Small Talk: William Nicholson

Novelist, playwright and screenwriter William Nicholson studied at the University of Cambridge and then worked as a BBC film-maker. His screenplays include Shadowlands, first produced as 1985 BBC drama, which he then adapted for the stage and for 1993’s film version starring Anthony Hopkins. Nicholson’s novels for adults include The Society of Others (2004), and The Golden Hour (2011). He lives in Sussex with his wife and their three children.

Who is your perfect reader?

Myself, of course. Because I want everyone to read the way I read: 50 per cent for pleasure and 50 per cent because it’s how I learn and grow.

What book changed your life?

My life doesn’t change that easily. But an extensive influence has been Walden by Henry Thoreau, about living in a hut in the woods in 1854 and how little one needs [materially] to live a good life. I often reread it to keep my value system straight.

Where do you write best?

In a converted garage. I hand-write standing up at an electric desk so I can give my back a few more years.

What is your daily writing routine?

I get up shortly after six and once I’ve washed, I go out to my writing space, have a cup of coffee and prepare my day’s work. Then I go back to the house to have breakfast, and back out to work until lunch.

What do you snack on while you write?

I try very hard not to. I have a cup of tea mid-morning, and when my willpower is weak I will have a biscuit. Florentines are my favourite.

Which literary character most resembles you?

I don’t feel it’s a physical resemblance but in his attitude to life I identify with Pierre in War and Peace. He is someone trying in his own incompetent way to make the world a better place. I share that stumbling effort.

Who are your literary influences?

Tolstoy. I massively admire him, above all others. For different reasons I admire Proust, Chekhov and Evelyn Waugh.

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?

George Eliot. I’d love to know what she’s like to talk to.

What are you scared of?

Failure, loneliness, old age.

How do you relax?

I lie on the sofa and listen to music, or socialise with my family and friends. What is especially relaxing for me is dinner with people I love. To eat and drink and talk, that’s what life is for.

What would you go back and change?

I’d go back to my twenties and give myself all the knowledge I now have. As a result I would not make such porridge of a series of love affairs. I’m ashamed when I think back.

Do you keep a diary?

No, but I did from my Cambridge days through to my marriage. I poured out all of my troubles, mainly about women and writing books. When I met my wife, I found that the need for it disappeared. I would tell her instead.

What does it mean to be a writer?

When I do talks in schools, I sometimes tell kids that writers are the only people who are really alive. They’re like cows with two stomachs – you live your life and then you write about it and live it again.

William Nicholson’s latest novel is ‘Motherland’ (Quercus)

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