In this novel, as well as her previous novel When God was a Rabbit, Sarah Winman shows us the magic of everyday life. Discuss the character of Marvellous Ways in the light of this.
No, I don’t think it could have. The story came out of the landscape. And I needed to know that landscape fairly intimately. My grandparents moved to Cornwall when I was five, so I met the county in childhood – always a potent union. I have knowledge of the light down there, of the tides, of the towns and villages, of the weather. And it was a pleasure to take what I knew and to move it further west along the southern coastline, and to expand that knowledge. I ventured up the River Fal 8 or 9 years ago and came across St Just in Roseland: a tidal creek of exceptional beauty that was home to a boathouse and a church. When I went back four years later, I began to fictionalise the creek. I made it even more isolated. I started to ask questions. Who would live in a boathouse opposite a church? Probably a man who hated water and who had little time for God. That was my starting point for the soldier Drake.
You seem to enjoy using fanciful names and wording in your titles; the last Richard and Judy Book Club bestseller When God Was A Rabbit; now we have ‘Marvellous Ways’, and of course the character Francis Drake. What’s your thinking in using such devices?
The title When God was a Rabbit came out of the text very early on. It represents childhood – a time when all things were possible, when life was lived in the realm of imagination. Naming in Marvellous Ways is about identity. All the characters are outsiders searching for a sense of belonging, although they are unaware of this at the time. The burden of naming is huge, in both positive and negative ways. The parents of Francis Drake and Peace have placed on their children the weight of their own unlived lives and unquenchable hopes. The journey for both Peace and Drake is to grow triumphantly into their names. Only Marvellous has a sense of destiny. Her name was her gift bestowed by a progressive father. It allowed her to see life differently to others, and it armed her against the onslaught of loneliness. She became a midwife and healer, and saw what others could never see. She lived her life with the pulse of nature. Marvellous says, ‘. . . it’s a dying art, naming well. My father gave me my name. He travelled far, and he travelled to places where names mattered and he brought my name back across the sea and put it in this shell box together with my calling.’
How do your stories come to you? Do you instinctively reach out for them – one novelist recently described it as a process ‘rather like netting butterflies’ – or do you prosaically build them like a tower, brick by brick?
My stories come, usually, as a main character and an ending. However, when I recently saw a film of the St Ives-based artist Barbara Hepworth, and saw her chiselling away at a giant piece of granite, and then smoothing it with rough paper, I thought: I get it. That was this book. The book came from the landscape. It became a fraction of the whole after chiselling away at it, after shaping it. And what was left was this small, smoothed orb; just something innately feminine. I had no idea when I started what it was going to be.
Your writing style is an absolute delight, and very dreamlike. What, or who, are your inspirations and influences?
Thank you for saying that. I do want my writing to be accessible because that’s very important to me; simplicity in the writing, even though some ideas may be a challenge. My influences come from everywhere, from all art forms – cinema, photography, fine art, writing, music. And people, of course. Theatre, too, has been influential during the writing of Marvellous because the book is about oral storytelling and, therefore, very theatrical. Two plays, in particular, I remember: Peter Pan and Jane Eyre; both productions originally from Bristol Old Vic, both directed by Sally Cookson. They were joyful productions that opened the doors of what is possible. These days I seek people and moments that give me permission to go further, to be better, to take risks and to believe.
I never know what I have absorbed over the years until I start writing, and then I go: ‘Oh, it’s you from ten years ago . . . Hello, there.’
As for my writing influences, not much has changed. These are some of the writers I love to read: Toni Morrison, Tim Winton, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, Colm Tóibín, John McGahern, Anne Enright, John Irving, Zora Neale Hurston, William Boyd.