A New Shelf Life Begins

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

When you're at lunch with newly minted young adult novelist Nick Hornby on an autumn afternoon in Washington, it seems appropriate to begin with a simple question:

What the heck is he doing here during the football season?

Hornby, who's British, is mainly known on these shores as the best-selling author of fiction such as "High Fidelity" and "How to Be Good." But he began his book-writing career with "Fever Pitch," a memoir about his lifelong passion for football. By this, of course, he means the game North Americans quaintly call "soccer," especially as played by the north London club Arsenal, with whom Hornby fell in love at age 11 and whose matches he still attends religiously.

He's in the United States for two weeks. Isn't Arsenal playing? Won't he miss games ?

"Three," he says ruefully. But his American publisher has "very sweetly" identified bars in three cities where he can at least watch them on TV.

He's making the sacrifice to talk up "Slam," the first novel he's aimed specifically at a young adult audience. His task has been complicated, Hornby says, by the fact that he's still not sure precisely what a YA book is.

He's not alone.

The notion of what constitutes YA literature has changed a good deal over the past 15 years or so, and it remains in flux. To complicate matters, there are those at Hornby's own publishers who'd have preferred to send "Slam" into the world simply as the latest Hornby, leaving younger readers to discover it for themselves.

Never mind that for now, though. For "young adult" takes on another meaning when you get to know Hornby even a little.

Sure, he's 50 years old and looks it. And yeah, he's got a happy second marriage, three children he loves and a serious career.

But Nick Hornby is also a man who's tried to retain as much as possible -- and shouldn't we all? -- of the fraught, joyful intensity that comes with lack of age.

'A Sort of Guardian Angel'

Hornby's work has always attracted a lot of young readers. Characters such as Rob, the music obsessive in "High Fidelity," or the responsibility-averse Will in "About a Boy" are caught in what their creator calls "that kind of interregnum" between 19 and 35 when society tolerates their unwillingness to "grow up in the conventional sense."

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