It's fair to say that when David Nicholls touches down in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month, he will arrive as the most successful novelist on the programme. Last year, his best-seller One Day was not only the UK's most popular book, selling almost a million copies, but had readers across the world wiping away a tear as it reached its captivating denouement. And then, of course, there was the film, starring Jim Sturgess, and, controversially, Anne Hathaway.
Ah yes, the film. It's always something of a gamble to adapt an incredibly popular contemporary novel - witness the lukewarm reaction to Alice Sebald's The Lovely Bones or Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife - but One Day, the movie, upset more than most.
"I think there was always this awareness from everyone involved that the more loved the book became, the greater the danger we would upset its fans," says Nicholls now. "I really like it. I think you just have to accept that getting 400 pages into 100 minutes is always going to involve changes and cuts."
Nicholls has to put a positive spin on the film; he was heavily involved in it. But he also thinks this may be the last time he adapts his own book (he did the same with Starter for Ten). "Too stressful, and maybe the changes are better left to someone else," he says.
But it's tempting to suggest that whoever had written a One Day screenplay would have faced the same problem; the brilliance of the book lies not only in the proprietorial feelings it engenders in its readers towards the two protagonists, Dexter and Emma, and the ebb and flow of their relationship. The construct - they first encounter each other at university in 1988, and their lives are revisited on the same day on each of the following 20 years - also allowed Nicholls to explore the passing of time, the way hopes and aspirations evolve and change, even the social landscape of Britain. Not so easy to capture in a 100-minute film.
Nevertheless, the huge success of the book is something that Nicholls has found fantastically bizarre. When he set out to write One Day, he was in his early 40s and thought it would only make sense to people who shared his reference points and experiences - people who could also look back with horror at what they wore and how they thought and behaved as twenty-somethings in the 1990s.
"And yet, apparently, it has quite a following with late teenage girls," he laughs. "I suppose that's because in some ways it is a very familiar story of two people who should be together but aren't, and overcome various obstacles to find that there is a link between them. For some, that is the archetypal love story."
I'd argue with this reading of One Day. Nicholls' book is romantic, but in a compellingly cynical way. Emma is less than impressed to the point of petulance by any suggestion of "settling down", while Dexter is constantly on the lookout for the next conquest. In fact, as Nicholls points out, they're actually together, in the same room, for less than half the book. There's a memorable and rather melancholy chapter where Emma finally sees Dexter for what he is at that point in his life ... and doesn't like it at all. Not the usual romcom fare, then.
"No, but I actually imagined One Day as more of a redemption story. So even though Dexter can be obnoxious, self-involved, promiscuous and often inebriated, he has a kind of awareness of his awfulness, that this is a phase, a performance, something he has to go through. So really it's about the struggle of a man to become a better person, a mature, intelligent human being."
Which ties in neatly with the project Nicholls is currently working on: a film version of Charles Dickens' timeless tale of a man's coming of age, Great Expectations, starring Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. He thinks the book is a "brilliant, unsentimental story about unrequited love, hope and longing", so it should surprise no one to learn there are also two epigraphs from Great Expectations in One Day - although the actual inspiration came from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Such enjoyable nods to literary history - Nicholls calls them "echoes" - do make it something of a shame that the film work (although not Bridget Jones 3, he's keen to stress) is currently taking precedence over the tricky matter of writing a new novel.
That will come, Nicholls says, when he finds a story that is "original enough for me to enjoy writing it". But he is more than aware that One Day was so widely read and so loved, that people might like to read more.
"The thing is, when I was 21 I had a conversation where me and my friends tried to predict where we'd be when we were 40," he says. "And I found even the idea of reaching 40 to be so fanciful and bizarre. The idea of becoming a father, writing a book ... you find yourself sliding into these roles that you don't necessarily expect, don't you?"
The problem is, people now expect a lot from David Nicholls.
- David Nicholls appears at the Emirates Festival of Literature (www.eaifl.com) on March 7 and 8
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