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William Nicholson Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

William Nicholson

William Nicholson

An interview with William Nicholson

William Nicholson discusses Seeker, the first volume in a three part trilogy for teens; and talks about his life.

Although perfectly suitable and intriguing for adults, Seeker is targeted for a teenage audience. Do you feel that teens are interested in exploring the idea of the supernatural or of the supreme?

The true answer is, I don’t know. I personally was fascinated by the supernatural when I was a teenager. I think it interested me more than anything. I wanted to know what mattered most in life, what was most real and lasting, whether God existed and what God asked of me, and what sort of experiences lay beyond my immediate perceptions. Those fascinations remain with me to this day.

What might readers take from the Noble Warriors saga? Do you hope that the book will inspire some to lead more noble lives?

It may sound pompous, but yes, I do. I’ve tried to create characters who have real ideals, who want to make the world better in whatever way they can. And then I’ve tried to dramatize that journey. I was reacting to a certain extent to the superhero culture that suggests that all that’s needed to save the world is a trick power and a fancy suit. I think what’s needed is more complex, and involves more sacrifice.

In Seeker, Morning Star and Seeker are decent, unselfish, law-abiding people seeking who are determined to become Noble Warriors for the greater good. But the Wildman is quite different—an outlaw, unpredictable, and seemingly drawn to the Nomana for selfish reasons. Although it’s unclear what’s in store for the Wildman in the next two Noble Warriors books, at the end of Seeker he is redeemed. Does the Wildman send a message to teens that people can change for the better?

I don’t think it’s quite right to say that the Wildman changes for the better; it’s more that he grows from one level to the next. He is selfish and amoral, but he’s also hungry for more than he’s yet experienced—and when he’s offered the strange concept of “peace,” he knows he wants it. You’ll see in the next two books that the Wildman’s journey is by no means the obvious bad-to-good-guy story. If I’m trying to send any message to teens, it’s that even bad guys are searching for deeper lives.

How does your process differ for writing books and screenplays?

There are only really two differences between books and screenplays, as far as I’m concerned. The first is obvious—in a book I have much more room and much more time to explore what’s happening inside the heads of the characters. The second is that I’m in full control of my books, whereas with a screenplay, I’m forced to adjust to the demands of many other people.

The nature of the Noble Warriors’ god seems intentionally vague and mysterious, almost as though you’re challenging readers to define the nature of the All and Only. Do you have all three books outlined, with a firm story line? Did writing screenplays help you refine the skill you use for long-range creative planning?

I do have all three books outlined, and I had the ending mapped out before I began. However, the process of actually writing the books has brought about changes along the way. New characters have entered the scene, and my heroes have taken turns I had not envisaged. The god of the Nomana, though, will be revealed just as planned. As for the skill of long-range creative planning, I think I learned that through working on the Wind on Fire books. Screenplays are the opposite—bursts of short-term energy.

What can tell us about the sequel to Seeker? Will readers again visit the city of Radiance?
A: The second book of the Noble Warriors, Jango, begins with an invasion by a new and powerful warlord, who leads his army against Radiance. The island of Anacrea is threatened as never before. Seeker learns that he alone has been given the power to save the god of the Nomana. Morning Star finds herself helplessly drawn to the Wildman, even though she knows he’s the least noble of them all. A new character joins them, a pale and beautiful forest girl called Echo. And we meet a mysterious old man called Jango, who seems to know what’s going to happen to them all.

You have said in a video interview that you don’t want to look back on your life to see what “you have done” and find the answer is “nothing.” The three main characters in Seeker are similarly determined to do something vital with their lives. With the success you’ve experienced as a writer in a various media and your positive influence on young readers, do you feel some level of fulfillment? Or, as with your characters, do you feel you are continuing on a lifelong pilgrimage?

I do now feel, somewhat late in my life, that I have begun to do something worthwhile. But I also feel that I have so much more burning inside me, to reveal and to discover and to explore. Yes, I am most definitely on a journey that will only end with my death—and perhaps not even then. That’s the big mystery.

William Nicholson writes:

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 – no one’s listening, no one cares – 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, begins with Seeker, also in 2005.

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 – 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) or men in love (The Trial of True Love).

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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by William Nicholson at BookBrowse
Amherst jacket Motherland jacket Noman jacket Jango jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for William Nicholson but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    Trezza Azzopardi was born in Cardiff, UK. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at the University of East Anglia and is an external examiner for Creative and Cultural Studies at Norwich School of Art and Design.

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  • Susanna Clarke

    Susanna Clarke

    Susanna Mary Clarke (born 1 November 1959) is an English author best known for her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), a Hugo Award-winning alternative history. Clarke began Jonathan Strange in 1993 and worked ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Society of Others

    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
    by Susanna Clarke

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