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When God Was A Rabbit

To celebrate the new winter edition of Sarah Winman's brilliant novel, read our interview with the author

Eden Carter Wood

Tue, 08 Nov 2011 11:47:49 GMT | Updated 5 years today

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 copy.


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 amazing achievement.


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

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 well-deserved hit.




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 2011.


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 writer'?


"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 DIVA


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