William Nicholson: Journey to a shadow land

William Nicholson thrived on stage and screen and as a children's bestseller, but longed to write adult fiction. Peter Stanford meets an author who has won his final battle
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Here's a tale to give every aspiring author renewed hope. William Nicholson arrived in London in 1970 with his double first from Cambridge and a coveted place on the BBC's trainee scheme, full of confidence that bordered on arrogance and with only one thought in mind: to follow his destiny and become a great novelist. Over the next 15 years, working early in the morning and late at night to fit round his day job, he did indeed produce eight novels - but failed to convince anyone else of their merit.

Here's a tale to give every aspiring author renewed hope. William Nicholson arrived in London in 1970 with his double first from Cambridge and a coveted place on the BBC's trainee scheme, full of confidence that bordered on arrogance and with only one thought in mind: to follow his destiny and become a great novelist. Over the next 15 years, working early in the morning and late at night to fit round his day job, he did indeed produce eight novels - but failed to convince anyone else of their merit.

Only one was published, in 1979, "to no acclaim or visibility of any kind", its author recalls with a snort of laughter. "It was ghastly. I can still remember the feeling of dread, waiting for my agent's response each time I would deliver my immaculately typed manuscript. Then, finally, the letter would come and my heart would plummet. 'Despite some very promising passages...' In retrospect, it did me a lot of good. It beat me down and I ended up very humble."

Nicholson turned for solace to stage and screen work, where that new humility paid dividends: commissions and awards quickly started piling up. There were Baftas for television plays, including Shadowlands, his account of CS Lewis falling in love, an Oscar nomination for his screen adaptation of that play, plus another for Gladiator - not to mention a toybox-ful of prizes for his Wind on Fire trilogy of children's books.

But still he hankered after that adult novel. Finally, some 35 years on, Nicholson cracks it this month with the publication of The Society of Others (Doubleday, £12.99). "Technically, it isn't my first published novel," he says, "but it feels like coming home. Whatever the fate of this book, I feel that with great labour I've got to the beginning. At 56, I'm ready to go."

Tall, balding, with a long, tanned, oval face that reminds you of a retired sportsman, Nicholson is comfortable sending up his youthful self. "I was very much in the haute literature tradition. The story was something a little bit vulgar. It was the sensibility that counted. I was being a mini-Proust, but a mini-sub-Proust is the most needless creature in existence. Proust is hard enough." He may ridicule that early self-importance, but Nicholson has lost none of his ambition. For The Society of Others, as he is the first to admit, is a deeply serious book that defies categorisation. His publishers have rather clumsily tagged it "a thriller about the meaning of life", and there is indeed a strong thriller element in it. The nameless narrator ends up in a nameless police state in Eastern Europe, where he struggles to escape the warring factions.

Yet if it is a thriller, it is in every sense a million miles away from the more conventional associations of the genre, epitomised by Inspector Morse, whose face (or that of the actor John Thaw) disconcertingly keeps peeping out from behind Nicholson's shoulder as he leans forward to sip his coffee. We are in Oxford, where he has been talking at a book festival, relaxing in the staid and reassuring world of the Randolph Hotel, over whose thick-pile carpets generations of students have walked to bring their grannies and godmothers for an appropriately English luncheon. The hotel likes to celebrate Oxford characters, and around the walls of the lounge are pictures of Colin Dexter's detective as seen on TV.

Morse was a man given to philosophical reflection. Perhaps I'm only imagining that he is smiling as Nicholson explores why The Society of Others is so much deeper than a thriller. Is it, I venture - conscious that he was educated by Benedictine monks at Downside, the Catholic boarding school near Bath - a moral fable? "I'm a non-believer now," he replies, with a note of regret. "I am not in any sense a church-smasher. I have enormous gratitude for that upbringing. It was valuable but it is, as far as I am concerned, based on a complete untruth."

Yet there is a long section of the novel where the narrator travels in a car with an elderly priest, known as Cello, and the two bat backwards and forwards faith-based attempts to give life a greater purpose. "Cello's God is an odd sort of God," Nicholson concedes, "and he is certainly not an orthodox priest, but I see his role more as the voice of traditional wisdom rather than another Aunt Sally to be knocked down."

Traditional wisdom is just one of the options the novel explores in seeking a deeper purpose to existence. It is a journey through the options, a Pilgrim's Progress without the proselytising ending. For none of the alternatives covered ultimately provides the antidote to the narrator's nihilism.

The Society of Others is a book brimming with ideas, all compressed into 224 pages. How would Nicholson himself describe it? "I think I'd put it in the category of life journeys. That is the business I am in. It is a well-trodden path. Lots of writers have written life-journey books, and I am very drawn to them as a reader. For example, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, a book I love very much but which no one here reads. Or with novels, I like those where the characters are life-journey characters, which tends to be the Russians. So War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov, because their characters are trying to work out what they are doing here."

Such lofty antecedents makes Nicholson's a terribly un-English novel. It is at times almost dizzying. You start with a naturalistic picture of a disgruntled but nice young narrator in the company of his family and, almost before you have realised it has happened, you are in a fantasy world whose landscape is shaped by great works of art and whose inhabitants are dangerous extremists. The interior and exterior narratives mix seamlessly as the central character tries to escape an all-too-recognisable figure who is haunting him.

"I think," Nicholson consoles me when we have ironed out a few twists that I, to my shame, failed to spot or understand, "that it is a book that has to be read twice. I have no right to ask readers to do that, of course, but I found it a difficult issue to know at what point things were bewildering and at what point patronising. So I tried to find a way to pitch the whole thing at a level that is just fun enough to be intriguing."

Looking at his Hollywood track record, you might be forgiven for thinking that Nicholson, having earnt his spurs with box-office smashes such as Gladiator, is trying belatedly to establish himself as a sensitive, artistic soul underneath. He, unsurprisingly, sees it differently. First, he is not about to apologise for the work he has done in Hollywood. In fact, he's very proud of it and presents it as a growing process whose end was to equip him to be a better novelist than in his twenties. "Writing films, I was working for people whose sole aim was to create an entertaining product and that's given me a completely different attitude to storytelling. What I learnt in Hollywood was that I shouldn't trouble myself with being clever. I had first of all to create a story that gives satisfaction."

Yet he does accept there is an element of having sufficient status to ignore commercial wisdom by writing a book that cannot, by anybody's standards, be deemed straight entertainment. "It was tempting", he says, "to think, 'What do readers want? How can I be like that other book that was successful?' but I'm kind of past that now. I'm in a place where I say that what I should write is the best I have in me to offer. It's up to the world to decide if they want it. I can't double-guess the audience any more."

There is, he contends, a thread that links his stage and screen work with The Wind on Fire, the successful trilogy of children's novels he published between 2000 and 2002, and now with The Society of Others. "At one level they all tackle the same stuff. What I've discovered is that in everything I write, what comes out, sometimes unconsciously, is what's inside me and my concerns. In Gladiator, for example, I was one of three writers and the mark I left on the film was by including the afterlife in it. It wasn't there when the draft came to me. It was at that stage all about revenge and, I hope, by including heaven I made it a more interesting film."

What is inside Nicholson appears to be an absorption with those big questions of life, death and suffering. Shadowlands, after all, is about the Christian apologist C S Lewis struggling to cope with finding then losing Joy, his American wife. Nicholson himself, since rejecting the God of his Catholic upbringing, also appears to have been struggling for an answer. In that sense, The Society of Others is an autobiography, albeit with his own journey over four decades compressed into a few days.

That journey is now about to take another turn. Nicholson has never lived in Hollywood, preferring to go for short stretches when work makes it necessary. For the foreseeable future he plans to steer clear of film - though he has been involved in talk of a sequel to Gladiator, made all the harder by his work in consigning the hero to heaven. He intends to devote himself to novels; a first draft of a second is already completed. He is a man, you sense, who with The Society of Others has returned to his first love, and who has no intention of letting her out of his grip again.

Biography: William Nicholson

William Nicholson was born in 1948. After Cambridge, he worked in the 1970s for the BBC as a documentary film-maker. He wrote television plays, including Shadowlands and Life Story, winners of the Bafta for best television drama. In 1988, he received the Royal Television Society's Writers' Award. His first stage play, an adaptation of Shadowlands, was the Evening Standard Best Play in 1990 and went on to a successful Broadway run. Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for the 1993 film. Other film scripts followed - Sarafina, Nell, First Knight, Grey Owl and Gladiator, for which he was one of three co-writers nominated for an Oscar. He wrote and directed his own film Firelight, and completed further stage plays including The Retreat from Moscow. The Wind Singer, his novel for older children, won the Smarties Prize Gold Award (2000) and the Blue Peter Award (2001). Slaves of the Mastery and Firesong make up the Wind on Fire trilogy. His adult novel The Society of Others is published this week by Doubleday. He lives in Sussex with his wife and three children.

Peter Stanford's 'Heaven: A Traveller's Guide to the Undiscovered Country' is published by HarperCollins

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