Four years after her international bestselling debut, Sarah Winman returns to the evocative Cornish landscape with A Year Of Marvellous Ways (Tinder Press, £16.99), a life-affirming story about the magic in everyday existence, the pull of the sea, the healing powers of storytelling and sloe gin, love, death and grief.
How did the success of When God Was A Rabbit impact on A Year Of Marvellous Ways?
It allowed me to write a book free of financial worry for the first time, which was an amazing thing – a life-changing moment really, albeit a fleeting one. But, of course, the second book always comes with a sense of expectation: if not other’s expectation, then to a greater extent one’s own. The book you write in order to get published is written in innocence and that can’t be reclaimed. And so the struggle to reclaim some sense of peace, or rather a creative world free of unexpected and intrusive self-consciousness, is the challenge.
How important is the landscape in A Year Of Marvellous Ways?
It’s very important because it has been the only constant in Marvellous’s life – her companion, if you like. Because of this, the landscape becomes its own character, with its own language. Its interaction with each character is unique, and each character in the book is healed by the creek in some way. It is a blessed land, but not in the religious sense. It is a haven after the destructiveness of war.
Why did you choose Cornwall as the setting?
My grandparents moved to Cornwall when I was four so it is the county I am most familiar with, the county I have a genuine and longstanding connection with. This is where I turn to when I wish to write about nature. Such familiarity gives me the joy and freedom to write knowingly about the land – about the texture of light, or about the sea, or about the seasons.
The novel is very poetic. Is this more a reflection of you as a writer or of Marvellous as a character?
It’s a reflection of Marvellous as a character. The poetry and extravagance of language is about an old woman’s storytelling. We are all part fact, part fiction. Our stories about ourselves and our lives can often change in the telling. We have the ability to create make-believe when the reality has been too harsh or painful – almost unbearable, in fact. That is what she has done.
Did the poetic prose ever prove to be an obstacle in moving the story forward?
No, because this is a book that plateaus, and these plateaus are important because they are the moments of contemplation, the moments of breath. This book is about death and grief, and how our relationship with nature has the capacity for great healing. The poetry is part of that healing, part of an old woman’s vision of life. This is not a book to rush.
Your protagonist is an elderly woman. Do you feel they are largely ignored in fiction and is this a reflection of society?
I’m not sure whether the elderly are ignored in fiction, and that certainly wasn’t the starting point for this novel. I think we have the right to judge society by the way we look after our most vulnerable, and I think we have failed our elderly miserably. Not just this government but the one previous. This has been an ongoing decline. However, instead of writing about such failure, I’ve chosen to write about the immense riches my old woman has to offer – that, in itself, shames such failure. I grew up with four grandparents, and so know the reassuring and enriching presence of older people. I once had the great good fortune of going to listen to Tony Benn talk. He said: “Youth have two fires ablaze in their hearts – one is hope for the future of the world, the other is anger at injustice.” An old person must fan the flames of both.
What inspired the character of Marvellous?
Marvellous is an amalgam of many people I know – relatives and old friends, of course, both men and women. She is a reflection of their courage and constancy, of their desire to keep on living no matter what life has thrown at them. What I knew I needed to do early on was to describe her physically to the reader. Like setting down a photograph on the table. Her physicality for me was the key to her enchantment. I have an old friend who is very small, who wears glasses, uses a stick and is out and about everywhere in her red mac. She is noticed and brings a smile to everyone. That seemed a good place to start. People are open when they face her, and this openness – receptiveness – is the key to Marvellous’ storytelling.