It wasn't long ago when it seemed as if you couldn't board a train on the London Underground without seeing someone's face buried in a distinctive orange-and-white paperback with two silhouetted faces – David Nicholls's best- seller One Day.
Over the winter of 2009, the book was everywhere, a five-million seller that commuters in Nicholls’s hometown devoured.
It is a book bursting with insightful temporal references, an inventive day-a-year structure, and an effortless feel for both the enthusiasm and neuroses of the lives of twenty-somethings.
Balancing the knotty, will-they-won’t-they love story at its centre, the book was somehow both literary and popcorn-populist – and insanely readable.
Most people you spoke to, of a certain social background, had read it – and all of those, male and female, would admit to shedding tears, often in public, at the story’s climax. Thankfully, I finished it at home.
More than just a novel, One Day was a cultural phenomenon. Aside from the Harry Potter and Fifty Shades books, only one modern British novel has sold more copies (Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). How do you top that?
It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that it took Nicholls five years to complete a follow-up. The long-awaited result is Us, from which he will be reading at Dubai's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this weekend.
“I was determined not to write another love story,” he says. His determination only held out so long, however.
After three years of “mucking about and working on other things”, in 2012 he sat down with the intention of writing a romance-free follow-up – the story of an estranged father and son taking a trip across Europe.
“There was no love in it – both literally and emotionally,” says Nicholls. “It was really agony, very frustrating to get the characters on the page, because it was completely implausible. And exactly one year after I started I sent an excerpt to my agent. We had a long and painful meeting and decided to scrap it and start again.”
Nicholls bought a new notepad, hid all his remaining copies of One Day in the attic and resigned himself to the fact that writing a female-free novel wasn't going to work.
Nine months later he had finished Us.
It’s a satisfyingly shelf-filling title (“let’s talk about Us”, the ready-made social-media campaign runs), appealing to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship. But notably, the bright cover this time features a third silhouetted figure – a teenage son.
Us is the story of a marriage in a quiet crisis. It begins with Connie telling Douglas, her husband of 20-plus years, that their marriage has run its course.
Improbably, a planned summer tour of Europe’s great cities with their soon-to-fly-the-nest son Albie – all that remains of the plot of the earlier book – goes ahead anyway. Douglas, an uncomplicated 54-year-old man of science, is determined to use the trip to save his marriage.
“I’d written a lot about people in their twenties and thirties, a lot about dates and parties – that time when you’re trying to find your way into adult life,” says Nicholls. “I thought: I’m 47 myself, I’ve got two kids, I haven’t been on a date for 18 years. I need to write somebody a little bit more mature, look at the next stage of life.”
It’s always tempting to probe how much of an author’s material is drawn from real life. But despite writing in the first person, Nicholls says he is “nothing like Douglas”. Likewise, his wife Hannah is not like Connie, “except that she knows a lot about art and has very good taste”.
However, like Douglas, Nicholls admits that in their relationship he is “the one who organises, books flights and pays the bills”.
Nicholls's experience of fatherhood offered little to shape the paternal relationship at the book's core – his son is only 9. However, the writer's father cast an implicit influence over the second half of Us.
“My father became quite ill and I realised while I was writing the book that he probably wouldn’t read it,” says Nicholls. “There’s a point in the novel, halfway though, where it shifts from being about husband and wife to being about father and son. When I got to that stage, I took a little break because my father was very, very ill. He died at that point. August 2013.
“So, even though it wasn’t about him – there’s nothing he’s ever said or done in there – inevitably there’s some of that emotion. I wrote the second half of the book very quickly and it’s quite bruising, which is probably a product of those circumstances.”
Published in September last year, Us largely dodged the post-One Day critical backlash Nicholls says he feared, and even found itself on the Man Booker Prize longlist.
But he remains a harsh critic of the work, offering a lengthy list of flaws he perceives – “excessive description”, “too many jokes” and a “lumpy science section” among them.
“It’s quite an emotional book – I don’t mind that, I think it’s OK – but I think there’s parts where that could probably be toned down,” he says. “There’s probably not a single page I wouldn’t change something on.”
While he can't rewrite the book, the story is likely to have another life. Little more than a year after One Day was published, filming began on a Hollywood adaptation, written by Nicholls and starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. It did tidy business, banking US$60 million (Dh220m) worldwide.
With media reports of a bidding war for the movie rights to Us before it was even published – Russell Crowe was said to be among those interested – it's reasonable to presume the new book will also end up on the big screen.
“I’m not sure,” says Nicholls. “I’m a bit wary because it feels like there’s too much to fit into a movie, so if it does have a screen life it may well be on television.”
Next, Nicholls plans to work on “a really short, 40,000 word novella – about what, I don’t know”.
First, however he’s taking some time off.
"I just want to spend six months reading, reading and reading," he says. "There's huge gaps that I really want to fill in. I've never read Anna Karenina – everyone tells me it's the greatest novel ever written and I don't have time to read a thousand-page book. So maybe I'll do two or three – Middlemarch, Anna Karenina and David Copperfield – and that will take up that time."
• David Nicholls will be at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature session called Entertaining Us! on Friday, March 6, at 4.30pm, and on the Women in Love panel on Saturday, March 7, at 10am at InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. Tickets cost Dh70 at www.emirateslitfest.com