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The story of a teen desperate to escape the suburbs is the story of postwar England, says author Nick Hornby.

Nick Hornby walks in from the hotel courtyard after a cigarette break between interviews.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, he's the walking/talking embodiment of his literary image, down to the faint air of an outsider - someone who looks prone to ruminating over lists of favourite songs or most memorable Arsenal football games, as his heroes do in books like High Fidelity and Fever Pitch.

Slumping in the hotel restaurant chair, his head resting in his hands, he inevitably steers the conversation toward music and British pop culture. Then comes the surprise: This purveyor of a particular kind of "lad lit" mentions how strong and immediate his affinity was for a short memoir, a schoolgirl confession, really, by British journalist Lynn Barber.

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In Barber's article, written for the literary journal Granta in 2003, she writes about how an older man tricked her into having an affair when she was a restless teenager studying for her A-levels in Twickenham in the early 1960s. The relationship was all based on a lie, perpetuated by the hush-hush of insular, middle-class manners.

Hornby latched on to the article. He mentioned it to his girlfriend, now wife, film producer Amanda Posey, who purchased the film rights. And after many drafts and many years getting the project into production, Hornby's adaptation of the original piece has just been released as An Education , starring Peter Sarsgaard as the lecher and Carey Mulligan as Barber, who is renamed Jenny in the film. (Meanwhile, Barber's article has become a full autobiography.)

The story is deeply embedded in postwar English teenage life, a quiet desperation (to crib a classic-rock line for Hornby) that resonated for him.

"I understood the character because of that sense of being a suburban teenager who's frightened of missing out. I suppose after I finished [the script] I began to see that that's the story of a lot of popular culture, in fact. A suburban teenager who's frightened of missing out: It's pretty much the story of any white English rock band, for a start!" Hornby says with a quick laugh, as if acknowledging how he can't help bringing the topic back to music.

"Look at the way that the Beatles and the Stones looked across the Atlantic. They came from these little parts [of England] The Stones from 30, 40 miles outside London and wanting to be in the middle of Chicago, effectively, with the music they made."

Of course Hornby is generalizing about how suburbanites Mick and Keith formed the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones. But his point is clear - his story, the Stones' and Barber's all spring from the same core desires.

"I know it's an odd thing to say, but in my first book, Fever Pitch , [Barber's story]was my story too. It was football instead of all the cultural stuff," Hornby says.

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In the original article, the turning-17-year-old Barber is more conniving, less wide-eyed than Hornby's reinterpretation of her as Jenny in the film.

As Barber writes caustically: "Asking questions showed that you were naive and bourgeois; not asking questions showed that you were sophisticated and French. I badly wanted to be sophisticated. And, as it happened, this suited Simon [the other half of the affair]fine. My role in the relationship was to be the schoolgirl ice maiden, implacable, ungrateful, unresponsive to everything he said or did. To ask questions would have shown that I was interested in him, even that I cared, and neither of us really wanted that."

In the film, Jenny cares more. Her motives are less vague. She is overawed by the world of London nightclubs and art auctions opened up to her by her mysterious paramour. The story is simplified.

"In the piece, I think she's maybe harder on her parents than I am in the film … and she's harder on herself. I think there's that memoir tone, where you're a 60-year-old looking back on your younger self. And that has to be chipped away for a movie adaptation," Hornby says.

"I think her reasons for being with him are a little bit more opaque [in the memoir] She doesn't get into it too much. I guess I had to find things there, and I suppose that's where you start to look for personal connections."

But the film is also very much a period piece, set at the brink of Swinging London's cultural explosion - before, according to Hornby, America's rock-'n'-roll influence had taken over, when France was still the embodiment of cool.

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"One of the depressing things one realizes as one gets older is how much of one's tastes and attitudes are simply products of economic circumstance at the time. There was a literal insularity in that we were so devastated by the Second World War that no one could go anywhere. … The more I talked to Lynn and the more I read about it, I came to think that this was the last time, actually, that kids looked across the Channel for inspiration, rather than across the Atlantic.

"Within three or four years all of that had gone, and America then became the big cultural influence. But at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, it was Godard films, Truffaut films, all that French music, existentialism, all the intellect and the cool was in Paris."

As proof of his view, Hornby takes out his iPod and notes that of the 16,326 songs he has stored in the device, there is no British music older than the earliest Beatles songs. "Of course, I have a lot of American songs from the same period. It wasn't until 1963 that you would really want to listen to any kind of English music. They were all listening to ( How Much Is) That Doggy in the Window? " Hornby says.

Fans of, say, Cliff Richard circa 1962 may argue with that assertion, or aficionados of the lively British jazz scene around that time. But as Hornby, known for a certain orthodoxy in his musical tastes, says, "I like that the movie was set in 1962. The Beatles and the Stones were literally in recording studios, but nobody had heard a note."

Swinging London, in other words, was merely months away.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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