William Nicholson on his latest Sussex-set novel

PUBLISHED: 15:16 30 January 2017 | UPDATED: 15:16 30 January 2017

William Nicholson

William Nicholson

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William Nicholson has two lives: Hollywood screenwriter and novelist. This month he publishes the latest in his series of Sussex-set novels. But will it make the journey to the big screen? He spoke to Jenny Mark-Bell

The latest in William Nicholson’s sequence of Sussex novels is set around the 2015 election. Eighteen tumultuous months later, it seems a lifetime ago.

Adventures in Modern Marriage revisits familiar characters and addresses a very particular theme: “I knew I wanted to write about what in the book I call the half-death – that moment in which you realise that your life in a sense has come to an end but you’ve still got probably a third of it to go.” So as one character wrestles with his own existential crisis he watches the very public gladiatorial sparring of the three party leaders: “It struck me that we didn’t know the result of the election but what we did know was that of the three party leaders, it would be the finish of two of them. In the event it proved to be the finish of three of them.”

Barcombe-based William is eclectic in his output. Oscar-nominated for his screenplays for 2001’s Gladiator and 1994’s Shadowlands, he also wrote the screenplays for Les Miserables, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Everest. All the while, he has continued to publish novels and children’s books at an impressive rate.

One gets the sense that the Sussex-set novels are home, for more reasons that the obvious. Over four books we have grown to know these characters well, and as for the author? “I sort of love them all, really. The funny thing is they’re all me.”

William has spoken in interviews about the importance of writing about the English middle class and, while he adds that it’s important to write about everybody, expands on the idea: “The point about writing books is to communicate what it’s like to other people. Novels play an important role. They’re not just stories, they’re windows into the lives of other people like us, that take us much deeper into those people (if the novelist is doing his or her job) than our normal conversations do.”

So this, an enjoyable book about quiet, mannered lives in an East Sussex landscape, also has punchy themes: the multi-stranded, interconnected story lines explore middle-aged sexuality, inadequacy and death.

In one story line, former lovers Annie and Alan meet by chance and Alan becomes consumed by the idea that their relationship ended because of his inexpert love-making. There seems to be only one way to redeem himself in his own and Annie’s eyes, but will he follow it? William says: “The original title for this novel was Adventures in Middle-Aged Marriage and my publisher said you can’t call it that, nobody would want to buy it. None of us want to admit we’re middle-aged, apparently.

“On the whole movies try to persuade us that love happens when you’re young and beautiful. Well it does, but that’s one sort of love – one that is based on a lack of experience and is usually a bit of a muddle. I very strongly believe that people have much better sex in middle age than when they did when they’re young. They’ve had more experience, they’re more relaxed about their bodies, they know what they want a bit more and they’re more willing to say so. That makes a massive difference and the same applies to the emotions. This is why so many second marriages are more successful than the first.”

Of course as we become older death becomes as much a part of life as love and sex. One of the storylines in the book is about the long drawn-out death of an elderly parent – a theme inspired by the death of William’s mother. Again, he says there’s a need to share experiences.

“What I’ve found is with the dying process people on the whole, in conversation, are more willing to be very truthful about it. The bit I think is a little bit unusual in my new novel is to see it through the eyes of a character who actually wants a parent to die. In the case of my character she has had a difficult relationship with her mother, but also the nature of the dying is such that it’s very distressing and she wants it to be over. The effect on her of her mother dying is to make her want to get out and have a more interesting life of her own. I believe that to be a true response but we’ll see whether it rings a bell for other people.”

This shares a theme with one of William’s other projects: Breathe stars Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander and Diana Rigg and is directed by Andy Serkis. It is, William says “extremely moving”.

“It’s about someone who’s living in an intentional way, rather than the way the rest of us do, which is rather casual. It’s about two rather ordinary people transformed by tragedy who create an amazing marriage. Very moving and absolutely astonishingly well filmed. We’re still cutting it, so I can’t guarantee it’s going to be a work of genius, but it might be: this time next year you might all be talking about it.”

There are seven projects in the development at the moment – one of which, if it happens, will be shot in Sussex. All being well, Hope Gap will start filming next year.

Early in his career, William adapted his own work for the critically-acclaimed film Shadowlands, with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. He would relish the opportunity to adapt his own work again.

“I would absolutely love to do a very long-running television series of my Sussex novels, starting with The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. I would love to do that, but it’s never going to happen. There’s not enough people being murdered, not enough naked women found dead in lakes.”

Adventures in Modern Marriage comes out in hardback on 26 January, published by Quercus.


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