Article published on November 20, 2015.
If you were to ask me to pick my reading highlights of this year, without doubt near the top of my list would be Gill Hornby’s All Together Now. A social satire that’s funny and entertaining but also heartwarming. It was my first experience of this author – sister of contemporary fiction author Nick Hornby and wife of historical writer Robert Harris – indeed it is only her second book, but her debut The Hive has since duly been added to my Christmas list.
So it was with great enthusiasm that I went along to the Cheltenham Literature Festival for an audience with the lady herself and luckily she is just as wonderful as her book; an engaging, passionate and very affable speaker. Originally a journalist, with her own weekly column, Hornby admitted that this training stood her in good stead for life as a novelist. She refuses to bow down to writer’s block, arguing against the idea of saying I just can’t write. Indeed, having to bash out 800 words a week for a column, she learnt that if you’ve got to write, you write.
Ironically, it was when Hornby got sacked from the Telegraph – when she found herself no longer having to write – that she actually turned to writing as a career – admitting you can either prove people right or prove them wrong. And with two successful novels already it seems she’s answered those doubters, despite coming to the career later in life – she began writing her first novel The Hive at the age of 52 and it was published when she was 54. However, she confessed that she couldn’t have done it at the age of thirty, admitting that it was one of the comforts of middle age that she had the experiences, thoughts and beliefs needed to write her novels. And her novels certainly draw on her own experiences as a mother in her debut The Hive as she tackles the school gates phenomenon and in her latest novel which focuses on a community choir – of which Hornby has herself been a part of for the last three and a half years and speaks of with overriding joy, although she admits that when she first joined she had a rather snotty attitude to it all and was horrified at the thought of being involved in a flash mob shortly after joining.
Yet having been roped in, she enjoyed the experience immensely and hasn’t looked back. Gill spoke passionately about being in a choir, the camaraderie and laughter that comes with it, summing it up beautifully when she said: if you’re singing in a room of strangers, you don’t feel alone, but if you’re on a bus full of strangers you do. And Hornby’s novel is a lovely testament to community choirs and the obvious pleasure she has gained from her own experiences. Though she has some way to go to match her mother – who’s been in a choir for over seventy years!
As for Gill’s musical inspirations, she cites singers Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and (rather abashedly) David Cassidy. But there is one main literary inspiration that she draws from: Jane Austen. Indeed, she has three Austen quotations affixed in her writing space that she holds dear to – Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on; Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery; and I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am. The former speaks to Hornby’s own preference in her novels, and she challenges the idea that people can only be measured and deemed worthy once they are set against the backdrop of the ‘first world war or the Russian revolution’ arguing that modern life and real people are full of stories.
She gives the example of the births, deaths and marriages section of the newspaper she was reading that morning, where one can find the most wonderful true stories, that are the very stuff of novels. As for the guilt and misery, Hornby acknowledges there is plenty of that already in fiction, and asserts that reading should be entertaining. There is nothing guilty or miserable about All Together Now, although its previous incarnation which started out as a more focused look at the empty-nest syndrome was soon shelved for this lighter, brighter offering. And with such wonderful characters, Hornby says that it’s a shame to have to say goodbye. But for the next book, which is very much in its infancy at this stage, a point which she finds the hardest, there’s a slight change of direction as she heads for dual historical narrative. And the connection with Austen here gains momentum, as Hornby lives in the house of Austen’s sister, Cassandra’s fiancé and she hints at this as a possible route for the novel. We’ll have to watch this space but for now Gill Hornby’s hitting all the right notes.
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