Sarah Winman on art and beauty, unconventional families and the future

When English writer Sarah Winman goes to write, she never has a plot in mind – and yet she brought the critically acclaimed When God Was a Rabbit, Tin Man and A Year of Marvelous Ways to the world.

Readers everywhere fell in love with her characters in Still Life 2021, but Winman says it’s a mysterious process that brings them to the page.

“You know what, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t plot. So, you know, characters slowly come to me when I move people,” she told ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books.

Writing joy and hope

Still Life takes us to a place of great beauty in great crisis, opened in 1944 in war-ravaged Italy and flooded to Florence in 1966. It came into the hands of readers who had just endured two years of COVID fatigue and uncertainty.

A book cover with the text 'Still Life' by Sarah Winman
Still Life struck the hearts and imaginations of readers around the world, delivering compelling arguments for the transformative power of beauty.(Delivered)

It was one of those books that arrived at the perfect time, but where did it come from?

Winman says she had actually thought about Brexit and how it alleviated what she calls a “contempt for otherness”.

“I don’t approach novels with themes,” she says, “but I think once you’re in your mid-50s, I always call it: You walk your protest, and you walk your worry.”

While 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 comes by crossing the Channel,” she says.

Brexit, Winman says, “was all done under the guise of British exceptionalism — you know, we’re ‘better’. And we’re not. I love Europe. I love its mistakes. But I love what it gives us gives , that’s so much more.”

Rather than write her despair about the anti-European movement, Winman turned to joy with a book described as a “love letter to Italy”.

A black and white image of the aftermath of a flood in a square in Florence.
In November 1966, Florence flooded when the Arno overflowed, killing 101 people and destroying numerous cultural artifacts.(Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“I’m definitely there to fight” [Brexit]. But what I realized was that I was drawn to stories that made me laugh or took me on an adventure. I needed something to recharge the batteries, and I needed something that was cheerful and a little entertaining.

“And that was like, okay, 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 touch of entertainment … I want to give them a little bit of energy, a little faith, then go out and face what they have to face, whatever that is in everyday life.

“So yeah, that’s my case for joy — that joy is very necessary. And joy is a very triumphant place to be — it’s often rejected, 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 consisting of men who take on the role of primary caregiver.

In Still Life, Ulysses Temper and his motley crew of friends and a parrot create their own alternate family unit while raising someone else’s child. Winman’s male characters are often wise, friendly and unconventional.

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