I’m still bewildered that books ever get written,” says Sarah Winman, the 56-year-old author of the novel Still Life, an instant Sunday Times bestseller published in the U.K. in June that will see its U.S. release in November from Putnam.
Dressed in a white-collared shirt and dark-framed glasses—looking, as she describes her art historian character Evelyn Skinner throughout the course of the book, a good 10 years younger than she is—Winman is talking about the inexplicable alchemy of creative work. “When you sit at that desk time and time and time again, then luck is on your side,” she explains via Zoom from her London flat, which she shares with her partner, photographer Patricia Niven. “You have to keep sitting there, and you have to keep following those little clues, and then you have a little breakthrough. You might not have another one for a month or months.” The key, she adds, is “just sitting with yourself and allowing that process.”
Still Life, Winman’s fourth novel, spans four decades and chronicles the lives of a group of Britons who end up in Italy after one of them—a young, beautifully kind soldier named Ulysses—shares wine and talk of art with the ever-entertaining Evelyn Skinner. (At the time, during World War II, Evelyn is in her 60s.) As the years pass, the two become inextricably linked.
The novel is a character-driven story about chance encounters that lead to found family, and about feminism and who gets to determine what art is. Winman says the book’s title is a retaking of the phrase used to describe the “women’s world” of art that was “looked down on by the privileged male gaze at the time.”
Still Life is also about mothering (which one doesn’t have to be a woman to do, Winman notes) versus motherhood. And about love and passion and finding pleasure in life by being exactly the person one is meant to be.
Winman didn’t set out to be a writer. She’d been acting for 30 years when, a decade ago, she found herself at a standstill in her career. “I wasn’t working,” she says. “As simple as that. And I wasn’t earning.” She was only landing jobs for “overseas commercials or stuff like that” and realized she needed to make a change. “The creative value of my life was really diminished, and I knew that regular work had gone.”
Having journaled and written screenplays and theatrical plays for her own pleasure (and, she admits, in the hope of creating a vehicle for herself), Winman signed up for a writing class. “I just remember looking at a bit of text and talking about time, place, character,” she says. She fell in love with the narrative exercises because they “gave me a focus and felt collaborative in a way.”
After two terms, Winman had 40,000 words. Her acting agent was affiliated with a literary agency and helped her submit her manuscript there. “Two days later, I get a call from a man called Robert [Caskie],” she recalls. “He said, ‘Come on, let’s have lunch.’ And he said, ‘I want another 25,000 words, and I’m your agent.’ That was 15 years ago. He’s still my agent.”
Winman’s debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit, about the unbreakable bond between two siblings, came out in 2011. It became an international bestseller, according to Putnam, selling more than 650,000 copies in the U.K. alone. It went on to win the Newton First Book Award. A Year of Marvellous Ways, about an unlikely friendship between an older woman and a young soldier (a theme that also runs through Still Life), followed in 2015.
As for that first manuscript Winman had worked on in her writing class, it, like her third novel, was titled Tin Man, but that’s where the resemblance ends. The published book explores the relationship between two boyhood friends and was shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Book Awards; a screen adaptation is in the works.
For Winman, finding inspiration for a new book often requires getting out of her comfort zone, or at least “doing something that is different.” These experiences, she believes, offer the “creative nudge that leads you to the right book that might push your story forward.”
With Still Life, that nudge began with a 2015 trip to Italy. While dining at a restaurant in Florence, she noticed the photographs on the walls of streets underwater. “I did this double take,” she says. “I thought it was Venice.”
It was Florence during the 1966 flood of the Arno river, which killed more than 30 people and destroyed countless works of art and rare books. The restaurant owner spoke with Winman about the mud angels—young people who came from all over the world to help clean up and restore whatever could be saved. “He told me, ‘If you walk around, you can notice where the level of the water was.’ And that’s what I did for those 10 days,” she says. “I’d go, ‘Oh my goodness. It was there. Oh my goodness.’ ”
In the end, the flood and the mud angels congregating in Florence are just a piece of the rich tapestry of Still Life, but a crucial one. “It got people together,” Winman explains. Another important part of the book was the author’s fortuitous connection—through an acupuncturist—to Stella Rudolph, an English-speaking art historian who’d gone to Florence during the flood and never left.
Winman followed Rudolph around in Italy, asking questions as part of her research. “We would have conversations about beauty and value and a flower coming up from the stones,” she says. “With all of this grandeur around, Stella would always stop for a flower. I would talk to her about nature versus art. I’m not sure the book would have happened the way it did without that kind of information.” Winman pauses before saying that Rudolph died in May 2020, during the pandemic.
As Winman sees it, in this time of immense loss, Still Life has a necessary role to fill—one that has been part of her intention from the beginning. “The whole tone of the book was always going to be joy and entertainment, because of what has been happening in my country,” she says. “I am very pro-Europe, and the divisiveness that was in the U.S. and in my country and the politics... I mean, my God, the damage that’s been done, and that’s what the book really came from.” Still Life came out of her need to laugh and to remind herself, and others, “who we are” and “the goodness of people,” she explains.
“I wanted to come to the desk feeling that this is an act of imagination, and let’s really have fun with this, and let’s remind ourselves what the process can also be,” Winman says. “Because I think we all need a reminder of that.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novels That’s Debatable (FSG, 2022) and Unclaimed Baggage, and the memoir Save the Date.