One Day author David Nicholls walked coast to coast and discovered a new novel on the way

One Day author David Nicholls, whose new book You Are Here is out now. Pic: Heikki Saukkomaa/Shutterstock (10457066d)One Day author David Nicholls, whose new book You Are Here is out now. Pic: Heikki Saukkomaa/Shutterstock (10457066d)
One Day author David Nicholls, whose new book You Are Here is out now. Pic: Heikki Saukkomaa/Shutterstock (10457066d)
The bestselling author tells Janet Christie how a solo walk inspired You Are Here

David Nicholls has a spring in his step, as he sets out for Scotland to promote his latest novel, You Are Here. His sixth book, it’s a story about relationships and love in its many forms and possibly his most upbeat yet.

“I wanted to write a spring novel, with a mood of renewal and new beginnings, and I wanted to write about loneliness and about the city and the country,” he says.

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It’s also very close to his heart in that it’s the story of two people walking The Coast to Coast 190-mile trail from Cumbria to Yorkshire made famous by fellwalker, guidebook author and illustrator Alfred Wainwright, a route the keen walker has tramped himself. As well as nailing the dialogue and dazzling with his wordplay, he paints a picture of the landscape so vivid you can almost smell the petrichor (earth after the rain).

Wry Northern geography teacher Michael and mouthy London copy editor Marnie, two people who don’t really want to be there but have been coaxed out of isolation to join a group trip, journey up hill and down dale and into idiosyncratic accommodation as they get to know the landscape, each other and themselves. Michael is keen on geology and the possibility of hiking alone to walk off a sadness produced by marriage breakdown and an assault, while Marnie has her own relationship trauma and a city girl attitude to the countryside that prompts her to say the kind of sacrilegious things about Alfred Wainwright that would shock the bobbles off the woolly hats of his legions of fans.

The author of the global bestselling novel and TV hit One Day (2009) and the Man Booker Prize long-listed Us (2014, with Tom Hollander, Saskia Reeves, Iain De Caestecker and Sofie Gråbøl), as well as Sweet Sorrow (2019), Starter for Ten (2003) and The Understudy (2005), Nicholls is also a master of screenplays with his own adaptation of One Day for Netflix (Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall), which he also executive-produced, plus Far from the Madding Crowd (starring Carey Mulligan), When Did You Last See Your Father?, Great Expectations, and his BAFTA winning adaptation of Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose (starring Benedict Cumberbatch).

Nicholls is about to appear at The Borders Book Festival and Aye Write, followed by an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August but his busy schedule means he won’t be able to add any of Scotland’s walking trails to his list, but he is looking forward to his visit, not least because “Edinburgh is obviously a very important city to me. I would love to spend more time there. And I would so love to walk in Scotland.”

One day.

David Nicholls is touring his new novel, You Are Here, set on the Coast to Coast walk across northern England. Pic: Sophia Spring/PA.David Nicholls is touring his new novel, You Are Here, set on the Coast to Coast walk across northern England. Pic: Sophia Spring/PA.
David Nicholls is touring his new novel, You Are Here, set on the Coast to Coast walk across northern England. Pic: Sophia Spring/PA.

So for those who haven’t read You Are Here yet, how would he describe it?

“I’d say it was a kind of close up, intimate love story that’s a celebration of conversation that takes place on an epic journey. Previously I’ve written about human relationships, and love stories in particular, as taking place in rooms, restaurants and bars in cities and all of my novels have been kind of urban, yet after lockdown I was desperate to get out more and travel so I wanted it to be a celebration of communication and connection and of nature. It’s about nature and the countryside and a celebration of a landscape.”

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So more ‘view with a view’ than Room with a View, a concept Nicholls is familiar with, having done many long hikes on annual forays, often undertaken solo.

“Usually in spring or autumn I block out four or five days and after a lot of time with maps and planning, get as far away from home as a morning’s train journey will allow, and see how far I can go. I just like that annual escape from my desk, although I love being around my family and hate being away longer than a few days. Time spent alone listening to music or walking in silence is very important to me. It’s definitely part of the writing process and I do prefer to go on long walks by myself. It’s a big event in my calendar. I love the absence of a sense of responsibility and just getting lost.”

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You Are Here by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20. Pic: ContributedYou Are Here by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20. Pic: Contributed
You Are Here by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20. Pic: Contributed
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For Michael and Marnie, walking is conducive to processing feelings and also communication, with Marnie tending to flamboyance that sparks off Michael’s dry melancholy.

“When you’re walking you go into a different zone and really open up,” says Nicholls. “It’s probably something to do with rhythm and movement, lack of eye contact and sheer volume of time you spend with each other. It’s almost like therapy. If Michael and Marnie sat opposite each other in a restaurant they’d have a pretty anxious time but being in nature and together for a long time they are able to speak in a way that’s much less self-conscious and they open up.”

“With Marnie I wanted someone who didn’t want to be there,” he laughs. “If it was about two enthusiasts it had the potential to be a bit boring and frictionless. And I probably have within me both of their attitudes. I do love living at home and reading, being comfortable and warm and having peace and quiet and control of the TV and what I eat. At the same time I completely understand Michael’s desire to walk things out and find that walking is the best way of relieving anxiety and stress. I’m a terrible insomniac and can only really sleep if I’ve been very active all day. It felt like a nice tension to have someone who isn’t used to the wind, rain, discomfort and distance and someone who doesn’t find it a particular hardship.”

David Nicholls with Netflix's adaption of One Day director Molly Manners and actors Ambika Mod, Nicole Taylor and Leo Woodall in 2024. Pic: Anthony Harvey/ShutterstockDavid Nicholls with Netflix's adaption of One Day director Molly Manners and actors Ambika Mod, Nicole Taylor and Leo Woodall in 2024. Pic: Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock
David Nicholls with Netflix's adaption of One Day director Molly Manners and actors Ambika Mod, Nicole Taylor and Leo Woodall in 2024. Pic: Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock

Light relief from the weather comes in the fast-paced back and forth dialogue of Michael and Marnie.

“I really did want people to laugh out loud. I felt like it had a sort of road movie, comedy energy really, a very slow moving road movie with set pieces and comic business.”

For the record his favourite road movie is Frank Capra’s 1938 It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

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“She’s rather snooty and he’s a hard-bitten journalist. I like the idea of a mismatched couple on a journey, that was definitely an energy, and I like repartee, people bouncing off each other and almost competing not to laugh. I like that battle element of dialogue and the pleasure they’re taking in each other’s conversation.”

Nicholls’ characters are built up from months of preparation, taking shape in 20-30,000 words of notes, including biographical notes, background and family connections, before he starts on chapter one.

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“I throw most of it away and the bits I don’t are the novel. I have to have a pretty strong sense of them physically I guess before I start to write.”

David Nicholls at the International Booker Prize 2023 winner ceremony at Sky Garden, London. Pic: David Parry/ShutterstockDavid Nicholls at the International Booker Prize 2023 winner ceremony at Sky Garden, London. Pic: David Parry/Shutterstock
David Nicholls at the International Booker Prize 2023 winner ceremony at Sky Garden, London. Pic: David Parry/Shutterstock

Could this be from Nicholls’ previous life as an actor in his twenties, before he became a writer.

“I guess so. I was never really called on to inhabit a role. I was pretty much a supernumerary. If you noticed me I was probably doing something wrong. But I did work a lot and think I was a quite good ensemble member. What I did do was watch 40 hours a week rehearsals and see amazing actors bring characters to life.”

Like his other books You Are Here is a love story, with laughter and sadness but doesn’t necessarily fit the genre of romcom.

“I guess I’m writing about relationships at different stages in our lives. In Starter for Ten the main character is 19 years old and in Us they’re in their late 50s. But I’m also trying to think a little more about relationships that aren’t romantic, family relationships and friendships. I think they’re all love stories but not solely concerned with romantic love. They’re about relationships in the broadest sense of the word.”

Why does he think his books and the TV versions are so popular?

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“I don’t know. I try not to think about it too much. And sometimes they aren’t. I really loved Sweet Sorrow, the book before this, but it never really took off in the way I had hoped but I still love the book and I’m very proud of it.

“I think I’m a good comic writer. I take my time and am careful to make it as good as it can be, as polished and funny and precise, but beyond that I wouldn’t want to speculate, except to say I am pleased when people identify with the books and recognise their own experiences and emotions. Because I do try and write outside myself. I’m not going to write a novel about a fiftysomething novelist in north London. I’m never going to do that. I want people to recognise other experiences as truthful and accurate so that’s the nicest response, a sense of recognition of people’s own lives and the lives of their friends and family.”

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Without giving anything away, it’s fair to say that You Are Here has a different atmosphere than previous books.

“I think we could maybe say that it’s more hopeful. It seems more people have taken the view that it’s an optimistic book. I’m aware I’ve not been terribly good at happy endings and even this one ends with an ellipsis, it’s a kind of ‘to be continued…’ I felt I was getting a little bit caught in endings that were more bitter than sweet and wanted to break out of that. I’m very happy writing in the realm of romantic comedy but never managing to pull off the kind of ending that makes romantic comedy so satisfying. This isn’t quite that, but it felt like I wanted to write a more hopeful book.”

As for plans to make a TV series or film of You Are Here, Nicholls is cautiously optimistic.

“I really loved both characters and I’d love them to have, not a new life, but a different life. It’s always a completely different experience, an adaptation. There’s nothing yet, but it has been talked about.”

In the meantime, Nicholls has his book to promote then back home in north London with Hannah, their teenage children’s exams to support, as well as an anxiety-inducing pile of books he’s eager to read, starting with Colm Toibin’s latest. Right now he has no plans for the next novel.

“It’s years and years and years of your life and I don’t know how many more novels I can write,” he says, “so it needs to be something I’m desperate to write and passionate about and I don’t have many of those. At the moment the idea of writing another book seems absurd. I’ve no idea what I might write about… But hopefully that will change.”

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Like You Are Here, his fans will be full of hope that that’s the case.

You Are Here is published by Hodder and Stoughton, hardback, £20

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David Nicholls will be at Borders book Festival, Thursday 13 June, 9pm, ticket prices £16 | £14, bordersbookfestival.org

You Are Here: David Nicholls, 14 June 2024. The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow City Centre, Aye Write.

David Nicholls, Edinburgh International Book Festival 2024, 10-25 August, www.edbookfest.co.uk

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