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Behind the Sentences with... with this year’s judge David Nicholls

Spotlight on this years judge David Nicholls

Our judge David Nicholls on what makes him return to the page, his writing failures and words of encouragement

Where do you write?

This has changed over the years. I used to be able to write at home; radio on, a dishwasher running, sirens in the distance, standing, sitting or laying down with pen, pencil or keyboard. Then children arrived and for many years I worked happily in libraries – public libraries, the London and the British – until I found that other people distracted me too much and that I was spending more time in the cafe than at the desk. I then tried a small, very basic office away from home where I worked every day from 8.30am to 5pm, and that suited me very well. But the virus means that I’ve been slammed from all that silence and solitude back into that first state and, much as I love them, I long to spend more than sixty minutes on my own, some distance from my family – and I’m sure they feel the same.

What do you love most about writing? What keeps you returning to the page?

The truth is I don’t always love it. At the moment I’m ‘between books’, with no sense at all of what I should or could write next and the prospect of starting again causes all the muscles in my neck to contract. Even when there’s a clear idea, it can be something of a grind, adding every day to that pile of imperfect words – and typing ‘the end’ doesn’t mean it’s the end, certainly not in screenwriting where the redrafting and note-taking process is a particular kind of misery. But, occasionally, there are days when the words flow and they’re not all bad, there’s control of the situation and characters and I know where I’m heading, and that’s brilliant. I’m also acutely aware – and remind myself often – that writing for a living is a privilege. It's what I always wanted to do, even if I didn’t quite recognise the fact.

What is your biggest “failure”, in the world of writing? And did it lead to success?

In screenwriting, the sad news is that most projects are failures, or at least not the success you’d hoped for. Everyone embarking on a new screen project is setting out to make a timeless masterpiece, but from the moment you start typing the first draft, you begin to take a series of wrong turns – in writing, casting, performance, editing – that take you further and further away from the pure, perfect film that played in your head. Of course, there are some good decisions, too – some wonderful surprises – and I’m very proud of a lot of my script work. But even in the happiest projects, there are moments where I curse my stupidity and have to get out of the chair and walk around a little. ‘Why did I leave that joke there? Where’s that missing scene?’ In fiction, there’s not a single page that I wouldn’t rewrite if I could, some more substantially than others. Fond as I am of the early books, I think it took me a while to settle into a style and let go of the constant need to tell stupid jokes. But nothing’s entirely successful, which is why I hope I’m always trying to learn and get better. I’m a pretty diligent rewriter, tweaking and fixing until it’s taken away from me, and it would be a very dark day if I read something back and thought, yep, that’s as good as it could possibly be.

What words of encouragement might you offer to other writers?

When I began to write, it seemed incredibly presumptuous to show anyone my work. It felt as if there was a society of proper writers who’d led extraordinarily rich and exciting lives and somehow deserved to be published or produced, and if you were outside that world, forget it. An issue of confidence, I suppose, tied up a little with class. I didn’t know any writers, had certainly not grown up with that sense of access or entitlement. So I would suggest to any writer who feels wary of sharing their work with a friend, an agent, a publisher or of entering into a competition, to fight the voice that says, ‘It’s not for you.’ You do have the right to tell your story, even if it doesn’t quite fly.

What’s next in terms of your output? When can we expect it?

If we can find a way to coax it out of lockdown, the next screen project will be the BBC TV adaptation of Us, the great joy of which has been watching the actors bring this troubled family to life (Tom Hollander, Saskia Reeves and Tom Taylor play the Petersens). We’ve shot and edited, but it turns out that you can’t dub actors voice from the kitchen table, and so we’re waiting to give it that final polish. I’m also very proud of the next script, a film adaptation of Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World – the first thing I’ve written for a younger audience. It’s a story I adore, but film production is also in disarray too, so we are, like everyone else, in an extended period of development.

And finally, what's your favourite short story of all time and why?

I’m a huge fan of Lorrie Moore and am tempted to choose something by her. But the story I go back to most often is Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever, who I also revere. An acutely painful, truthful story.

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