Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 9th May 2009.
William Fiennes caused a literary sensation with his first book, The Snow Geese, back in 2002. . Part memoir, part travel book, he won a plethora of awards, and was named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.
“It was a dream,” says William, when me meet in Dublin’s Montrose Hotel. “And I had the idea that if that happened you had a career. You were a writer.”
But try, as he might, a second book would not come.
“I tried novels; I tried other writing, but I hit a wall of despair. I was writing a book set in the 1940’s about the far east, and I realised I did not care enough about the characters. I thought ‘what do I care about?’”
And that took William to thoughts of Richard; his, 11 years older brother, who had suffered from front lobe brain damage as a result of epilepsy.
“It was five or six years since Richard had died. I decided to write my memories of him down because I had a sense that things were sliding into history.
“I had a need to write about him, and once I’d started, the images of him, and of my childhood were just so strong. And of the house I was brought up in, and the way mum and dad cared for the house and for Richard.”
William was brought up in Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. Built in 1,300, it’s a magic place with a moat; Shakespeare in Love starring William’s third cousin Joseph Fiennes was one of many films to be set here. It’s open to the public; there’s a church and a tearoom, but William says that his childhood never felt grand.
“Someone asked me if I could describe my book in one word, and I said, ‘Care.’ It’s about the duties of care we pick up from the people around us. I think of the house as being this self contained world. And we were looking after it for the future. It was more than just ours. And looking after Richard could be challenging. But there was no malice in him. That was just the way he was.”
The Music Room is an astonishing achievement. Lovingly crafted, it is a literary feat; but is also a gentle memoir, and an enlightening glimpse into the world of epilepsy. Fiennes intersperses his memories with a history of the medical understanding of the brain.
After suffering Status Epilepticus in his early teens, Richard lived in an Epilepsy Centre, coming home for many weekends and holidays. He is portrayed as an intensely loving boy; tender, creative and soulful. A boy obsessed with Leeds United, who loved word puns, and who was friendly and gregarious. But his moods could be dark and dangerous.
The young William, though, couldn’t resist provoking him.
“A part of that was my sibling competitiveness. But there was also a sense of something quite exciting. Of the danger of something going off the rails.”
So detailed is the portrait; so visual and tender the descriptions, that the reader feels they know the core of him. William was delighted, and relieved, when his family said ‘That’s him! That’s exactly him.’
The world outside the castle is rarely described. But William attended the Dragon School in Oxford, then Eton, and the book closes with his departure to Brazil where he was to teach. After that he studied English at Oxford University, taking an M Phil, and a doctorate after graduation. But he was dogged with ill health.
“I developed Crohn’s Disease in Brazil, and I was pretty ill in Oxford. I got worse, and I had a lot of operations. I abandoned my doctorate, spent a year as a freelance writer, and then wrote the Snow Geese.”
Fiennes now lives in London, and at 38, says he would love to be married.
“I’d love to be a dad,” he says. He spends his mornings writing, an activity fraught with anxiety, and on most afternoons he teaches creative writing. “I’m writer in residence at the American School in London. I do workshops with teenagers. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
Impressed with the pupils talents, Fiennes thought it would be wonderful to teach children who did not have the advantages of going to an independent school. So, with the help of a teacher, he set up the charity, ‘First story.’
“Two years ago I started going to a disadvantaged school in Hounslow, to teach 14 self selected teenagers after school. I asked them all to write a story, and they mostly, submitted versions of Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code. No one told me what it was like being a teenager growing up in Hounslow.
“When you tell them that their lives are interesting and valuable, they will write about them. And the reaction, when they read them is phenomenal. They gain so much confidence. At the end of the year, with the help of Granta magazine, we published their stories in an anthology. The scheme has now spread to 14 schools, with other, excellent, writers facilitating.
“New writers,” he says, “tend to use generalities. And the thing with stories is that the more specific they are the more universal they seem to be. If you want to write about love, or guilt or fear, the way to do that is through detail, detail, detail.”
The Music Room is full of such detail. Of his mother playing scales on the Viola; of the children watching a storm from a tent. Of Erik Morecombe, filming a Christmas Special, approaching the young William and barking, ‘Hello, Are You married?’
“I wanted to celebrate my childhood life, and see the beauty and the wonder of it. But also the difficulties and the loss and the sorrow. It is part of the same thing. It is about being alive.”
The Music Room By William Fiennes is published by Picador at 16.90 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.