welcome to The books that shaped me – a Good Housekeeping series in which the authors speak to us through the readings that stand out for them. This week we hear Sarah winman, who is best known for her word-of-mouth bestseller When God Was A Rabbit debut. She has since written three other novels, the latest of which is Still life.
What the impact of books on you as a person and as an author?
Certainly, as an author, reading other people’s books has taught me to write. I never studied creative writing – storytelling came from my acting time but also from reading. They go together. The impact that the books have had on me is the desire to create something that in turn will inspire, console, excite others is immense. And as a reader, the books have defined moments in my life. They are the constant heartbeat of the company.
The childhood book that stuck with you…
Although I have memories of three childhood books – Stanley dish, Charlie and the chocolate factory and Stig of the discharge – what fascinated me the most when I was a child were the Commando Comics. I can still feel in my hands the distinct 68-page 7 x 5 ½ inch format that caught my attention. The stories were mostly about WWI and WWII. And the joy of being on vacation in Cornwall and going to the local stationery store with my brother to buy one and then chat with him. They caught my attention and ignited my imagination and became the backbone of the game. Literature comes in all its forms. They were the forerunners of graphic novels.
Your favorite book of all time …
Song of Solomon is Toni Morrison’s third novel and what a triumph it is. I’ve read it many times and always the ending changes for me – sometimes it’s transcendent, other times painful. The story spans 30 odd years, having begun with one of the most striking images in literature – that of Mr. Smith, an insurance agent, standing atop the hospital after briefing the people he intended to fly across Lake Superior – unaided.
But this is really Milkman’s story. A story of coming of age. Men in search of freedom, whether in the form of flight or spiritually. Healing from the legacy of slavery and the continued lack of choice and agency. And my God, does Toni Morrison know how to write men. Their thoughts, their dialogue. I am amazed. She is so masterful.
The book you would have liked to write…
Song of Solomon again! The poetry of language. The vernacular and rhythms of speech. I once watched an interview with her when she described how growing up the tongue was stuck out everywhere – songs, the bible, journalism – which gave her her wealth, and so she tapped into the culture. that existed. And it’s all there. It’s listening to a slice of life. You care about each character. You love them, you bleed for them. It is a masterclass in narrative fiction.
It’s a book that not only makes me want to be a better writer, but also a better person.
The book you would like everyone to read…
There are a lot of books that I would like people to read, but I will suggest this one by Ece Temelkuran Together, a book that I certainly needed to read. Intelligent and passionate, it is a book that has not been published for a long time and which is definitely of its time: a manifesto to recalibrate the social inequalities, ignorance, climate catastrophe and political violence of our time. It’s beautifully written and the stories that weave through it are memorable. Ultimately, it is about the unity, dignity and light of humanity. It is superb.
The book that got you through a difficult time …
I fell on Four quartets by TS Eliot in my early twenties and I actually thought it was a poem! I was doing a workshop for women with an amazing Jungian psychologist called Marion Woodman. (I continued to do a lot more with her) and at the end of each session she would quote these lines (from East Coker, not that I knew of at the time):
“I said to my soul, shut up and wait without hope
For hope would be the hope of the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be the love of the wrong thing; there is still faith
But faith and love and hope are all waiting.
Wait without thinking, because you’re not ready to think:
Thus darkness will be light, and silence the dance.
They were so beautiful to my young ears. I read Four quartets every year, even though there are a lot of things I don’t understand. But the tongue is of the soul and I absorb it and it becomes part of me. It founds me and anchors me to this young me who was continually seeking.
The book that uplifts you…
Honey from a weed is Patience Gray’s autobiographical cookbook, first published in 1986. During the 1960s and 1970s she shared her life with sculptor Norman Mommens and it was her desire to research marble that propelled them in Tuscany, Catalonia, Naxos and Puglia. They settled in basic dwellings, often without running water or electricity. They lived to the rhythm of winemaking, seasonal sowing and harvesting. And Patience got to know the locals and amassed that local knowledge.
I feel joy every time I dive into this book. He is passionate and witty and one of a kind. And beautifully written. It’s about art, food, people and scenery. And more importantly – and romantically – about a simpler life.
Still Life of Sarah Winman is now available
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