Perfect Pitch – Q&A with Nick Hornby

May 23, 2012

Arguably the best football book ever written Fever Pitch turns twenty this year and to mark the occasion Penguin are re-issuing a Modern Classic edition of a book whose unassuming creator now finds himself lining out alongside world class talents of the calibre of Camus, Orwell and Steinbeck. Nick Hornby also received the inaugural Outstanding Contribution to Sports Writing Award at The British Sports Book Awards on May 21st. He took time out to speak to Bert Wright about Fever Pitch.

Q Back in 1992, did you ever envisage such phenomenal success for a footie memoir which would go on to sell over a million copies, achieve cult status and break the mould for sports books?

A Well I was pretty sure I was on to something, something that was exclusively my own, where nothing was off limits. If I could capture the relationship between the crowd and the game, the terraces and the pitch, I thought such a book might find an audience. I felt I could represent the typical fan and that really hadn’t been done before.

Q So how easy was it for you to convince a publisher to see it your way? Publishers don’t always share writers’ light-bulb moments?

A Easier than I’d dared to imagine. A number of publishers seemed to like the book but a brilliant editor at Gollancz loved it and just “got” the idea of the book straight away. Liz Knights was the perfect sort of editor who understands what you’re trying to do, sees the opening and just lets you get on with it without wanting to make changes all over the place. Sadly, she died of cancer at forty-one, four years after the book was published.

Q Soccer fans of our generation will remember just how awful football books once were, all those hack hagiographies and boring annuals which found their way into your Christmas stocking. With Fever Pitch were you consciously trying to break the mould?

A I’ve always been obsessed with American popular culture, books, music, film and sport. And what I like about it is the democratic spirit that allows everything in, unlike here in the UK where you are expected to know your place and do what you’re supposed to be good at. In American nobody finds it strange that a great writer like John Updike should write about golf. There was also this British notion that some sports produced great books while others didn’t. Fishing, racing, cricket and golf mostly but why not football? And there were some great books on football, like Pete Davies’ All Played Out, about the 1990 World Cup which certainly helped me get Fever Pitch published. Also Eamon Dunphy’s Only A Game, Hunter Davies’ The Glory Game and Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy all of which I admired.

Q So was Fever Pitch the game-changer in British sports writing?

A I don’t know about that but publishers always take note of successful ideas and so do writers. There have been a lot similar books published since then I suppose; some good ones and some not so good I hear but if I opened any doors for others that’s fine.

Q Re-reading the book one is struck by the bygone footballing era it describes, because Fever Pitch antedates most of the big modern developments: all-seater stadia, the SKY/Premiership revolution, the Rise of The Oligarchs and the mass influx of foreign players. Manchester Utd have won twelve league titles post-Fever Pitch, for heaven’s sake. How do you feel reading it now?

A I rarely re-read any of my books but yes, as I’ve said before, I think more has changed in the twenty years since the book came out than in the previous hundred and many of these changes haven’t been for the better. I mean, you can see how the age demographic has changed. The crowds are much older because many youngsters can no longer afford the ticket prices. You would be mad to get nostalgic for the days when you were part of a solid mass of bodies lurching down the terracing. You forget how close to real danger fans were at times. It’s a wonder Heysel and Hillsborough situations didn’t develop more often. So while it’s easy to complain about prawn sandwiches and corporate boxes, watching football has become much safer at least. You mentioned “the great smell of brute”, the phrase I used in the book to describe the sense of menace in the old crowds, well you wouldn’t miss that either.

Q What about The Gunners? Surely that’s the biggest cultural change since the book was written. Back then you called Arsenal “boring and lucky and dirty and petulant and rich and mean.” Once the team every neutral loved to hate, Arsenal have become the team every neutral loves to love. How weird is that?

A That’s how it seemed at the time but the last twenty years have really been the best of our lifetimes. We’ve seen fantastic football, and we’ve seen our team win a lot of trophies, not in the last seven years, but the spending power of the oligarchs has made life very difficult for Arsenal. We are still great to watch I think. I can remember a 1995 FA Cup defeat to Milwall where we fielded a midfield of Parlour, Jensen, Hillier and Morrow. Within a handful of years, instead of those guys, we had Vieira, Petit, Ljungberg and Pires in the midfield so that’s the scale of the change and Arsene deserves huge credit for all of that.

Q Are you close to the manager?

A Obviously the book changed my relationship to the club. I know a lot of people involved with the club and I would be on nodding terms with Arsene Wenger but no, not close. I mean, I could probably call in tickets if I really needed them but I’m still a season ticket-holder, still live in the borough of Islington and never miss a home game with my wife and two sons who are also Arsenal fanatics.

Q You have said that Fever Pitch was an attempt to gain some kind of an angle on your obsession do does the fever still burn as fiercely as ever?

A Holidays still have to be planned around the fixtures list so in that sense yes, it does. But you see things differently twenty years on and you’re going to watch matches as a family. Last year, I took the boys to the Carling Cup Final and they were just devastated when we lost to Birmingham. I remember when my dad took me to the 1969 League Cup Final against Swindon, my first time at Wembley when, again, Arsenal lost late on and I was just as devastated. I bolted for the exits and when dad caught up with me he gave me a stern lecture on the value of sportsmanship which didn’t help my mood. I hope I handled the boys’ disappointment better but it’s hard to know.

Q How optimistic are you about the possibility of a resurgence at Arsenal?

A Watching Arsenal in the last twenty years has been a wonderful blessing, especially for someone who experienced the “boring boring Arsenal” years first-hand but the money pouring into the big clubs had complicated things for Arsenal. I don’t think we can go on consoling ourselves with the belief that third or fourth place is Just Like Winning a Trophy because it’s not. I also worry about keeping our best players when the wages on offer elsewhere are bound to influence them but you have to give Arsene Wenger credit for sticking to his basic philosophy. The other top teams haven’t been fantastic this year so yes, I remain optimistic.

Q Are you ever tempted to bring the story full-circle in a sequel volume to Fever Pitch? Do you get asked to do it?

A Yes, it’s been suggested but no, I haven’t been tempted because sequels are very rarely a good idea. I also know people at the club now and it would be difficult to get the necessary perspective and the book was all about a fan’s perspective. So no, no sequels.

Q Finally, looking back, how do you view the effects which Fever Pitch had on your career? Oftentimes, we hear artists lamenting the difficulties imposed by runaway first successes, the whole one-hit wonder, second-book syndrome thing. So, Fever Pitch, albatross or advantage?

A Definitely not an albatross, quite the opposite. It was brilliant for me. Doors started opening. I might never have got to do what I did subsequently without that big break-through. Writing fiction is totally different, of course; with nonfiction you know what happens next! But Fever Pitch helped me to become a novelist which is what I wanted to be in the first place.