The One Day author on coming to realise his love of writing through a floundering acting career, and his five island books.
Desert Island Books: David Nicholls
Although he claims to be a "slow, laborious reader", the author David Nicholls, recently in Dubai for the Emirates Festival of Literature 2012, admits that at certain times in his life, books were his refuge. "I used to haunt the libraries when I was younger," he says. "During certain periods of my life I was there four or five times a week. I would plough through everything – horror stories, science fiction and factual books, but mainly fiction." The only type of book he doesn't enjoy reading is romantic novels.
It's interesting then that the Hampshire-born, 45-year-old author and screenwriter is probably best known for the romantic novel One Day (2009), which made best-seller lists around the world and was turned into a film starring Anne Hathaway.
"I don't even know if I would pick up One Day if I hadn't written it," Nicholls says. "I hate sentiment in writing." He thinks for a moment: "But I do like love stories that are romantic in spite of themselves."
Nicholls was 30 when he turned to writing full time. Before that he'd been a bit-part actor, eking out a living in London for eight years by doing part-time jobs in restaurants and bookshops. He recalls how he was working in a restaurant when he wrote a script called Waiting, an ensemble comedy, and was paid £100 (Dh583) by the BBC for an option on it. Although it has never been made, it was at that point that he felt justified in calling himself a writer. "I'd realised that what I actually loved about acting was the writing," he says. Nicholls tells Erin McCafferty about his choices for Desert Island Books.
TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES by Thomas Hardy
I read this when I was 17 and it had a huge impact on me. Tess is a love story but it's not romantic in a "hearts and flowers" type of way. It is a deeply sad book, but one that is beautifully written, fuelled by righteous anger and full of the most wonderful prose. It has a terrific heroine, too. I think a lot of people get the wrong idea about Tess from watching the movie and consider her character passive. She's anything but. She's bright and sassy, sexy and questioning and, most of all, brave.
TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F Scott Fitzgerald
I much prefer Tender is the Night to The Great Gatsby. Tender is the Night is a crazily underrated book. It's an eloquent portrait of love in decline. It's a really sad story and it always makes me cry. It's all the more touching because of how clearly autobiographical it is. It's about a couple who have such potential together. They share such passion and have a seemingly perfect life, but they let it get away from them. It's a really rueful, melancholic book, but a beautiful one, and a book that I return to time and time again.
A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS by George Orwell
Orwell's essays are model pieces of journalism. They are clearly argued, passionate and personal. I don't always agree with what he's saying, but there's such intelligence in the writing. Orwell himself invented the perfect metaphor for English prose, which was that it should be like a "pane of glass", and I believe his essays are his best example of this.
BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens
I'm a big fan of Dickens. He invokes such strong emotions in the reader. He can make you laugh out loud and within 10 pages have you crying and then suddenly fill you with a feeling of elation. I admit he has all kinds of blind spots. He can't write romantic scenes, he doesn't create strong female heroines and he can be boring, pompous and melodramatic. But at his best, he's a supreme entertainer and also surprisingly experimental. Dickens and Orwell were the first two adult writers with whom I became obsessed.
FRANNY AND ZOOEY by JD Salinger
I love The Catcher in the Rye but I prefer Salinger's two novellas - Franny and Zooey. They deal with serious themes like religion and family, yet they're also comedies. Together they're a really funny satire on the intellectual pretensions of modern life. Franny is about a brilliant but troubled young woman who is having a nervous breakdown in college. Zooey focuses on her brother - a successful young actor who has to nurse his sister back to mental health. It is incredibly uplifting and has the greatest two final pages of any book I can think of. It really is perfect prose.
GOODBYE, COLUMBUS AND FIVE SHORT STORIES by Philip Roth
Goodbye, Columbus is a smart coming-of-age story about the relationship between lower-class and upper-class Jewish kids in New Jersey in the 1950s. It's a brilliant comedy of youth, class and aspiration. It's very much in the spirit of The Graduate - but was published before it. I love most of Roth's books. He's a model novelist. He produces at least one a year and all of them are terrific. He's been writing for 40 to 50 years now.