Fellow OD, Nicholas Shakespeare (OD 1970), author and biographer, answers the questions of his contemporary, Pico Iyer (OD 1970), essayist and novelist in this year’s Author’s Corner feature. Ahead of sharing it in the upcoming issue of The OD, as their contemporaries, we thought we’d give you a sneak preview …
Nicholas, I can still remember your composing memorably beautiful poems in our English classes at the Dragon, drawing on the enviable fact that you were living in South America at the time. Did you already know you wanted to be a writer?
First, Pico, I’m honoured to be answering out of all people to you, who sat beside me at one of those ink-welled desks in Upper One, and invariably was ahead of me in every class. I yield to no one in my admiration for your writing. And I do wonder if you, too, became a writer in order to resavour and convey the experience of something you’d read?
My own first memory of a book that captivated me –up till then I had been fed “Janet and John” non-adventure stories featuring a dog called Rover – was a retelling of the King Arthur legends. I was seven or eight, staying on the Malay coast at Port Dickson. My mother came into the room and saw my face. “What’s wrong?” I looked up, glitter-eyed, and wailed, “Lancelot is dead!” A reluctance to accept that writing a story like this might be what I wanted to do was bound up with congested feelings about her father, my grandfather, a prolific writer and broadcaster who had taught English at the Dragon in the 1940s. His name was S. P. B. Mais. Quite famous in his day, now forgotten, he wrote upwards of 300 books (with titles like Some Books I Like, and its sequel More Books I Like). When he died, bankrupt and heartbroken after his wife of 60 years ran off with someone else, I thought, If that’s what it means to be a writer, count me out.
With the Chatwin biography, I know you had the advantage of working closely with your subject’s widow. Was the Fleming estate equally co-operative and helpful?
The support of the Fleming Estate has been invaluable, guaranteeing access to the right people and to essential documentary/photographic material. That said, I made it a condition that I be allowed to write what I find. The smallest suspicion that “authorised” might also mean “controlled” will not benefit Fleming, his estate, my publishers or me. In 1990, I sought the same assurance from the Chatwin estate; nor when my authorised biography of Bruce Chatwin was published did any question arise that pressure had been exerted.
Look out for The OD landing in January for the full interview …