Yesterday evening I returned to the wonderful Topping and Company, an independent bookshop in Bath, to listen to the author, Sarah Winman, read from and talk about her most recent publication, ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ (you may read my review here). Toppings is everything a bookshop should be and I am happiest when their regular events are held in the shop itself as the atmosphere and intimacy are hard to beat.
After an enthusiastic introduction from Matt, a member of the Toppings staff, Sarah delighted us with a reading. She gave each of her characters appropriate accents, a skill perhaps learned from her years as an actress. I wasn’t the only member of the audience intrigued by the copy she used which she later explained is an original proof. How I now desire one of those for my collection!
There followed a question and answer session led by Matt. Sarah was the most relaxed author I have seen at one of these evenings. She seemed to be not just at home in from of her attentive audience but to be enjoying herself.
Sarah explained that she does not plot but rather comes up with ideas which she then slots into the book she is writing. With ‘Marvellous Ways’ she first thought of the ending and then had to work out the build up. She told us that the first eighty pages were the most challenging to write.
Sarah’s prose is exquisite, sometimes magical, but her themes can be dark. She told us that she wishes to use real life situations but to write about them in the way a person remembers, thus they can at times appear surreal. This is how we cope with difficult memories, by remembering fragments of our past as stories we tell ourselves. We may embellish or choose to suppress certain details.
I was particularly interested in her knowledge of the London deep-level shelters, built during the Second World War but only opened to the public in 1944. Before this they were used by the government who did not consider it necessary to protect the working classes. The latter found shelter elsewhere, opening up places which then became known as venues for frowned upon behaviours. Freed from moral strictures people indulged illicit desires.
When bombs did find targets there would be theft from the bodies, looting from property. With the heightened awareness of how life can be suddenly cut short the war years saw a rise in pregnancy and marriage. The years following the war saw a spike in domestic violence as freedoms were curtailed and virtual strangers were forced to live together with little understanding of the stresses the other had endured. These real life situations are not how most look back on the war years. It is easier to remember how films portray bravery and stoicism, to mould reality around stories.
When questions were opened up to the audience Sarah dealt skillfully with a variety of subjects – from what secret ingredient she would offer Mary Berry (love) to whether she has aspirations to be remembered as a literary great (no). Her answer to the latter was particularly inspiring. She told us that if she attempted to write with a view to achieving literary fame she believes her wings would be clipped. She writes what she wants and relishes this freedom. I was amused when she commented that her publisher is not always given what they expect.
The evening was wrapped up with thanks and appreciation before the signing commenced. Books were proffered and Sarah took the time to chat to each eager fan. Having observed her confidence and relaxed demeanor I asked if she thought her time as an actress might have helped prepare her for such appearances. This earned me a quizzical look. She explained that she feels fortunate to have only encountered warm welcomes from her audiences which makes such meetings enjoyable. I do hope that she did not think I was suggesting she was not being herself. She came across as friendly, passionate and genuine.
When she has time, Sarah is writing what she described as a short work which she hopes to submit by the summer. From audience reaction and comments on my Twitter feed this morning I am not alone in my eagerness to read whatever story she creates next.
‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ is published by Tinder Press and is available to buy now.
Forthcoming events at Toppings bookshop may be viewed by clicking here.