Sarah Winman on art and beauty, unconventional families and what’s next

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 Marvelous 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.

Still Life struck the hearts and imaginations of readers around the world, making persuasive arguments for the transformative power of beauty.(Supplied)

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”.

A black and white image showing the aftermath of a flooding in a Florence square.
In November 1966, Florence flooded as the Arno burst its banks, killing 101 people and destroying countless cultural artefacts.(Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“I’m absolutely there, to fight against [Brexit]. But what I realized 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 joyful, 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.

Leave a Comment