Brushstrokes in Time – an interview with Caroline McLaughlin

4th November 2016
Brushstrokes in Time

Maxine Lennon speaks to our talented narrator, Caroline McLaughlin, about Sylvia Vetta’s moving novel. 

“I loved it!” says McLaughlin, when asked about her initial reaction to the Brushstrokes in Time script, “I immediately connected with the story, and it was perfect for my voice. Catherine [O’Brien, Essential Audiobooks CEO and Editor-in-Chief] was looking beyond my ability to speak Chinese – she needed someone who could understand the story. I connected with the character as soon as I read the first line; I thought, ‘I know this person’. That doesn’t always happen but Brushstrokes spoke to me on a level that no other book has.”

Brushstrokes in Time is the fictional memoir of Little Winter, an artist who grew up in Maoist China. We learn about Little Winter’s life, as she tells her story to her daughter; a clever narrative framework that allows us to experience the era vividly, seeing through the protagonist’s eyes; feeling her frustration, sorrow, and determination, with remarkable intensity and authenticity.

Brushstrokes spoke to me on a level that no other book has.”

Little Winter begins her story as a naïve young girl, a devoted and loving daughter, an obedient Chinese citizen. “In China at that time, you did what you were told, and you didn’t speak about certain things.” says McLaughlin, whose parents left China for Taiwan before the Mao era, but whose wider family remained. “As she gets older, Little Winter starts to question her life. There was great bravery in that.”

Caroline McLaughlin

Caroline McLaughlin


It is obvious that McLaughlin feels a huge amount of respect for the protagonist’s bravery, and the revolutionaries she joined: “They knew they could be imprisoned, they knew they could face execution. Little Winter protested against the autocratic regime through art. She wasn’t the ‘normal’ revolutionist; she did it in a very beautiful and subtle way.”

Although not herself Chinese, author Sylvia Vetta’s lifelong passion for China inspired her to write the novel. The product of 10 years of extensive research, including meeting and interviewing Qu Leilei, founder of the Stars art movement, Brushstrokes weaves accurate accounts of the history and politics of China during its Cultural Revolution with a beautifully told love story, wrought with emotion, to create a truly compelling read. “The novel brings to light so many things about Maoist China that I didn’t know – it’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.” reveals McLaughlin.

So how did she find narrating it?

Brushstrokes is a diamond in the rough. There’s no overly extravagant or flowery language – Sylvia is succinct and to-the-point, she can convey a sense of place, character and emotion perfectly in just a few words, and that for me, is the sign of a good writer.”

“Sometimes narrators have to craft the story to make it work, but with Sylvia’s book, she laid the path out for me and I voiced it.”

Yet its moving content did provide some unexpected difficulties. McLaughlin recalls how she had to stop recording several times, brought to tears by the book; “As a narrator, you have to be careful of your own emotions – you’re telling the story, not living the story. However,” she admits, “the way Brushstrokes is written, you do live through it.”

“There is a certain point in the novel – I won’t give it away – but it broke my heart. I said to my editor: ‘I was tearing up there and my voice is probably cracking, if you think it sounds like I’m taking the listener out of the story, tell me and I’ll re-record it.’ But that was the take we went with – it felt genuine.”

This is Caroline McLaughlin’s first recording with Essential Audiobooks but it’s a partnership that has already proven to be a success – Brushstrokes is currently the company’s bestselling audiobook.

You can listen to Caroline’s brilliant interpretation Brushstrokes in Time as a high-quality download, and a limited edition collectors’ CD, available now at

Written by Bryony Robertson

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