Kate was a guest at the Perth Writers Festival in February and was lucky enough to be given the chance to talk to some of the other writers about their work. She interviewed Sarah Winman in a busy little café and, between the sound of the coffee machine, other people talking and laughing, and Kate’s ineptitude with the microphone, the sound quality was so awful that we decided not to inflict it upon you. However, we thought you’d enjoy reading the transcript of the interview. (Kate has added in a bit of background here and there in brackets for those of you who have not read the book.)
Pour yourself a cup of tea, grab a Banbury cake (a traditional tidbit from the Oxfordshire area where Sarah’s book is set), and enjoy!
Firstly, here’s a summary of Sarah Winman’s novel Tin Man for those of you who haven’t read it:
Ellis and Michael were twelve when they first become friends, and for a long time it was just the two of them, cycling the streets of Oxford, teaching themselves how to swim, discovering poetry, and dodging the fists of overbearing fathers. And then one day this closest of friendships grew into something more.
But then we fast forward a decade or so, to find that Ellis is married to Annie, and Michael is nowhere in sight. Which leads to the question, what happened in the years between?
This is almost a love story. But it’s not as simple as that.
KATE: Welcome to Word of Mouth TV, I’m here in gorgeous Perth where I’m talking to Sarah Winman, a writer from Britain and author of the wonderful book, Tin Man. Sarah, can you please tell us about your book?
SARAH: Tin Man is set predominantly in Oxford. It’s a story about three people, Ellis, Annie, and Michael. It’s the story of the marriage of Ellis and Annie, and the friendship between the three of them. And, most importantly, it’s about the love affair, really, between the two men when they were boys in England. When the story starts, in 1996, only Ellis is still alive and so it’s very much about his journey and his search for meaning, when the two people who have most loved you are no longer in your life.
KATE: That sounds heart-breaking!
SARAH: Yes, well, it’s not a comedy (laughs).
KATE: What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
SARAH: Probably the voice, because it’s in two parts and there’s a male voice in both parts. You can’t suddenly stop who you are, so I needed to really try to find a gender-neutral writing style. It was about identifying what my femaleness is as a writer, and then trying to take it out. And also to give them contrasting voices.
KATE: What inspired this story for you?
SARAH: Um, well, my family is from Oxford.
KATE: I come to Oxford every year!
SARAH: Do you? How come?
KATE: I teach a writing retreat in Oxford every year. Next time I come, I’ll send you an email and we can have a cuppa.
SARAH: Oh do! That would be really really good! My family is from there, and my mother has moved back there so I’m often in town.
So my childhood memory is very much about one set of grandparents who lived in Cowley, opposite the car plant (this is BMW’s central assembly faculty for the Mini range of cars but was originally owned by Morris Motors). My grandfather worked in the stock room there … and on the other side of Oxford my other grandfather had a greengrocer shop – so it’s very much like it is in the book.
It was also in my thoughts that, when people read about Oxford, they usually read about the more privileged side, the university and so on, but for me, I’m presenting the Oxford that is more familiar to me, about the rougher working class side of the ’60s and ’70s.
I think that’s quite interesting. There’s such a divide in Oxford, with the university on one side and, on the other side, a very different reality.
KATE: Oxford is such a fascinating place, it’s just drenched in history, in blood and tragedy and drama …
SARAH: It is! And learning. And also that other side, the industry, the poor people. You are looking at under-educated people versus people who have had the most privileged education. It is such a contrast and so that has always been part of my life – one grandfather always described himself as an uneducated man and that always bothered him – it must have been quite tricky. So that is very much a part of the book, this awareness of the untold side of Oxford … the Oxford my family knew.
KATE: And so you’ve drawn on your own family’s life and history a lot in this book?
SARAH: Oh, yes. In the start of the book, there’s (this image of Ellis’s mother) Dora smoking a last cigarette and looking out at the car plant, because the thing about these industrial areas, there were always lights on, and so there was a false dawn and a false dusk, which is really quite beautiful. And that image is my grandmother. She was a very silent woman but she had a real feeling for art and beauty and no outlet for it. So all the time, I was wondering what it must be like to have this artistic sensibility, this feeling of art, but no way of expressing it or understanding it. That would automatically make you different. And that was not a time or a place that celebrated difference. I mean, that kind of difference can be a threat, it worries people, it worries family. Someone who steps away from the norm of family can bring up so many problems, so many insecurities. So that’s a big part of the novel, this longing for art but also the fear of it.
KATE: It’s such a beautiful part of the book, I loved the scene where Dora chooses the Van Gogh print of Sunflowers over the bottle of whisky, and it was her first act of defiance against her husband, and her life, I suppose. Now, as you know, Sarah, Word of Mouth TV is all about celebrating food, feasting and friendships. Do you have any wonderful stories about food, eating and cooking that you’d like to share with us?
SARAH: Oh, I love to eat, I have so many stories about eating! One of the loveliest stories I like to tell is from when we were young and trying to make our way in the world. I was acting, and my partner is a food photographer, and we were both struggling to make our different kind of art, and there was not much money around – and so we sometimes had a kind of bartering system. Patsy would go off and take photographs for restaurants and they wouldn’t pay her in cash, but they would pay her in dinners …
KATE: That sounds wonderful! If the food was good …
SARAH: Oh, these were really great restaurants! So, we were really poor struggling artists but we ate like kings!
KATE: You lucky things! I certainly didn’t eat like a king when I was a poor struggling artist. Now, finally, here at Word of Mouth TV we like to spread the word about as many books and writers as we can. So have you read anything utterly brilliant lately that you would like to share?
SARAH: I have! I feel like it’s a little bit of a cop-out as it’s Lincoln in the Bardo (the 2017 Man Booker Prize-winning novel by George Saunders.) Many people I know found it difficult to get into, and I was the same, I only got into it on the second or third attempt, I was thinking it was just structurally hard. But once you get into the rhythm it’s just wonderful … it’s a story of an incredible friendship, and a story of love and empathy … and a reimagining of history – I mean what an imagination George Saunders has! A very beautiful book.
KATE: It sounds amazing. Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah!