking scandal), held a swanky buffet lunch for the studio's nominees at her home. Hornby filled his plate, then turned around and froze. "I didn't know where to sit," he says. "On one sofa, George Clooney was in conversation with Jennifer Aniston. Meryl was talking to Spielberg. What was I to do, plunk myself into the middle?" He ended up next to Adam Sandler; they talked sports. But he also met a producer who would later option Hornby's novel Juliet, Naked. As they chatted, a woman on another sofa turned their way: Witherspoon.
"You're Nick Hornby," she stated. "I'm going to stand up." She stood. "I'm going to hug you." She hugged him. Turns out she'd read a short story, NippleJesus, that he'd written for Speaking with the Angel, a collection that benefited the school of his son, Danny, who's autistic. They exchanged e-mails, but nothing came of it – until Hornby read Strayed's memoir, and was electrified again.
Earlier, I said Hornby's road to Wild began with An Education. But I could just as easily argue that it began when Witherspoon read that story. Or perhaps it began with High Fidelity, with Hornby's passion for music. Strayed's writing reminded him of Bruce Springsteen's concerts at the end of the 1970s, Hornby says, "where there was all this fire and brimstone, but it was celebratory by the end, and it felt like you'd been on this journey." He phoned his agent to ask who owned the rights: Witherspoon. He flew to L.A. to pitch her.
"You have to have a big idea going in," he says, and his was all about music. Strayed wrote that a mixtape radio station played in her head as she hiked. As High Fidelity readers know, Hornby is a mixtape master. He knew just how the swirl of memory, music and literature should play in Cheryl's mind. Witherspoon went for it, and here we are.
Finding the beginning of anything is tricky, though. I could argue that Wild was born even earlier, in the dull bedroom community where Hornby grew up, which forced him to travel to London for every precious record and book he bought. Or maybe it began the first time he opened an Anne Tyler novel and saw how she plumbed "the ordinary and the real" in a way that made him believe that he, too, could be a writer.
The road from An Education led elsewhere as well: Hornby's new novel, Funny Girl, about a bombshell TV comedienne in 1960s England, was partly inspired when An Education's bombshell co-star, Rosamund Pike, told him, "rather plaintively, 'Nobody lets me be funny.'" Now Pike is up for an Oscar alongside Witherspoon, for Gone Girl. Last month, another film with a screenplay by Hornby – Brooklyn, about a woman (Saoirse Ronan) torn between her old life in Ireland and her new one in New York – had a triumphal Sundance premiere of its own. Twists and connections.
"I think firmly that art is no use to anyone unless it offers some kind of consolation or hope," Hornby sums up. "There have been long periods in my life which I found very difficult. So I try to write these little flames that I can believe in myself." The sparks land where they may.