Actor-turned-novelist Sarah Winman takes time out to talk to Chatelaine about her debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit, her inspiration and the importance of seeing the funny side of life.
Q: This is your first novel. Congrats! How long did it take you to write it?
A: It took about 2½ years to write.
Q: Was there anything unique about the way you wrote it or how it came about?
A: No, I had written a novel before and on some level it came from that. That novel was smaller in breadth, a classical love story. I think I wanted to write a story that covered a greater passage of time, a story of a brother and sister and be able to explore the countless possibilities of such a relationship.
Q: You worked as an actress before writing this. What made you want to become a writer?
I had always written. From quite early on in my acting days I had started to write scripts, a journal, bad poetry, that sort of thing – so there was no great epiphany. Nothing I wrote got made [into anything] at that point, but I had enough positive feedback to make me think I was OK. I think it is quite easy to go from the spoken word to the written word. Both are mediums of storytelling.
Q: How do you balance acting and writing?
A: No balance needed — the last few years I didn’t work that much as an actress! I also think they complement each other very well.
Q: Have you always enjoyed writing?
A: Love it.
Q: What was the first story you ever wrote?
A: I think it was a play when I was at junior school — I was about 9 years old — it was about the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. I played the lead, too. I think I was also the director…
Q: What inspired you to write this novel?
A: Good writers. There is nothing more inspiring than reading affecting novels that bury into one’s heart.
Q: Where do you look for day-to-day inspiration when you’re writing?
A: All around me, my everyday life. I go to a beautiful old graveyard called Bunhill Fields most mornings to see how nature changes and to think about lives past. I read, go to films, see art, see friends. Go for a run. Be silent. Sometimes the greatest inspiration comes from listening for that still, small voice.
Q: When and where do you write?
A: During the day — 10 till 6ish when I am full steam ahead and know what I’m doing. I generally write at home in London, or sometimes in Cornwall — my grandparents had a little place there. It’s familiar and very quiet — it’s an event if a car drives down the road.
Q: Do you have a brother and if so, is he eccentric?
A: I do have a brother. I don’t think he’s really eccentric, but maybe he’s saving something for old age. He’s lovely, though. I am very lucky.
Q: There are lots of deep themes in this book. What made you decide to tackle them all?
A: I made no decision to tackle anything actually, most of the stories revealed themselves as I went along. I guess it was what was stored in my head. Every story entered my life over the four decades of the book — maybe not directly affecting me, but they happened.
Q: How did you balance these heavy themes to keep it from feeling too sad?
A: By using humour and seeing another side to things. I am lucky to have inherited my father’s (dark) sense of humour. Sometimes we laugh because we simply can’t cry anymore.
Q: Many of the most poignant parts of this book are expressed through the voice of Elly as a child, and in that case, the reader gauges the severity of a situation or event by filling in the gaps. Is that difficult to achieve? How do you decide what to say and what not to say?
A: I don’t know. It sounds rather simplistic to say this, but I just write. I read it out loud and if the rhythm is right and I believe in the honesty, then it stays. I worked most of my life in TV world, so I know bad writing. I listen out for my own bad writing. The old adage of ‘less is more’ is usually correct. I am English and I understand a natural restraint to emotion. I like to play around with that. I think it’s beautiful.
Q: Was it daunting to write about 9/11?
A: No, not at first — it felt very natural and right to include it, especially because there was a lead-up to 9/11 — many instances of violence throughout the years culminating in the one that we all witnessed. And that became the problem; the fact that 9/11 was witnessed by millions of people, and that everyone has their own memory, their own opinion, their own theory. Added to that, is that people who were directly involved or who lost loved ones are very much alive and in grief, and that brings its own responsibility and a greater need for sensitivity. I read a lot, read the commission and then threw it all away. The only way I could write about 9/11 was to write my story: what happened to me on the day, what I remember, what still haunts me, and that’s what I did. It was all my own story, and I did go to the Vermeer exhibition, and then the story became other people’s story, as the telephone call revealed that the brother was missing. The action around 9/11 is taken from memory; I offer no judgment, no comment, no balm.
Q: Which character in When God Was a Rabbit do you identify most with and why?
A: I identify with them all, because they are all a little part of me — my beliefs, my actions, memories, intentions. I suppose Elly holds a lot of my views of the world and thoughts, and that is probably right as she is carrying the torch of the first person.
Q: What are you working on now? Is it similar to When God Was a Rabbit?
A: I’m working on a new book but have no clear picture as to what it is about! I have an ending and many beginnings…
Q: Who are your favourite authors?
A: John Irving, Tim Winton, Sarah Waters, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, William Boyd, Patrick Gale, Elizabeth Bowen, Edmund White…