Funny Girl Nick Hornby
as the father of socalled “lad lit,” Nick Hornby is famous for illuminating the occasionally dark, often hilarious corners of the male psyche in smash hits such as High Fidelity and About a Boy. But Hornby’s take on modern masculinity—filtered through popculture sobriquets—has never been the full story. The author, 58, is also adept at giving life to smart, complex female characters, both on the page and for the screen. Take How to Be Good, his 2001 awardwinning novel that features a tough, funny female doctor as its protagonist, or his screenplay for the Oscar-nominated film Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. In his typically understated way, Hornby downplays his success at tackling the female point of view: “It’s not any harder than writing about any other fictional character who is not oneself,” he says with a clipped English accent. “I just have fun with it.”
Hornby’s latest foray into playing with character is Funny Girl, his first novel in five years. The book takes place in mid-1960s England and chronicles the rise of Sophie Straw, née Barbara Parker, from small-town bathing beauty to the star of a wildly successful BBC sitcom called Barbara (and Jim). With her mix of wit, fierceness and lovability, Sophie is a delight, at ease with both acerbic comedy writers and the legions of Middle Englanders who love her show.
For inspiration, Hornby looked to the original funny girl: Lucille Ball, the iconic American star of I Love Lucy, a show that changed the face of television forever. “I read a really stimulating biography of Lucille Ball a few years ago, and I found myself thinking about how many American comediennes have cited her as an influence,” he explains. “You have Lucille Ball to thank for shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude and Roseanne.” Ball’s rich legacy also includes contemporary stars such as Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer and Kristen Wiig.
In writing the book, Hornby realized there were no prominent TV comediennes in England before the 1980s. “I wondered if it was because we didn’t have a figure equivalent to Lucille Ball over here,” he says. “With Funny Girl, I wanted to insert one into history, as it were.” JAMES GRAINGER