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Monday, April 16, 2012

Interview with Sarah Winman

I had the privilege recently to ask a few questions of Sarah Winman, author of The Sunday Times bestseller When God Was a Rabbit.

Sarah was also kind enough to request a giveaway copy of her book. I am grateful to Carrie of Bloomsbury for agreeing to the request.

Headline UK Cover (the copy I read)

From the back cover of the UK copy:

This is a book about a brother and a sister. 

It's a book about childhood and growing up, 
friendships and families, triumph and tragedy
 and everything in between.

More than anything, 
it's a book about love in all its forms.

A friend of mine was visiting from Scotland and read this book on her flight across the pond. She left the book behind for me. It sat on my nightstand for a while, next to my Kindle (on which I have a very large backlog of books to be read). The thing about a physical book with a great cover and a great title is that eventually its calls can no longer be ignored. I picked it up and began to read.

I was pleasantly surprised by the voice I found inside. Sarah Winman, through Elly and the other exquisitely crafted characters of When God Was a Rabbit, speaks the truth: the candid, open, beautiful, vulnerable truth. This story is sweet in its simplicity, yet provides opportunity for profound reflection too.

It's a feel-good book of a different sort, in the sense that there is no fairy tale story here and we are not taken somewhere we can never go except in our dreams. This story is one many of us have lived in some parallel form. This is a story that is easy to relate to, told in an entirely refreshing way – gently, openly, lovingly, and yet with brutal honesty.

Thanks to my friend, 'C', for putting this book in my hands, and thanks to Sarah Winman for the gift of When God Was a Rabbit.

Now, please enjoy my interview with Sarah Winman. Remember to stay tuned following the interview for a chance to win When God Was a Rabbit!

Interview with Sarah Winman

Cookie's Mom: Sarah, thank-you for agreeing to speak with me about your book, When God Was a Rabbit.

You have such a delightful writing voice. Your book was a pleasure to read. You have an ability to tell of events as they happen with no embellishment (excepting a healthy dose of well-timed humour). Certain realizations might almost be missed if the reader does not pay attention, such is the subtlety of the way in which the story is communicated. By the way, it’s always a delight for me to read something written using the Queen’s English. Was there any one thing that inspired this story?

Sarah: No, not really – I knew I wanted to write about a brother and a sister and for that to be the ‘love story’ so to speak, rather than write a conventional love story. I knew I wanted to write it as a kind of memoir – a fictional one, of course, but a memoir still – and that it would cover quite a distinct passage of time: the late 60’s to 2001: the early part being the decades of my own childhood.

Cookie's Mom: I understand that When God Was a Rabbit is a work of fiction, but were any parts of the story taken from your own experience? What of the setting? I understand that many of the references add depth to the story for people familiar with the region. There seems an attachment to certain places referenced in the story. Why are these important? 

Sarah: Although not autobiographical, it is very personal. The stories in this book all entered my life, not necessarily directly, but they became part of my life as I was growing up. The places in Essex and Cornwall that are depicted are the places I spent my childhood. This was very important for the feel of a memoir. Landscape informs people – their choices, feelings, their journeys. The landscape almost becomes a character itself. 

Cookie's Mom: Why did you select the 9/11 event as a catalyst for change in your story? 

Sarah: The back drop to the whole book, strangely, is violence. It starts in 1968 with three acts of violence. We then move through political violence with the IRA campaign, domestic, sexual violence, random violence, death of John Lennon, Princess Di, and finally 9/11. So, dealing with the passage of time, 9/11 had to be there. It would have been strange to omit it. And had the story continued beyond, then the atrocities of Bali, Madrid, London would also have been included. The violence is there like a shadow encroaching on this family, until it finally touches. But what this darkness does is to highlight the good and the loving of this family, and in return this beautiful family highlights the senselessness of such violence. 

Cookie's Mom: Is there a message about spirituality that you particularly wanted to convey?

Sarah: Spirituality links all humanity, holds our faith and our fears, our questions. But most of all it is universal, crosses all borders. There is nothing I wished to convey that I didn’t convey - that people are the most wonderful, fallible, damaged, loving, brave, fearful, loyal creatures, all searching for something, and that something isn’t always clear. But to me, the searching in this book, was to be able to start again – to start again, armed with a little more knowledge, and to live a better life…

Cookie's Mom: A question for you from a reader’s group in Ottawa, Ontario: “Why did you have the rabbit speak?”

Sarah: Elly heard the rabbit speak because she wanted to hear the rabbit speak. It is about the beauty of inner life, the wonderful realm of imagination that children so effortlessly inhabit – and one that we as adults, seem to lose as we get older.

Cookie's Mom: Why did you name the rabbit, god? What is the significance of the rabbit and its relation to an almighty God?

Sarah: I never wrote with that in mind. But that is the beauty of books and reading. They become subjective. For me, the rabbit represents childhood, that’s all. A time of innocence and no responsibility; a time when life is all ahead and when magic visits frequently. When the rabbit returns in the 2nd part of the book, that is what he is bringing to Elly – a reminder of how far removed she is from that time, and how she has to open her heart and allow the belief in mystery back into her life. To let go, really.

Cookie's Mom: Elly asks Arthur, “Do you think that a rabbit could be God?”, Arthur replies that, “There is absolutely no reason at all why a rabbit should not be God.” The whole passage that preceeds this exchange is quite revealing in terms of Arthur’s view, an alternative view, of God. What is your intention in offering this alternative view? How has it been received?

Sarah: Arthur makes that statement to Elly because she is a child, and during childhood anything can be anything. But there is pathos to this too. He knows that that will change and sadly all too soon. He encourages her open mind and her innocent questioning. Be a child Elly! Stay a child! he wants to scream. Not in the sense of being juvenile, but to live life in wonder and questioning rather than in the harsh, static world of answers. Arthur is a very spiritual man. An old dear friend of mine was like that – he had early tragedy in his adult life and lost a child, and then his wife soon after. He felt he could no longer embrace formal religion. But he lived by the seasons, was kind to everyone and accepting of everyone, gave his time to people, looked after the land, loved deeply. I have never understood why such a view of spirituality is held in lesser esteem than conventional religion.

Cookie's Mom: There is also magic in this story. In addition to a rabbit who talks, there is the story of the bell in the water that longs for human contact. What does this magic represent? At points the children believe in things that are magical or mystical, as does Arthur. Is there a link for you between youth and magic?

Sarah: As children we have less resistance to believing in something – Santa Claus, talking animals, invisible friends – the world is open. The story of the bell on the water is my story. I saw it as a child when I was out fishing, but today if I ask anyone about there being a bell out on the water, no one knows what I am talking about. It was foggy. Did the fisherman draw my sight into the mist and describe what was there? A bell? Can you see it? I can, I can, I said. Did I see it, or did I want to enter his world? Ultimately it doesn’t matter because it has informed a part of me and stayed with me in such a delightful way. I believe in the mystery of life, the magic that comes from the unexplained. I have moments like that in my life. Without such moments, life would be less bright.

Cookie's Mom: Is there a message here too about keeping secrets? These secrets seem to represent flaws in the childrens’ otherwise idyllic life.

Sarah: Some children keep secrets. They keep secrets because of fear: Fear of being judged, fear of being unloved. Sad but true. These secrets fester over time and present consequences in later life: that is what happens to our young characters. Everyone in this book has ghosts, and part of the journey is the laying down of these ghosts/secrets. And you’re right – one moment, that’s all it takes, one moment and an idyllic life can shatter. This was the 70’s, England, culturally a bit different to now, and even though the mother of the story encourages her children to speak, they are still engrained with the shy reserve, laid down by unspeaking generations.

Cookie's Mom: Your character descriptions are lovely. Each of the characters seems to be purposefully crafted to teach us something. I’m thinking in particular of Arthur now.
It was a fine summer’s day, the first time I saw Mr Arthur Henry striding through the villiage leaving a trail of open mouths and Cornish gossip in his colourful wake. He was wearing linen plus fours, a yellow and blue striped shirt and a pink and white polka-dot bow tie that was so large it almost obscured his neck. 
Where did the inspiration for Arthur come from? He imparts wisdom to Elly that involves pretty advanced and abstract moral reasoning to comprehend, such as his statements about 'truth'. What message did you wish to impart through Arthur?

Sarah: I was lucky to grow up with all my grandparents and have always had older people in my life. Arthur is the embodiment of life experience and wisdom, and acceptance. He is the story teller, and story tellers are of an ancient tradition, imparting wisdom and listening to the silence between the words. Most of the older people I know have been, in part, Arthur. He has no real answer to life, except the living of it. He sees the darkness, the humour of it all, the absurdity of it. But he still keeps going because, ultimately, life for him is a gift.

Cookie's Mom: Are you working on anything now that you’d like to tell us about? 

Sarah: It’s too early to say what the story is about – I’m not even sure myself what it’s about! I haven’t completed a first draft yet. 

Cookie's Mom: Sarah, it was a pleasure 'speaking' with you. Thank-you for being my guest. Your words here are as inspirational as those in your wonderful book When God Was a Rabbit. I wish you much success with your current and future projects!

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About the author:

Sarah Winman grew up in Essex. She attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and went on to act in theatre, film and television. When God Was a Rabbit is her first novel. She lives in London.

You can connect with Sarah on Facebook.

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Enter to win a paperback copy of Sarah Winman's When God Was a Rabbit courtesy of Bloomsbury!

There are six ways to enter this giveaway. 
None of them are mandatory. 
Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Marius Viktor Aragon said...

" Some children keep secrets. They keep secrets because of fear: Fear of being judged, fear of being unloved." I love this quote :)

desitheblonde said...

the book sound great and i have someone who would love to read it after i am done with it a home school mom who is blue grass

Margie Culver said...

What a wonderful review and interview! I am so intrigued by what I have read here. I can not wait to read this.

Dana said...

This book sounds really good I would love to read it!

Stasha said...

I really like the way Sarah thinks. What an interesting first novel. I so hope to win it :)

Cookie’s Mom said...


Congratulations, Stasha! I hope you enjoy WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT!

Thanks to all who entered the contest!

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