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Writer Nick Hornby on his new book, "Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius"


What does...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

NADWORNY: ...And...


PRINCE: (Singing) Hey. Look me over. Tell me. Do you like what you see?

NADWORNY: ...Have in common? Well, a lot, according to a new book by author Nick Hornby called "Dickens And Prince" - Dickens as in Charles Dickens, the 19th-century English author, and Prince as in, well, Prince.

NICK HORNBY: They both worked harder than perhaps anyone's ever worked in the field of the arts.

NADWORNY: Hornby says he started to make the connection a couple of years ago, when Prince's the "Sign O' The Times" box set came out.

HORNBY: There's something like 63 extra songs, and that's the extra on top of a double album. And it turned out that Prince was working on three different albums at once. And I thought, oh, that's so weird, because Dickens used to write two books at once, and it went on from there.

NADWORNY: He sees the two as creative idols. He has loved Dickens since he came across "Bleak House" on his own at university.

HORNBY: I think I was very grateful that I'd never been introduced to Dickens before because one of the problems I have when I recommend him to people is that they've tried to read him at school, and they hate him because those are some long sentences and some long books. And they miss the joy and the humor. And Dickens is so funny.

NADWORNY: And he first saw Prince in concert in the '80s and said it was life-changing.

HORNBY: It was an extraordinary show with his huge band all synchronized to within an inch of their lives, dancers horn section. It was just in the wake of "Purple Rain," and he'd kind of returned to his funk roots, I guess. But I just came, having had my socks knocked off, thinking I can't do any kind of straight job.

NADWORNY: The full name of Nick Hornby's new book is "Dickens And Prince: A Particular Kind Of Genius." I started by asking him what exactly that particular kind of genius was.

HORNBY: With both of them, I think their creativity was unstoppable. It's like they didn't even need to think about it. It just poured out of them. If you see what Dickens did in the course of an average day, you get tired.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

HORNBY: I mean, there's 12 volumes of letters. And each of those volumes of letters is about the size of one of his novels. He's got the novels as well. Plus, he edited magazine. He wrote plays. He went on tours. He had 10 kids. So it's very hard to imagine that he slept. And this business of writing two books at once, I think if you're a writer, it's just impossible to get your head around. These are big, complicated books full of people and complicated plots. And he kept them somehow apart in his head and moved from one to the other, as far as we know, in the same week.

NADWORNY: And how does that compare to Prince?

HORNBY: Well, Prince never stopped recording. He woke up in the morning, and he recorded. And there is an estimate that there's enough - a new album every six months for the next 40 years or something, everything that's in his vault that wasn't released. He recorded too much for his record company. And he went on these tours, which, once he'd finished the show, his people would have found him somewhere else to play. So the show's finished at 11, and then it starts another one at 1 in the morning and play a two or three-hour show with the band. That's when he did a lot of cover versions, and it was much looser. But yeah, who does a show after they've done a show and then wakes up in the morning and records 20 songs?

NADWORNY: I loved your notion that part of why their output was so high was that both Dickens and Prince were not actually perfectionists.

HORNBY: Yeah. I think that's a very interesting part of what I was interested in. And they were so consumed, I think, with new ideas and wanting to get on and wanting to finish what they'd started, that they didn't have time to go over things again and again and again. They just wanted to move on. And Prince really didn't have the time to spend a year on a track like some contemporary bands are repeated to have done. He was like, get it down and move on. And there's a lovely story that his recording engineer, Susan Rogers, tells about building him a studio. And she was very nervous about him using it for the first time. And he came in. And he wanted to record the song, "The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker," that's on "Sign O' The Times." And when she played it back, it sounded like he'd recorded it underwater.


PRINCE: (Singing) Dorothy was a waitress on the promenade. She worked the night shift.

HORNBY: And she was horrified. But he kind of shrugged and lived with it. And he liked the way it sounded. And that's exactly how it is on the album.


PRINCE: (Singing) Well, earlier I'd been talking stuff in a violent room.

HORNBY: Dickens basically published first drafts, even though there were a lot of amendments on his manuscript pages. But he didn't go back over the work when it was published in book form, for example. There was just too much to do, and I think that's such a generous way of working.

NADWORNY: Yeah. As you point out in your book, we tend to look for these kind of connections and comparisons in our idols - Prince, Dickens. Why is that? Like, what do you think we can learn from exploring them in this way to figure out kind of how they impact us and how they connect with each other?

HORNBY: Well, one of the things that was interesting to me once I'd finished the book was that I realized that I'd been writing about two superstars. And if you want to write about a 19th-century superstar, you're not spoiled for choice, actually, because people tended to hang out in their own countries. But Dickens cracked America like the Beatles did. And so I was comparing their success as much as anything. And both of them were so successful. That gave me an opportunity to do that. But also, we've got these places in our heart and head for particular artists. And I guess we look for our own connections. If you love Bruce Springsteen as much as you love Anne Tyler, then maybe you're thinking, what do they have? What do they have in common? And I actually can see things with those two that they probably wouldn't know about each other. But the way it comes through me makes sense to me.

NADWORNY: Well, it's interesting that you say - you phrase it like that, how it comes through you, because I felt like there were sort of three main characters in the book - Dickens, Prince and you. You bring yourself into this analysis.

HORNBY: Yeah. It's a memoir as well, I guess (laughter).

NADWORNY: Yeah, kind of a meditation on your own career and creative process and kind of how these works influenced you.

HORNBY: Yes. And what I can learn from the way they worked to get myself to work more and harder and better.

NADWORNY: Nick Hornby. His new book is "Dickens And Prince: A Particular Kind Of Genius." Thanks so much for being with us.

HORNBY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.