"The Past is a Negotiation": Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? In 1985, twenty-five-year-old Jeanette Winterson published Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical novel about a girl named Jeanette, adopted and raised in northern industrial England by Pentecostals, whose plans to become a missionary are derailed when she falls in love with girls (prompting her parents to hold an exorcism) and goes off to Oxford and becomes a writer instead.

Although the rough outlines of Winterson’s biography follow more or less the same as those sketched above, she has always resisted the idea that Oranges should be taken as a literal account of her childhood. “I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ — the compass of what they know — while men write wide and bold, the big canvas, the experiment with form,” she writes in her new book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, released last year in England and published in the United States last week.

Over the past two decades, Winterson’s novels have been loaded with play, pose, and experiment, roaming through and remixing ideas about history, genre, and gender. Her characters include a Venetian gambler with webbed feet in a romance with Napoleon’s cook (The Passion); a giant mother named Dogwoman (Sexing the Cherry); a lover with no identified name or gender (Written on the Body); and a scientist on a planet inhabited by dinosaurs (The Stone Gods).

Her new book, begun almost exactly twenty-five years after she began writing Oranges, revisits the same territory as her first — Winterson World, as she calls it. As in the first time around, the story is dominated by her adopted mother, a “flamboyant depressive: woman who kept a revolver in the drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with…two sets of false teeth — matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for ‘best.’ ” This time, however, there is a parallel narrative in which adult Jeanette searches for her biological parents.

The book makes a forceful argument for the necessity of art and in all lives, not just for those — like Winterson — who will grow up to be working artists but also for those like her adoptive father, a factory worker who reads the Bible and Shakespeare, and her biological family, who live in public housing and discuss The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I met Jeanette Winterson in late January at her hotel in Soho. She showed up in sneakers and workout clothes under a beautifully tailored wool coat — she had called to see if she might meet an hour later to fit in exercise — and we went to a local organic restaurant, where she ordered a lentil and sweet potato salad. An edited transcript of our exchange is followed by some “Outtakes”: pieces of the conversation that address a wider range of topics. — Amy Benfer

The Barnes & Noble Review: You are essentially revisiting the same material of your first book, published when you were twenty-five, almost exactly twenty-five years later yet seen through a different lens, along with contrasting your adoptive family, the Wintersons, with your biological family, whom you meet late in life. Why did you have the impulse to do that?

Jeanette Winterson: I didn’t. I was dealing with the search for the biological mother and that necessarily prompted in me all sorts of questions and reconsiderations of life with Mrs. Winterson; life in Winterson World. The past is a negotiation; it’s not fixed. I was forced into another negotiation with the past. I thought, “Well, let me start writing through this again and see what comes out.” I was doing it for my own sake, and not for anyone else. The trouble is that after two weeks, I had written 15,000 words. When that happens, you realize there is this enormous pressure building up to do something. So I thought, “OK, I’m just going to carry on with this.”

BNR: So those two lines bring you up to basically sixteen, when you leave home to go to Oxford, then a quick jump to twenty-five, letting us know you wrote Oranges, and another narrative starts when you search for your adoptive mother and begin this new book. Yet there is still a twenty-five-year gap that both parallel narratives skip over.

JW: Yeah, I get myself to Oxford, and then I write Oranges, and then we arrive in 2008 and I’m going to kill myself and it’s all gone wrong. Each half was written at the same time; they were two parallel lines that eventually converged. I didn’t start at the beginning and end at the end. When do I ever do that? That’s the story I wanted to tell. The rest was irrelevant. I’m also interested in what you can do with form and shape. And I thought, “Why should I write this in a linear way? I never do. So why start now?” I thought, “If I want to miss out on twenty-five years, I can. ” Although it would have been an inefficient thing to do in a memoir, anyway.

BNR: Even the use of the word memoir is fairly loaded. You were very emphatic that Oranges was not a memoir but an autobiographical novel, with points of fact and points of fiction. Are you comfortable saying that this is the memoir?

JW: I don’t even call it that. I just say it’s a cover version.

BNR: I like that phrase. That’s pretty wonderful.

JW: I really think, well… Let’s not call this “sexism.” Let’s call it an “asymmetrical judgment” between men and women. If Henry Miller writes Tropic of Cancer and calls the hero “Henry Miller,” he’s still allowed to say these are novels, and none of the guys question it. Because a man is allowed to be bigger. A woman isn’t. She can only possibly talk about herself.

BNR: Meanwhile, Anaïs Nin is just writing “journals.”

JW: Journals, right, journals! If I want to use myself as a fictional character, why can’t I? Over the years, it’s been one of the most frustrating things. If you call yourself  “Jeanette” in the novel, then it’s all about you. And I’m thinking, No. This is a person I’ve invented. Why shouldn’t I? That’s what I mean by an asymmetrical judgment because Paul Auster, Henry Miller, Milan Kundera, any of those writers who quote themselves directly, Philip Roth, for God’s sake! We all say, “That’s so great! That’s so interesting!” But if you do that as a woman, it becomes confessional and autobiographical.

BNR: In the book you make the distinction between “experience,” which is what women writers are seen to have, versus “experiment,” which male writers do.

JW: It’s all just a way to make it small. If you are a woman, you’ve got to be a little one; you’ve got to be small. And if you’re not small, you’re a ball-breaker.

BNR: Was it at all problematic for you to decide to call this book a “memoir,” then? Doesn’t it seem to imply this is the real, factual truth?

JW: Well, I didn’t decide that. My publisher did. They have to stick some bloody label on it. It’s not my word and it never will be.

BNR: One of the most striking differences between the two books — Oranges and Why Be Normal? — is that the character “my mother” becomes “Mrs. Winterson.” Meanwhile, your adoptive father stays “my father.”

JW: I think I needed to operate at a distance, so it does shift from “my mother” to “Mrs. Winterson.” But she never called any of her friends by their first name. She didn’t let them call her by her first name. She very much was the lady of the house. She liked that formality and that dignity.

BNR: I assume that in your adult life, other people have called you “Ms. Winterson” from time to time.

JW: Yes [laughs].

BNR: So although referring to this same woman as “Mrs. Winterson” sounds more alienating than calling her “my mother,” it also seems like a way to subtly state the connection between the two of you. Sons often talk about the experience about growing into being Mr. So and So, like their fathers, though with patrilineal descent, that is rarer for women. It almost seemed to underline the closeness between the two of you as adult women.

JW: Yes, she’s an archetypal figure. The main model, the only one. She was a mother, and she’s also a character in her own drama. But it’s a sleight-of-hand. I think she comes off very well in this book. I think there’s compassion for her and warmth and the reader will end up feeling rather drawn to her. Even though she’s a monster.

BNR: She does come off as a monster in some ways. But she also comes off as being so important. There’s a way in which the two of you seem twinned in a way that in the end you never even seem to have with your bio-mom. She just looms so large over your life in a way that no one else seems to come close.

JW: She is. The person you grow up with is really important. This biology business, it doesn’t do it for me. And yes, she was the big-screen character in the small screen of our lives.

BNR: In the book, you connect her to the Dogwoman character, the gigantic, all-encompassing mother in your novel Sexing the Cherry. But in a way, she was the one who shrunk all of your lives down to the small-screen, too, right? She was very educated for her class. She seemed to be incredibly intelligent. There are so many ways in which the two of you seem like parallel characters. And yet, she seemed to limit herself: she married “down”; became a housewife; became a member of a very strict religion. It seems to go along with the stereotype you mention about the “Battleaxe” northern woman. These women are so huge, and yet their bigness is used to make them small.

JW: They have to know their place. And those women, those pre-feminist women, they did know their place. It might have made them depressed and miserable — it did — but they accepted it like a natural phenomenon, like gravity or something. It couldn’t change. It was as pointless to them to wish that things were different as it was to wish that you could walk three feet off the ground. Because you couldn’t. It was a law of nature that men were superior and that women had to know their place.

BNR: You talk about adoption as self-invention, and the idea that each adoption story introduces the possibility of a parallel life. There is a fabulous moment in the book when you find yourself sitting in the bar in your hometown, well dressed and inexplicably wearing a spray tan. One crucial question that you never did answer: Why in God’s name did you have a spray tan?

JW: I’m not telling you! As I said in the novel, “for reasons that remain unsaid!” I shall never confess!

BNR: So unfair! But you do have this striking moment when suddenly you have this image of what your life might have been like if you hadn’t grown up in Winterson World, left town, gone to Oxford, become a writer.

JW: It felt like a shadow passed across me, and I was like, “No!” It wasn’t like a game I was playing in my head, like “What if?” or “Let’s pretend.” It did feel like I was looking through this door, this other possibility, this whole world within the universe. Having met my bio-mom and my family, I know it would have gone wrong. It would have gone wrong because I would not have been educated. I’m sure of that. But I’m clever. And I wasn’t going to sit at home and do nothing, so I would have made something of myself. But there would have been more brutality than poetry in it. And that’s kind of scary.

BNR: So you think part of the poetry, then, comes from being born into an evangelical household? You talk a lot about the poetry of the Bible and the deep search for philosophical meaning that it brings into working-class lives, like the one you were born into.

JW: I think it gives you a language for poetry. My nature is intense, and I think loss pushes you towards a search for meaning and a search for language. Poetry is very good at dealing with all of that. I was looking for a way to deal with loss even though I didn’t call it loss. That’s why I talk about in the book about “lost loss.” When you can’t even get at it; you don’t even know it’s there. I think that yearning, that search for meaning came out of that. My intense and solitary nature pushed me towards a poetics because I was looking for complexity. I didn’t want the easy narrative. I really wanted to understand. And yes, my nature, fortunately met a situation that was going to nourish it, which sounds very odd, given what that situation was. I’m not going to go up and down and say it’s good to lock your kid in the coal hole, or out on the front step or to give them Bible readings morning, noon, and night. But it seems to have worked for me. It did give me something that I would not have gotten.

BNR: It seems you wouldn’t have had to struggle in such an epic, archetypal way. You wouldn’t have had to struggle against such strict religious rules, they wouldn’t have exorcised you for being gay, or likely even cared much, you wouldn’t have been labeled a sinner…

JW: And it seems the spiritual damage made a difference. In either family, I would have been poor; there was no material benefit either way. In my birth family, I think my focus would have been on, “I have to get out of here and make a better life.” There wouldn’t have been the spiritual overlay. At least being brought up in the church, it’s irrelevant, the money question. Nobody had any money and nobody cared about having any money, because our rewards were in heaven. And our riches were not of this earth. So that was not a suitable place to put your ambition. And so I didn’t. But I think that’s very interesting: the idea that it’s much more important to pursue meaning, to pursue the inner life. So what began as a connection with God became a connection with life itself, to which art, poetry are central, but money never being a consideration.

Going to Oxford, all of my friends went off and got really good jobs. I could have done that too. This was the eighties for God’s sake, and I had an Oxford degree. I could have gone anywhere. But I didn’t. Because money continued to be of no importance. I think that was very much the spiritual teaching I grew up with: This is not a worthy endeavor. Which was directly at odds with the zeitgeist of the eighties, which was all about money.

BNR: So what we are saying here is that in many ways, Mrs. Winterson did give you the roots of your story and a reason to create.

JW: She did. I’m really a big believer in just working with what’s there, with who you are and what you’ve got. And not putting happiness or success or achievement impossibly out of reach, which people do all the time. It’s good to have ambition. But you have to work with what you’ve got and be in that place. I’m a realist as well as an optimist.

BNR: As you point out, in both of your families, the search for meaning and art and discussion and answering the question “Why are we here?” was very important, even though both were very poor. Many politicians right now are telling us that books and poetry and education are “elitist” pursuits. But you point out there is still a deep need for self-reflection and inner life and art, no matter what your day job is.

JW: I think that’s right. I don’t want to see that go. Young people now — this was supposed to be the post-ideological generation. When the money was there, no one was going to care. And that might have worked. So the fact that the money has run out, now, and the whole thing has been laid bare in all its goriness and its corruption and unsustainability, I think that’s really good. This is going to radicalize another generation of young people. It’s not just going to be Islamic jihad or radical Christian fundamentalism, these are going to be kids who want to get political because they can change things that way, who will want to find a new system. I always have hope for the human race like that. They will respond to our times, and then alter them. I can’t believe that we won’t.


The following parts of our conversation wandered somewhat from our discussion of Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

BNR: What is your writing schedule? Do you have an intense daily schedule? Or do you write in short bursts?

JW: No. I’m in my study every day. I think that’s important. I just go to work. You have to get up and go to work. I show up. It doesn’t mean I do anything useful all the time. Very often I don’t. But I divide my day. I try to keep the dreaming day in the morning. I get up straightaway. I pretend that I have to cycle to work. I don’t, because my studio is in my garden. But I get on my bike and I do a circuit and come back. So I have cycled to work. If I don’t cycle to work, it’s so fixed in my head, I can’t go to work.

BNR: You talk so much about poetry, both in your work, and even on your website, where you often post poems of the day. I can also see a poetic influence in the way your sentences scan: there is an intention to the rhythm; it is very spare; there are even many sentences that read almost as epigrams. Do you ever write poetry?

JW: No. But I read it all the time.

BNR: Do you think that the fact that you don’t actually write poetry helps you to keep it in a space that is purely inspirational in a way that prose isn’t?

JW: I was always clear that I wanted to have that intensity and that spareness for my prose. I didn’t want to strip it out completely to an artful, i.e, artless, conversational style. I wasn’t trying to do a Hemingway or Henry Miller or any of that stuff. I wanted to have something which used language in a way which had a certain artificiality to it, in that we don’t speak that way. We’re not that precise; we’re not that complex. But I wanted to feel as natural as possible. And I thought I could do that, using the prose. That’s always been what has interested me. To try to keep the complexity of language — the imagery, the symbolism, just the way the words work together, instead of trying to pull them apart, thinking how few can I get in there? That’s not it for me. I need to know that they can make a different kind of landscape. That’s what poetry does. So I thought, “Why can’t you have that in your prose? Why shouldn’t I work towards that?”

BNR: And you’ve never had the urge to start arranging any of your prose into verse or stanzas?

JW: No. It is rhythmic; it works well being read out loud. In that sense, I’ve achieved what I wanted. What it doesn’t do is a casualty of speed reading. You can’t read Jeanette Winterson just for the content. There’s no point. No point. You can’t read down the middle. I’ve built it. They aren’t very long books anyway. They are as short as they can be. You can’t make them shorter by reading them faster. That can be a problem, because we do surf. For me, the pleasure is actually in the language and in what develops through the language. That, to me, is what literature is. If we don’t want it to be language, then let’s go and do something else. But if we’re only looking for the story, we can get that in many different media now. There’s nothing wrong with that. But language has its own particular, specific idiosyncratic pleasures and challenges. It is language. So much as I’m using language, I really don’t want to be told by anyone that it’s elitist if you use it in a particular way, or that it gets in the way of just telling a story. Why can’t we just go from A to B in a straight line? That’s not interesting to me. I’ve been a critic of the realist novel for a long time. I think very often in fact TV and film can do that better. Docu-drama is also very good. We do have other mediums to take that burden away.

BNR: We are in a golden era as far as television is concerned. When I was growing up, it would never have occurred to me to think about writing for television, but right now it seems that’s where some of the very best writing is taking place.

JW: I agree with you. I just think that we need to let a book be what it is and not criticize it for being what it isn’t. It’s there to tell a story, yes, but it’s there to do many other things as well. That’s what literature is. There has to be a place for the craziest imagination or fantasy or the strange circularity of fiction. It doesn’t have to go in a straight line. My fights with the realist novel have always been, “Are you sure you want this to be a novel? Or could it really be something else? And are we losing language along the way if we are only reading for the story?”

BNR: You actually did adapt your first novel as a TV drama for the BBC. Did that give you a clear idea of the difference between drama and literature even when telling the same story?

JW: I like working for TV. You can do the dialogue and be very precise, and I like all of that. But it’s no good at interior dialogue or monologue. Interiority just does not work onscreen. It’s very hard to have those conversations with yourself and others that prose can do simultaneously, at the same time it’s allowing you to locate within yourself and the landscape. But that’s because it is essentially an introverted art form. And we’re in a very extroverted world at the moment, perhaps the most extroverted the world has ever been. Everything happens on the outside and its all about display. That puts the novel and poetry in a very curious position. It’s fighting for the inner life, the inner world, at a time when everything is pushing towards what’s outside.

BNR: You say that you are an introvert, but one of the things that is very striking about you is that you are very extroverted on the Internet, much more so than many literary writers. You write journalism regularly, you have a blog and a website. Do you have a theory as to why it works so well for you?

JW: The Internet is curious in a way in that it is the ultimate introvert activity because you sit alone, at your screen. It’s making people into sociopaths. They feel like they’ve got a million friends and they are all alone in their bedroom. How screwed up is that? I never use the Internet when I am working, because it is way too distracting. But I like the website. The world is as it is. We can work to change it. But we have to be in it. There’s no point in lamenting that we’d like it to be otherwise. We have to be both politically and personally active to change the things we dislike, but also to work energetically with what is there. I have a Twitter account. That’s fine. I’m here. But nobody will know if I’m just stomping up and down the pavement, being angry at the way the world is.

BNR: You have been a big supporter of the Occupy movement. In recent years, you have fashioned yourself as a public intellectual of sorts, writing and commenting on the news and world events. What do you think the role of writers and artists should be in politics?

JW: To do two things simultaneously: Everybody, regardless, has a duty to be active in our civic life, and to protest the things we don’t want, and to actively support the things that we do want. Writers can be at the forefront of that, saying: “This isn’t correct. We can challenge this intellectually.”

But I think a writer has a second job, which is to support and protect the inner world that we talked about earlier, the inner life, the imaginative life; to support what it means to be a human being, not just the kind of work you do, or which political party you support but who you are, and how we develop who we are. How we develop ourselves, how we become more, so we can have a satisfying life. That has social ramifications, whether we are a good friend, a good parent, a good member of the community, but it’s also about ourselves. Are we interested in ourselves? Do we have the tools for self-reflection? Do you have some Archimedean point where you can stand outside yourself and look in, and where you can stand outside and look at the world? That doesn’t come naturally. We need to learn tools for self-reflection. That happens through education, through reading, and writers have a real duty, I think, to promote all of that, to say life has an inside as well as an outside, so let’s put some energy there.