About The Author
Sarah Winman was an actress, working in theatre in her twenties and early thirties but by 1992 she says she ‘started having my own words’ and turned away from other people’s scripts and realised she wanted to write a novel. It would be another 20 years until that novel was written and published. She wrote a play and some screenplays and by 2008 when her father was dying, she stopped acting altogether to look after him and took a TEFL course to support herself. While taking a course at City Lit ‘Exploring Fiction’, she realised she was already writing what went on to become her highly acclaimed debut, When God Was A Rabbit, a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life and love.
Sarah's second novel, A Year of Marvellous Ways is about the relationship between the eighty-nine year old Marvellous, who lives alone in a remote Cornish creek, and Drake, a young soldier left reeling by the Second World War. When his promise to fulfil a dying man's last wish sees him wash up in Marvellous' creek, broken in body and spirit, the old woman comes to his aid.
Now, in her latest book, Tin Man, Sarah explores the triangular relationship of Ellis and Michael, who have been inseparable since boyhood, and Annie, who walks into their lives, changing nothing and everything.
Exclusively for Foyles Frances Gertler talked to Sarah about shame, the inspiration provided by The Wizard of Oz and Van Gogh's Sunflowers as a motif of hope, acceptance and possibility.
Below that is another interview by Frances about Sarah's earlier novel, A Year of Marvellous Ways, saying our goodbyes on the backs of stories and song, how as adults we un-learn kindness and empathy and how youth keeps youth alive.
Questions & Answers
Q&A About Tin Man
Your previous novels were set in Cornwall and both have elements of magical realism, which was at least in part a function of the setting. Were you consciously trying to get away from these in your new book?
No, not at all. The elements of magic realism in both Rabbit and Marvellous were there to highlight the fractured lives of both Elly and Marvellous. The rabbit talked because Elly needed the rabbit to talk. Likewise, Elly needed to believe that Jenny Penny could perform something magical, could be someone magical. It gave meaning to her life, and protected her – momentarily - from the abuse she had experienced. Marvellous created a magical world because the life she had lived had been shrouded in poverty and bigotry and hardship. But she created this incredible life of triumph fuelled by love. The magic realism were simple acts of imagination by characters unwilling to define themselves by their circumstance.
Ellis in Tin Man is also suffering. He has been shut down by grief and loss. But he doesn’t have the imagination, yet, to see beyond the life he’s living. He has structure but no meaning. The sparseness of writing in the first half of the book is there to show the sparseness of his emotional life, and his incapacity to see beyond the literal.
The women seem remarkably selfless: Dora and her kindness to Michael, Mabel taking in Ellis and then Annie taking on Michael as almost an integral part of her relationship with Ellis. Were you conscious at the outset of how these three women would underpin Michael and Ellis’s life and relationship?
The women were always going to be the bedrock of this book. Annie, for me, is the most important character. She is the hinge. She gives Michael and Ellis some of their happiest moments. Without her, I don’t think they’d exist in an adult friendship. She makes them a family. As for Dora and Mabel, they allowed the boys to be who they were without inflicting the burden of how boys and young men should be. They gave them space to become who they were. They championed them and watched over them.
How far was Ellis and Michael’s relationship a victim of its time?
I’m loathe to describe their relationship in this way because Ellis’s shame predates his burgeoning sexuality. His shame is, in part, linked to his relationship with his father, and the violence that has always been present, and the feelings of never being good enough. Without the championing of his mother, he would always be adrift to some degree, seeking approval and encouragement from a man who could never give it. This is also a familiar story of today. However, until 1967 homosexuality was a criminal offence and even when it became partially decriminalised in England and Wales, the age of consent was set at 21 so both Michael and Ellis would have been aware that they were under age. But it wasn’t the fear of being found out that stopped them from being together.
Michael tells Annie he had, ‘no room to love anyone else’. Did the fact that it was secret add to this particular experience of first love’s intensity?
When Michael says this, he is, in fact, referring to both Annie and Ellis. He loves them both, albeit in different ways. They exist as a three and Michael can’t imagine bringing anyone new in to this space. For him it was all or nothing. Only by walking away would he have room to explore a new relationship with a man. But as we learn, no one could ever match the intensity of that first moment. And I don’t think he really wanted anyone to.
Can you say something about the title, which carries perhaps echoes of The Wizard of Oz, yet here the protagonists are, if anything, too much heart?
This was one of the questions I needed to explore at the start of the book - whether there would be a connection with the film, and how that might look. The interesting thing for me was the idea of the yellow brick road. The idea of the journeying towards truth, self-realisation, integration. And, of course, the colour yellow which would contrast well against the grey of the industrial landscape at the beginning. Following the sun, maybe?
I knew about Arles in the South of France because I’d been there many times to a photographic festival, and was therefore aware of Van Gogh’s connection to it. But it was only when I read the book Dear Theo - a compilation of his letters to his brother - that I took an avid interest in his art. I came to the painter through his writing. He writes beautifully about loss and longing and love and creativity. But it was his desire to travel to the South of France that caught my imagination. He believed that seeking the light and colour of the South would make him a better artist. He was also waiting for the artist Paul Gauguin to join him and was very excited about this collaboration. He wanted to set up an artist studio and he writes about this desire and about the many versions of the Sunflowers he was painting as decoration for Gauguin’s room. Dora’s idea of men and boys being capable of beautiful things came from this image. Sunflowers became the motif of hope, of acceptance, of journeying, of possibility. And, of course, the desire to follow the sun - paramount for Dora, Ellis and Michael.
Parts of the story are set in the late 80s in a community devastated by the newly identified AIDS. You write very movingly of the ravages of the illness. How did you set about researching this very sensitive topic?
The 80s was a time of great sadness and anger; a time of irrefutable tenderness as men cared for men. But always was there dancing and hope. It was a decade of bigotry, of divisive politics similar to today. Two books I found particularly influential were: Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship and Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. Also, my good friend Pam Hibbs set up the AIDS ward at St Bart’s hospital in London in the late 80s. One afternoon she quietly told me about her experiences.
Ellis and Michael are each allowed to tell their story in their own words and both are presented with great compassion and understanding, but, especially in what was a pivotal scene in France in the summer of 1969, did you find yourself siding more with one of them?
I did, at first. Early drafts had me siding with Michael, had me writing arguments between the two of them, including a sudden return to Oxford. Most of the time the focus was on sexuality, but as the story became clear, that was not the wound. I needed to remove blame. Remove anger. Remove Michael from the room in France. Only when Ellis is alone does the fear of his father return. It is a fear that extinguishes all he is and affirms the belief that he is unworthy of happiness and is incapable of making a success of his life. This shame precedes the shame of sexuality.
What were the challenges of writing from more than one perspective?
As both perspectives were male, I was focussed on making the voices contrasting and believable. I wanted readers to have a clear sense of their personalities and emotional states.
It is hard to over-estimate the impact Van Gogh’s painting of The Sunflowers has on Dora Judd. Have you felt similarly about a particular painting or work of art?
Not as singularly as Dora. I have felt great emotion standing in front of original works of art that I had only previously seen in books or magazines. For instance - Tintoretto’s work in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, Munch’s The Scream, Hockney’s A Bigger Splash. Now I wish to go back to Amsterdam to the Van Gogh Museum and see his works with greater understanding.
Q&A about A Year of Marvellous Ways
Your book opens with the powerful image of 89-year-old Marvellous waiting by the roadside. But was that the starting point for you?
No, not really. It took a while to get to that place. Marvellous, herself, was always the starting point, but inspiration also came from six lines of TS Eliot’s 'Four Quartets', which begins: “I said to my soul be still and wait without hope, For hope would be hope for the wrong thing...” I came across these lines in my mid-twenties and they buried down and never left.
The start of the book was muddled, as I had too many strands splaying out like branches on a tree. Finally, a friend asked me to describe the beginning in five words. I said it’s about an old woman waiting. So that was it. Waiting by the roadside, waiting by the river, waiting in her boat. Waiting for something to happen.
Storytelling is central to the book, especially the stories we tell (rather than read) one another. Do you think oral storytelling is dying and if so, what are we losing with it?
A friend of mine, the writer Cate Kennedy, recently spent time in Vanuatu. In an interview she gave, she said that in the local language, the verb 'to chat' actually means 'to story'. So you go round to someone’s house and story with them. That’s beautiful.
Oral storytelling, traditionally, happens in families and communities. That’s how we learn about where we’ve come from; the qualities handed down, the good and the not so good. But these stories are compass points, basically there to help us to lead better lives or to guide us onto a different journey. Families and, therefore, communities today are quite fragmented. Homes are smaller, older parents rarely come to live with their children – the whole structure has changed. And yet we crave storytelling: that’s what we do when we invite friends out for coffee or to meet for a drink. Life is rushed today and you need time to tell a good story – for the atmosphere to settle, for ears and hearts to open: that’s the richness of it, the theatre of it, the togetherness of it. That’s why funerals and wakes are often so memorable. We still give time to the dead; we say our goodbyes on the backs of stories and song.
The listener or receiver of the story also plays a role don’t they? Here, in listening to Marvellous’ story Freddy Drake is bearing witness to her life, assuaging her loneliness and validating her experiences, in a sense allowing her to let go.
Absolutely. To have someone bear witness to our experience and our memories of life is crucial to our humanity. From the moment we can communicate, we wish to tell others of our hopes, our triumphs, our disappointments, our loss. We seek the mirror, so that we know we are not alone - not the only ones suffering. 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. He needs her to give him a future. And she needs him to give her an ending.
The Cornwall setting of the book is almost a character in its own right and of course is imbued with its own mythical and mystical history. Could you say more about your relationship to the area?
My grandparents moved to Cornwall when I was 4 so it is the county I am most familiar with, the county I have a longstanding connection with. This is where I turn to when I wish to write about nature. This familiarity gives me the freedom to write knowingly about the land - about the texture of light, or about the sea.
At the start of my research, I read a lot about Cornish Saints and the myths surrounding them, but these stories were not what I was after. Cornish stories, to me, feel as if they have come from the granite. But I was after something softer, something steamier – something more feminine. I had been influenced by a trip I’d taken down to South Carolina a few years before and it was only after discovering the creeks around the River Fal and Carrick Roads that I found my equivalent to the American Low country. The climate is temperate, the creeks tidal and haunted and muddy and deserted; rich with life. Getting the setting right was extremely important because the landscape – Marvellous’ creek – has been the only constant in her life; her companion, if you like.
Did the elements of magical realism grow out of the setting or do they have their origins elsewhere?
The magical realism was able to flourish because of the setting, but the roots are bedded down in Marvellous, herself. Marvellous has created a magic world that is reflected in the poetry and extravagance of her storytelling. It is a world in which she can believe because the world in which she has lived has been so harsh and painful; almost unbearable, in fact.
The relationship between Marvellous and Drake is striking on many levels, not least because of the huge difference in their ages, like that of a grandparent and grandchild, but it’s sadly all too rare, isn’t it?
You’re right, in some communities it is rare, but in others it seems to thrive. A friend who used to work in prisons told me of how young black men used to talk about their grandmothers all the time. The fathers were absent; the mothers were too, in a way, because they were out working long hours to keep the family together. But the grandmothers, they were the ones who were around and they provided love and a moral compass which these young men seemed to accept. They listened to these older women. They had enriching and respectful relationships with these women, so I always knew the many possibilities of bringing two people of such differing ages together.
Letting go is a central motif in the novel: of parents, lovers, life itself. But healing is also dependent on kindness, often the kindness of strangers, and here is more potent than any medicine. Are we sicker as a society now that kindness and selflessness are ever harder to come by?
Most of the characters are forced to let go. Missy and Drake see death as their only way out – the ultimate in letting go. But, as we all know, it is in the letting go that magic can happen. And that, for Drake, is when Marvellous enters, and when nature enters, and when his life has the real possibility of change.
I think as a society we are certainly lonelier today, and we’re certainly poorer and I don’t mean in financial terms. It’s all about the aspirations of the individual - a clash between worth and value. People are not recognising the value of kindness: the conscious act of putting someone else’s needs before your own: putting someone else first. Of doing something for someone that might cost you – in time, in energy, in money. We learn kindness and empathy in childhood, but this is something that is being un-learnt by adults all the time. That’s the failing because there is something emotionally rich in being able to access that kind of selflessness.
Your writing is very sensuous, your descriptions lush and lyrical. How did you arrive at the tone, and does the mood for you precede the narrative or vice versa?
I knew the book was primarily about death and grief, and about how our relationship with nature has the capacity for great healing. I knew the creek was going to become its own character and would need its own language. The poetry and lyricism is part of that language. It is also the old woman’s vision of her life. It is what she sees and how she sees it. I wanted the mood of the narrative to be inviting and seductive, just like her storytelling.
How has your background as an actor informed your writing?
At drama school the importance was on mining our own emotional truth to get to the core of a character, and that teaching never leaves. Reading great playwrights and screenwriters and has also taught me about the simplicity of language and dialogue - I read out loud every sentence I write to make sure the voice is OK, and I’m not trying to be too clever with words I would never use. I have also learnt to write through bad writing, as I spent many years working in poor, episodic television.
Who are the writers who have most influenced you, the ones you would turn to again and again, and do you have to avoid their work when writing your own?
Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, Colm Toibin, John Irving, Tim Winton: these are my staples and the ones I return to again and again. I can read them when I am working because they inspire rather than intimidate. I get answers from them. But every year I discover knew writers, of course, who I have equal affinity with: my new one is John McGahern. My agent gave me By the Lake which I thought was breathtaking.