Stretch on a 180-mile walk helped inspire a new novel

May 29, 2024 12:12 pm

[Source: CNN Entertainment]

Sometimes, it’s easier to be alone.

At least that’s what Marnie and Michael, the main characters in David Nicholls’ new novel “You Are Here,” have thought for years — until their mutual friend Cleo organizes a multi-day group hike across the English countryside.

“You Are Here” is, at its heart, a witty look at connections, missed opportunities, and the choices we make.

Article continues after advertisement

That’s not too surprising coming from Nicholls, whose 2009 novel “One Day” explored many of the same themes.

It reached the top of the New York Times bestsellers list and was turned into a movie with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess and, more recently, a series on Netflix.

In “You Are Here,” Michael is a 42-year-old geography teacher who lives in the city of York in England’s northeast.

Separated from his wife, and to avoid his empty house, Michael often goes on long walks alone.

Marnie, a 38-year-old proofreader and copyeditor, lives in London by herself following her divorce.

She laments her lapsed friendships but also relishes canceling plans and spending time alone in her apartment. She has a routine, after all.

When Michael joins Cleo’s group hike, he can’t wait for the others to finish up after a few days as planned, so he can complete the roughly 180-mile, coast-to-coast walk solo.

But then he meets Marnie, and the weather takes a turn, and his plans change.

The book was born from a few ideas Nicholls was considering — a melancholy urban love story about loneliness in middle age and how people seem to have withdrawn from social contact post-pandemic, and another idea about the countryside, Nicholls tells CNN.

“I thought, well, what happens if we put these city dwellers in the countryside and let them walk with each other?” says Nicholls.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the idea for “You Are Here” come from?

I’ve been walking by myself for about 10 or 11 years now — and, before that, going on a lot of walking holidays with my kids, much to their fury.

It’s something that’s become very important to me as I’ve gotten older and I did want to write about it, I just couldn’t quite work out what the story was.

I don’t think I’d ever read what is essentially a love story that happens to take place in the open.

Usually, we think of love stories as being metropolitan and urban — you know, that great tradition of city romcoms.

It felt like a funny idea to take some of that energy, but put it in a wet field.

So I then started thinking, well, what is the journey? The coast to coast has this kind of special resonance, a symbolism, a kind of mythology that seemed to fit.

So I walked the route and worked out who they were, and then dropped them into this landscape.

It was the most enjoyable writing experience I’ve had for a long time.

How long did it take you to do the coast to coast walk?

I did it in three acts. I did the lakes, the first stretch, and then the Dales and then I went back to do the North York moors and the coast.

It took 10 or 11 days.

It’s a wonderful walk, but it’s not the most beautiful walk in England.

There are nicer walks. The lake journey is absolutely beautiful.

But then there are some boring stretches as well and some quite urban stretches and melancholy stretches.

I took lots of photographs and inevitably my experience of walking it fed into the novel. I did get rained down on, on day two — torrential rain all day — so that the climb was horrific and miserable.

I’m sure those long, boring stretches can be very introspective, especially if you’re doing the walk by yourself.

Absolutely. I’m not a purist by any means — I check my phone, I listen to music and I listen to podcasts.

I have a strange relationship with solitude and melancholy in that for me it’s quite recreational.

I quite like the sadness of a small town in the rain — a particular English melancholy.

So there’s a certain amount of thought and contemplation. I rarely speak to anyone. I try not to go on social media. I limit the number of phone calls home.

It’s an important part of my writing process and my writing year as well. That feeling of melancholy is in the book. It’s largely a comedy, but I did also want to write about the times where you’re sort of running away from something, you’re not quite facing something.

What made you choose to focus on Marnie and Michael at this stage in their lives?

For my first three novels, I was very much writing about my own age — my experiences at that age. My first novel was about a 19-year-old, my second novel was about someone in their 20’s having a career crisis, my third novel was about approaching 40, when I myself was approaching 40. I wanted to try and break out of that.

This situation that they both find themselves in, which is lonely — unexpectedly lonely — seemed to me to be an interesting theme to explore and to give a kind of urgency to their story.

I was also very aware of working on this novel at the same time as we were starting to think of the TV adaptation of “One Day,” which is about the journey to this stage — about this sort of epic, 20-year stretch where you make the journey into adult life, and I wanted to write something that was more focused on early midlife.

The thing that I’ve been wrestling with, though, is that I have to accept that I’m a lot older than these characters now. I am 20 years older than Marnie. And so I am writing about something that isn’t my own experience. I’ve undoubtedly experienced loneliness — I think everyone has — but not at that stage of life.

So more and more as a writer now I’m trying to write away from my own experience, and not just replicate passages from my own life.

Connection is a central theme in “You Are Here.” Was this always the case? Why do you think people resonate so deeply with this theme?

“One Day” was all about what Marnie in the novel thinks of as the golden age of friendship.

You know, in your 20’s and 30’s, where it’s a very sociable world — you’re meeting new people, you’re revealing yourself and sharing music, sharing books. There’s a lot of passion and a lot of terrible mistakes and a lot of miscommunication, but there’s drama.

And the point in which Marnie and Michael’s contemporaries are settling down — settling into an ordered life, usually around family — they’re not quite where they expected to be. Their response to that is to be alone, to give up on new friendships, new relationships, communication.

Sometimes it is easier to do what Michael wants to do — to just wear the same shirt and not worry about your table manners and stay silent all day. There is a pleasure in that — in withdrawing from society, from communication. But there’s also a great joy and excitement to be gained from conversation, connection and communication.

Part of the seed of this novel came from lockdown, and how difficult I found conversation all of a sudden, how nervous I got going to a party, how anxious I got about seeing my friends, and how I wasn’t even sure, as Marnie describes it, what my face was doing or whether I was saying the right thing.

We all got a little bit self conscious and anxious about communication and connection. I wanted to extend that feeling beyond the pandemic, beyond lockdown.

So Marnie and Michael have decided that it’s easier to live without it — self-revelation, communication is something that they’re going to put to one side. It takes them a while to work up to it, but by the end of the novel, Marnie and Michael are communicating in a much more direct and frank and open way.

I wanted the book to be partly about the comedy of miscommunication — the things we don’t say or the things we say and regret. But also a celebration of open, frank, self-revealing communication.

You say you wanted the book to be in part about miscommunications and what ifs. What is it about these themes that drew you to them?

There’s a kind of phantom light that we all carry with us about the what ifs. The “what if I’d been a little more confident,” “what if I’d gotten out of that relationship,” “what if I’d said no rather than yes.”

That is a thing that comes up — it’s not something I feel particularly myself. You know, I used to feel rather sad about choices I’ve made and used to contemplate rewriting that part, redirecting my past and it’s something that can kind of haunt your life really. I feel it less now, I guess, because I found the thing I love doing and I count myself extremely lucky. I recognize the errors that I made along the way were kind of a requisite of being able to do what I do now.

But at the time they can really dig into you — those mistakes, those regrets — and certainly that’s the case with the characters. The bad marriage, the decision not to go to university, the unfortunate career choice — all of those things can dominate our lives.

That’s one of the main themes of this novel. That’s why the title works, why we settled on “You Are Here” rather than the original title, which was “Walking and Talking.”

It is about acceptance of where the characters are in their lives, but also a recognition that the future — the view ahead of them — might be somewhat different. So there is a possibility for change, that the bad marriage won’t necessarily recur, that there are other parts and other lives ahead of us. Which I think maybe is why it’s a more hopeful book than I’ve written before. You know, I was aware of writing a lot of rather downbeat endings, and I wanted this one to be a little more uplifting — not just the ending, but throughout.

The Netflix “One Day” series came out in February. How did it feel to revisit these characters and get back into that world 15 years later?

I have to say it’s been a really joyous experience. I think because I was only writing a small part of it. I contributed notes and I wrote one episode — but, generally speaking, there was a kind of acceptance that although I would be able to give notes, that my notes wouldn’t count any more than anyone else’s, and that it was fine to be defied. It was fine for people to say, “No, we’re going to do this a little bit different.” And they certainly did and that was great. It’s been a very happy collaboration.

It was also really lovely for me to go back and write for Emma and Dexter again, you know, as a different writer, as an older writer.

I was asked to do an episode and I went back to the notes for the first time in 15 years and opened it up and read those chapters. I didn’t read the whole thing, just that section of the story, and there was nothing really there to use. It wasn’t really dramatic. It wasn’t really anything that could work on screen. So I had to come up with new dialogue, new scenes, new encounters with Ambika (Mod) and Leo (Woodall) in mind, because we’d cast them by then.

A good adaptation should draw from the source material, but also should feel part of its own time. It should feel modern as well. I loved going back to Emma and Dexter with these new faces, with these new personalities — faithful to the book, but slightly different as well.

It must be a very different experience to revisit a book in a new format, but still be writing these characters in a certain way.

I loved having their voices (Emma and Dexter) in my head. I understand why people are wary of adaptations — because you have this perfect adaptation in your head, which you’ve taken from the page directly. There’s been no intervention, there’s been no interpretation of the character, no casting choices, no music. It’s a firsthand experience and a unique experience.

Then when you adapt something for the screen you’re introducing all these new voices, new elements, new takes — not just the script, but the lighting, the music, the set design — none of that is what you imagined. I think it’s important to embrace that. Otherwise, you’re just going to shake your fist at it for the whole running time. So it’s been a very good experience, they’re very talented people and I’m very lucky to work with them.

What do you hope readers take away from reading “You Are Here”?

Well, I tried quite hard to write something funny. I felt like the melancholy was taking over a little — and I did want it to be properly laugh out loud funny. So I hope they’ll laugh.

I hope they’ll get a sense of recognition from it, which I think more and more is what I’m striving for — a sense of, “I know what that feels like.”

The other thing I wanted to do with this book was to write something hopeful and joyous, and something with a view. I’m sounding very sentimental now, but I wanted it to be something that was warm and hopeful and joyous, despite all the rain.