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Author interview: Sarah Winman

Posted on 17th June 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
An interview with Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit and, published tomorrow, A Year of Marvellous Ways.
With both of Sarah Winman's novels set in Cornwall, it only made sense for one of our booksellers in the area to sit down with her and find out what it is about the area that she keeps on coming back to. Sarah took the time to answer questions from Libby in our Truro shop before the publication of her second novel.

Libby: Both when God Was A Rabbit and your new novel, A Year Of Marvellous Ways, are set in Cornwall, do you do your writing and research there? Are you thinking of a specific place in A Year Of Marvellous Ways and if so why have you chosen it?
Sarah: I do escape to Cornwall whenever I need peace or I need to focus my writing. I am very fortunate that my mum still maintains my grandparent’s home in Looe - Looe being the Cornish setting for When God Was A Rabbit.

The inspiration for Marvellous came from a beautiful tidal creek off the Carrick Roads in Falmouth called St Just-in-Roseland. Nine years ago, when I first went there, I saw this small boathouse opposite a church and wondered who would live there. Four years ago, I asked myself the same question. But this time I gave myself an answer: a man who was afraid of water and who didn’t believe in God.

Although St Just was the inspiration, I have fictionalised the creek and the surrounding areas to give myself more freedom in the storytelling. I researched a lot in Cornwall, at The Cornwall Records Office and Royal Cornwall Museum, as well as spending much time in the creek itself. These Cornish books were of particular importance too: A.L Rowse: A Cornish Childhood. Fred Majdalany: The Red Rocks of Eddystone. J Henry Harris: Our Cove. And Claude Berry: County Cornwall.

L: Nobody could argue that Cornwall provides a beautiful setting for a novel as has been proved by many earlier novels and it's obvious that you have an affection for the county, where has your interest in using it as a backdrop stemmed from?

S: My grandparents moved to Cornwall when I was 4. It is the county I am most familiar with, the county I have a genuine and longstanding connection with. This is where I turn to when I wish to write about nature. Such familiarity gives me the joy and freedom to write knowingly about the land - about the texture of light, or about the sea, or about the seasons. The fact that Cornwall and I met in childhood is significant, since it allows me to coat my memories with the golden light of nostalgia! 


L: Missy is an important character at the start whose life in London has led to her initially hidden distress, her image softens as the novel progresses and the story develops. She appeared to me as a launch pad for the plot, was it the same for you? 

S: That’s a very interesting question, and my answer might change as the weeks and months go by. But, for now, I still think the letter from the soldier was the launch pad for the plot. The bottom line, being, that Drake had to get to Cornwall.

However, Missy is very important and I wrote a great deal more about her which I can’t say here, but will tell you when we meet! I love Missy. Missy is the character who introduces the idea of a mermaid – the idea of how life can change; she is the ever-hopeful Missy who won’t let circumstance restrict her. Missy is a survivor. In 50 years time she will be Marvellous. Missy was Drake’s horizon as Marvellous was Paper Jack’s. Both women instinctively knew they deserved better from the men who professed their love.

L: The early part of the novel depicts a very fractured London, spilling over with loneliness. Post-war London is recuperating and so is Francis, how would you describe him when he's in Cornwall and does it reflect in his environment?

S: When Drake arrives in Cornwall he is a broken man – by war, by love – and he sees no point in continuing. But it is nature (and Marvellous, of course) that gives him answers, and begins to heal him. Nature is frightening to him at the start. Then it ignites his curiosity. By the end it provides peace and constancy, beauty and meaning. Nature fades, dies, and regenerates. And so every character in the book is healed by the creek in some way. It is a blessed land, but not in the religious sense that the priests declared. It is a haven after the destructiveness of war; after the inconstancy of love.


L: From the outset the character of Marvellous is absolutely enchanting and this continues throughout, have you drawn on anybody from real life? 

S: No, not really. She is an amalgam of many people – relatives and old friends, of course, both men and women. But what I knew I needed to do right from the start was to describe her physically to the reader. Like setting down a photograph on the table. Her physicality for me was the key to the enchantment, as you call it. I have an old friend who is very small, who wears glasses, uses a stick and is out and about everywhere in her red mac. She is noticed and brings a smile to everyone. That seemed a good place to start. People are open when they face her, and this openness – receptiveness - is the key to Marvellous’ storytelling.


L: The diversity of the Cornish countryside is echoed in all the characters, was this

S: It was deliberate because the countryside was there to heal each character in whatever way that needed to happen, and therefore, the countryside becomes its own character. It's interaction with each character is unique.


L: It seems unusual for a novel not to have a character that is disliked by the reader, did you choose to use the war as that 'character'?

S: No, not consciously, but I like this suggestion. The likeability of the characters didn’t seem that important to me, even though I don’t find Drake particularly likeable at the beginning. What was important to me, however, was how fractured each character was. It was this wound that would be the key to each person’s journey: the redemptive need to put things right.


L: The relationship between Francis and Marvellous comes across, quite beautifully, as being mutually dependent, enabling their strength to deal with their very different futures. Where did the idea for this as a key part of the plot come from?

S: I think we are all mutually dependent. An old friend of mine once said, youth keeps youth alive, and I think that’s true. So in the way that Marvellous can hand on her experience and wisdom – the natural consequence of having lived a long life - so Drake can ignite her memories of youth. She needs him to bear witness to the life she has led. He needs her to love him and to bring forgiveness into his life. She needs him to give her an ending. He needs her to provide a future.

Throughout society, young men and grandmothers have been shown to have enriching and respectful relationships, so I always knew the many possibilities of bringing these two people together.

L: I was totally absorbed from start to finish. I loved all of the characters and the way that their lives interweave. It was a sheer indulgence to read. What's next, have you another book on the way?

S: I have the opportunity to go back and reacquaint with the first book that I ever wrote, a book that wasn’t published at the time. It is a small story; one, primarily, about secret love. There is no magic realism, no breadth of nature, just people doing their very best and dealing with the consequences of decisions and circumstance. I think it will be interesting to go back to it after all this time.


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