Back in our April 2010 issue, we ran an interview with author
Sarah Winman, whose debut novel When God Was A Rabbit was just
about to be published. The novel has since gone on to be extremely
successful, recently passing the 200,000 copies mark. We've been
reliably informed that even Kate Middleton was spotted buying a
Winman's tale of two siblings grappling with life as children
and then as adults, has received numerous accolades and awards
since it was first released, including selection for the
Waterstone's 11, which recognises the most talented debut novelists
of the year, and the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival's
Newton First Book Award. Rabbit has also been shortlisted for two
prestigious Galaxy Book Awards: the New Writer of the Year and
Paperback of the Year, and was the people's choice in the
much-coveted Richard & Judy Book Club. All of which is a pretty
Now the book is available in a limited edition winter jacket, a
perfect Christmas present some might say. To mark the occasion and
the book's impressive success to date, we bring you our original
review of the novel and (in case you missed it) the interview with
Sarah that we ran back in April.
When God Was A Rabbit
Sarah Winman's debut novel is a sweet and very moving
character-driven story about the bonds that bind people together.
Peopled with vivid, memorable characters: depressive Jewish
neighbour Mr Golan, mercurial lesbian film star Aunt Nancy, best
friend Jenny Penny and her unreliable gypsy mother, it is a
wonderful, wistful saga about love, loss and consolation.
It's also a novel of two halves: the first covers the narrator,
Elly's, childhood, and is often brilliantly funny (the nativity
play sequence is particularly good; Winman's eye for the comic is
superb). The second half, in which the events of 9/11 impact upon
the now grown-up Elly's and her family, sees the novel change gears
slightly. Winman beautifully captures the complex relationship
between Elly and her brother Joe, and the result is a genuinely
unputdownable. Already chosen as one of Waterstone's 11 best new
novels of 2011, When God Was A Rabbit is likely to be a
INTERVIEW WITH SARAH WINMAN
After 23 years as a self-employed artist appearing on
shows like Midsomer Murders, Holby City and The Bill, actor Sarah
Winman is now also a published novelist. Eden Carter Wood chatted
to her about the writing process, her gay characters and whether or
not she's 'the new Sarah Waters'
Sarah Winman began writing fiction about five years ago.
"I've always written," she tells me when we meet in a café in
central London. "I think up until about five, six years ago I'd
written more script-based things. I was more interested in that.
And, you know, I got close a couple of times, made some short
films. I think writing's a natural progression from acting. If you
talk to any actor they'll have a script going; it's what you do in
order to feel less disempowered."
Her first published novel, When God Was A Rabbit looks destined
for great things. It's a moving, often very funny novel about,
primarily, the relationship between narrator Elly and her brother,
and it has already been singled out for praise by the likes of Elle
Magazine and The Times, and was recently selected as one
Waterstone's 11, the bookseller's pick of the best first novels of
What inspired her to tell this particular story?
"I don't know how it came about," she says. "I wanted to write a
novel that would breathe and was big and expansive. I knew I wanted
to write about family, and I wanted it to be an idealized family in
many ways, but a flawed family. I wanted it to be like a fictional
memoir. It's not autobiographical, but I wanted it to have the feel
of being such a personal book, of being retold. So I knew I had
lots of elements, it was about starting it and it just wrote
itself. Most of them just do, I don't plot it."
How did she find the writing process?
"There were quite a few drafts, and the first draft wasn't
particularly good. But that was just bare bones. You lay down a
foundation and then you dress it. It was about dressing it and
bringing in some kind of soul to it. And I think the characters do
that, the more you get to know the characters, the more
interactions and the more events they go through, that brings the
soul. So I saw it emerge as well. I think with all art there has to
be an act of faith there. You start and hope that some magic will
take over at some point."
Did you sometimes think 'This is no good?'
"I think you have to. Every writer thinks their work is no good,
and that's part of it. But if it's too critical and it stops you
writing then that's no good. It's got to be a balance. It's got to
be moving you forward, to some kind of excellence or betterment. So
you use it really to just get better. And to keep reading, reading
people who are so much better than you."
Anyone in particular, I ask.
"Oh, I have great teachers," she says. "I read John Irving, Tim
Winton, Sarah Waters. I read Jeanette Winterson. And you know,
these are great writers. They tell wonderful stories and you start
to feel inspired by the feelings that you get from reading their
books. And you learn from them."
We're heralding you as the new Sarah Waters on our cover, I
admit, slightly sheepishly.
"Poor Sarah!" she says. "Look, she's done so much. I've done one
novel, one published novel. I mean we're not in the same league.
You know if you're going to go ahead with that, you need to make
that clear. I think she's a genius. I think she's just a wonderful,
wonderful writer who encapsulates the time that she writes. We're
very different. I don't think I've earned the stripes to even be
compared to her, quite frankly."
Around half of the main characters in When God Was A Rabbit are
gay, I point out. Do you anticipate this being focused on, or do
you think we have gone beyond that being interesting?
"Some people will make a deal out of it. They always will,"
Sarah says. "I've written it as if we've moved beyond that. I feel
we have moved beyond that, you know. The drama that unfolds in the
book is nothing really to do with the characters' sexual
preference. There is no drama around that. It's totally as is and
is accepted. I write it from the point of view that it's not an
issue," she continues. "There's maybe one line of reference that it
may have been hard for one of them growing up, but you could have
said that about a lot of things."
As a gay woman herself, and with so many gay characters in her
debut, is she concerned about being pigeonholed as a 'gay
"No. I'm not a gay writer. I mean, you know, I'm not. There's a
history to writing gay novels. This isn't a gay novel."
The relationship between the narrator, Elly and Jenny Penny, her
school friend at the opening of the novel, is a little ambiguous, I
note. How would you describe their relationship?
"They're linked," Sarah smiles. "They are linked by something.
It's that something that outwits proof, that something extra that
happens in life. They're joined as kids because they enjoy each
other's company. It's really simple. And then we get into a moment
of serendipity at the start of the book where she reappears as
Elly's having problems, or the consequence of childhood is rearing
its head. There's not necessarily a happy ending to this book," she
explains. "They're just given, possibly, the chance to live life
differently. So I don't think Jenny Penny and Elly walk off into
the sunset," she laughs. "Life might work out for them in a good
way, and it might not. They certainly don't have clear water ahead,
that's for sure."
"Nothing lasts," she comments later, as we wind up the
interview. "I'm really lucky, this book has gotten under people's
skin and they love it but there's no guarantee that the next one is
going to be like that. But this is a moment, and this moment will
end. It's lovely and enjoyable and I meet great people and that's
the best part of it, but we will go back to a time when I'm looking
at an empty screen and I need to do it all over again."
This interview first appeared in the April 2010 issue of
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