William Nicholson’s powerfully imagined and best selling ‘The Wind on Fire’ trilogy is being reissued with new covers. Nicholas Tucker interviewed William Nicholson for Books for Keeps and discovered what led Nicholson, a well known film script-writer, to write for children.
William ‘Bill’ Nicholson, well preserved, unfailingly amiable and now in his early sixties, started writing novels at the age of five. The son of a missionary doctor, and aged eight baptised into the Catholic faith in a Nigerian leper colony, he has since turned his back on organised religion. A double first at Cambridge and subsequently an award-winning script-writer responsible for a number of films including Shadowlands and Gladiator, he will witness this year the reissue of his book trilogy ‘The Wind on Fire’, first published between 2000 and 2002. To date selling over 600,000 copies and translated into 25 languages, it now re-emerges with bright new covers designed to attract yet another massive 10+ readership.
Talking to Bill in his beautiful hall farmhouse with its fine view of the Sussex Downs, an obvious first question is how he came to write the trilogy. ‘Well, I was becoming frustrated with producing film scripts. I was well paid, yet so many still never got made into films. And that’s a horrible feeling – it’s like pouring all your dreams and inventions down a hole. So I felt I would like to write something just for me. I picked on the idea of doing a children’s book because I didn’t want to get too clever. I wanted to see if I could actually write a really good story. I was also irritated with the way my own children were beginning to be tested a lot while they were at school, not in my view the best or most creative way to teach. Setting the first book, The Wind Singer, in a country ruled by an inflexible Chief Examiner was my protest here. Although it didn’t take any particular originality to write against exams in a children’s book, it was still unusual at the time I was doing it. Ironically, I now see there is a schools edition of the trilogy with questions at the end of each chapter!’
In fact, this anti-examining philosophy soon gets left behind as Bowman and Kestrel Hath, the twins at the centre of the trilogy, first escape and then set out on a long and terrifying journey in order to discover the source of the evil currently gripping their home town of Aramanth. Why this change of direction?
‘You couldn’t write a whole novel fulminating against exams. And I now see that writing fantasy enabled me without actually realising what I was doing to bring in all my current concerns about the way we live, not just the one about too much testing. What The Morah stands for – the name I give to the fount of evil in the trilogy – are things I am totally against such as violence, militarised societies, teenage conformity, over-competitiveness, seeking success at the expense of others and trashing the environment. But I also believe that the potential for all bad things is in every one of us, not just in a few baddies. Kestrel has to die at the end of Firesong, the last novel, as an act of self-sacrifice for all the various selfish, nasty, unthinking little acts that have gone before. These had gradually been allowed to gather together into a big cloud of evil that then has to be dispersed by a cleansing fire that will sweep away all the previous cruelty.’
In the second novel, Slaves of the Mastery, Aramanth is shown five years later to be a better, kinder place. But its inhabitants are then invaded by the soldiers of the Mastery, another representation of evil, and taken into slavery. What’s the message here?
‘Freedom must always be guarded, but the people of Aramanth had allowed themselves to get slack. But don’t forget that The Wind Singer was written as a one-off novel with a resolved ending. When it was enthusiastically received by my publishers I found I wanted to write more and also realised that there were still questions left unanswered about what might have happened next. For it seems to me, over and over again in human affairs, that a pattern of initial kindness in society is then replaced by action, where some people get left out or hurt. This in its turn can eventually lead to a state of cruelty which must finally be lanced like a boil. And then we start again. This chain of events was what I was trying to show in all three novels.’
So is he going to write a fourth novel, showing how the quietus achieved by the Manth people at the end of the trilogy is after all only illusory? ‘No! It really is finished. Readers still write in demanding more, but for me it is now almost as if someone else wrote it. I can’t even be sure of some of the plot details.’
Each novel takes up the ancient and well-tried pattern of the heroic journey, during which ghastly conditions have to be endured and various attendant dangers seen off. Was Tolkien an influence here? ‘Inevitably. Though to tell you the truth, I have never managed to finish even the first book of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. I am not a fan of his writing style – I find it very over-wrought. But I do think he is a fantastic creator of atmosphere. But the picaresque story has a lot going for it, in the sense that there will always be new adventures along the way as well as constant changes of scenery. I think I was unusual in having the whole Hath family involved – mother and father as well as the twins. Heroism is shared out, not just concentrated on one person as so often happens in adventure stories. As it is, my own family has been the centre of my life for the last 20 years and also my greatest joy. I had no deliberate intention of focusing on a heroic family in my stories. It is yet another example of how when you are writing fantasy you don’t really know what you are doing until you have done it.’
Another children’s writer told me recently that she now sets her novels either in the past or the future because she couldn’t cope with today’s swiftly changing technology and the way it would inevitably impact upon her teenage characters. Is this an issue for him too? ‘Absolutely. I am currently writing contemporary adult novels but sometimes feel I am producing what could soon look like a historical story even though it is set in my present! But of course one of the joys of writing fantasy is that you are the master and can set your own rules. But you must also be consistent within these rules, or you will inevitably be found out.’
Will there be any more fantasy novels? ‘I am quite sure that there will. Because I enjoy the bits of me I have to use that are different from when I am working on my adult Sussex novels. When writing fantasy I can use my imagination cubed – I can literally think anything. Yet I don’t believe my characters must constantly encounter the weird and wonderful. Very often they come up against quite ordinary characters and circumstances but seen in a different way. In my first novel, The Wind Singer, the twins meet people living in sewage pipes. People and sewage both belong to everyday life, but put them together and then you get something different. I also invent a ruthless army made up entirely of teenagers – once again, creating new possibilities from an otherwise familiar scenario.’
How does he like the new covers for ‘The Wind on Fire’? ‘Very much, though they are really only sharpened up versions of the old ones. But I like the way they now have a classic look. And there is no sucking up to readers, with pictures promising them all sorts of excitements. Instead each cover reproduces the singer symbol sign that stands for the voice of the wind singer that has to be inserted in order to lift the curse that hangs over Aramanth. I had much fun making that up, by the way, spending ages doodling before getting it as I wanted. But this was done before the age of the internet and the universal ‘at’ sign, which of course it now somewhat resembles. My readers sometimes send me their own versions of the symbol, which I now have dangling from my office ceiling. But my publishers also gave me one made of solid silver, and I was very tickled by that.’
It is now time for Bill to return to his office in his large garden and get on with more writing, be it another film script or further stories. His normal daily stint starts at 6am, but his energy levels in the afternoon I interviewed him seem as high as ever. A nice man as well as a powerful author, he seems well set to write many more novels of all sorts in the years to come.
Read the BfK Authorgraph on William Nicholson (BfK No.166, September 2007).
William Nicholson’s website: www.williamnicholson.com
‘The Wind on Fire’ trilogy:
The Wind Singer, 978 14052 3969 1
Slaves of the Mastery 978 14052 3970 7
Firesong, 978 14052 3971 4
Published by Egmont at £6.99 each.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.