David Nicholls’s novels include One Day, which has sold over five million copies worldwide and has been translated into 40 languages. His latest book, Us, has received widespread praise and is, according to its author, his favourite work to date.
Nicholls also has numerous film credits to his name, including his adaptation of One Day and his screenplay for Far From the Madding Crowd starring Carey Mulligan. He adapted his first novel, Starter for Ten, for Tom Hanks’ production company and recently wrote the highly acclaimed BBC original drama, The 7:39.
I loved books, film and TV from a young age but it never seemed practical or attainable to be a writer as an actual job. For a long time I thought performing was the way to go, which is why I spent so much of my teens and twenties pursuing a career in which I had absolutely no ability. I didn’t start writing full-time until my early thirties, so there are no early manuscripts in the drawer and no abandoned screenplays from my youth. In retrospect I think this is probably just as well. I’m not sure I had anything to say before then.
I was working in a terrible restaurant with a lot of other waiters-cum-models, actors, writers and comedians, all of us desperate to escape. A good friend of mine, Claudia Lloyd, encouraged me to turn those anecdotes into a sit-com, a Friends-style thing called Waiting. The BBC’s Head of Comedy, a lovely man called Geoffrey Perkins, sadly no longer with us, read the first episode and commissioned a second. I remember getting a cheque for £300 and holding it in my hand thinking, ‘My God, I’ve just been paid to write.’
When fiction is going well and the words are flowing there’s nothing quite like it. Screenwriting can be like that, too, but it’s a team activity and therefore sometimes quite confrontational. I can think of many instances of projects that would’ve been improved if I’d stood my ground and also just as many that would have been improved if I’d given in and listened to others. With fiction there’s no one else to blame and no one else to take the praise and I love that power. Although I do love working with actors – seeing the words come to life is both thrilling and terrifying.
I got into publishing at the end of an era when writers could make a living. There was loyalty and less emphasis on this year’s hit. It’s a much tougher environment now and I’m extremely aware of how difficult it is for many authors to survive. On the other hand, it’s a fantastically lively environment too, with the rise of literary festivals and blogs and book groups. The e-book has also been a great innovation in making work available.
I’m very disciplined when I write. I go to the same desk, drink the same coffee, eat the same drab lunch and work 9am-5pm. It’s the only way for me. There’s something very romantic about the idea of the wild-eyed writer, scribbling away through the night with a glass of whisky and an ashtray full of cigarettes, but I can’t do it. If I try to write through the night I just fall asleep on my desk.
At the risk of sounding banal, I’d advise aspiring writers to read and read and read. Read widely, critically and unsnobbishly and always ask: ‘how do they do that? Why are these particular words having this particular effect? What’s the difference between first- and third-person, past and present tense?’ Reading is the best way to learn to write. It’s also fuel and everything I’ve written has drawn on the books I’ve read. At the same time, it’s important to remember that reading is not the same as writing and you need to get the words down. Then, when they’re as good as they can be, take a deep breath and show them to someone.
I’m probably most proud of One Day, although my last novel, ‘Us’ is my favourite. I’m thrilled that both ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ brought a new audience – and readership – to an author I love. I’m also pleased that ‘The 7.39’ brought a prime time audience to a drama that was entirely free of maverick detectives and murdered women. But I still wish I could go back and fix them all – you never feel like a script is completely finished.