William Nicholson

William Nicholson

I come from oddly mixed stock. My father, a doctor, is the son of a Methodist minister; my mother the daughter of a South African Jew. Both converted to Roman Catholicism when I was seven. My father specialised in tropical medicine, and spent the first half of his career in Nigeria, working to eradicate leprosy. I remember the summer I was baptised into the Catholic Church, at the age of eight, a ceremony bathed in African sunlight, for which I wore a white suit. My baptism took place in a leper colony. My mother read English at Somerville and came out with a First. She was hired after the war to lecture for the British Council in Nigeria, and met my father on the boat to Lagos. She loved him at first sight because he had a gentle face, and he was reading Proust. I grew up first in Seaford, on the south coast, a town that is at the end of a railway line. It has no claim to fame, but it lies between the Downs and the sea. My childhood passed on foot and outdoors, in bracken and on pebbly beaches. I had one friend, but one is enough. We were inseparable until I was sent to boarding school at the age of eleven. I was educated first by Dominicans and then, from the age of thirteen, by Benedictines at Downside. I came of age intellectually at a time of ferment in the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council encouraged new thinking to sweep through the church, and the younger monks of Downside dared to think bold new thoughts. They taught me to pursue truth wherever it led. For a time this strengthened my youthful faith and made it strong and subtle. I regarded atheism as the easy option, and enjoyed demonstrating to my contemporaries, most of whom had never been taught any theology, how shallow was their dismissal of belief. To this day it annoys me when people say they can’t believe in a good God because of the suffering in the world. Between school and university I spent a year as a Voluntary Service Overseas teacher in British Honduras, now Belize, in Central America. A transforming experience of living a life of utter simplicity, deep in the jungle, cut off from the rest of the world. I shared the teaching duties with a second volunteer from England, who had an excellent singing voice, and perfect recall of all the Simon and Garfunkel songs written at the time. All I have to do is hear ‘Homeward Bound’ and I’m back in my hammock in the jungle, counting the days to my return home. I still considered myself a practising Catholic as I began my university career, as a scholar at Christ’s College, Cambridge; but by the time I left all that was left was the space in me that my faith had occupied for so long. Much as I wanted to go on believing, it became clear to me that it’s we humans who make God, in our great need. God, if he existed, would have no need of humanity. But as all my writing demonstrates, the need or the puzzle or the hunger has never left me. At Cambridge I studied English Literature and wrote novels and fell in love. First love and first sex, late but passionate. When my girlfriend left me after a year I believed I would never love or be loved again. I came out of Cambridge with a double First and a job at the BBC as a General Trainee , one of three successful applicants out of 2,500. But all I wanted to do was write novels. I had written my first completed novel at the age of fifteen. It was called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, and was inspired by Ian Fleming. Not a James Bond parody: an act of homage. My second novel was written in British Honduras, by candlelight, and was about school anxieties. I never stopped writing. All through my years at the BBC I rose before six and got in two hours on a book before going to work. For a while all I wrote about was my failed love affair. Meanwhile I ventured clumsily into new relationships, all of which I knew were not the real thing. A combination of shyness and arrogance made me an awkward young man. I dreaded rejection, longed for perfect love, hungered for sex, and sought the status conferred by beautiful women. In some dim recess of my mind I was aware that I was not yet capable of making a full commitment, but I believed myself to be forever in search of the one true love. My novels flowed on, all as immature as their writer, all rejected; each one the fruit of some two years of snatched time. There was some encouragement along the way: a short story accepted by Encounter magazine; first prize in a Spectator writing competition; a play accepted and broadcast by Radio 4. I remember the producer telling me he would take anything I wrote. I went home and pounded out six more radio plays. All were rejected. Meanwhile, I was making modest low-budget television documentaries for a BBC series called Everyman. I travelled the world covering such subjects as Satanism in Hollywood movies, visions of the Virgin Mary in Spain, Sioux mysticism in South Dakota, and nuclear missiles in the South Pacific. Then at last, in 1979, an actual novel was accepted by a publisher. It was a strange hybrid of sex and mysticism, and it came and went unnoticed and unbought. But one of my bosses at the BBC read it, and concluded I could write dialogue. He suggested that I write for television. I had never considered television as an outlet for my writing. I don’t think I regarded television script work as real writing at all. Perhaps for this reason I wrote fast and easily. Astonishingly, my first script was produced, with Jonathan Pryce in the lead. My second, Shadowlands, won every award in its year. Suddenly I was a real writer. The years of failure dropped away. I woke up from dreams of Proust and Tolstoy and looked about me and was excited. I went on to write many more successful television scripts. I turned Shadowlands into a successful stage play. And so Hollywood called. For a writer reared on English Literature at Cambridge, Hollywood is as far away as you can go. No one in Hollywood cares about your voice, or your sensibility. What they want is big characters, big stories, big audiences. Very smart people there do nothing all day but beat writers into shape. I was duly beaten into shape. As a result I now understand that I am not writing to reveal my own mysteriously-fascinating self to others, but to explore the world we all share. I’ve become professional. I’m well paid. I’ve twice been nominated for Oscars. But no screenwriter ever owns or controls his own work, and some of my best screenplays remain unproduced. So I became a writer-director. I’m proud of my one film, Firelight, but it failed, and with it sank all hopes of controlling my own film career. So while continuing to write screenplays to pay the bills, I decided to go back to my first love; books. By now I knew that one of my old faults had been a tendency to over-intellectualise my stories. So I decided to try my hand at writing for children. The result was The Wind Singer, which grew into the trilogy The Wind on Fire; which is now selling well all over the world. The confidence this success gave me encouraged me to complete my circular journey, and return to novel writing. The Society of Others was published in 2004; The Trial of True Love followed in 2005. A new trilogy for younger readers, The Noble Warriors, began with Seeker, also in 2005, and was followed by Jango and Noman. Since then I’ve embarked on a series of contemporary novels about the worlds I live in now – The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009), All the Hopeful Lovers (2010), The Golden Hour (2011), Motherland (2013), Reckless (2014), and The Lovers of Amherst (2015). These novels begin to get close to my deepest ambition, which is to write truthfully about our lives today. My writing career may look unfocused, as I slither from television to movies to plays, and from children’s books to novels, but in fact everything I write is linked. Hollywood has taught me that whatever my subject, my own true concerns come pushing through. Even as unlikely a project as Gladiator contains my perennial obsession with life after death. So I see all my work as one unfolding attempt to make sense of this messy life, whether I’m writing about the unfairness of death (Shadowlands), the failure of my parents’ marriage (The Retreat from Moscow), the mystery of evil in the world (The Wind on Fire), men in love (The Trial of True Love), or the reality behind everyday life (The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life). As for my romantic life: by my late thirties I knew I was locked into a well-known pattern which caused me to want what I couldn’t have, and not to want what I could have. I was wise enough, just, to understand that this was ridiculous, but still I pursued the unattainable. The women involved knew better than me. Just as the beautiful American actress I was pursuing finally froze me out, a former girlfriend saved me. She decided she liked me well enough to keep me as a friend, and re-entered my life. It dawned on me then that the time I spent with her caused me none of the anxiety I associated with love affairs. I was just happy. Our love affair unfolded very slowly, but it went very deep. There came a moment when I knew I wanted no more escape routes, and was glad of it. By the time we married, I was forty. My marriage has made me deeply happy. We have three children. I love my family more than my writing. My only regret is that it took me so long to get here.
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