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.
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”.
“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.
“I feel like I’m trying to show a different way for men,” she told ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books.
“I’m trying to get away from that patriarchal construction of what a man should be, and basically say, ‘Come into the feminine that’s in you’. Because that’s the one thing that will really change this world.
“If you look at [Still Life characters] Ulysses, Massimo, Cressy and Pete … they are all imbued with this feminine energy of care, from how they talk to each other, how they talk to women.”
Still Life’s mother character, Peg, continues the subversion of gender roles and is not interested in parenting.
“It’s mostly the men… who are raising this girl. And so I’m turning that whole idea of what the feminine means around, and it’s not about motherhood, it’s about motherhood. And these men can become mothers, and that’s very important.”
“Because when we talk about the feminist movement…men get the chance to do things they couldn’t do.”
Art and Beauty in Winman’s Novels
In Still Life, Winman makes convincing arguments for the importance of art and beauty in everyday life – being able to recognize and celebrate it, and its transformative power.
“I spoke with an art historian who I was very fortunate to meet and befriend for a few years while writing this book,” Winman told the Big Weekend of Books.
“And I asked her, ‘Why is beauty important?’ And she said, which I kind of wrote 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 also does something in our guts – it repositions our eyesight, and through beautiful art, beautiful photos, beautiful music, we begin to see the beauty of the world again.
“It’s very, very easy in the mundane to forget that, and in the grind that life can bring many of us go through that – to just know that that light falling across a table, or that refraction, or a seascape that we’ve seen over and over, that all of a sudden we just see it with a different eye.”
By advocating for the beauty of the everyday, Winman takes art from the gallery and makes it accessible to her characters.
“So when I look at Tin Man and then Still Life, it was mostly about the working class and opportunity and art and its transformative power.”
What books does she turn to for inspiration?
When asked which books evoke a sense of joy, beauty or empathy for her, Winman responds quickly.
“All Toni Morrison’s novels, she’s the master… The Song of Songs is the one I’d pick, especially because of the way she writes about men… Unbelievable.”
Winman also mentions African-American author, filmmaker, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, most notably her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
EM Forster’s Room with A View was also a great inspiration to her when she started writing Still Life.
Just like Sarah Waters, whose novels set in Victorian society feature lesbian protagonists, as does Still Life. “I’d say the Night’s Watch is my favorite,” Winman says.
And finally, Tim Winton from Australia.
What’s next for Sarah Winman?
Winman isn’t quite sure what she’ll write next, but she’s always letting words flow onto the page.
“I’m always amazed at how little I start” [when I sit down to write]. And then I just dive in.
“I always think, ‘I need to get more’ [ideas] before I sit down [down to write]’ and actually it’s not the truth. You just have to dive into a scene or something – something that at least makes you fall in love with it. That’s what keeps me writing.”
Sarah Winman speaks with Cassie McCullagh on Saturday, August 6 at 10 a.m. for ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books. Listen live on your radio or online, or listen back on the ABC listening app.
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