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Author interviews

Interview: William Nicholson

June 23, 2011

William Nicholson grew up in Sussex and was educated at Downside School and Christ’s College, Cambridge.

His plays for television include Shadowlands and Life Story, both of which won the BAFTA Best Television Drama award of their year.

His first play, an adaptation of Shadowlands for stage, was Evening Standard’s Best Play of 1990. He was co-writer on the film Gladiator. He is married with three children and lives in Sussex.

All The Hopeful Lovers is William Nicholson’s third novel for Quercus and follows the same characters from The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. It casts an unflinching eye on men’s attitude to sex, women, marriage and family life.

Mark Thwaite: What gave you the initial idea for All the Hopeful Lovers?

William Nicholson: Having created a group of characters in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life I realized I wanted to follow their development through time.

Mark Thwaite: Why did you want to tell this particular story?

William Nicholson: I’ve been wanting for some time to tell the story of an adulterous affair from all three points of view – the adulterer, the wife, the mistress. Why would a happily married men want sex with another woman? As a male writer who is also obsessed with so-called women’s issues (love, marriage, domesticity, children) I wanted to tackle that apparent puzzle.

Mark Thwaite: Your novel is about many things but the central theme is fidelity within marriage. Do you think fidelity is essential within a committed relationship such as marriage?

William Nicholson: I think fidelity is the necessary basis for trust within a marriage. However, sometimes a partner breaks that trust. This is serious, but I would suggest that it doesn’t have to be terminal.

Mark Thwaite: This novel and its prequel The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life are unusual for their large casts of diverse characters, from children to old people. Why do you choose this method of narration?

William Nicholson: It began with the core idea behind the first novel, which is that we very rarely understand what’s going on inside other people, and so misread their responses. To demonstrate this I set about showing a chain of small actions, ricocheting through a group of people, all unaware of what was really going on. This is the kind of insight that can only be undertaken with the novel, which more than any other form allows you to enter the minds of characters.

Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing All the Hopeful Lovers and how did you get over it?

William Nicholson: The hardest part for me is always placing my characters in their jobs. It sounds like a minor matter, given that I’m primarily interested in their love lives. But people’s work life affects them and forms them, and I want very much to present my characters in the round. This means trying to understand what it’s like to be, say, a plastic surgeon; and finding it’s not at all what I thought. This forces me to change my preconceptions, and my plans.

Mark Thwaite: How did you become a writer? Did you always want to be a writer?

William Nicholson: Always. It’s just taken time. My own path has been through television and film.

Mark Thwaite: Did you find your experience as a playwright and screen writer invaluable when you turned to fiction?

William Nicholson: Yes, I did. I wrote many novels before turning to TV and film, and they were over-analytical, and pretentious. My work in the screen world taught me to tell stories that people want to read.

Mark Thwaite: If you hadn’t become a writer, what do you think you’d be doing today?

William Nicholson: I suppose I’d still be a television producer.

Mark Thwaite: Do you do a lot of research for your novels?

William Nicholson: Yes, a very great deal. I try hard to make every smallest detail extremely accurate. All the date and place references are real. And of course, the background of every character has to be researched.

Mark Thwaite: How do you manage to write such believable women characters?

William Nicholson: I care very much about believability. This applies to all my characters, of course. With the women characters, I work in two ways. First, all my life I’ve made it my business to question my women friends closely about their experiences. This began out of a simple desire to understand women so I could get them to love me. It has matured since my youth into something much broader. I really am intrigued by the differences between men and women. It has been a lifelong interest, if not an obsession. Second, when I get to work on a particular female character, I try to find someone I know whose experience matches the character, and I do some specific research. For example, in All the Hopeful Lovers the character of Chloe, a promiscuous teenager, was not one I could be sure of getting right; so I spoke to the daughter of a friend of mine, who was willing to be open about her life.

Mark Thwaite: Do you have an idea in your mind of your ‘ideal’ reader?
Do you write with a specific audience/reader in mind?

William Nicholson: Not exactly. I suppose I write for the reader who is like me – endlessly curious about how people work.

Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

William Nicholson: I’m plotting a fourth book in this sequence of modern novels.

Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? And who is your least favourite?

The writer I worship above all is Tolstoy. Not very original, but believe me, as a working novelist I am ceaselessly awestruck by his brilliance. Least favourite: any writer who thinks that how he writes is of more interest than what he writes about.

Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite fictional character and what is your favourite book?

William Nicholson: I’m not good on ‘favourites’. The minute I name a favourite I start to feel trapped and want to name an opposite. Variety, please.

Mark Thwaite: What is the last book you started but didn’t finish?

William Nicholson: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – actually I finished it, but I skipped a bit. It’s good, but not that good.

Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?

William Nicholson: Write every day. Show your work to others. Listen closely to criticism. Rewrite.

Mark Thwaite: What do you think of eBooks, online writing, blogs, fan-fiction etc? Are you involved in any online writing yourself?

William Nicholson: I don’t like reading books on a screen myself, but it’s fine with me if others like it. I have a website, with a question and answer facility, which I love. That’s about it.

Mark Thwaite: Are you optimistic about the future of books and reading?

William Nicholson: Yes, I am. All these technological developments change nothing at the heart of the enterprise, which is the sharing of powerful stories, insight into human nature, and wisdom. Maybe we’re emerging from a historical period that saw very large numbers of people reading books; maybe we’re heading back to a time when book reading is the preserve of a minority; but I see nothing to lament in that. What matters is the quality of the works. I suspect very few writers from now on will be able to make a living out of writing books alone; but that won’t stop wonderful books being written, and finding grateful readers.

Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

William Nicholson: I hope I live long enough to write the truly great work I have in me. Maybe it’s the next book.

Read more: All The Hopeful Lovers

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