ANDREW FFRENCH catches up with actress Sarah Winman whose debut novel won the Oxford Mail/Waterstones book award.

ACTRESS turned novelist Sarah Winman used to wait by the phone to find out how big a part she had been given in the latest episode of hospital soap Holby City.

Now the author of award-winning debut novel When God Was a Rabbit is tucked away in her cottage in Cornwall waiting for ideas to come.

The 47-year-old writer from London is in an enviable position after picking up a number of awards for her fictional debut, including the Oxford Mail/Waterstone’s Book of the Year prize and Galaxy Book Awards New Writer of the Year.

Ms Winman, who dropped in at Waterstone’s last month to pick up her award at the store in Broad Street, loved getting all the attention.

But now she has retreated to her holiday home to start the tricky task of penning her second novel.

Technically, it’s her third novel because the first one she wrote was not published, but she is still feeling under pressure to come up with a story that will win as much attention as When God Was a Rabbit.

The novel starts as an endearing tale of domestic life featuring Elly and her brother Joe as they grow up in the 1960s and 1970s in Essex and Cornwall but it gets increasingly dark as it goes along.

The author is delighted to pick up a prize in Oxford because her family has strong connections with the city.

“I have spent a lot of time in Oxford – my parents lived there until they married and moved to London,” she tells The Guide.

“The novel was sold in April 2010 and when I got the news I was sitting in the churchyard at Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry.

“It’s lovely and sweet that the novel has done so well – your first desire as a writer is to get your novel published in such a competitive market and anything else is a bonus.

“I worked as an actor for 23 years and acting is still in my blood but now I’m going to concentrate on writing.”

Ms Winman says she has started her next novel, which will be told in a third-person narrative.

She knows the ending but, like When God Was a Rabbit, the story will be more character-driven than plot-driven.

And she has no regrets that the tragedy of the Twin Towers loomed so large in her award-winning story.

“I wanted the novel to be a fictional memoir that was coloured by political and historical events and once you get into the 1990s the tragedy is looming so it would have been weird not to put it in.

“It was such a huge catastrophe – and everyone was involved because everyone had access to computers and TVs.

“Everyone has their own story of what they were doing on that day so I wrote my own story into the novel.

“But the book is not just about the Twin Towers, it’s about different kinds of violence and the goodness of the characters is mirrored by the senselessness of that violence.”

The writing course the author attended at an adult education centre in London certainly gave her a good start because her debut has now been published in 22 countries, including the United States, China, Brazil and Korea.

Sarah Winman has proved that she is not afraid to take on big themes with her breakthrough novel, but her writing also reflects her wry sense of humour and her growing number of fans will no doubt be smiling when she finishes her next story.

And if she keeps to her target of writing 1,000 words a day between 10.30am and 6pm, then they may not have to wait too long.

* When God Was a Rabbit is published by Headline and costs £7.99