Wednesday 23 October 2019

'My storytelling comes from my acting' - 'Tin Man' author Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman, author of last year's hit novel 'Tin Man', tells our reporter about her personal link to the book's setting and how 30 years spent as an actor informs her writing

Exorcising the demons: Sarah Winman's three novels have all been redemptive. Photo by REX/Shutterstock
Exorcising the demons: Sarah Winman's three novels have all been redemptive. Photo by REX/Shutterstock

Joanne Hayden

Sarah Winman is good at titles. The title of her bestselling first novel, When God Was a Rabbit, pinpoints something childlike and surreal, as well as having a meaningful place within the story. Her third and latest book is called Tin Man, which is a reference to a character's job as a panel beater in a car factory. But the words also evoke The Wizard of Oz, and while Ellis - the novel's tin man - does have a heart, it's very broken, and in order to heal he must go on a journey; he must follow the yellow brick road.

Winman has a personal link with the car factory in the book. She grew up in Essex but her grandparents lived in east Oxford - a working-class area when she was a child. Her grandfather worked in the Cowley car plant. It was so near and yet so far away from the Oxford often depicted in literature and films.

"I wasn't really aware of the university when I was staying with my grandparents," she says, sitting across from me in a Dublin hotel. "Our lives were quite complete in that little framework that lives are."

Now, she's all too aware of the privilege and opportunity that existed to the west of the plain but was unavailable to her grandfather and is similarly unavailable to Ellis in the novel. Ellis wants to be a painter. His mother, a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things, encourages his art but when she dies, his father - authoritarian and classically buttoned-up - insists his son will work in the car plant, and so in 1966, at the age of 16, Ellis becomes a tinny, or tin man. Winman depicts the skill of his factory work. Even though he didn't pursue his art, she wanted him to have a sense of purpose as her grandfather did.

"I've totally romanticised this job in a way," she says, "but I still believe there is this sculptural element and understanding of materials that goes on, sensitivity and sensibility of touch... I wanted to keep the dignity of people on the line."

Tin Man is split between the perspectives of Ellis and his childhood friend, Michael. Moving back and forth across four decades, the story is a love triangle where love, instead of jealousy, triumphs. As young men, Ellis and Michael are lovers for a brief spell. Later, Ellis marries Annie, who becomes like a hinge between them.

In gay life, Winman says, it's not unusual to see this kind of relationship as well as "great love affairs that are solely platonic and non-sexual".

"Really it's also about people finding their own family, which is less important now; gay lives are so different, but back then there was a searching. You made people your family."

Winman is a compassionate writer, her prose emotive for Michael and more restrained for Ellis, who is grieving in the opening scenes. There is little drama - she consciously took it out - rather there are absences, the reasons for which become clearer as Ellis's memories unfold.

Though they don't avoid the ugliness of the world - there is child abuse in When God Was a Rabbit and war and trauma in her second book, A Year of Marvellous Ways - all three of Winman's novels are redemptive. But she's not conscious of writing about goodness and thinks if she was, "it would disappear or it would morph into something that was quite sweet and so I'm not after that. I'm after resolve of some sort."

"I'm a storyteller, that's what I am," she says. "And my storytelling comes from acting."

Winman worked as an actor for 30 years, only beginning to write prose in 2006, at which point she was doing a lot of overseas commercials and acting had become solely about making money. She wanted to bring some joy back into her creativity and five years later, When God Was a Rabbit was born.

Writing is more isolated than acting and she likes getting to the point where she can show work to her partner, Patricia, and her agent, but while she misses the rehearsal room and being around actors, she brings her background with her to the page. Acting taught her how to engage with her own emotional truth - "the only one you have at the end of the day. You are forced to look at everything you are - good and not so good and all those dark, murky thoughts that you've had."

This helps her create empathetic characters - even the ones who do the most damage are not demonised.

Tin Man is shot through with random acts of kindness and some of its most tender scenes are set on an AIDS ward in 1989.

For research, she drew on Colm Tóibín's novel The Blackwater Lightship and Paul Monette's AIDS memoir, Borrowed Time. She also talked to her mother's friend, Pam Hibbs, who set up the AIDS ward at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London in the late 1980s, a time when some people on mainstream wards didn't want contact with AIDS patients.

Conscious that AIDS is not just about gay lives, she's still visibly angry about the prejudices that existed back then. She wanted to depict the "incredible care and humanity that young gay men were showing to each other", when many of them had been abandoned by their families.

"This is strangers looking after strangers, giving them dignity in death and in dying. My God, what can you say? I don't know. Let's have more of it."

On reflection, she thinks that maybe Tin Man is a novel she could only have written in her 50s, that maybe there are enough miles under her feet now to see beyond the stress and anger that is in her country and in the world at the moment.

"The things that used to get to you don't as much. Things still can, it's just a different shift, and maybe also there's an investment in people in a different way. Because we are in a mess and the only way it's going to be sorted out is through people."

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