When English author Sarah Winman sits down to write, she never has a plot in mind – and yet she’s brought the acclaimed When God Was a Rabbit, Tin Man, and A Year of Marvellous Ways to the world.
Readers everywhere fell in love with her characters in 2021’s Still Life, but Winman says it’s a mysterious process that helps bring them to the page.
“You know what, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t plot. So, you know, characters come to me slowly when I move people around,” she told ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books.
Writing joy and hope
Still Life takes us to a place of great beauty that’s in great crisis, opening in war-ravaged Italy in 1944 and progressing to flooded Florence in 1966. It landed in the hands of readers who had just endured two years of COVID fatigue and uncertainty.
It was one of those books that arrived at the perfect time, but where did it come from?
Winman says she’d actually been thinking about Brexit, and how it illuminated what she calls a “disdain for otherness”.
“I don’t approach novels with themes,” she says, “But I think once you’ve reached your mid-50s, I always call it that you walk your protest, and you walk your care.”
As Britain closed itself off to Europe, Winman wrote a story about characters whose lives and minds opened up after visiting the continent.
“I write books that … I want people to still believe in the goodness of others, and the freedom that is out there by crossing the Channel,” she says.
Brexit, Winman says, “was all done under the guise of British exceptionalism — you know, that we’re ‘better’. And we’re so not. I love Europe. I love its faults. But I love what it gives us, which is so much more.”
Instead of writing her despair at the anti-European movement, Winman turned to joy, with a book that’s been described as a “love letter to Italy”.
“I’m absolutely there, to fight against [Brexit]. But what I realised is, what I was being drawn to were stories that made me laugh or took me on an adventure. I needed something to recharge the batteries, and I needed something that was joyous, and sort of entertaining.
“And that was like, OK, well, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give people a moment to pause, a moment of joyful solidarity, a breath of entertainment … I want to give them a little bit of energy, a little bit of belief, to then go out and face what they have to face, whatever that is in daily life.
“So yes, that is my case for joy – that joy is very necessary. And joy is a very triumphant place to be – it’s often dismissed, but it’s very powerful. And so is empathy, incredibly powerful.”
Unconventional men and families
In Still Life and her other novels, Winman also draws non-traditional families, often made up of men who take on roles as primary carers.
In Still Life, Ulysses Temper and his motley crew of mates and a parrot create their own alternative family unit as they raise someone else’s child. Winman’s male characters are often wise, kind and unconventional.
“I feel what I’m trying to do is to show another way for men,” she told ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books.
“I’m trying to get away from that patriarchal construct of what a man is to be, and to actually say, ‘Get into the feminine that’s in you’. Because that is the only thing that’s going to really turn this world around.
“If you look at [Still Life characters] Ulysses, Massimo, Cressy and Pete … they’re all imbued with this feminine energy of care, of how they talk to each other, how they talk to women.”
Continuing the subversion of gender roles, Still Life’s mother character, Peg, is disinterested in childrearing.
“It is predominantly the men … bringing up this girl child. And so, I’m flipping that whole idea of what the feminine means, and that it’s not about motherhood, but it is about mothering. And these men can mother, and that’s very important.”
“Because if we do talk about the feminist movement … men will have the chance to do things that they haven’t been able to do.”
Art and beauty in Winman’s novels
Winman makes compelling arguments in Still Life for the importance of art and beauty in everyday life – being able to recognise and celebrate it, and its transformative power.
“I was talking to an art historian who I was very lucky to meet and have a friendship with for a couple of years in the writing of this book,” Winman told the Big Weekend of Books.
“And I asked her, ‘Why is beauty important?’ And she said, which I pretty much have written in the book, ‘Because it does something to us, on a very, very deep level’. You know, on a cellular level, it does something to the brain.
“It does something too in our guts – it repositions our sight judgement, and through beautiful art, beautiful photographs, beautiful music, we start to see the beauty of the world again.
“It’s very, very easy in the everydayness to forget that, and in the drudgery that life can cause, many of us go through that – to just know that that fall of light across a table, or that refraction, or a seascape that we’ve seen time and time again, that suddenly we just see it with a different eye.”
In making a case for the beauty in the everyday, Winman takes art out of the gallery and makes it accessible to her characters.
“So if I look at Tin Man and then Still Life, that has been very much about working class and opportunity and art and its transformative power.”
What books does she turn to for inspiration?
When asked which books open up a sense of joy, beauty or empathy for her, Winman is quick to respond.
“Any novels by Toni Morrison, she is the master … Song of Solomon is the one I would choose, mainly because of the way she writes about men … Incredible.”
Winman also singles out African American author, filmmaker and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, particularly her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
E.M Forster’s Room with A View was also a big inspiration for her when she started writing Still Life.
As was Sarah Waters, whose novels set in Victorian society feature lesbian lead characters, much like Still Life. “The Night Watch I would say is my favourite,” says Winman.
And finally, Australia’s Tim Winton.
What’s next for Sarah Winman?
Winman’s not entirely sure what she will write next, but she’s always letting words flow onto the page.
“I’m always surprised with how little I start with [when I sit down to write]. And then I just dive in.
“I always think, ‘I’ve got to get more [ideas] before I sit [down to write]’ and actually, it’s not the truth. You’ve just got to dive in with one scene or something – something that’s going to make you fall in love with it at least. That’s what keeps me writing.”
Sarah Winman speaks with Cassie McCullagh on Saturday August 6 at 10am for ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books. Listen live on your radio or online, or listen back on the ABC listen app.
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