Sarah Winman: An Exclusive Interview on A Year of Marvellous Ways

Sarah Winman: An Exclusive Interview on A Year of Marvellous Ways

Hi Sarah. Congratulations on being chosen to take part in the Richard and Judy Book Club Spring 2016! How did it feel to find out A Year of Marvellous Ways had been selected?

I was really surprised because I never expected it to happen. I thought it was a very different book to last time, it never crossed my mind that it would be included in the titles. So a little bit of a double take. Joyously so, of course. I suppose anybody who’s got behind the book I’m really really grateful for and pleased with. Especially booksellers as well, because it’s a very different book, it’s that ‘D’ word and people don’t always like difference from a book which maybe sat in their heart originally, and they kind of want a similar feeling. So anything that has repeated what happened with Rabbit, in a way, I’m really shocked by, but utterly grateful for. And so I was delighted to be part of it, because it was a very important part of Rabbit’s trajectory into the world, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Who was your favourite character to write?

In Marvellous? Oh, her!

I thought it might be.

Yeah. All the characters had their place but they would never have had their place until I got her right. Because she is the moon, or maybe the sun that they orbit around, maybe that’s more pertinent. So, once I’d got an in with her then I felt a great deal of freedom to be able to write what I wanted, because of course there is a lack of vanity with this character and so you can say what you want. You can write stories how you want you don’t really feel like you have to edit or clip them too much, because of the freedom of her age, and the freedom within her mind at that point. So yes definitely her.

She’s very comfortable with who she is, isn’t she?

Yeah, totally. She has come to that space, and you do see it with some older people that they are very comfortable with who they are. They’re comfortable with their past and with where they are in their present, and they’re not holding onto a future because they know that every day might be their last one, really. So, yeah I like the way she came out.

How did you research the heart of your story?

Well I knew the ending and so that almost gave me the heart, where it would have to go. Once I knew the ending, it’s almost like ‘okay, I’ve got to find the pathway towards that’. Research happens, and I was very lucky to be able to find books that I needed to find for that, certainly the London and wartime situations. Being in Cornwall, I’d spent a lot of time in Cornwall anyway – so if we’re looking at one of the of pulses of the book, which is the landscape, that wasn’t very hard for me because I was very familiar. But there are different places within Cornwall so it was about locating that one which – it’s not a secret to say – it’s a very fictionalised version of a place called St Just in Roseland, which is off the Fal Estuary, so once you have these things in place, then it does start to – momentum breeds from momentum – and you start to get this pyramid. Once the bedrock’s in place, you start to sort of go up with the story. And also the opener, once I’d located that – that this came to her on a dream, this need to wait from a dead lover, that gave great scope to how everything happened to be linked. So yes, although that can be problematic, it does still give me a pathway.

Do you have a favourite line, quote or moment from the book, that you always look back on and think, ‘yes, that was a special moment’?

Oh gosh, that’s a really good question! Um…

This one always stumps everyone!

It does always stump everyone! But I will tell you, there was a chapter – I think it was the last chapter I wrote – that I think I got it right. And that’s the chapter – without giving too much away – way down in the story when he’s in Cornwall and all the characters have appeared and Drake gets a postcard out of the blue. It’s the chapter that follows that, where Ned Blaney comes to visit him. And I remember it that my agent at the time, he’d read it and he said: “Something has to happen after this postcard”. And I went, “yeah you’re right, I know, nobody would just sit and find that okay.” And it was the last one I wrote, and I enjoyed writing it. It’s not often that you say that you think you got something right, but I think I got that right and even now when I read it, I can actually sit back and say “I like that chapter.” And I think that’s quite a rare thing. And I think I got the men right – and that’s a very hard thing for me to do. So I think for me I got it right. If I thought more I could come up with a line, but I really like that chapter.

What was the biggest challenge for you when writing the book? Was it the characters, or finding the journey or…?

Oh finding the journey! Because stories have to go forward, generally, and so I’m writing a story that needs to be propelled to a certain point, so that’s kind of a forward issue. And actually I have a lead character who only looks back generally, and it was about working out how that would tie up. How can I keep moving him forward when his storytelling is really in the past? And I found that really hard to keep it interesting, to keep it flowing really.

And is there a message that you’d like readers to take away from your book? Or a feeling?

Probably that everybody has a story, you know, and people who are invisible in the world have an equal story to us, maybe a little bit more extraordinary at times. But everybody deserves to be listened to, and deserves to be seen. I suppose we’re entering a phase in society where a lot of people are invisible today, and I hope it’s a story that makes one section of society a little bit more visible.

And just to finish: who was your favourite author as a child, and who is your favourite author today?

Well, interesting – as a child, I hated reading! Well, ‘hated’, that’s a very strong word. No, it wasn’t really a part of my life, I am not a natural reader, that’s what I tell myself. It wasn’t really something that bedded down very early. Now I always have to add this as a caveat, because it drives my mum bananas: she did read to me as a child, and my father did. They bought me books, they took me to libraries, I couldn’t sit still! My imagination wasn’t one that was ignited by words, it was very much ignited by images, and me being out and about. So I don’t have one, but I do remember three books: Flat Stanley, Stig of the Dump, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they were the three books that I do remember. And then I went out duly and imitated those lives out in the recreation ground.

As an adult – again I don’t think it’s a secret, I have talked about this – that because of that I needed to be brought back into reading. And I was brought back into reading for pleasure probably in my late 20’s, so quite a long time after I left school. And it was John Irving who brought me back into that, and it was A Prayer for Owen Meaney that made me suddenly understand the possibility of things that resonated with me, and I think it’s about that. There are much better books out there, and I have read much better books, but I also think at the end of the day people make books meaningful; and it’s that symbiotic relationship of resonance, and this was a book that resonated greatly with me at that period of time. That led to a great joy of American literature, so I read many of his and then Toni Morrison is a great, great influence; I love Sarah Waters – all her work; I love Tim Winters; Jeanette Winterson obviously, because she’s just brilliant and special…and you know, I could go on. These are people who taught have me a lot, and taught me how to do it.