The books that shaped me: Sarah Winman

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Photo credit: Patricia Niven
Photo credit: Patricia Niven

Welcome to The books that shaped me - a Good Housekeeping series in which authors talk us through the reads that stand out for them. This week, we're hearing from Sarah Winman, who is best known for her debut When God Was A Rabbit which was a word-of-mouth bestseller. She's since written three other novels, the latest of which is Still Life.

What impact have books have had on you as a person and an author?

Certainly, as an author, reading other people’s books has taught me how to write. I never studied creative writing – storytelling came from my time as an actor but also from reading. They go together. The impact that books have had on me is the desire to create something that will in turn inspire, console, excite others is immense. And as a reader, books have defined moments of my life. They are the constant pulse of companionship.

The childhood book that’s stayed with you...

Although I have memories of three childhood books - Flat Stanley, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Stig Of The Dump - what enthralled me the most as a child were the Commando Comics. I can still feel in my hands the distinct 7 x 5 ½ inch 68 page format that held my attention. The stories were mostly about the First and Second World War. And the joy of being on holiday in Cornwall and going into the local paper shop with my brother to buy one and then swap with him. They held my attention and fired my imagination and became the backbone of play. Literature comes in all forms. They were the precursor of graphic novels.

Your favourite book of all time...

Song of Solomon is Toni Morrison’s third novel and what a triumph it is. I have read it many times and always the end changes for me – sometimes it is transcendent, other times sorrowful. The story spans 30 odd years, after beginning with one of the most arresting images in literature – that of Mr Smith, an Insurance agent, standing on top of the hospital after having notified people that he intended to fly – unaided – across Lake Superior.

But this is Milkman’s story really. A coming of age story. Men seeking freedom, either in the form of flight or spiritually. Healing after the legacy of slavery and the continued lack of choice and agency. And my goodness does Toni Morrison know how to write men. Their thoughts, their dialogue. I’m in awe. She’s so masterful.

The book you wish you’d written...

Song of Solomon again! The poetry of the language. The vernacular and the rhythms of speech. I watched an interview with her once when she described how growing up, language was pulled from everywhere – songs, the bible, journalism – what gave it its richness, and so she drew from the culture that existed. And all that is there. It’s eavesdropping on a slice of life. You care for every character. You love them, you bleed for them. It’s a masterclass in narrative fiction.

It’s a book that not only makes me want to be a better writer, but a better person as well.

The book you wish everyone would read...

There are many books I wish people would read, but I’m going to suggest Ece Temelkuran’s Together, a book I certainly needed to read. Intelligent and passionate, it’s a book that has not long been published and is definitely of its time: a manifesto for recalibrating social inequalities, ignorance, climate catastrophe and political violence of our times. It’s beautifully written and the stories that weave through this narrative are memorable. Ultimately, it is about unity and dignity and the light of humanity. It’s superb.

The book that got you through a hard time...

I came across Four Quartets by TS Eliot in my early 20s and actually thought it was one poem! I was doing a women’s workshop with an amazing Jungian psychologist called Marion Woodman. (I went on to do many more with her) and at the end of each session she would quote these lines (from East Coker, not that I knew that at the time):

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

They were so beautiful to my young ears. I read Four Quartets every year, even though there’s much I don’t understand. But the language is of the soul and I absorb it and it becomes part of me. It grounds me and anchors me to that young self who was searching continually.

The book that uplifts you...

Honey From A Weed is Patience Gray's autobiographical cookbook, first published in 1986. During the 1960s and 70s she shared her life with the sculptor Norman Mommens and it was his desire to seek out marble that propelled them to Tuscany, Catalonia, Naxos and Apulia. They settled in basic abodes, often without running water or electricity. They lived life according to the rhythms of wine-making and seasonal sowing and harvesting. And Patience got to know the locals and amassed this local knowledge.

I feel joy every time I dip into this book. It is passionate and witty and one of a kind. And beautifully written. It is about art and food and people and landscape. And more importantly – and romantically – about a simpler life.

Still Life by Sarah Winman is out now


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