William Nicholson dismisses his credit as co-writer on Gladiator, one of the most successful films of all time. The Wind on Fire, his best-selling trilogy of children's books, was 'far more intensely satisfying'. And he says there's nothing glamorous about Hollywood. 'It's a business,' the 56-year-old says from Brighton, England, with a hint of irritation in his low, rich voice. 'It's a job. There's a large number of very talented and very nice people there who I've had a great time working with. But it's a mess, like everything else. Nobody quite knows how to do things, including me. 'The world of famous film stars is, if you think about it, no more exciting than the world of any other people because, actually, it's just individuals sitting around in rooms.' Actors feed what he calls the complete nonsense of celebrity culture, but they're nowhere near the real heroes of the art form: directors, cinematographers, designers and writers. 'These are the people who actually create these things,' he says. Nicholson's latest creation, The Society of Others (Doubleday), is his first adult novel. 'I thought, I want to write something that's both a terrific story in the Hollywood sense - that nails you to your seat - but that actually gets at some of the things that I really care about most, which I can't do in my film-life writing.' The writers he most admires are blessed with 'acute psychological insight', such as Marcel Proust. But Nicholson also loves good story-telling, 'which Proust is lousy at, but Tolstoy and George Elliot are fabulous at. So, when I get a combination of profound insight into people and good story-telling, then I'm really happy. But it's so rare. Usually good story-telling goes along with cardboard characters. Or very, very insightful understanding of the human condition goes along with not such good story-telling.' Society is about a 22-year-old English slacker, equipped with a pointless humanities degree and no ambition. Its central character explains his life of 'doing nothing in particular'. 'I do nothing most days,' he writes. 'You could say it's what I do, like it's my occupation. This is not a problem. I don't want anything. I have the animal needs like you do, to eat and excrete, to mate and to sleep, but as soon as the needs are met, they go away, and everything's the way it was before.' After mustering enough momentum to leave home and travel, the slacker becomes enmeshed in a civil war somewhere across the English Channel. The setting for the thriller is beyond reality. Neither the country nor the protagonist is named. Many scenes take place in landscapes inspired by paintings in the National Gallery in London. 'We're in the realm of something that is beyond the natural and is a realm of ideas,' Nicholson says. He defines the motif as 'the imprisoning self', and twice describes it as obvious. Readers may think otherwise. Nicholson dramatised the life of C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles, in Shadowlands, and can come across as remote as Lewis. The former BBC documentary maker says he never watches TV, but enjoys the internet, and replies to every message sent to his website. Nicholson has three children from his 16-year marriage with fellow Cambridge graduate and author Virginia. He describes himself as 'obsessional' in his work, and says he fears that if he stops pedalling, he'll fall off. There seems little chance of that. Among other projects, he has a slew of books, including another adult novel, under way. Hollywood made him rich, but he refuses to use that as an excuse to slow down. 'People always say, 'Oh well, I'm not as rich as some others.' Of course I'm not as rich as some others. But I'm richer than a lot.' That aside, Nicholson says, life is about health, friendship and purpose. 'And if life is worth living, the fact that you die one day shouldn't negate it.'