At book events, the acclaimed British writer Jeanette Winterson likes to tell audiences that “we all meet at the steps of the story.” Perhaps so, but I would have preferred to encounter her as we’d planned, at Los Angeles International Airport. On the third leg of an American tour celebrating her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her publisher had charged me with driving her around town. Having missed her at LAX, I fell into a fifty-five-minute panic, before finally tracking her to her boutique Hollywood hotel. Bounding down the steps to the front desk, Winterson greeted me with open arms and a warm smile. “It’s not your fault!” she cried. And we were off.
“If I were a rock star, this place would be great,” Winterson remarked, as we headed outside, through the hotel lobby, whose twilight lighting and voluptuous furnishings she laughingly likened to a brothel. “But I am not one.” She is, however, a literary star, having catapulted into the public imagination in 1985 with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which won the Whitbread Best First Novel Award. Since then, Winterson has published seventeen more volumes of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature, plus two screenplays, a stage adaptation, and a large body of journalism. Her work, for which she received the Order of the British Empire in 2006, grapples with questions of identity, the mythic imagination, sexual politics, and the nature of love.
Her latest work published in the U.S., Why Be Happy, traces her journey through madness and attempted suicide, her return to health, and the promise of new love. It is also a reworking of a story she first told in Oranges—a coming-of-age drama dominated (and often terrorized) by the towering figure of her adoptive mother, Mrs. Winterson, “a flamboyant depressive” whose fondest hope, besides witnessing firsthand the Battle of Armageddon, was that her daughter would become a Pentecostal missionary.
In a sense, I think Mrs. Winterson got her wish, though not quite in the way she imagined. Jeanette Winterson has indeed grown up to be a missionary of sorts, expertly employing the skills she picked up in the revival tents of her youth. In any arena, she is a fierce and eloquent emissary for books and their power to redeem us from our darker selves, and an advocate for the joys of creativity and the primacy of the life of the mind. Winterson calls for readers to come right down to the front to be saved. “If you take anything away,” she told a rapt audience at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, “don’t live a half life.”
I watched Winterson live fully in L.A. in March 2012. She marshaled astounding energy and focus at every turn, dispatching print and radio interviews with white-hot intelligence and seeming ease, then delivered her breathtaking reading. On her last day, before flying out to the next tour city, she talked with me over breakfast in the deserted courtyard of “the brothel.”
I. YOU HAVE TO REAWAKEN IT
THE BELIEVER: Over a decade ago, I had the privilege of seeing you read in Washington, D.C. You hadn’t traveled very extensively in the States at that time. One of your fans in the packed house asked you what you thought of America, and you said you thought it resembled nothing more than an adolescent’s bedroom.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: [Laughs]
BLVR: A lot of people were quite amused by that, but many were also startled. Now that you’ve had a little more travel time in the United States, do you have a differing view?
JW: I have two views. I have one that there is no United States, because everywhere I go is so different. I’ve learned that there are many different Americas. There’s frightening America, and then there’s benign America. There is the crazy America, which is the religious right and the huge belt of superstition, which seems very odd to somebody coming from Europe. The belief in devils and demons and all that… it’s a vast, vast country with so many contradictions, yet strangely homogenized, because there are bits everywhere you go that look exactly the same as everywhere else.
BLVR: Yes, the character of small-town America has largely been effaced by corporate interests. It’s changed dramatically in the past twenty or thirty years.
JW: Do you think there is recognition of that, and mourning for what’s been lost?
BLVR: Yes. A lot of people call it progress, but others do mourn the loss. Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”
JW: Not many people would agree with that now, I think.
BLVR: No, I think people are fearful.
JW: The difficulty is that if you have a soul, whatever that word means to you, then the journey of the soul is going to mean that you have to take risks, which is sometimes very difficult and will make you extremely insecure, and means that you have to be at odds quite often with what is both common sense and the social norm. I think that anybody involved with the arts understands that, whether they are readers or writers. But it is very difficult to explain to a larger population. They don’t believe in any of that. They may think they believe in the soul, but not in its journey. They think it’s just something that will be retrieved by God at the last moment and everything will be all right. See, I am not even sure that you’re born with a soul. I think that you have to reawaken it in some way or encourage it.
II. UPBRINGING IN A GOSPEL TENT
BLVR: The inaugural events of your tour have been very successful. Do you enjoy the attention and success?
JW: Yes! I think I would be a bit psychotic if I didn’t. It’s nice that what I wanted to do in my life has worked—for myself and other people. I think that is a cause for celebration, and I’m pleased with it. But I don’t have a messiah complex. I don’t think it’s about me. The work is very personal, but it’s about a relationship with other people that happens through the medium of the work. The events are great. I mean, they’re circuses, and I take it seriously, but not entirely seriously, because of my upbringing in a gospel tent. So I have an unfair advantage on most writers. The more people I see in front of me, wanting something from the moment, the more likely I am to give it. It’s so learned.
BLVR: You can tell. You’re a natural. It’s almost theatrical.
JW: ’Tis, yeah.
BLVR: Your readings are quite moving, actually.
JW: And you know, I’m quite good at it, but I also put in a lot of work. I know what I’m going to read and I never turn up to do something without having rehearsed it beforehand—never. And when it’s a new piece, I always work it through quite carefully. It looks spontaneous, but it isn’t.
BLVR: You have a great support network in the independent booksellers in this country.
JW: Yes, and I love that. It really buoys me up. Grove Press and I made a decision together when we planned this tour that we would do it entirely through independent booksellers. That’s where we felt we wanted to put the energy and the support. There is genuine engagement there, and I think that’s what you look for. I mean, what I like about anybody involved in creative work or the creative industries is that there seems to be, in general, a higher level of engagement with life. It’s just running at a higher rev. It’s more focused, it’s more conscious, it’s more aware. You feel like you’re dealing with truly living things, with proper energy, rather than— there’s a sort of passivity, isn’t there?—and a half deadness and a blurredness and a blanketed-ness in a lot of people, because they’re cutting off from life—either because it’s utterly boring, or they’re angry and it’s utterly unbearable.
BLVR: I call people who are that way “the upright dead.”
JW: Yeah, they are. It’s probably why everybody is so keen on zombies at the moment. [Laughs]
III. “SO THIS IS WHAT I NEEDED TO DO!”
BLVR: At this point in your career—
JW: You think I have a career? That’s very grown-up, isn’t it—how have I managed that? [Laughs]
BLVR: Do you tend to work very quickly?
JW: I do—once I get working. I tend to try and work in the heat of it, you know? I do think of it as heating myself to story temperature, and once I get to that temperature, I can chuck anything in there—tires, old cans, mattresses—and it will all get consumed. I don’t care how chaotic the material is to start with, I just have a sense of needing to be in that place. Later I will come back and do the revisions. With Why Be Happy, I wrote the first fifteen thousand words in two weeks, and it didn’t need much work. But those things are unusual, and also they tend to come either at the very beginning of your career or a lot later. I don’t know why that should be, but it follows the fairy-tale pattern, doesn’t it? Where the fool finds something by accident to start with, then maybe twenty years later, by another act of grace, finds it again, having toiled in the forest ever since. I think Why Be Happy was, in some ways, a kind of miracle book, because it wasn’t hard. But that’s because I have been working for twenty-seven years. So sometimes you get something for free. There is such a thing as a free book. [Laughs]
BLVR: You write that your adoptive mother, Mrs. Winterson, gave you a gift—a “dark gift.” In your memoir, you recount how she discovered your horde of contraband books that were under your mattress as a child. She seized them, threw them out the window, and burned them in the yard. Initially, you were in the throes of grief for all these lost books, but there was a moment when you said, “Fuck it, I can write my own.” Do you feel that the greatest gift she gave you was your writing?
JW: It’s a good question. What do I think is the greatest gift that she gave me? [Pause] I had to fight her. But that wasn’t the gift part. I think what she gave to me, directly, in all her madnesses and her psychotic episodes and her fearfulnesses and her crazy doctrines, was a sense that I had to create a life of my own that was authentic. Her life seemed to be very inauthentic, although I didn’t know that word then. All I could sense was that this was a woman who was very unhappy because she was not in the right place. So for me, finding the right place, or getting on the journey to find the right place, happened through language. By writing my own books, I could start to write myself as my own narrative and no longer be locked in hers. I knew that almost at once. Soon as I started, I thought, So this is what I needed to do!
IV. “WE HAVE NEVER BEEN AFRAID TO LIVE DIFFERENTLY”
BLVR: In the mid-1990s you caused quite a stir by telling a journalist that your favorite living writer was yourself.
BLVR: People are still talking about that. Critics got out their sharp knives and pounced, accusing you of arch arrogance. But I would like to discuss your words in the context of gender and class politics.
JW: Well, it’s not actually what I said, you see. It’s become one of those apocryphal stories.
BLVR: Oh, really?
JW: Yeah. You know when you are asked by journalists to choose the best books of the year? I was so cross because in England, Written on the Body had really been pulled to pieces. And it’s interesting because it was the book that opened the American market for me, resoundingly.
BLVR: There are so many beautiful passages.
JW: And it was completely smashed to pieces in England because there was a sort of cabal set up by my ex-agent, with whom I’d had a long affair. It was a complete and utter stitch-up, and it nearly finished me off. I was so pissed off that when Christmastime came and they called around and said, “What’s your favorite book of the year?” I said, “ Written on the Body, get lost.”
BLVR: And that’s how it started.
JW: And I meant it. That was a real fuck-you moment. I was so angry and I thought, I’m not playing the game. Because I didn’t want to play the literary game. I wanted to write books, which is different.
BLVR: It’s a distraction.
JW: Yeah. But you know, I’m the sort of person who is always going to attract gossip and controversy and mythmaking. Some writers are like that. It is something that has never gone away. I’m always astonished when I read things that are dragged up from twenty-year-old cuttings. Nobody checks them, and of course, once something apocryphal is in the cuttings file, it’s assumed to be truth.
BLVR: Like when I asked you yesterday—I had read you liked gin. And really it’s that you like gym—you like to work out.
JW: I’ve said from the beginning that I want to be a good writer, and I think it matters, and I’m serious about my work. In England, they really like false modesty. But if you think you are crap, what on earth are you doing publishing book after book? [Laughs] Oh, dear. But, you know, it’s changed. Actually, now people are rather fond of me in the press because I haven’t gone away.
BLVR: That’s a point I actually want to discuss with you. The U.K. Times said that Why Be Happy is “arguably the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in years.” Did you expect the book to be received warmly?
JW: No. And indeed, I’ve long since stopped wondering what will happen, because you can’t guess. I’m necessarily braced for trouble, because I’ve had so much trouble in the past. And it does annoy me that the gay thing is brought in so much. Nobody talks about heterosexual writers. Why do they talk about gay writers? It’s only ever put in there to diminish; it’s never put in there for any other reason. I saw that in the daily review in the New York Times. You think, Are you reviewing my book, or are you talking about my girlfriends? I was offended by it. I thought the New York Times was better than that. It still happens—although I think also less so for gay men. I mean, I wouldn’t expect to see it in a Michael Cunningham review, so what’s it doing in a review about me?
BLVR: It’s quite refreshing that you’ve publicly rejected the notion of a gay gene.
JW: All this determinism is so boring. It’s just a new fashion in science. They’ll get tired of it soon. And all this bloody gay-marriage stuff—“Let’s be like everybody else.” Well, we’re not quite like everybody else.
BLVR: What do you mean?
JW: Gay marriage has been hijacked by the right as an attack on a sacred institution and family values. What family values? All of our institutions, whether of family or marriage, church or state, are propositional. They’re not handed down on tablets of stone. They alter and evolve, just as we do. We’re always amending the law; marriage is a legal concept that now needs amending. It is also a sacred matter, one of truth and trust and commitment. Heterosexuals are sometimes good at that. Often not. The institution does not make the marriage work, only the people inside it can do that. But everybody likes to be cheered on, and gay people are part of society and should be fully included everywhere. However, I would also like to see us contributing our difference, not just lobbying for sameness. Gay people have had to be creative and tolerant about our family arrangements, our living arrangements, and our sexual arrangements. Clearly traditional marriage is in crisis. We can help! We have never been afraid to live differently. So let’s not take on the failures and fuckups of an institution that really needs an overhaul.
V. “WE WON’T BE LOOKING FOR THE STORY ANYMORE”
BLVR: Poetry is clearly important to you. You reference it a lot; you call it “the fierce art.” Yet you haven’t published any poetry—is there a reason for that?
JW: I don’t write it. I never feel any urge to make the shape in a particular poetic way. I only feel the urge to syringe that language into the stretch of fiction. Poetry is very good at catching a particular moment, an emotional state, or unlocking a thought, but I also need to be able to tell a story. So I try to put those moments of unlocking within the prose itself. I’m very particular about my language, and my work doesn’t cope well with being read too quickly. It gets lost. I think very often that the people who get irritated with me are reading too fast. I’m not giving them the speed hit that they need. It’s not “and then, and then,” one event right on the heels of another. It’s broken up with different kinds of meditation.
BLVR: It’s not a straight narrative, it’s true, but it is something you can go back to again and again.
JW: I hope so. I never care about being read sequentially. The books that are interesting, we read them through because we want to know the trajectory of the thought, but then we go back and we read differently. We just open them and we think, Oh, I love that passage, or we mark something down. And that’s how it should work. From the second reading onward, a good text can work in the same way that a good poem can, in that it becomes distilled and talismanic, rather than being there just for its narrative stretch—which we love in the first reading. Because we do want to know what happens next; it’s a natural function of our brains. How does it end? Of course, once that sweet but rather childlike response has been satisfied, we’re finished with it—we won’t go there again. Of course, if it’s got deeper things to say, we will go there again and we won’t be looking for the story anymore. It’s like having sex with somebody before you can get to know them. That’s how it is with reading a book— you have to do that, and once it’s out of the way, then you can get to know it.
BLVR: It’s never really been one of your problems, reading too few books.
JW: Never. It was a habit formed early, which is why it’s good to try to get kids excited by books, which they are, naturally. Nothing a child likes better than sitting on your knee or cuddling up next to you while you read them a story. I can’t imagine a world where there are no books. I find the object very seductive, so I don’t want to lose that. But I would be prepared to cope with returning to a more oral tradition. I think we are, anyway. We have to face the fact that a lot of people aren’t reading anymore. We have to live in reality as well as to try and change it. We have to find a way to get those stories into people’s heads, which is why I think public interventions are so good, like coming to readings. You can get people who don’t read to come to an event because it’s storytelling. In England, storytelling has started to take off rather well. So maybe we have to encourage people who don’t think of themselves as bookish to come to live events just to hear language. That will activate something so ancient in them—they’ll be sitting around the campfire as we did hundreds of thousands of years ago. We all need, in the book industry, to think sideways and be more enthusiastic about how we can share what we love without hitting people over the head with a book, saying, “If you don’t read this there’s something wrong with you.” The more you give way to despair and pessimism, certainly about the form or medium you work in, the more it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy and it does go all wrong. You have to act as though you change it, you can use it, you can win it, even if later you look back and it was always doomed.
BLVR: You spoke a little bit earlier about the cultural dark ages that we’ve entered.
JW: It’s probably cyclical. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the—well, unless we blow ourselves up, it won’t be the last. But assuming we stick around, I think we’ll be able to come through this. And I think this is an important moment for humanity—in terms of how we’ll evolve, whether we can manage everything: you know, our resources, our violence, how to become the kind of human beings we might like to be. It’s perhaps the most serious challenge we’ve ever had—but part of it will be how we use our minds, how we use our intelligence, and how we react creatively to the situations we are in. I look at the kids and I feel hope. I don’t feel despair. They want a world. They want to inherit it, they want to make it.
BLVR: You said last night, “Well, if we fuck it up, we have only ourselves to blame.”
JW: I feel that strongly. That’s why everybody who has a chance to make even the smallest difference—whether you influence one person or many people, whether you just change something in your neighborhood or you change something at a bigger level—it’s worth doing. I’m a big believer in the incremental result: that if we all did a bit, everything would change. That’s the worry about passivity and apathy: that everybody thinks it doesn’t matter. Dropping your piece of litter, you think, So what? But when there’s two million pieces of litter, we’re all living in a shithole. Every little thing we do, I really believe, changes in a minute way, for good or ill, the situation we are in. And writing books isn’t separate, by the way. I do think the writer or the artist has to live in the world, fully participate in it. This isn’t ivory-tower stuff. It’s about being in the world that we’ve got, and contributing to it and trying to change it.
VI. THE MOST ARTIFICIAL THING OF ALL
BLVR: You mention in your memoir that on your quest to read through the alphabet of English prose authors, you noticed that the majority of these writers were men. That brings me to the notion of the Muse, which has been defined and imagined throughout history largely by men. What, for you, is the essence of the Muse?
JW: Mmm. I’m not led by a muse in a straightforward way, although I’m always inspired by love. It may be that it’s the symbolic love, like Dante looking for his Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. It’s not a person, but a symbol—I think that’s the best word for it. And it happens in all my books; there’s always that longing, that quest. They’re all quest stories. I guess that is the Muse for me. But I wonder if the Muse is still happening. I think the banishing of the feminine and the female is pretty serious in our culture. We see her popping up in her shadow guises, both religiously and creatively, but we also see her denied altogether. That’s scary. It’s still a male hegemony out there. It’s changed, but it’s by no means transformed. I think that still men are taken much more seriously, or rather they begin from a position of seriousness, whereas women have to get to a position of seriousness.
BLVR: And prove themselves over and over.
JW: It’s very strange. It just happens, as though it were natural, like gravity, which of course it’s not. It’s propositional. Whenever people start talking about things being traditional or natural, you know it’s the most artificial thing of all.
BLVR: The word genius is bandied about in the arts. Do you think any of your fellow writers deserve that mantle?
JW: I think it’s actually a very simple word. It’s about place. The genius is where you’re located. I mean, it’s good sometimes to go back to the etymology of a word. All it’s really saying is that a writer is fully located in the place, and that place ought to be the self. It’s the strength of the voice, that unmistakable feel of who you’re with. You should be able to pick up a book and tell in a few pages who it is because the voice is so strong. Those writers tend to be the ones who are outstanding and will last, because they don’t sound like anybody else. If you pick up Faulkner, you know it’s Faulkner; you know it’s Hemingway. You can hear them and it’s wonderful. You know it’s Virginia Woolf; you know it’s Emily Dickinson—even without the dashes.
BLVR: You definitely know it’s Gertrude Stein.
JW: Yeah, you don’t know what she’s talking about, but you know who it is! [Laughs] I think that’s what’s attractive, because it is like picking up the phone and hearing a voice that you know and are delighted to hear. That’s what we look for in a really strong writer—we look for both that known-ness and familiarity, and then we’re delighted because we know they’re going to say something we haven’t heard before. So it’s the two things together, the newness of what’s being said, the surprise of what’s being said, and the pleasurable familiarity of this is a voice we know. Those things together seem to work very powerfully on us as human beings. That’s probably the most seductive combination: something new and surprising being said by somebody you know and love. That’s what I look for, and those are the writers who are outstanding to me. And you can use the word genius because the place they are located in is themselves.