The lights dimmed on the Gala Theatre as the chair, New Writing North’s Claire Malcolm, began to introduce David Nicholls to the audience. In listing his achievements, from receiving a BAFTA for his adaptation of Patrick Melrose, to having his novel One Day translated into forty different languages, it was apparent that this was a man of great talent. However, Nicholls immediately created a rapport with the audience like that of an old friend in his discussions of life, youth, and his candid complaints. Nicholls’ new novel, Sweet Sorrow, follows the summer of Charlie Lewis completing his GCSE exams, exploring first love, friendships, family, and the art of retrospect. Claire Malcolm questioned his choice of a young protagonist, to which he explained that at sixteen it is like “your nerve endings are more alive”. Teenagers at this age are navigating life and their identity, each experience shaping who they are a bit more than the last, and so one simple summer can be life-changing. By narrating the tale in retrospect, with adult Charlie looking back, Nicholls brings the “extraordinary anxiety” of youth to the present, reflecting on such feelings in a new context.
Nicholls explained the significance of performance in the novel; not only due to the literal performance of Romeo and Juliet in it, but the performances we take part in every day. From presenting our ideal self when meeting someone new, to the aspirational self we try to mould our personalities to fit. Performance seems to radiate throughout the novel with Charlie trying to fit in, causing tensions between who he once was and who he is becoming. In speaking of his inspiration for the novel, Nicholls drew on his own love of theatre in wanting to portray the “self-made drama” of a theatre company –the fallouts, the friendships, the pretentiousness, and the family. Yet, in voicing this experience through the eyes of a reluctant outsider, he was not alienating readers from the experience, nor “writing my own photo album” as he described it.
Nicholls instructed that life, and love, is “the brief interlude between anticipation and despair”, finding that the story in-between can often be lost within its own mundanity. His reading of an excerpt from the chapter ‘love’ reflected this, Nicholls playfully asking the reader to assume that any missing information meant that the lovers were kissing, or having profound talks, rather than the unromantic truth of “picking the fluff from their belly buttons”. The novel’s humour, as well as Nicholls’ during the discussion, received a unison of laughter from the audience as they jointly reminisced of first kisses, school discos, and a time without mobile phones.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.