The author was interviewed by ACHUKA's UK contributor, Lisette Menage.


William Nicholson is best known as a writer of movie screenplays and scripts for the theatre. He was educated at Downside, the Roman Catholic public school, and after working for many years as a producer of documentaries for the BBC he made his name with the script for the TV drama, Shadowlands, about the last years of C. S. Lewis. This was eventually made into a feature length film starring Anthony Hopkins, since when he has worked extensively for Hollywood.
He is married with three children and lives in East Sussex. In his twenties and thirties he wrote several adult novels, but none were published. The Wind Singer is therefore his first novel.

Can you remember the first thing you wrote that you were really pleased with?

I've been writing as long as I can remember, since the age of five. My first novel was at age 16 and strongly influenced by the James Bond books, it was called 'The World, the Flesh and the Devil' and I loved writing it and thought it was brilliant and that I was marvellous until it was finished and of course realised it was garbage. I spent ages dreaming up plots and tortures for the heroes and villains. Way back I wrote a fantasy novel influenced I suppose by Kafka, about a man who longs for a child and becomes pregnant. It was all very deadpan and I was writing about the practical difficulties involved. My mother read it and loved it and said that fantasy was obviously my thing and has stuck by this ever since.

Did you write for your school magazine?

I ran the magazine as I was interested in books and something had to go in it so I wrote these really dreadful poems. I had written a batch of these no one else had seen that my mother came across and unkindly she read them. She was stunned that her layabout deadhead son could produce such sensitive pieces and she was very encouraging. New writers desperately need this. At the beginning every person's opinion is staggeringly significant. She has always told me she thought I'd be a good writer but she is also a strict critic - she read a recent script for a play I had on at the Chichester festival and said it was hopeless, a washout.

What have you most enjoyed reading to your own three children?

E. Nesbit's 'The Little Princess' and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. We've read all seven and I found the world she lived in fascinating, so strict, not the soppy sentimental idea most people have of it but in fact very brutal with the families suffering terribly. I was completely gripped by it.

How have they reacted to 'The Wind Singer'?

They have been terribly nice about it and often refer to bits from it. When I was writing it I did explore ideas with the family and they have read volume two, which is in transcript form.

Writing this must have been very different to your usual scripts for Hollywood.

Yes this was much more enjoyable. I love writing for Hollywood but there is far more checking and agreeing involved and you have to be far more organised. With Windsinger I was able to let rip, I didn't know where I would go or what would come up. I let it be wild and free and then hammered it into shape. There is a tendency for fantasy to get boring, you have to create good characters and let them take you there. My Hollywood scriptwriting has given me a very good training in how to build a story and I consider many drafts to be normal. I take first reader opinion very seriously and respond accordingly to change areas they criticise.

How do you think the book will be received by teachers in view of the current educational climate?

A few people have said it is a satire but it is actually an attack. I don't like any system where a narrow set of test results are applied. It is good to strive but each person is better in different ways and learns at different speeds. I don't like simple measurements as tags, you hear children say they are stupid because they came bottom of the class in something. That child may well be maturing at a different pace to the rest and given confidence could blossom. The problem then is how do you measure and I think the answer isn't to produce broad stroke tests but motivate parents to care because if parents care then as a teacher you have to care. It would be far better if parents chose schools not on test results but on what they have heard teachers say about the children. It is very difficult with large class sizes but surely the answer is to double teacher pay which will lead to greater self-esteem and respect for the profession.

There are many memorable characters in the book, which ones gave you the most pleasure to write?

The two main characters, particularly Bowman and the way he starts off timid and, with the development of his power of empathy, becomes really confident. I enjoyed writing about this power and how he can make people love him with it, like the Raka of Baraka and the Old Queen. It is an interesting power; it fits easily with being afraid. .

My favourite characters are the mud people but their use of tixa leaves could be seen as controversial in a children's novel, why did you include this?

In the mud world using tixa is like going to the pub, it doesn't cause them to do anything bad, it is a male thing. With the children it enables them to do things they couldn't normally do, at one point they use it to overcome hunger and exhaustion, but it doesn't solve any problems. I wanted to include it as part of the normal world, it is neither demonised nor glamourised. The chocolate buttons are an example of using something outside yourself as an excuse for your behaviour. The Emperor is not addicted he is just frightened and uses the buttons as his excuse for not leaving the tower and changing the situation in Aramanth.

What effect do you hope the ending will have on the reader?

I want the reader to derive strong satisfaction from two things, first the destruction of the exam system and second the coming together of the Hath family after the terrors they have been through. I have been writing about this family both as a child and as a father.

Does the Morah return?

Yes, the Morah is really a collective sense of the people - it represents the drive for success, competition and the need to do down others all of which are necessary human traits but can get nasty. It is recurrent depending on what is going on in society for example times of economic growth and expansion can lead to competition and even war so the Morah gets a grip once again. The Singer people are the opposite of this they represent making a sacrifice for others and are an important part of volume two.

Yes, volume two of the story is due out in hardback this time next year. Can you give us some hints about what happens to the Hath family?

Volume two sees the destruction of Aramanth because it has essentially become lost. The liberation was good but it was unstructured and the population are unable to defend themselves against the enemies and are taken into slavery. The children are now 15 and this is marriageable age so there is a lot about how they cope with their this stage of being half children, half adults.

Volume two of 'The Windsinger' trilogy will be published in May 2001; volume 1 will come out in paperback at the same time.

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