The bestselling novel was initially inspired by Nicholls studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a teenager – but he didn’t begin writing about Emma and Dexter for another 20 years
Sometime in the mid-80s I was studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles for A-level. Seventeen was the optimum age for doomed romance, and still recall reading the passage in which Tess “noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year” and realised that, as well as a birthday, there was “a day which lay sly and unseen … that of her own death … giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it”. Hidden anniversaries! Days we pass through without knowing their significance! Perhaps I said “wow”. Certainly the notion seemed profound enough for me to talk about it at parties. I did well in the exam, less well at parties.
Twenty-two years later, I was struggling to find an idea for my third novel. A new parent approaching 40, I was predictably preoccupied with the question, how did we get from there to here? How do we become our adult selves, what changes and what stays the same? I thought I might write an epic love story on the theme, but 20 years of biography seemed unwieldy and intimidating. Besides, I was distracted by a dream screenwriting job, adapting Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the BBC. There it was again; that ordinary day that turns out not to be ordinary at all. Twenty set-piece scenes seemed far more manageable and by leaving out the obvious events – the first encounter, first kiss, the wedding days – perhaps the reader might be pulled forward, filling in the other 364 days as they went along.