David Nicholls, You Are Here | When two lonely souls meet

Posted on 22 May, 2024

Sometimes, he thought, it is easier to be alone than to show that you are alone to the rest of the world, but he knew that even that was a trap, that by doing nothing the situation would become as permanent as a stain that penetrates wood.

One of the most awaited guests at the 36th Turin Book Fair was David Nicholls, author of the 2009 bestseller, One Day, adapted for the big screen in the 2011 film of the same name with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. The book has gone through a new wave of success thanks to the recent Netflix-branded TV adaptation starring Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall. Nicholls, internationally known for being a successfull screenwriter, came to Turin to present his new book You Are Here, a love story between two lonely souls that meet along a shared path.

The meaning of “You Are Here”

While introducing the novel, Nicholls talked with the booktoker Martina Levato about various topics: starting from the relationship with his characters and the literary models he was inspired by, ranging from the theme of loneliness (as a positive state of being and not vice versa) to love, a topic that is always eternal and present in his works, especially in his latest book.

You Are Here is a love story about loneliess and it has been a process of writing something I love very much, that is walking in the English countryside. It is the story of Marnie, a copy editor who lives alone in London surrounded by books, and Michael, a geography teacher who is going through a divorce and loves walking through the English countryside in order not to feel the loneliness at home.The two protagonists decide to travel as a group across England from coast to coast, from the Lake District to Robin Hood’s Bay” explained the author about the plot. During this walk, between plunges into frozen lakes, disastrous climbs in the rain and English romance landscapes, love grows between Marnie and Michael.

With reference to the long promenade they travel together, the title You Are Here, according to Nicholls, precisely meansboth where you are on the map but also where you are at a particular stage of your life, when you accept where you are without looking for something new.”

Marnie and Michael: two pieces of the same puzzle

The author described the characters of the book, Marnie and Michael, their inner journey and the process of their creation. In particular, Nicholls loved creating the cynical yet passionate Marnie, a character he compared to his Emma Morley from One Day for her wit, principles, and integrity.

Marnie is bright, lives in solitude, without any romantic love, and loves books. I would say she is an observant Londoner who does not like to go out on dreary days and is deeply suspicious of nature. She is a character I really enjoyed writing because it was fun to describe someone who is cynical but deeply capable of loving”.

The process of creating the male protagonist, the introverted Michael, was different. Thanks to the cheerful Marnie he comes out of his “shell” and the melancholy that grips him. “As for Michael, I wanted to discuss the theme of city versus country. He likes to spend time outside, in nature, and is deeply melancholic and introverted. It is difficult for him to communicate, but the more time he spends with Marnie, the more he is open to do it. That is because I wanted You Are Here to be a dialogue, a conversation – funny, at times. Through his contact with Marnie, Michael becomes more and more open and even funny in some ways. After all, it is a love story.”

Walking, a cathartic experience

Nicholls explained that the long walks of the protagonists along the English coast are a symbol of connection with each other and with nature. The author told about his passion for hiking and walking outdoors, which started after his father’s death at a time when he deeply needed solitude.

“My father died about eleven years ago and I felt the need to spend some time in solitude. So I embarked on a long walk on the North Coast of England, in the fascinating area of Cumbria. I wanted to meditate a little and spend some time alone. This is something I really enjoy. It was a wonderful experience and I decided I would do it again, so every year I do these long treks, trying to get as far away from London as possible and lose myself in the natural landscapes of the country. I wanted to write exactly about that and what that meant to me, but it’s really hard to write a story about a solitary experience”.

“I thought there was the need to include other people in this narrative in order to create obstacles along the way. This is also because walking with someone else becomes a different experience: you are together and changes happen. I wanted to celebrate the experience of sharing that you can create with someone. It is an important moment for me and for my writing process.”

The promenade as a metaphor for love

Marnie and Michael travel 300 kilometers crossing the Lake District, then descend along the Yorkshire coast. Nicholls revealed the biographical inspiration of the route he took to write this book. Moreover, the author compared the two protagonists’ long walk to a metaphor of the love that grows between them during the journey. Indeed, it is not just a simple physical motion, but a promenade that allows the protagonists to share a part of themselves, as it happens between Jesse and Celine in Linklater’s film trilogy, Before Sunrise.

“England offers some marvellous places, and in the map in the book I wanted to mark precisely how this walk takes place: it can be followed at the beginning of each chapter and can be traced on the map in the novel. I did the same walk of my characters, taking notes and pictures. During these walks you encounter real obstacles such as mountains and adverse weather… just as there are obstacles in shaping a love relationship. It is a great metaphor of life“.

Two lonely souls coming together

The most important topic in the story is loneliness. In a romantic comedy, it tends to be seen as a negative element, whereas for the characters in You Are Here it is almost an ally because, in their loneliness, they find a connection. Nicholls’ ultimate goal in this novel was to integrate a different perspective on the state of loneliness into a traditional love story. “I love rom-coms and traditional romances like those written by Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice, where the characters have to go on a sort of journey to get to a destination like marriage or a loving union. But if that’s your goal then it’s normal that loneliness at first looks like an enemy. However, living part of your life alone is the norm, it’s not unusual. It is unusual, on the contrary, to spend a lot of time with a person for the rest of your life. So I wanted to write a novel that would shed light on this aspect”.

“Loneliness can be wonderful for some people, and I wanted to write about it not as an enemy, but to try to show the positive sides of a lonely life spent with books, for example. But I also wanted to discuss this topic in a story where the two main characters have a happy ending”.

A universal and varied audience

Another feature of Nicholls’ novels is the multiformity of the ages of his characters. This is the element that makes his works and characters easy to identify with, because the audience belongs to different age groups. “When I write, I don’t think of a particular reader. The main character in the first novel, Starter for Ten, was an 18-year-old. My latest novel, Sweet Sorrow, is about a 16-year-old; the previous one, Us, is even older. I like that if you put all my novels in order of the age of the protagonists, from 16 to 50, you have a representation of love at different periods of life and during different ages. I don’t have a particular reader in mind, I like that readers can find their own book.”

Especially in You Are Here the author feels that he has a unique target audience. “In this book in particular I feel like I’m speaking to readers of my own age and I should accept the fact that I’m getting older now. I mean… I am 20 years older than Marnie in this novel, but I still hope I can feel the emotions of that specific age”.

David Nicholls presenta Tu sei qui al Salone del Libro di Torino 2024.

Ironically breaking a taboo

At some point in the book, the decision not to have children is mentioned. This is a decisive moment for the characters’ love story. The fact that it is the male protagonist who does not wish to be a father represents the author’s desire to break a social taboo. “I think it’s a sensitive topic, which I sometimes talk about with friends who don’t have children, and I wanted to write about it honestly, but also showing the taboo of talking about it with friends who have a different kind of life and thinking than yours. Also, not wanting to become a parent is usually explored from a female perspective, not a male perspective, and I wanted to do that, to talk about it in a completely new way”.

In You are Here, funny dialogues and serious topics such as parenting take turn. For Nicholls, these are “two inseparable elements”. “I think this is the funniest book I’ve ever written, but when you’re a writer you can be funny in slow motion, maybe even after four years. It almost comes naturally to me to create this situation where words bounce off like in a tennis match. For me these two elements are inseparable.”

The successful film adaptations

Nicholls also spoke about the recent TV adaptation of One Day. The Netflix-branded series stars Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall as the main characters, Emma and Dex. Thirteen years after the film, audience response has not changed; actually, it has become more enthusiastic. Nicholls, who is the series excecutive producer and wrote the screenplay of the penultimate episode, explained how he felt revisiting his characters after many years.

“It was a beautiful experience. I wrote that book when I was 41, a long time ago, and I didn’t feel like that person existed in the present anymore. It was strange to come back to Emma and Dexter after sixteen years or so. But I knew the actors and I had the pleasure of revisisting the characters having the performers in mind”.

Dexter’s character in One Day

One Day now takes on a totaly different meaning for Nicholls compared to when he wrote it in 2005. “I wrote One Day to say goodbye to my twenties, so the book has a different meaning for me now. It was a book about entering adulthood, and now that I’ve lived most of my adult life I feel nostalgic about that period”.

One of the most noticeable changes from the original story enacted by the series concerns Leo Woodall’s character. His Dexter was written differently and Nicholls seems to have appreciated it: he still considers the series very faithful to the book. “Leo is a fantastic actor but he’s not like the Dex from the book. He’s more emotionally available and not as tough as the one played by Jim Sturgess; he almost moves you. But everything he does stays true to the book. He surprised me and I really liked his version”.

Nicholls, the master of love novels

Writer John Niven, reviewing You Are Here, described David Nicholls as “the laureate of the modern love novel”, and this is precisely what Nicholls aspires to do in his next books: write love stories, the eternal genre which is never trite. In doing so, the author draws inspiration from the great and timeless classics like Thomas Hardy‘s works, or Persuasion by Jane Austen: “It is the quintessential great novel about the waiting for love and it seemed very appropiate”. E. M. Foster’s most romantic novel, A Room With a View, was also an inspiration for You Are Here. “It’s a great novel about landscapes and the difference between simply sitting in a room and looking out and the possibilities the future holds, all in a winkingly ironic tone,” the author said.

To conclude, in his latest book, You Are Here, David Nicholls describes – in a serious yet witty tone – the shaping of a love between two lonely souls, through the great metaphor of walking together towards common goals.

Lovingly Related Records