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Boy Wonder 

At a well-attended Left Bank Books reading, a fan asks Nick Hornby about the influence of music on his work, asserting maybe a bit too strongly that his personal soundtrack directly influenced the text.

Hornby steers the question a bit, answering it but deflecting the image of him sitting in a room, stereo at full blast, with words pouring onto the page. Asked what he listens to while working, he admits that it's music he wouldn't normally listen to at home: "contemporary classical," Philip Glass and the like. Queried about the other modern composers he enjoys, he spins out again, mentioning that rock, pop and soul are his true loves and that the music at work is solely "functional." "I enjoy those loops," he says.

Though he parries some of the points raised by his fans, he does so with the gentle touch of someone who writes unabashedly about relationships and the sticky wickets that sprout up between the people in them.

Surprisingly soft-spoken for someone with both success and a razor wit, 42-year-old Hornby is in town plugging his most recent novel, About a Boy, centered around an unlikely pair of allies in the battle to mature -- 36-year-old bachelor Will and 12-year-old Marcus, whose mother, for a time, is Will's romantic target. That the childless Will meets Marcus' mother by posing as a single dad is only one of the many subplots that keeps the novel moving in unexpected, delightful directions.

Two recurring elements in the book are the image and the songwriting of Kurt Cobain, whom Will -- not the young Marcus -- admires. Music, in fact, is continually spliced in; scenes are set with quick, unobtrusive notes on what's playing as the characters meet and interact. Casual name-drops they are, and thoroughly effective, too.

As are the longer setups, such as the fact that Will doesn't work because his father wrote a Christmas hit called "Santa's Super Sleigh." Hornby says he nicked the idea after hearing of the story of a Christmas songwriter who gave his most famous song's royalties to his son as a wedding present. He also found humor in the ubiquitousness of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"I'm sure that song was knocked out in half-an-hour, and it's on every record," he says. "It seems strange to have a life that's dominated by that half-hour. I'm sure he had loads of operas and other things that he couldn't sell for love or money. The money just kept rolling in for that one. I liked the idea of that, and to take it one generation on -- you know, that someone doesn't have to work because of what their dad did."

The musical trend started with High Fidelity, the novel that attracted most Americans to this talented North Londoner. (A previous work, the soccer memoir Fever Pitch, was a huge smash in England; predictably, Americans turned a relatively deaf ear to the "football"-heavy tome, which chronicles Hornby's superfan support of the Arsenal Football Club.) In High Fidelity, the slightly maddening protagonist is Rob, a record-store owner who fears commitment, makes up volumes of "Top Five" lists with his two ill-tempered employees and moves through a pair of on- and off-again relationships with women.

In that book, the music is everywhere: the expertly drawn pictures of the shop workers berating customers for their poor taste; the spot-on images of Rob in his former life as a punk DJ; the ridiculous scenes of him, alone, alphabetizing his massive record collection as only a true obsessive can.

"It's reflective, up to a point," says Hornby of comparisons between him and Rob. "With the guy in the book, I wanted to have the tide go out on him a bit, as it does with certain people." Besides, "I like much more new stuff than he does."

Asked, at a casual afternoon meeting in the far-from-casual Ritz-Carlton lobby, what he's listening to these days, Hornby ticks off the following: "Wilco, the new Paul Westerberg, Steve Earle, Underworld -- lots of new things." As someone who's answering questions for a living these days, Hornby names those exact titles, in the exact order, later in the evening.

His tastes weren't always eclectic. He jokes that he learned to discern good from bad at school, when his tastes stretched "all the way from Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin when I was 14. To be honest, I was first influenced by Rod Stewart. I've got this theory that who you listened to first and who you hero-worshiped ... if they took you places with their music, you're likely to be a music listener for a long time. The thing with (Stewart) was this strain of R&B, this strain of folk, as well as rock in his music.

"Then I started checking out all the covers he was doing, and it took me loads of places. If you listened to Genesis at the time, it might not have taken you very far -- you might have listened to Pink Floyd. You're not going to get plugged into that rock and pop and folk canon that Rod Stewart was part of. Then, I listened to Sam Cooke and Dylan and things that I hadn't memorized as a teen."

Caught up in first-generation, ground-zero punk, Hornby says the music spoke to him even though he never affected the look: "I was at college; it would have been a little bit absurd to be a punk. I was 19 in 1976. I listened to everything the day it came out, and I saw all of them at some stage or another. I didn't see the Sex Pistols, but I saw the rest. The Clash were the ones for me. I kind of lost interest in the beginning of the '80s, I didn't like the post-punks."

For a time, Hornby dreamed of being the next star-making journalist for one of the three big music weeklies -- New Music Express, Melody Maker and the now-defunct Sounds. He wouldn't wind up with any of them, though he would pen a few music pieces for Time Out. Even last year, he contributed a review of Pulp to Spin. That kind of journalism's a minor part of his career.

After all, Hornby's enjoying the fruits of a remarkable run of luck, with three books being optioned by film studios. Fever Pitch has already been released, to good response, in England; it'll open in the States in July. High Fidelity, starring John Cusack as Rob, began shooting in Chicago the day after Hornby's visit here. And About a Boy has been cleared for shooting, though it won't begin true production until later this year.

The universal elements of his characters seem to have taken hold not just among a small clique of lit fans but with a much wider audience.

"It always pisses me off when they say the people in my books are losers," he says. "That's just how people live. Just because they don't have their own newspaper columns doesn't mean they're losers. There's a real class underneath them that are losers."

Though on "very cordial" terms with the various film crews, he's not involved past a cursory level. These days, Hornby continues working at a flat near his home, just blocks from Highbury, the park where his beloved Arsenal Gunners play. Currently working on a couple of original screenplays, he plans to begin his next book sometime late in 1999.

"I used to hate being alone in a room all day," he says. "Now I'm hating all the meetings, and I can't wait to get back into that room alone."

Though it's a stretch to judge somebody's mind and heart in two 40-minute exposures, it seems that success hasn't spoiled Hornby. He's quick in self-deprecation, joking about the money that's come his way, saying, "I don't think writers understand what 'sell' means. It's like someone who sells a coat and then wants it back because it doesn't look good on the person he sold it to."

And as for music, he can still talk about it all day, though most folks give in to the temptation of asking the same things: Did anyone ever sell your record collection? Do you make lists? Do you still have life-affirming moments at shows?

"I'm not a Blur fan or an Oasis fan," he says. "I saw Pulp last year and thought of them more as a guilty pleasure than as anything significant. I'm 42 and I have a sense of distance, but when I saw Radiohead, I thought that if I were 19, I'd quit my job and follow them around the country. Just an amazing show."

He hasn't lost the faith. Not at all.

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