It’s 20 years since Eastleigh born David Nicholls debuted his novel Starter For Ten, which launched his hugely successful career as a bestselling novelist and screenwriter, followed by top romantic tales including One Day and Us, which were adapted for screen.

The recent Netflix adaptation of One Day, starring Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall as friends-to-lovers Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, has once again thrust the shy author into the spotlight but, in the nicest possible way, you get the feeling he’d rather be on a long walk than rambling on about what makes him tick.

In fact, the idea for his latest novel, You Are Here – a love story in which two very different characters form a friendship on the Coast to Coast walk across northern England – was sparked partly by his love of solitary walks.

Nicholls, 57, does them to alleviate anxiety and think clearly, leaving his art historian partner Hannah and their two children, Max, 18 and Romy, 16, at home in north London. He likes to do 25-mile treks, Hannah prefers to go slower and admire the scenery, he explains.

‘I love being outdoors and solitude. Being by myself is a personal conscious decision, something I need to do every now and then just to think of ideas and work out what I want to write, and de-stress.’

The walking is therapeutic for Nicholls, who has suffered anxiety and insomnia for much of his life.

‘I wake up at four or five or six at the latest. Six is a lie-in for me now. There are two kinds of anxieties. There’s a kind of healthy worry about your work and a concern about everyone in the family being happy and healthy.

Eastleigh-born David wanted to be an actor, until he realised he couldn't actEastleigh-born David wanted to be an actor, until he realised he couldn't act (Image: Sophia Spring)

‘Beyond that, there’s the 4am terror that isn’t necessarily rational and is a bit less constructive and more unhealthy. And I still get that. I still wake in a panic at four in the morning or worry a lot about my work in an irrational way.’

His success hasn’t made the anxiety worse – it’s just always been there, he says simply.

‘I find the lead-up to publication very stressful. I always worry if it (the book) is as good as it can be, how people will respond to it, whether people will buy it.

‘I worry about them because I want people to enjoy it, but I’m very careful with the work now and I work hard to make sure that everything is as good as it can be, whether it’s a TV project or a novel.’

He’s managed to keep his work life separate from his family life, he says.

‘I’ve never told the kids to be quiet because I’m writing. I’ve always found a way to keep it separate from the rest of my life. So, the only thing that overlaps is the worry.’

He shouldn’t fret. He may have written just six novels in 20 years, but they’ve all been bestsellers. His fourth, Us – about a man trying to save his 20-year marriage by embarking on the holiday of a lifetime with his wife and son – was longlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction and Nicholls wrote the TV adaptation starring Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves.

David Nicholls says he feels in awe of actors he's worked with, including Benedict Cumberbatch. David Nicholls says he feels in awe of actors he's worked with, including Benedict Cumberbatch. (Image: Alamy/PA)

In his parallel career as a scriptwriter, he has contributed to the ITV series Cold Feet, written the screenplays for the movie adaptations of his books Starter For Ten (which has also now been turned into a stage musical) and One Day (which starred Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess), and adaptations of Far From The Madding Crowd and the TV drama Patrick Melrose, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

You Are Here centres on two lonely strangers – Marnie, a copy editor aged 38, and geography teacher Michael, 42, both with their share of emotional baggage – who are brought together by a well-meaning mutual friend to embark on the windswept, rain-lashed Coast to Coast walk across northern England.

Gradually, despite the driving rain and soggy clothing, they develop a gentle, warm friendship, opening up about their lives, the loves lost, the paths they chose, as they make their way towards the end of their journey – and towards new beginnings.

‘Once a year I go on long walks. I’d always wanted to write about walking and find a way to put it into a book. So many things happen to you. You always get a little bit lost or rained on or there’s always something unexpected. I liked the idea of using it as the setting for a love story.

‘I did a number of walks to work out what might fit. I had a really lovely time researching it and a great time writing it as well.’

He did the Coast to Coast walk in three stages, because it takes 12 days and he can’t be away from his family for that long, he explains.

‘I did the first stage in February, and it was very wet. I got rained on and snowed on and blown about. There are some hard climbs, but other stretches are long, flat and quite boring in places.

There’s always a backdrop of humour in his books, but much of Nicholls’ writing centres on human emotions, love and how flawed characters make mistakes and come out the other side.

He says You Are Here is the most grown-up book he’s written.

‘It’s the one I’ve really tried to polish. I’m not writing about characters in their 20s or teenagers in this one, I’m writing about grown-ups with grown-up emotions and flaws.’

David's new novel You Are Here is out nowDavid's new novel You Are Here is out now (Image: David Nicholls)

As with all Nicholls’ tales, there’s pathos and poignant moments, heartache and humour, as the reader follows the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ journeying couple.

He doubts he’ll ever top One Day in sales – it has to date sold 3 million copies in the UK and 6 million worldwide – while the Netflix series has earned him legions of new fans.

He commented recently that if somebody says to him, ‘Oh, I liked your book’, he knows they will be referring to One Day, but it doesn’t bother him.

‘I’m sure that that will be the most successful thing I ever write, but I think that You Are Here is a much better book.’

Over his career, he has at times featured elements of himself and his experiences in his work. His previous novel The Understudy centred on the eponymous hero, a nod to Nicholls’ early career as an actor.

The Hampshire-born writer studied English literature and drama at Bristol University, before winning a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York.

For eight years he struggled, spending most of his time understudying lead roles or playing minor parts. He gave it up for writing because he simply wasn’t a very good actor, he has said.

‘Over an eight-year stretch, I was employed for about three-and-a-half years, and the rest of the time I was working in bookshops or pubs. I was sitting around worrying in bedsits. It was a very stressful time.’

These days, he gets starstruck around the actors he has provided scripts for, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan.

‘I get very shy around actors, I’m in awe of what they do and that these actors I’ve admired for so long are saying my words and talking about my script. It’s strange – and very exciting. I’m not at all relaxed about it.’