To mark the publication of her novel The Awkward Age, Francesca Segal sat down with the great Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and Fever Pitch, in an exclusive interview for EW about literary influences, finding your voice, and how to use reading to make writing seductive again.
The Awkward Age, out May 16, follows a woman called Julia Alden as she falls in love with an American doctor named James — much to her 17-year-old daughter’s chagrin. Read more in Segal and Hornby’s conversation, below.
NICK HORNBY: The Awkward Age is the title of a Henry James novel. The Innocents, your first book, was also a film version of James’ Turn of the Screw. Is James your favorite writer? And who else has influenced you?
FRANCESCA SEGAL: Well, you have — but that’s a fairly awkward place to start. I do love Henry James (and he picks excellent titles) but there would need to be a fairly generous luggage allowance for him to make it on my desert island. Edith Wharton would be near the top of the list but so would AS Byatt, Salman Rushdie, Anne Tyler, Evelyn Waugh, Jennifer Egan, Rosamond Lehmann, Edward St Aubyn… I know you adore Anne Tyler. I think my Anne Tylers are you and AS Byatt. Those are the writers I turn to over and over and think, “How does this work? How is it all put together?”
NH: What had you written before The Innocents? It seems to me your voice was clear and formed in that first book. How did that happen?
FS: Thank you! I’d written a lot of journalism, and one execrable novel that I am thrilled never saw the light of day. Every time I unearth an old memory stick or hard drive, my first move is always to make sure any remaining copies of it are deleted, just in case. I will just have to trust the friends I sent it to not to use it as blackmail. Have you got anything stashed under the bed?
NH: All the things stashed under my bed are scripts. That’s what I started writing. My first book was Fever Pitch, but that voice had partly been formed by journalism, too. And then there are more recent scripts that haven’t been or won’t get made, for one reason or another. Books are long and hard, but completely independent of the whims of others.
FS: “Completely independent of the whims of others” is why writing fiction is such pure joy, for me. I am a control freak — the only colleagues I can tolerate are my own characters, over whom I at least exert partial control.
NH: Your new book is set mostly in London and partly in the U.S. — is that any sort of reflection of you? Your parents were American, right? Which parts of you and your writing do you owe to the U.S.?
FS: It is absolutely a reflection of me. When I see “Francesca Segal lives between New York and London” on my books, it always makes me picture some sort of tiny mid-Atlantic outpost — maybe a lighthouse, or a Tove Jansson-esque island — and that’s sometimes how it feels. I end up slightly homesick everywhere. When I am in New York, I miss my family in London. When I am in London, I long for the electricity and speed of New York. In terms of its influence upon my writing, it’s hard to trace, but I grew up with two sets of cultural references. Certainly, my formative childhood television was entirely American. All my summers and school holidays were spent in California so I missed whatever my British school friends were watching and was instead sprawled in front of the Cosbys or Kate & Allie. I came back to London every fall thinking it made me cool, but I think it probably just made me a little obnoxious, and slightly odd. And no one in London then knew the literary wonders of The Baby-Sitters Club.
NH: I suspect it’s too late for me and The Baby-Sitters Club. You have recently become a parent, but the agonies in The Awkward Age come from a later stage in parental life. How did the book start? With the kids, the parents, the situation?
FS: Too little, too late. Also, distressingly, there is no apostrophe in The Baby-Sitters Club, which should have been enough in itself to put me off. In my early youth, I obviously had less pedantic leanings.
The book started with the situation, which I found captivating and sad and funny and just generally excruciating when I first heard about it as a phenomenon. I think I read it in an article about blended families. Apparently, teen step-siblings often start relationships which, when one thinks about it, is almost inevitable: they are thrust together and told to be nice to one another, they’re not supervised as other teenagers spending time together might be, and they’re often resentful, feeling neglected and unsettled, and roiling with hormones. Forty percent of American marriages are step-marriages and so this is the landscape of modern family now — the sometimes inelegant, usually well-meaning knitting together of two halves. It felt worthy of emotional exploration.
NH: It’s such a wonderful idea, and I would never have guessed that it came from a newspaper article — it’s too well-imagined. You have four great lead characters, but the minor roles are fantastic. Julia’s in-laws are especially great, and I wonder whether that complicated relationship, between the parents of a dead son and his widow, was a key factor when you thought about who Julia was. Was she ever merely divorced, in your early thinking?
FS: Never. She was always a widow. It was how I saw their relationship from the beginning, mother and daughter alone together with all the intensity that shared grief would naturally engender. Yes, I am particularly fond of Philip and Iris, Julia’s in-laws, and the complexity of a relationship like that when it then loses its center. Are they still her in-laws if the man who bound them together is no longer there? I loved that complex devotion between Julia and her late husbands’ parents. It was somehow unexpected and yet felt right to me. And they are so generous with her, now that she has met James.
NH: What’s next?
FS: Next I’m giving myself an enforced period of creative sustenance rather than expenditure. Jane Smiley led a tour through 100 novels in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and I decided the other day, arbitrarily, that I am not allowed to start anything else until I’ve read another hundred novels — not Jane Smiley’s list necessarily, just any novels that cross my path. Forbidding myself is also a way of making it feel seductive again. Sooner or later the obsession will creep up again, and then I’ll start writing book three.