David Nicholls: ‘Gifting books feels like changing the music at someone else’s party’
The book I am currently reading
That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu, his tough, intense, poetic coming-of-age story. It’s demanding but powerful.
The book that changed my life
Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It was the first book I adapted for the screen and gave me the confidence to write something other than comedy. Adaptation does that sometimes – gives you a hand-up into new territory. Also Chapter 15 contains the germ of the idea for One Day, for which I will always be grateful.
The book I wish I’d written
There are hundreds, but looking at the shelves I’d say anything by Anne Enright, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Strout or Zadie Smith, plus John Cheever’s stories, especially Goodbye My Brother. I read these authors and think: “How do they do that?”
The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Great Expectations had a profound effect on me. I had no idea that “literature” could be so engaging and pertinent and it has always stayed with me. Unrequited love, father figures, the pain of adolescence, class and the folly of aimless aspiration; almost everything I’ve written has taken something from that book.
The book I think is most underrated
All of William Maxwell’s novels, in particular So Long, See You Tomorrow and Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge, a brilliant book about marriage that’s funny and heartbreaking on alternate pages.
The last book that made me cry
One particular paragraph in The Children’s Bach by the great – and also underrated – Helen Garner, a jewel of a novel about a perfect family falling apart.
The last book that made me laugh
Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, which is full of brilliant zingers, and Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, which has some of the same incisive wit. Also Caoilinn Hughes’s raucous, rude The Wild Laughter.
The book I couldn’t finish
Each year, I make a point of sitting down and reading the first quarter of Middlemarch. I turn the pages, thinking “this is just wonderful, a masterpiece” then just … stop. I think it’s the local politics. I will get to the end some day, but already suspect that the Reverend Casaubon isn’t going to complete his big project.
The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
I also love Anna Karenina, despite never having found the time to actually read it.
The book I give as a gift
When I was younger, I threw a lot of poetry around, leaving a trail of John Donne and EE Cummings and The Rattle Bag wherever I went. Now I tend not to give books as gifts as it always seems like an imposition. Read this! Read the book I’ve chosen for you! It feels like changing the music at someone else’s party.
The book I’d like to be remembered for
When people say “I’ve read your book”, I know which one they mean. I prefer the two that followed, Us and Sweet Sorrow, but don’t mind that it will probably be One Day or possibly Cloud Atlas.
My earliest reading memory
I vividly remember the intense melancholy of Moominland Midwinter, a deep Bergman-esque gloom that I relished, aged eight. I can tell you almost nothing about the story now but that blissful sadness is still with me. What a fun kid.
My comfort read
Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. I read it every year or so and recognise all its limitations but still love it, not least for its comedy; Salinger’s dialogue is superb. I might also have chosen Gatsby, but it’s a book that’s constantly changing. I reread it in lockdown and it seemed much harsher and more troubling than I remembered, and provided no comfort at all.