David Nicholls at the Henley Literary Festival

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Tuesday 7th October 2014

Us by David NichollsFour years have flown by since I sat in a huge marquee in Oxford and listened to David Nicholls talking about the success of One Day.

His bestselling story of university friends Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew had taken the world by storm and had just been turned into a film (adapted by Nicholls himself and starring Anne Hathaway as the awkward, insecure Emma).

Fans like me have been looking forward to his next novel with baited breath and were over the moon when Us, Nicholls’ fourth novel, was published last week.

David Nicholls is busy promoting the book right now so I booked tickets to hear him in conversation with the Daily Mail’s Sandra Parsons at the Henley Literary Festival.

Nicholls, looking businesslike in a grey suit and glasses, was every bit as charming and self-deprecating as always. Over the last few years he has been busy writing scripts – from screenplays for Great Expectations and the forthcoming Far from the Madding Crowd to the BBC drama The 7.39. He said that the reason for the five-year gap between One Day and Us was that he “wanted to wait till there was something I was proud of.” He also explained that when he wrote One Day he was 39 and had just become a father. One Day, he said, was “a book about youth and romance and idealism.”

Nicholls is now a 46-year-old father of two and instead of writing about people in their twenties he wanted his new characters to be older than himself. “Sometimes it’s good to write about what you don’t know,” he said. He was also keen to write about the experience of travelling around Europe – “the spilled coffee, the change in your pocket and missing trains.”

But the early stages of writing Us – the story of a marriage in crisis – didn’t go smoothly. As Nicholls told the Henley audience: “There were lots of dead ends and false starts to get to this.” Several newspapers reported this week how at one stage he resorted to downloading Write or Die, a piece of software designed to keep authors’ noses to the grindstone. You set yourself a time limit, start typing and if you stop for a second the software deletes what you’ve written. Nicholls said that it took him two years to write a 35,000-word draft but in the end he scrapped the whole lot and began all over again.

He had written the first draft in the third person and the breakthrough came when he started to write in the first person – as Douglas, the 54-year-old lead character in Us. From that moment on he didn’t look back, writing the novel “faster than I’ve ever written anything.”

Us by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)

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