Writers & Company

Victorian virtuosity meets rock royalty in Nick Hornby's new memoir, Dickens and Prince

The English writer and lyricist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing a love letter to Charles Dickens and Prince, an unlikely pairing who share similarities in their sheer genius and creative output.
Nick Hornby is an English writer and lyricist. (Parisa Taghizadeh)

Charles Dickens and Prince were both brilliant, driven and beloved by their fans. And both died before their time, producing and performing to the end. 

It wasn't until his early twenties that Nick Hornby read Dickens, around the same time he attended his first Prince concert. He still keeps their photos on his office wall, and in his new book, Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius, he explores the parallels between these two heroes, and how their creativity and prodigious output have inspired him throughout his own career.

Hornby grew up in the U.K., consuming music and Arsenal soccer games. Out of this came such books as Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, as well as other novels, screenplays, essays and a long-time music column in The Believer. Several of his books, such as High Fidelity and About a Boy have been made into movies.

His screenwriting credits include Wild, An Education and Brooklyn, for which he received a BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination.

Hornby spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from the CBC's London studio.

An unlikely pairing

"The first similarity between Charles Dickens and Prince that I started thinking about was their propensity to work on more than one thing at once.

"When Prince was making Sign o' the Times, he was actually making three different albums, which the record company kind of shoved into one big double album.

"I was reminded that Dickens used to write two novels at once, and for purely practical reasons, because he needed to keep his magazines going. So as the serialization of one was finishing he'd be beginning this serialization of the next.

"Those brains strike me as being unlike anyone else's. I certainly couldn't write two novels at once. They're Dickens novels, they're absolutely massive. They're populated by thousands of people.

I heard Prince's album For You when I was maybe 21 or 22. Funnily enough, it was about the time I started reading Dickens. So I discovered them both at the same time.

"They have these very intricate plots, and yet he was able to do two at once.

"I heard Prince's album For You when I was maybe 21 or 22. Funnily enough, it was about the time I started reading Dickens. So I discovered them both at the same time. But of course, I never thought of it that way, because Dickens had always been there and at the time Prince was this obscure new R&B artist." 

Charles Dickens was an English writer and social critic. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

A style of their own

"Dickens writes like a TV writer — he cuts between scenes and situations. You can't imagine how these people are going to link up, but they do. You're conscious of the author pushing you along towards these unexpected and unlikely meetings.

"There's very interesting stuff about crosscutting from movies and what Eisenstein, who was one of the first to use it, said, 'Oh, I'm just doing what Dickens did,' and it was a cinematic or televisual technique that he was using.

"There was a time when Prince wasn't on the radio much, so I don't think anything persuaded me to buy his second or third albums. But then, it was 1999 and everything lifted off.

Dickens writes like a TV writer — he cuts between scenes and situations. You can't imagine how these people are going to link up, but they do.

"I think Little Red Corvette is one of the great 20th century pop songs and I just wanted to own that. But there are plenty of other things on that album that I like. It's messy and ambitious and maybe overambitious, but he was still young and extremely intriguing.

"This was before what was about to happen to him."

Prince performs at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Sunday, Dec. 2, 1984. (Canadian Press)

A social conscience

"Dickens's father was jailed for debt. He was put in the debtors prison like Little Dorrit's family in that novel, and Dickens was sent off to work in a blacking factory before he'd been able to finish his education.

"It was a rather strange out of the blue thing. It wasn't like his dad didn't have a job; he did have a job. He was just incapable of managing money and they suddenly went off a cliff.

It's simply the way he grew up and the things he wrote about that gave him the pronounced conscience that he ended up having.

"These calamities happened but Dickens actually went back to school, and the family kind of hoisted themselves out of it again.

"So he had a narrow escape and I think it gave him a consciousness of poverty.

"It's simply the way he grew up and the things he wrote about that gave him the pronounced conscience that he ended up having."

The cost of success

"I would imagine they were certainly killed by their work. 

"And if you look at Prince, the reason he was addicted to painkillers was because of the damage done to hips and knees over the course of his career.  When you dance like that, it's going to come at a cost.

"Sleep and living healthily was not high on their agenda.  I think they had their lives compressed by work.

I would imagine they were certainly killed by their work.

"They produced five times more than any of the rest of us during a longer life, but the cost was that there wasn't the 20 years at the end."

Nick Hornby's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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