Researchers / Writers

William Fiennes: Once Upon a Time in a Castle…

If you grew up in a castle, and then had to write about it, you might find, as William Fiennes did, that your novel was a prime candidate for the genre of “a misery memoir”. Castles, after all, are high maintenance, and as William will tell you, very cold in the winters. Still, his book, The Music Room is not meant to have you sobbing and reaching for a handkerchief, though a superficial synopsis might suggest as much.

The book is about his family – his parents and their four children. One, Thomas, died in a horrible accident at the age of three. Of his siblings, his brothers, Richard and Martin, and his sister, Susannah, William was the youngest. He was only two when his brother Richard suffered a severe series of epileptic attacks that resulted in brain damage, which produced spurts of violence and hostile mood swings from then on. Richard died young, at the age of 41, and by then William himself had developed the painful condition known as Crohn’s Disease. It has no known cure.

So, loss and illness are laced throughout the book’s pages. However, when William speaks of his book and its setting, he says – “the fact that it is in this medieval castle brings with it a sense of wonder and awe but in a way it could be set anywhere. It’s about parents and children, loss, difficulty, love – all those universal things.” But most of all, says the author, it is about care, particularly of his parents for his brother Richard and also “care for the house that they had inherited that they were trying to look after for future generations.” He pauses for a moment – “the house in a way was the world, the place that generation after generation moves through.”

Growing up, William saw more than his share of visitors – he estimates 10,000 tourists visited annually. He had to keep his room tidy, just in case a tour group popped in. In Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow made it her home for a time, as did a dozen other film crews. Still, for the youngest son of Nathaniel Fiennes, the 21st Baron Saye and Sele, Broughton Castle was home. Growing up near Banbury, Oxfordshire, Fiennes learnt to ride his bike in the Great Hall. As the seasons turned, he swam, skated and fished in the moat. “We opened the gift shop in the stables and I sold Ian McKellen a postcard,” he writes. “I ran through the arch into the Ladies’ Garden and saw Jane Seymour in a white Regency gown bend to sniff a rose.”

On the map of his childhood are marked the familiar rooms: The King’s Chamber, the Ladies’ Garden, the Long Gallery and the Groined Passage that lay between the dining room and the great hall. Broughton Castle had once hosted kings – James VI and I and Edward VII have all visited – and the property has been in the family for generations over 600 years. Still, his illustrious antecedents (which glitters only more brightly with thespians Ralph and Joseph Fiennes counted among his cousins) is not William’s only claim to fame by far.

His first novel, The Snow Geese, won the young author a slew of awards including the 2003 Hawthornden Prize, the 2003 Somerset Maugham Award and the 2003 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Written in a year of relative good health following three surgeries to help treat his condition, the book had the author following the long migration of the Snow Geese. Chronicling a “completely mad journey” of approximately three thousand miles from Texas down to the Arctic circle, travelling by train, bus, car, snow mobiles and on foot, the book was part travelogue and part natural study. It also had a very personal significance for its author. “I didn’t think of it as a travel book,” explains William, “instead it was a book about the idea of home, of return, departure and migration…how we all have a longing for home but also a longing for the new and the unexplored and how those two impulses are going on in human life in all kinds of different ways.”

After The Snow Geese was published in 2002, William struggled for nearly six years to complete another novel. “I tried to write books that weren’t about me at all…I was trying to get away from my own experience really,” he says. When he finally decided to look to his own life for inspiration, the result was 2009’s The Music Room.

It won no prizes, though it was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, the Duff Cooper Prize, the Ondaatje Prize, the PEN/Ackerley Prize and the Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year Award.

Not winning did not detract from his pleasure in having succeeded at what he had hoped to achieve: “I wrote it firstly to remember Richard, I wanted to remember him but also I thought this story wasn’t just about us. This was a universal story, of a family coping with difficulty.”

In an attempt to place his brother’s condition in a wider context, William also included many chapters that explored not only the history of neuroscience and recent medical advances but epilepsy as it was portrayed in essays, poems and autobiographies as well. “The Music Room is about an older person’s attempt to understand intellectually what had happened,” says William. While there were things around to be afraid of in his medieval castle – gargoyles, the eyes in the portraits, the pike in the moat – Richard was never one of them. Though he does describe episodes of violence and extreme mood swings, he remembers his brother primarily as “this wonderful person, incredibly loving and tender.”

Though he discussed it extensively with them, William did not show the manuscript to his family until it was complete. “The hard bit for me to write was when I was describing Richard as less than his best,” he says, adding that the book was in a way a considered and artistic enterprise that allowed him control over what to include and what not to.

Sitting in a shady garden, he makes an honest confession – his session at the Galle Literary Festival on ‘Family Portraits, Family Secrets’ is just the kind of thing he doesn’t feel comfortable with. “Oddly, I didn’t feel that exposed when the book first came out. When I started to feel exposed was when I was actually talking about the book,” he says speaking of how people seemed to want him to write in the margins of the books and to explore things he had deliberately left out.

His other niggling annoyance is around being mistakenly categorized as an author of a misery memoir. Of the genre that enjoys some popularity in the U.K, he says, “I didn’t want anything to do with it.” Though he says his next novel might be about illness (and a dozen things beside), William knows one thing for certain – like The Snow Geese and The Music Room, it will be both full of curiosity and discovery and full of life.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on March 13, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

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