"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages. . . . Singular and electric . . . [Winterson's] life with her adoptive parents was often appalling, but it made her the writer she is."The New York Times
"[Winterson is] one of the most daring and inventive writers of our timesearingly honest yet effortlessly lithe as she slides between forms, exuberant and unerring, demanding emotional and intellectual expansion of herself and of us. . . . In Why Be Happy,, [Winterson's] emotional life is laid bare . . . [in] a bravely frank narrative of truly coming undone. For someone in love with disguises, Winterson's openness is all the more moving; there's nothing left to hide, and nothing left to hide behind."Elle
Jeanette Winterson’s bold and revelatory novels have earned her widespread acclaim, establishing her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most admired books of the past few decades, including her internationally best-selling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents, that is now often required reading in contemporary fiction classes.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about other people’s literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.
Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a tough-minded search for belongingfor love, identity, home, and a mother.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Visit her website at jeanettewinterson.com
Read an Excerpt
The Wrong Crib
WHEN MY MOTHER WAS ANGRY with me, which was often, she said, "The Devil led us to the wrong crib.'
The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960 — purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs Winterson — has a flamboyant theatricality to it. She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth — matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for "best'.
I do not know why she didn't/couldn't have children. I know that she adopted me because she wanted a friend (she had none), and because I was like a flare sent out into the world — a way of saying that she was here — a kind of X Marks the Spot.
She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents — we don't really have any choice.
She was alive when my first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published in 1985. It is semi-autobiographical, in that it tells the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents. The girl is supposed to grow up and be a missionary. Instead she falls in love with a woman. Disaster. The girl leaves home, gets herself to Oxford University, returns home to find her mother has built a broadcast radio and is beaming out the Gospel to the heathen. The mother has a handle — she's called "Kindly Light'.
The novel begins: "Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.'
For most of my life I've been a bare-knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned early never to cry. If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.
We always walked. We had no car and no bus money. For me, the average was five miles a day: two miles for the round trip to school; three miles for the round trip to church.
Church was every night except Thursdays.
I wrote about some of these things in Oranges, and when it was published, my mother sent me a furious note in her immaculate copperplate handwriting demanding a phone call.
We hadn't seen each other for several years. I had left Oxford, was scraping together a life, and had written Oranges young — I was twenty-five when it was published.
I went to a phone box — I had no phone. She went to a phone box — she had no phone.
I dialled the Accrington code and number as instructed, and there she was — who needs Skype? I could see her through her voice, her form solidifying in front of me as she talked.
She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around twenty stone. Surgical stockings, flat sandals, a Crimplene dress and a nylon headscarf. She would have done her face powder (keep yourself nice), but not lipstick (fast and loose).
She filled the phone box. She was out of scale, larger than life. She was like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable. She loomed up. She expanded. Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself. The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her.
But that day she was borne up on the shoulders of her own outrage. She said, "It's the first time I've had to order a book in a false name.' I tried to explain what I had hoped to do. I am an ambitious writer — I don't see the point of being anything; no, not anything at all, if you have no ambition for it. 1985 wasn't the day of the memoir — and in any case, I wasn't writing one. 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. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory — i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
Mrs Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn't go out to work. Books had been forbidden in our house — I'll explain why later — and so for me to have written one, and had it published, and had it win a prize ... and be standing in a phone box giving her a lecture on literature, a polemic on feminism ...
The pips — more money in the slot — and I'm thinking, as her voice goes in and out like the sea, "Why aren't you proud of me?'
The pips — more money in the slot — and I'm locked out and sitting on the doorstep again. It's really cold and I've got a newspaper under my bum and I'm huddled in my duffel coat.
A woman comes by and I know her. She gives me a bag of chips. She knows what my mother is like.
Inside our house the light is on. Dad's on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won't sleep. She'll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he'll let me in, and he'll say nothing, and she'll say nothing, and we'll act like it's normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer ...
We're still on the phone in our phone boxes. She tells me that my success is from the Devil, keeper of the wrong crib. She confronts me with the fact that I have used my own name in the novel — if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?
I can't remember a time when I wasn't setting my story against hers. It was my survival from the very beginning. Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.
The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story — of course that is how we all live, it's the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It's like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It's like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can't, and it shouldn't, because something is missing.
That isn't of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.
There are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt.
It's why I am a writer — I don't say "decided' to be, or "became'. It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs Winterson's story I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.
She said, "But it's not true ...'
Truth? This was a woman who explained the flash-dash of mice activity in the kitchen as ectoplasm.
There was a terraced house in Accrington, in Lancashire — we called those houses two-up two-down: two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs. Three of us lived together in that house for sixteen years. I told my version — faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time. I told myself as hero like any shipwreck story. It was a shipwreck, and me thrown on the coastline of humankind, and finding it not altogether human, and rarely kind.
And I suppose that the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.
I am often asked, in a tick-box kind of way, what is "true' and what is not "true' in Oranges. Did I work in a funeral parlour? Did I drive an ice-cream van? Did we have a Gospel Tent? Did Mrs Winterson build her own CB radio? Did she really stun tomcats with a catapult?
I can't answer these questions. I can say that there is a character in Oranges called Testifying Elsie who looks after the little Jeanette and acts as a soft wall against the hurt(ling) force of Mother.
I wrote her in because I couldn't bear to leave her out. I wrote her in because I really wished it had been that way. When you are a solitary child you find an imaginary friend.
There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.
I spent most of my school years sitting on the railings outside the school gates in the breaks. I was not a popular or a likeable child; too spiky, too angry, too intense, too odd. The churchgoing didn't encourage school friends, and school situations always pick out the misfit. Embroidering THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED on my gym bag made me easy to spot.
But even when I did make friends I made sure it went wrong ...
If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn't want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn't want to be.
Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn't belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself.
I never believed that my parents loved me. I tried to love them but it didn't work. It has taken me a long time to learn how to love — both the giving and the receiving. I have written about love obsessively, forensically, and I know/knew it as the highest value. I loved God of course, in the early days, and God loved me. That was something. And I loved animals and nature. And poetry. People were the problem. How do you love another person? How do you trust another person to love you?
I had no idea.
I thought that love was loss.
Why is the measure of love loss?
That was the opening line of a novel of mine — Written on the Body (1992). I was stalking love, trapping love, losing love, longing for love ...
Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world.
Mrs Winterson objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story's silent twin. There are so many things that we can't say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control.
When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.
When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
Mrs Winterson would have preferred it if I had been silent.
Do you remember the story of Philomel who is raped and then has her tongue ripped out by the rapist so that she can never tell?
I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.
I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.
God is forgiveness — or so that particular story goes, but in our house God was Old Testament and there was no forgiveness without a great deal of sacrifice. Mrs Winterson was unhappy and we had to be unhappy with her. She was waiting for the Apocalypse.
Her favourite song was "God Has Blotted Them Out', which was meant to be about sins, but really was about anyone who had ever annoyed her, which was everyone. She just didn't like anyone and she just didn't like life. Life was a burden to be carried as far as the grave and then dumped. Life was a Vale of Tears. Life was a pre-death experience.
Every day Mrs Winterson prayed, "Lord, let me die.' This was hard on me and my dad.
Her own mother had been a genteel woman who had married a seductive thug, given him her money, and watched him womanise it away. For a while, from when I was about three, until I was about five, we had to live with my grandad, so that Mrs Winterson could nurse her mother, who was dying of throat cancer.
Although Mrs W was deeply religious, she believed in spirits, and it made her very angry that Grandad's girlfriend, as well as being an ageing barmaid with dyed blonde hair, was a medium who held seances in our very own front room.
After the seances my mother complained that the house was full of men in uniform from the war. When I went into the kitchen to get at the corned beef sandwiches I was told not to eat until the Dead had gone. This could take several hours, which is hard when you are four.
I took to wandering up and down the street asking for food. Mrs Winterson came after me and that was the first time I heard the dark story of the Devil and the crib ...
In the crib next to me had been a little boy called Paul. He was my ghostly brother because his sainted self was always invoked when I was naughty. Paul would never have dropped his new doll into the pond (we didn't go near the surreal possibilities of Paul having been given a doll in the first place). Paul would not have filled his poodle pyjama case with tomatoes so that he could perform a stomach operation with blood-like squish. Paul would not have hidden Grandad's gas mask (for some reason Grandad still had his wartime gas mask and I loved it). Paul would not have turned up at a nice birthday party, to which he had not been invited, wearing Grandad's gas mask.
If they had taken Paul instead of me, it would have been different, better. I was supposed to be a pal ... like she had been to her mother.
And then her mother died and she shut herself up in her grief. I shut myself up in the larder because I had learned how to use the little key that opened the tins of corned beef.
I have a memory — true or not true?
The memory is surrounded by roses, which is odd because it is a violent and upsetting memory, but my grandad was a keen gardener and he particularly loved roses. I liked finding him, shirtsleeves rolled up, wearing a knitted waistcoat and spraying the blooms with water from a polished copper can with a piston pressure valve. He liked me, in an odd sort of way, and he disliked my mother, and she hated him — not in an angry way, but with a toxic submissive resentment.
I am wearing my favourite outfit — a cowboy suit and a fringed hat. My small body is slung from side to side with cap-gun Colts.
A woman comes into the garden and Grandad tells me to go inside and find my mother who is making her usual pile of sandwiches.
I run in — Mrs Winterson takes off her apron and goes to answer the door.
I am peeping from down the hallway. There is an argument between the two women, a terrible argument that I can't understand, and something fierce and frightening, like animal fear. Mrs Winterson slams the door and leans on it for a second. I creep out of my peeping place. She turns around. There I am in my cowboy outfit.
"Was that my mum?'
Mrs Winterson hits me and the blow knocks me back. Then she runs upstairs.
I go out into the garden. Grandad is spraying the roses. He ignores me. There is no one there.CHAPTER 2
My Advice To Anybody Is: Get Born
I WAS BORN IN MANCHESTER in 1959. It was a good place to be born.
Manchester is in the south of the north of England.
Its spirit has a contrariness in it — a south and north bound up together — at once untamed and unmetropolitan; at the same time, connected and worldly.
Manchester was the world's first industrial city; its looms and mills transforming itself and the fortunes of Britain. Manchester had canals, easy access to the great port of Liverpool, and railways that carried thinkers and doers up and down to London. Its influence affected the whole world.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?"
Copyright © 2011 Jeanette Winterson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Wrong Crib 1
2 My Advice to Anybody is: Get Born 13
3 In The Beginning was the Word 26
4 The Trouble with a Book... 33
5 At Home 44
6 Church 65
7 Accrington 85
8 The Apocalypse 100
9 English Literature A-Z 115
10 This is the Road 131
11 Art and Lies 142
12 The Night Sea Voyage 155
13 This Appointment Takes Place in the Past 178
14 Strange Meeting 207
15 The Wound 220
What People are Saying About This
"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages. . . . Singular and electric . . . [Winterson's] life with her adoptive parents was often appalling, but it made her the writer she is."The New York Times
"She's one of the most daring and inventive writers of our timesearingly honest yet effortlessly lithe as she slides between forms, exuberant and unerring, demanding emotional and intellectual expansion of herself and of us. . . She explores not only the structure of storytelling byt the interplay of past, present, and future, blending science fiction, realism, and a deep love of literature and history. . . . In Why Be Happy, [Winterson's] emotional life is laid bare. [Her] struggle to first accept and then love herself yields a bravely frank narrative of truly coming undone. For someone in love with disguises, Winterson's openness is all the more moving; there's nothing left to hide, and nothing left to hide behind."A.M. Homes, Elle
"To read Jeanette Winterson is to love her. . . . The fierce, curious, brilliant British writer is winningly candid in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? . . . [Winterson has] such a joy for life and love and language that she quickly becomes her very own one-woman bandone that, luckily for us, keeps playing on."O, the Oprah Magazine
"Magnificent . . . What begins as a tragicomic tale of triumph over a soul-destroying childhood becomes something rougher and richer in the later passages. . . . Winterson writes with heartrending precision. . . . Ferociously funny and unfathomably generous, Winterson's exorcism-in-writing is an unforgettable quest for belonging, a tour de force of literature and love."Vogue
"A memoir as unconventional and winning as [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit], the rollicking bildungsroman . . . that instantly established [Winterson’s] distinctive voice. . . . It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her. . . . To confront Mrs. Winterson head on, in life, in nonfiction, demands courage; to survive requires imagination. . . . But put your money on Jeanette Winterson. Seventeen books ago, she proved she had what she needed. Heroines are defined not by their wounds, but by their triumphs.”New York Times Book Review
"Jeanette Winterson's sentences become lodged in the brain for years, like song lyrics. . . . Beautiful . . . Powerful . . . Shockingly revealing . . . Raw and undigested . . . Never has anyone so outsized and exceptional struggled through such remembered pain to discover how intensely ordinary she was meant to be."Slate
"Bold . . . One of the most entertaining and moving memoirs in recent memory . . . A coming-of-age story, a coming-out story, and a celebration of the act of reading . . . A marvelous gift of consolation and wisdom."The Boston Globe
"Unflinching . . . That Winterson should have survived such a terrible early immersion in darkness at all is a kind of miracle. That she should have emerged, if not unscathed then still a functioning human being and a creative artist, is an even greater accomplishment."San Francisco Chronicle
“With raw honesty and wit, Winterson reveals how she fought her way to adulthood, finding success, loveand ultimately forgiveness.”People (4 stars)
"There’s always been something Byronic about Wintersona stormily passionate soul bitterly indicting the society that excludes her while feeding on the Romantic drama of that exclusion. . . . Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? restores Winterson to her full power. . . . This is a book that will inspire much underlining."Salon
"[Winterson's] novelsmongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentationevince a colossal stamina for self-scrutiny. . . . [A] proud and vivid portrait of working-class life . . . This bullet of a book is charged with risk, dark mirth, hard-won self-knowledge. . . . You're in the hands of a master builder who has remixed the memoir into a work of terror and beauty." Bookforum
"Riveting . . . Beautifully open . . . Why Be Happy is a meditation on loss, stories, and silences."Newsday
"Riveting . . . There's a lot of flinty humor here, a lot of insight into the emotional legacy of adoptionand a generally refreshing admission that understanding life is as hard as living it."Entertainment Weekly (A-)
"Arresting and suspenseful . . . Offers literary surprises and flashes of magnificent generosity and humor."The Washington Post Book World
"[Why Be Happy] very possibly [contains] the most honest writing Winterson has ever done: bone-hard, bone-naked truth that hides nothing about the discovery process of finding her biological mother, and going mad. . . . Her observations read as verses of the King James Bible: bold, beautiful, and true."Los Angeles Review of Books
"Captivating . . . A painful and poignant story of redemption, sexuality, identity, love, loss, and, ultimately, forgiveness."Huffington Post
"Raw . . . A highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir."Publishers Weekly
"Clarion, courageous, and vividly expressive, Winterson conducts a dramatic and revelatory inquiry into the forging of the self and liberating power of literature." Booklist
"[Winterson] is piercingly honest, deeply creative, and stubbornly self-confident. . . . A testimony to the power of love and the need to feel wanted."The Seattle Times
"Winterson pulls back the veil on her life as she really lived it and shows us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more painful and more beautiful as well. . . . Searing and candid . . . Winterson holds nothing back. . . . Written with poetic beauty." Bookpage
"Shattering, brilliant . . . There is a sense at the end of this brave, funny, heartbreaking book that Winterson has somehow reconciled herself to the past. Without her adoptive mother, she wonders what she would beNormal? Uneducated? Heterosexual?and she doesn't much fancy the prospect. . . . She might have been happy and normal, but she wouldn't have been Jeanette Winterson. Her childhood was ghastly, as bad as Dickens's stint in the blacking factory, but it was also the crucible for her incendiary talent."The Sunday Times (UK)
"Unconventional, ambitious . . . The experience of reading Why Be Happy is unusually visceral. Winterson confronts her actions, personality quirks, even sexuality, with a kind of violence, as if forcing herself to be honest. . . . The prose is often breathtaking: witty, biblical, chatty, and vigorous all at once."Financial Times
"An extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography." The Guardian (Best Book of 2011)
"Searing . . . Winterson's truth is just as compelling as any fiction."Entertainment Weekly (The Must List)
"Moving, honest . . . Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson's narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved."Kirkus Reviews
"Compelling, in fact, perhaps even more so when compared to the fictionalized version written by Winterson as a twenty-five-year-old. Then, passion and anger seemed to burn off the page. . . . Now comes [an] emotional excavation as a fifty-two-year-old looking back with a cooler, more forgiving eye. . . . The specifics of [Winterson's] early abuse are vivid, violent, and no less horrifying for their familiarity. . . . If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her."The Independent (UK)
"Stunningly lovely and fearlessly reflective, Why Be Happy is a reminder of what the project of remembering and recording canand shouldbe."Bookreporter
"Exquisite . . . About survival and triumph but also about deep wounds."LAMDA Literary Review
"Winterson's memoir is a brave and searingly honest account of how she reclaimed her childhood through the power of language. . . . Rich in autobiographical detail, it is as wide and bold an experiment in the memoir form as any so far written. Indeed, one of the most daringand riskiestexperiments this book pulls off is a sudden fast-forward from the world of the lonely, adopted child that we think we know from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, to the recent present where, in writing that is astonishingly naked and brave, Winterson reveals the legacy of that difficult childhood. . . . Why Be Happy is proudly, and sometimes painfully honest. It is also, arguably, the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years, and, as such, it really should not be missed." The Times (UK)
"As compulsively readable as Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett's great memoir of friendship. . . . A tribute to the salvation of narrative."Shelf Awareness
"At lastand essential new book by Jeanette Winterson. She is a natural memoirist. . . . Wry, urgent . . . Pressed on by the need for self-discovery, the prose doesn't miss a beat. . . . Winterson is frank about her own oddness, her fierceness. . . . If the first half of the book has been polished by retelling, the second half is raw, immediate. . . . Gone is the Nabokovian memoir in which the exquisite past is presented under glass, skewered by a pin. This is the age of instant communication, of forthright, unmediated responses. Winterson has her finger to the wind."Evening Standard (UK)
“Provides a vivid picture of the grotesque behaviors of the lunatic mother she refers to as ‘Mrs. Winterson.’ This is a detailed portrait of a life that saved itself. The hard work Winterson did to find her place in the world after growing up as an outsider’s outsider is not exaggerated. We are lucky she survived to tell the tale.”Library Journal
"As beautifully crafted as any of Winterson's fiction."Foreword
"Winterson makes the pages sing. . . . A moving, artfully constructed piece of writing that sustains tension until the last sentence."The Globe and Mail (Favorite Book of the Year)
“Idiosyncratic . . . [Winterson] is intense on the page . . . [with] more charisma than a Pentecostal preacher. . . . A sad story, a funny story, a brave story.”The Scotsman
"This is no narrative of victimhood, but one of gratitude. In its lugubrious humor, its striving to find virtue in unlikely places and in its willingness to try to understand the forces that damaged her mother, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? recalls a feminine version of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. . . . Winterson lends all [her] fierce poetry, intelligence, and epigrammatic punch to [the] prose. . . Thrilling as the author may be in the denunciation of her mother, the tale as a whole foregrounds the woman's vulnerability; empathy keeps breaking through."The Australian
"We are shown 'how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness,' and come to respect Winterson's psychological courage and her rage to love." Sunday Telegraph
"This difficult, spirited, engaging book, with its touching openness and maddening lack of candor, is a resonant affirmation of the power of storytelling to make things better."The Daily Mail
"The Past is a Negotiation": Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Jeanette Winterson
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 Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
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).
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, 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 2012 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.
OUTTAKES 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.
March 14, 2012