Author On the Bookcase: Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit
Author On the Bookcase
I'm excited to welcome Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit, to On the Bookcase. Sarah's novel reveals the love of a brother and a sister, unwinding over many years -- backlit by historical events and cultural references.
From Essex and Cornwall to the streets of New York, from 1968 to the events of 9/11, When God Was a Rabbit follows the evolving bond of love and secrets between Elly and her brother Joe, and her increasing concern for an unusual best friend, Jenny Penny, who has secrets of her own. When God Was a Rabbit is a love letter to true friendship and fraternal love.
Here, Sarah talks about her book and the way she tried "to stop the film. I wanted to give people a second chance, a way of viewing the world and their relation to the world with different eyes."
How would I describe this book to a friend? Primarily, I would call it a love story between a brother and a sister—a story of how secrets are forged in childhood and are carried through to adulthood. Intertwined with this story is a parallel story of best friendship between two very unlikely people who actually follow a very similar path, and how that emerges later on. It’s also a book about starting over, of being able to start over. We’ve all had the feeling of sometimes looking at our life and wanting time to stop, wanting to put it into reverse, wanting to change things. For the majority of people, that’s not possible and they’re faced with the natural consequences of what life brings. I wanted to stop that process. I wanted to make it magical in a way. It’s not perfect, but it allows people to break what they think is going to happen in a story—and actually brings something more joyous back to life.
Violence—and therefore the senselessness of violence—is also a theme that punctuates the book. The story opens with the narrator, Elly’s, birth in 1968, and attention is drawn to three moments of violence that happened that year. This is followed by an unexpected accident that claims the lives of Elly’s grandparents, followed by the political bombings of the seventies, followed by dark strands of abuse, followed by John Lennon’s death, followed by Princess Di’s death, and so on—vivid moments of violence that act as a backdrop to the innocence of a family rolling like scraggy tumbleweed through a suburban landscape, gentle, loving, and so unaware. Until the moment, that is, when this dark side of life reaches out to them and engulfs them, and acts as a catalyst for change. And of course, as most people know, that moment is 9/11. I offer no commentary on the violence witnessed, no judgment either. It simply exists as violence does and will continue to exist; as Elly comments in the book: “This will happen again.” And had the book’s time frame extended beyond 2001 the atrocities of Bali in 2002, Madrid in 2004, and London in July 2005 would all have been written about or mentioned.
That 9/11 is written about in this book has drawn sharp intakes of breath from some people, total acceptance from others, and outright criticism further afield. I understand all reactions, but never felt that I didn’t have the “right” to write about this moment, as some people have suggested. But writing about such a traumatic historic event comes with great responsibility, and I knew that the only way through was to be guided by respect and honesty, and so I wrote my own story of that day exactly as it is written in the book. I got up and walked toward Soho that morning. I veered off down Charing Cross Road to get tickets to see a Vermeer exhibition I had wanted to see. I didn’t stop at Zwemmer bookshop as I usually did. I got my ticket—a three o’clock viewing—I walked to Soho, went to Bar Italia, sat outside, and ordered a macchiato with a Baci on the side and watched life pass. I felt a tap on my shoulder and was ushered inside. The image was on the screen. And so began the start of the phone calls. That was when it became my story—when it became millions of people’s horrific story. When I stood, knowing the world had so suddenly, so violently changed.
The subject of the later part of this story has sometimes been greeted as “implausible,” and in many ways it is supposed to be, because I am attempting to bring someone back to life. In the same implausible way that a rabbit speaks in the first half of the book, there is an element of magic and make-believe that weaves its way through the storyline and calls for the suspension of disbelief. It rears its head again in the darker, adult part of the book—a time when the coat of unquestionable faith that children wear so effortlessly has been carelessly shed.
So when I have talked about my book being about starting again, it is because I did not want the inevitability of a situation to play out and throw a family into grief and suffering. I wanted to stop the film. I wanted to give people a second chance, a way of viewing the world and their relation to the world with different eyes. That does not necessarily mean a happy ending; simply a desire to be given another chance and to live life differently. This is not a book about 9/11, but an homage to family, to relationships, and to love in all its forms.
Thanks so much, Sarah, for sharing your "element of magic and make-believe."
“Winman’s debut boasts one of the more endearingly unconventional families in a while. A freshly rendered tale of growing up and living in the world by a late-starting author with a bright future.”—Kirkus Reviews