David Nicholls is the award-winning author of international bestseller One Day. In his latest novel, Us, a British couple travel through Europe in a bid to save their failing marriage. Nicholls, a previous attendee of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, will be in Dubai again this March for the event’s seventh edition. He shares his thoughts on the comedy of embarrassment and the joy of diversity
I try to resist national stereotypes, but there’s no denying that self-deprecation, irony, the comedy of embarrassment and failure are all British traits, and this is certainly something I’ve drawn upon [in my latest book]. Douglas, the lead character in Us, is no exception: anxious about doing and saying the right thing, unwilling to draw attention to himself. Yet his wife, Connie, is the exact opposite: brash, outspoken, unconventional, nonconformist. I think it’s fair to say that those are British traits, too. We produced both Jane Austen and punk, and both are entirely typical.
I was an actor before I was a writer, and spent eight years of my life struggling to perform, and yet rarely opened my mouth on stage. Now I’ve given that up and it seems I’m rarely not speaking. I don’t mind the public aspect too much. Writing fiction is solitary and sometimes a little lonely, a bit of a grind. Then every three or four years, a book is published, and it’s like coming out of hibernation, stepping, blinking and a little dazed, into the light. It’s nerve-wracking, tiring, too, when it involves travel, and I don’t like being away from my family. At the same time, I’ve seen some extraordinary places and met some wonderful people, and it’s always reassuring to meet readers and know that you’re not just shouting into the void.
Dubai was my first experience of this part of the world. I found it fascinating, sometimes challenging, too, but the exchange of opinions and ideas was very open and inspiring. On a more selfish, less principled level, I also loved the food, the accommodation and the climate. To be able to swim in March is a rare treat for an Englishman.
There’s no doubt that it’s a very different culture, and I should confess that the aspects of Dubai that are trumpeted most loudly – the skyscrapers, the malls, the man-made islands and indoor ski-slopes – are the things I like the least. Far more interesting to me are the harbour and the old part of town by Dubai Creek and, of course, the extraordinarily diverse mix of people. Dubai offers spectacle, a kind of glamour, a sense of many worlds and cultures colliding.
The books you read, the films and TV you absorb, the grammar and vocabulary of language, it all goes into your writing. My own writing, consciously or unconsciously, draws on Dickens and sitcom, Hollywood and French New Wave, soap opera and EM Forster, pop music and Bach. And it’s important to always be expanding those influences, sucking up new writing and culture, new places, new experiences. It happens to my characters, too. In Us, I’ve tried to write about what happens to a very English family when they’re dropped into unfamiliar cities – how new experiences shake them up, how the characters who return from their odyssey are very different from those who leave.
Dubai offers spectacle, a kind of glamour, and a sense of many worlds and cultures colliding
The books are rarely autobiographical, and Us is probably the furthest removed from my own life. But, yes, inevitably the writer’s preoccupations find their way on to the page, and I did find some passages affecting. An important part of Us is about the relationship between parents and children, and my own father died while I was completing the book. While there’s little in the novel that draws specifically from our relationship, it was still undoubtedly the most emotional thing I’ve written.