Interviews

Jeanette Winterson, The Art of Fiction No. 150

Interviewed by Audrey Bilger

“I cannot recall a time when I did not know I was special,” writes Jeanette Winterson at the beginning of her fictionalized autobiography Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And, indeed, the facts of her life have supported that view. Born in Manchester in 1959, Winterson was adopted by Pentecostal evangelist Constance Brownrigg and her husband, John William Winterson, a factory worker. From her earliest years she was groomed by her mother and church to be a missionary, and her first forays into the world of letters were the sermons she began preaching at the age of eight. Her awareness of herself as different from others was heightened when she attended Accrington Girls’ Grammar School, a place that her mother dubbed the “breeding ground” because it put young Jeanette in contact with the ordinary girls of the industrial Midlands, who were more interested in embroidering platitudes on samplers than in saving souls at tent meetings.

At fifteen, Winterson had a love affair with a woman that was discovered and condemned by her church, leading to her expulsion from the community and to her leaving home to support herself. Working variously as an ice-cream van driver, a funeral parlor make-up artist and a domestic worker in a mental institution, she studied at Accrington College of Further Education and then went on to obtain her B.A. in English from St. Catherine’s College at Oxford in 1981.

Between 1981 and 1987, Winterson worked at the Roundhouse Theatre in London and then in publishing. During that time she wrote her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), a semi-autobiographical account of coming of age as a lesbian and a writer, interwoven with elements of the mythical and the fantastic. Oranges earned her the Whitbread Award for a first novel, and in 1990, when Winterson adapted it for television, the series won a number of international awards, including BAFTA Best Drama and the Prix Italia. In 1985, she also published Boating for Beginners, a light revisionist romp through the Book of Genesis that she now categorizes as a “comic book.”

In 1987, with the publication of The Passion, Winterson began to support herself as a full-time writer. The Passion, an intricate tale, loosely set in the Napoleonic era, garnered the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize. The reiterated phrase of Henri, one of the two narrators, crystallizes Winterson’s vision of the indissolubility of fact and fiction: “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”

Sexing the Cherry (1989), with its time-transcending characters and fairy-tale magic, won the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Written on the Body (1992) challenged readers’ traditional assumptions about gender and identity by refusing to categorize the narrator as male or female.

Winterson’s experimentalism as a novelist has continued in Art and Lies (1994) and, most recently, in Gut Symmetries (1997). In 1995, she published Art Objects, a collection of essays—part art criticism, part manifesto—in which she applauds risk-taking as a measure of greatness: “The riskiness of Art, the reason why it affects us, is not the riskiness of its subject matter, it is the risk of creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking.” According to Winterson, “The rebellion of art is a daily rebellion against the state of living death routinely called real life.”

This interview took place on a brisk autumn London day in an editor’s office at Granta. Over the course of several hours, Winterson responded to questions with unflagging intensity and polish. Her speaking presence conveys the kind of quiet magnetism that would no doubt have led to spectacular conversions had she pursued a missionary path.

 

INTERVIEWER

Why did you leave London?  

JEANETTE WINTERSON

I didn’t want to live there anymore. It became untenable for me in all sorts of ways. After having two very bad experiences with the press, both with Written on the Body and Art and Lies, I just didn’t want to be in the fishbowl. I thought, I want to get away from here because it’s not going to do me or my work any good to stay. So I went and hid myself in the woods.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a very powerful relationship with this city. I have just bought myself a mad, derelict, fallen-down Georgian house in one of the older parts of London, because I need to return here, and, like Dickens, I love to walk the streets in the night and see what is happening, see what’s going on. So in me there is that tension between needing the space and peace and also wanting to be where humanity is concentrated at its worst and its best.  

INTERVIEWER

What happened with the press to make you feel so exposed in London? Did it have to do with reviewers?  

WINTERSON

I don’t read reviews. I stopped reading them after Sexing the Cherry because I thought there was really no point. I don’t have to sit down and listen to these ravings or even these praises, because there are very few people actually reviewing now whose authority I respect or who I think have got anything to say. I take the Ezra Pound view that you shouldn’t take any notice at all of anybody who has not written a significant work themselves. Then, what they have got to say is worthwhile whether you like it or not. If they haven’t, it isn’t. So that’s my view. And I stick with it. But at the time I got fed up with being continually thrashed to bits and having my personal life exposed in ways that were vicious and designed to destroy. I thought, I don’t have to stand here any longer; I can go. Which I did. That made me feel a lot better.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you see yourself as a recluse now?  

WINTERSON

Well, I always was, which is a bit bizarre living in London, because I never go anywhere except silently, secretly, by myself. I like to go up and down anonymously. I don’t like to be known or recognized, and so living in London was a little bit absurd. I wanted it for the culture. My house was very conspicuous, and there was at one time a lot of envy: who is she and why should she have it? And there was a notorious made-up interview where someone pretended they had been in my house, and in fact they had just been looking through the window. I can’t live with that! So I decided that I didn’t want to be looked at any longer.

Now I have my little house hidden away in the woods, and a little house here, which I am rebuilding, and I shall come and go secretly between the two, and that will suit me very well.  

INTERVIEWER

It’s not surprising that you want to retain some contact with London since cities play such an important role in your works.  

WINTERSON

I am interested in the tension between the built environment and the natural environment and how the two can coexist, given that they have to coexist, and how at the moment our dreams of bliss are a kind of invented Arcadia. Everyone wants to escape to the hills and leave behind the swarming cities, which are disease and crime. Clearly, this is just as crazy as everyone wanting to leave the hills and rush to the cities to get jobs. It’s as though people are always uneasy in the place where they are and think that the extreme alternative will provide the solutions. But we know that there aren’t any. I like to focus on the nightmare city so people don’t become too used to it, too happy to live with it.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you take part at all in a community of writers?  

WINTERSON

I am more on my own. Obviously I know writers. Kathy Acker is a very close friend. But I’m not club-able, you see. I don’t like literary parties and literary gatherings and literary identities. I’d hate to join anything, however loosely. Remember, I come at it from the outside in every sense because, whatever people say, working-class women don’t get on in this job. If they do, where are they? People come at me with a very middle-class consciousness. They look at me and they think, Well, she went to Oxford, she has obviously done all right. So they put me in their own pigeon holes. But they can’t understand what it means to come from a house with no books and no bathroom and your father a factory worker, not being in school much because you’re traveling around in a gospel tent. No encouragement and no education, because it’s not important, especially not for girls, and having to choose to leave home in order to carry on. And not getting any money to go to university with, and having to work all the way through. I mean, people do that now, but they didn’t when I was there. So, there was nothing anticipated about me or for me. What I did was unusual. That’s why, I think, from the start I felt on the outside, and to a large extent, I have remained so. I wouldn’t change that because I think my temperament and my character are pretty solitary; I view with suspicion any insider activities. I suppose I am a bit of an anarchist at heart.  

INTERVIEWER

In spite of your emphasis on your own working-class roots, your books are not particularly marked by class.  

WINTERSON

No, they’re not. I’m not interested in it. I know it exists, and I know what I am, and I know that to some extent that never changes. I think if you’re British, you view the class system perhaps rather differently than if you are not. Because you have always known it. It’s not that it isn’t a problem, it’s not that it isn’t something that I want to deal with, but it is not something that is useful to me in my fiction. It’s why I use an archetype. My characters all have something of the hero archetype about them, in that they are largely stripped of context. But they offer a kind of operatic salvation, for themselves and for the reader in that through their lives one’s own struggles can be experienced without being overly definitive, without pinning them down too much, which I wouldn’t want to do. And obviously I have been able to escape that by setting something in an imagined past or in an imagined present, tinkering with place and time so that the reader can’t quite say, Oh yes, I know where this is, I can identify here. I want them rather to identify with a being, with a state of consciousness, with a particular kind of imaginative value rather than some sort of TV character.  

INTERVIEWER

From the outset of your career, you’ve had trouble with readers trying to pin things down on a more concrete level. After the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit you were caught in a backlash of people trying to delve into your personal life, to assess the extent of its autobiographical content in spite of comments within the work itself about the impossibility of separating fiction from fact.  

WINTERSON

Oh, I’ll never escape from that, will I? I think I spent the best part of ten years saying, This is not autobiography in the way that you understand it. It is simply a way of using raw material . . . because one always uses raw material from one’s own life. There is as much of me in Sexing the Cherry as there is in Oranges. It is simply the way that I disguise and translate the direct experience and, I hope, make it rather more permanent than it would be otherwise. Writers always put themselves into their work, constantly. But you can’t just untangle it and take it back to its source. It’s not simple. In Art and Lies, I say something about how you can’t reconstruct the bunch of grapes from the bottle of wine. They are not the same in the last analysis nor would one want them to be. So I do try to keep these strict definitions . . . because I know that the whole push at the moment of saying that this is about a writer’s life is a way of minimizing the work and trying to make it controllable, handleable. It is to say, Well, this isn’t really art, whatever art is—not that they have any idea—but it is about experience. I get rather tired of that. What matters is what writers do with the experience, whatever the experience is. Now whether it took place in my imagination or in my psyche or whether it took place in my physical body, do we really have to split hairs like that?  

INTERVIEWER

Since there are autobiographical elements in Oranges that involve other people, there were, no doubt, readers who did care about whether or not you were making things up. What did your mother think of the book?  

WINTERSON

She did read it. That was the last letter I got from her. She wrote rather bitterly that it was the only time she had ever had to order a book in a false name—that was clearly the big problem. Of course, she was deeply angry. Interestingly, she was angry for the right reasons. She kept saying, But this isn’t true, it didn’t happen like that. I’d say, No, that’s right, you should become a reviewer for the national press. Autobiography reverses the positions because normally it’s parents who tell children the stories, not children who tell the story to their parents.  

INTERVIEWER

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit does celebrate the triumph of the protagonist over the narrow-mindedness of her community. Her ability to imagine a way out is a decisive factor in her success. To what extent has the imagination helped you to overcome obstacles in your life?  

WINTERSON

It has been a bridge for me away from a particular background, but I suppose the preliminary to that was education, because I put all my faith in that. I thought, If I can get out of here, get myself to Oxford, get myself educated, things will be better. Which is very much a Jude the Obscure dream. And it’s equivocal, of course. You do it and then you realize that it wasn’t at all what you thought.

It was actually books that started to make those pockets of freedom, which I hadn’t otherwise experienced. I do see them as talismans, as sacred objects. I see them as something that will protect me, I suppose, that will save me from things that I feel are threatening. I still think that; it doesn’t change. It doesn’t change, having money, being successful. So from the very first, if I was hurt in some way, then I would take a book—which was very difficult for me to buy when I was little—and I would go up into the hills, and that is how I would assuage my hurt. That is still the case, for me. Whatever has happened to me, if it is difficult for me to deal with, or if I cannot deal with it at all, then I’ll take a book, probably something like Four Quartets, and go out on my own—I would much rather do that than talk to anyone—and read it, and it becomes a salve, an ointment in a very real way. To me, the words are things, living things. For me they work far more potently than any other method and, I dare say, that will go on until I die.  

INTERVIEWER

When did you start to write?  

WINTERSON

I always wrote sermons, but I’m not sure that really counts. I didn’t write any fiction or anything that you would call creative writing (to use a term I loathe beyond measure) until I sat down to write Oranges. That was a journey for me, an investigation. One whose results were unpredictable. I didn’t know that I was writing a book that would be published, I just knew that I was following a particular line of energy, which had to be followed, and at the end of it, there really was a book, which was something of a surprise to me.  

INTERVIEWER

Did writing sermons as a child and having direct contact with an immediate audience affect your later fiction-writing?  

WINTERSON

Writing sermons is very good discipline because you have a limited amount of time and a chosen subject, and you have to convince your audience. And if you fail, you fail—I mean, you can see you’ve failed by looking out at them. So it teaches you a particular economy of style. It not only teaches you tricks of the trade, of ordinary rhetoric and how to use language for a very specific purpose to make sure that you are saying exactly what you want to say, but also to use images and symbols. One of the good things, I think, about the Christian faith is that it draws on such a wealth of images and symbols, which even the least church-minded of us still recognizes. We are two thousand years of Western Christianity. That’s in our body and our blood, which is partly why the symbolism of the East, although it expresses the same truths just as well, doesn’t work for us quite as it ought to. You have to have your own symbols and myths to express your collective past. That’s why I am a bit dubious about ransacking the East, as we’re so fond of doing at the moment, because there is something rather desperate and also rather faddish in it, as though we feel that we’ve made redundant all our own pictures and metaphors, which is simply not true. They still have that depth charge; I think it is a question of writers using them.  

INTERVIEWER

You have said that you see yourself as an evangelist for the word.  

WINTERSON

Yes, I suppose once an evangelist, always an evangelist. We have to be careful of the word evangelical. I think it can have positive value, but for most people it means something that is intrusive and low-minded and bigoted. Not that I have a particular doctrine, something narrow and confined that I want to get across, but what one has to be careful of, of course, is not becoming too dogmatic or too soapboxy in the approach. I do have a very vigorous attitude to life and I want to change things. That is my character. I don’t know whether I was drawn into those kinds of church processes because I have this kind of character or whether those processes formed my character. Who knows? But I like energy. I like to see people who are committed to something and are prepared to go out and say, Look, this really matters to me and maybe it would matter to you; maybe it would make a difference. For me it’s art, particularly words, particularly language. I suppose if I pursue it with the same kind of enthusiasm with which I once stood up and spoke for God, people will have to forgive me . . .  

INTERVIEWER

At the end of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the narrator tells us that she could have been a priest, but she is going to be a prophet instead. This change in vocation seems to be connected to her evolution into a writer. Do you see the connection between your own upbringing and your writing as being one of translating the evangelical spirit into art?  

WINTERSON

What I really want to do is to persuade people to experience for themselves what I believe to be present in art, which is this extraordinary releasing power. I suppose where the great divide comes between true evangelicals and what I do is that I want to hand the process entirely over to the individual and say, There’s no book; there are no rules. You must find it for yourself. But I hope it will be invigorating, and I hope it will be empowering.  

INTERVIEWER

One continuing legacy from your training as a missionary is a close relation to the Bible. Do you see the Bible as a foundational text?  

WINTERSON

It is for us in the West, yes. I sometimes wonder about the younger generation, but I still feel that everyone knows a few Bible stories and knows about the central Christian myth of miraculous birth, the life, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. I think you could ask anyone and they would have some idea what you were saying. And therefore from that you can construct a kind of central archetype around which our ideas are formed. The stories all say the same thing. Every country has a hero narrative, which always begins with the strange and miraculous birth of a child who is threatened, and then the person grows to adulthood and does extraordinary deeds, and then is usually killed by their enemies, but nevertheless has an effect on consciousness that is profound. Those stories are everywhere. Just as when you look at the human body and there are certain overriding physical characteristics that we all share, whether here or in deepest Africa, so in the unconscious, in the subconscious, there are elements of myth which remain the same across peoples.  

INTERVIEWER

In Oranges you engaged in revising the Bible or revising aspects of the Bible, but in Gut Symmetries you appear to accept the Bible as part of a larger tradition. Has your view of the Bible changed?  

WINTERSON

I don’t think my journey is an untypical one in that if you have been immersed in something, there will come a point when you have to rebel against it. It was necessary for me to leave behind my entire early background—physically, emotionally and intellectually . . . to have nothing to do with it. Oranges was a way of cleansing myself from all that, of saying, No, this is what I am. Not this other thing, this made thing. Now I am going to make myself, I’ll be self-invented. Over the years—since I wrote Oranges eleven years ago—I have continued to think long and deeply about those issues that I suppose I have thought about since I was a very small child. Now I feel comfortable again to use the Bible as one source book amongst many others, but as a very important one. It is something that I know so very well that it would be ridiculous for me to try to do without it. And there’s no point. I don’t accept the God myth of the church. I think it’s hogwash. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t accept the essential mystery of the scriptures and of the religious faith.  

INTERVIEWER

But you don’t feel the need to fight against it at this point?  

WINTERSON

Absolutely not. It’s of much more use to me as an ally. But that’s only because of this relationship whereby it was everything, then it had to be nothing, and now I have come back to a point where it is as though a friend walks beside you, neither in front nor behind.  

INTERVIEWER

Does the Bible have, then, the status of other texts that inhabit your work and your life?  

WINTERSON

Yes, very much so. I like to know a lot of stories and myths. That is extremely important to me. It helps me think about things, it helps me piece things together. It makes a bridge. I think it’s one of the ways human beings have always understood their environment and the challenges that environment has posed.  

INTERVIEWER

In your earlier works you play around with myths and fairy tales, revising them and making new ones. Is this a way of offering up new plots for people to think about?  

WINTERSON

Yes. A lot of people knew these stories somewhere, or a version of them. It’s a question of coaxing these stories back into conscious memory from where they have been lost. I think I have spoken before about the writer, the artist being a kind of dredging net going down into the rich silt of the mind, of the spirit, to bring up things that are normally out of reach or not accessible to consciousness. It’s the duty of the writer—and indeed of all artists—to think long and deeply and to be able to drill down into those substrata so that these contents are released. Also, I think that as you drill down there is a release in all of the senses because great pressures build up in people and they don’t know why. Quite often something very simple, a way of elucidating it, a way of telling the story, can release that and relieve it and make them feel, Yes, that’s what is happening to me, or, This is how I feel. Then immediately one is taken off that horrible little rock of chaos where one is entirely alone and brought back into the community.  

INTERVIEWER

In your writing, you forge ties with the people who are your friends in the realm of letters—Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, William Blake, and others—by alluding to them, quoting them, playing around with their words in your text. Do you see that as a tribute or as the inevitable result of your life as a reader?  

WINTERSON

I think it’s both. I have a very good memory. Being brought up without books, it was perhaps more urgently necessary to memorize things than it is for most people. I’d also been brought up to memorize large chunks of the Bible. So I know just stacks and stacks of stuff by heart, which I continually mutter to myself as I go about my business. I shall probably turn into some frightful old woman who mutters all the time. I think I am already. It’s a lifeline to me; it’s a kind of rosary, isn’t it, these chants of mine? They’re full of sacred text, and so naturally they occur in my work. It’s simply that they do, in so much as I think about them while I’m writing, and I think, Yes, that fits. It then suggests an allusion, which the reader can gather or not, according to what they bring to the book. The more I can stuff in it, the more layers there are in my work, the more there is for people to mine.  

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written, “I cannot do my own work without known work.” Do you have any sort of program for yourself, certain texts that you immerse yourself in, in order to write, or is it less structured than that for you?  

WINTERSON

It’s both. Obviously I’m rather a great troller of secondhand bookshops. Fortunately, I live near Oxford, a very good place to search for secondhand books. I like fishing about, seeing what I can find. Which has always seemed to me part of the sinister side of the computer revolution. Because there will be no more fishing. A terrible way of confiscating knowledge, these computer indexes. That really worries me. I like to crawl around secondhand bookshops, and indeed libraries, and just see what’s there. So there’s that part of it that is haphazard. Except, strangely enough, when I am about to write a book, I always find exactly what I want as if by chance. But it isn’t chance, it’s one of those synchronicities. Otherwise, I’ll choose something that I want to read, and I’ll read it a lot. A couple of winters ago I wanted to read all of Shakespeare again. So I thought, Right, that’s what I’ll do from October to March, and it will be something I do every day. At the moment, I’m on the last eight volumes of the collected works of Jung, because I did the other nine last winter.  

INTERVIEWER

Book collecting is something that you have said you did even when you didn’t have the resources for it. Are you able to indulge in this passion more freely now?  

WINTERSON

Yes. I did an interview for CBC on the radio, and the chap interviewing me asked me what was the most I’d ever spent on a first edition. I said that I never spent more than three thousand pounds, and he nearly fainted. He said, Well, that is like six thousand Canadian dollars! That really horrified him: Why would anybody in their right mind . . .? And I said, Look, people spend that on a holiday to Barbados. People spend that on a fancy piece of hi-fi equipment or a new computer. God help us, people spend that on a dress. I could go to Donna Karan in Knightsbridge and I could spend that. Nobody would find that particularly surprising. But they do find it surprising when I say that I’ve spent that on a book. But, to me, it’s not. It’s lovely to be able to do that. It’s a great thrill, and I don’t think I shall ever tire of it . . . to be able to buy things that come up in catalogs which then go into my own little sanctuary.  

INTERVIEWER

In Art and Lies you deal with the book as artifact, as a kind of bearer of history in and of itself. Is that one of your fascinations—books as having passed through various hands and times?  

WINTERSON

Yes. I love that. I love to think about the secret life of the book and where it’s been and who’s had it. The associations there are very compelling. Also, the period I collect, which is modernism, 1900 to 1940, is a nostalgic period because it’s probably the last great period of the book as we shall know it, in so much as books were still being very well produced, often on rag paper with extremely interesting people doing the covers, some making beautiful things. But now that only happens in a way that is extremely self-conscious—specialist private-press editions that are aimed at the collector. They’re not aimed at me, I don’t want to collect anything that is made for collecting. What a world we are! That you have things that you can collect like that!

A great friend of mine, who was one of the most important collectors in Britain, died recently. His collection has now been broken up, as he wished: These books must now go back into the market to become part of someone else’s collection. So, rather than left to the Bodleian—and we are talking about millions of pounds worth of books—it’s the most wonderful thing that they have gone back. There is a kind of rightness to that, isn’t there? It’s rather like Excalibur being dragged back into the lake. I think I’ll do that too, so they will appear again. Which is rather nice, so one only has them for a time.  

INTERVIEWER

How do you see your own books as artifacts? Do you take an active part in designing their appearance?  

WINTERSON

I think the time I like best, in a lazy kind of way, is in between finishing the book and publishing it, because you’ve done all the work that you can, and you know that it’s gone to a good home. I like getting on with the nuts and bolts of the book after that. How are we going to make it look beautiful? How are we going to sell it, and how can we use it as an image tool? Those things interest me. I am not the kind of writer who simply puts the final post off and then says, I don’t want to know anything else about what happens. I used to be in publishing, and that side of life is still one that I like to be involved with and work closely with.

I would hate to see books and publishing become shabby second cousins to the rest of the media. There is a bit of a danger that books and publishers, and perhaps even writers, will take the view that it doesn’t matter what our product looks like because we’ll have readers anyway. It’s a very defensive attitude: No, we mustn’t go out and make new readers; people who buy CDs or videos or go to movies don’t normally read. There’s an attitude that says if you don’t like reading, if you don’t love books, you never will, so we don’t have to care about that. I care about that very much. I think you have to build bridges and help people simply to open the book and start reading it. Because as soon as they do that you are fifty percent there.  

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written elsewhere about the need for people to raise themselves to the level of art, rather than art bringing itself down to the level of people.  

WINTERSON

That’s definitely what I feel. But I feel you can help people, perhaps people who are a bit nervous of books. The word still has power even in the multimedia age, and people who are not used to the word can be a bit scared by it, especially if they haven’t had a particular kind of education; they feel that books are somehow not for them because they didn’t grow up with them. You have to help them to feel that a book is not going to explode in their face, and that’s where packaging and image and really clever publishing can help. There is nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of.  

INTERVIEWER

For whom do you write?  

WINTERSON

I don’t ever think of it. I simply do the work that I need to do without imagining an audience at all. I am always surprised when I do meet readers or when I do public appearances, where I see people from all walks of life, a great cross section, a great variety. One of my personal aims has been to try to bring the word back to people who are dispossessed of it. So when people come along and say, I don’t normally read, but somebody gave me one of your books and now I have read all of them, that, for me, is a great victory. Because, of course, they won’t stop with my books; they’ll read other people’s too.  

INTERVIEWER

So you hope in some way to transform people’s lives through your writing?  

WINTERSON

Very much so, yes. It’s not that I set out with that in mind. I never sit down and think that now I want to write something with a high moral tone or with a particular seriousness or a relevancy to today’s gender issues. I never think like that. It’s rather more a smuggling, a kind of contraband, wanting to get something across frontiers, places where it’s not normally allowed.

I think people are often quite unaware of their inner selves, their other selves, their imaginative selves, the selves that aren’t on show in the world. It’s something you grow out of from childhood onwards, losing possession of yourself, really. I think literature is one of the best ways back into that. You are hypnotized as soon as you get into a book that particularly works for you, whether it’s fiction or a poem. You find that your defenses drop, and as soon as that happens, an imaginative reality can take over because you are no longer censoring your own perceptions, your own awareness of the world. Most of us spend a lot of time censoring everything that we see and hear. Does it fit with our world picture? And if it doesn’t, how can we shut it out, how can we ignore it, how can we challenge it? We are continually threatened in life, it’s true. But once you are alone with a book, and it’s also true with a picture or with music, all those defenses drop and you can enter into a quite different space where you will learn to feel differently about yourself.  

INTERVIEWER

There was a time when you were writing and working to support yourself, and now the writing supports you. How have things been different for you since you’ve been writing full time?  

WINTERSON

It has been a long time; I have been doing it since 1987. When I sold The Passion here, I decided that I would just live on the money. My needs are fairly simple. Of course, one just spends as much money as one has. Very peculiar that! You never actually have any money. You think, If I had this much money ten years ago, I would have thought I was amazingly rich, but I still manage to spend it all and not have any left. At the moment, speaking purely financially, I get a good price in the marketplace. I am published in a lot of countries, so I do well. But I don’t imagine and I can’t expect that will always be the case. A writer’s life is very much a high-wire act, especially with huge changes of market forces now—whether there are going to be any books at all and what it will be like in twenty years. So I think that’s why it’s very important simply to care about the work and to do the best work you can, and not to worry about the market or the audience or any of those considerations.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you have more freedom now than you did before in terms of editors and publishers accepting your experimental style?  

WINTERSON

Well, if my books didn’t sell, I wouldn’t be published. That’s for sure. I have always had a very personal relationship with the people who publish me. Frances Coady, now at Granta, published me at Random House. I have had to move quite a bit, but I think that is because my own career coincided with the strange phenomenon in the eighties when publishing houses kept being bought and sold. So I have had to move around, much more than is usual. That’s been a bit strange. But I think I can pretty much do what I want now. I do it anyway, you know, and I’m not bothered. If they won’t pay me, they won’t pay me. I’m still doing it.  

INTERVIEWER

You have alluded to a dislike for the computer age, and you also mentioned that you have a fondness for your typewriter. Does this mean that you don’t use a word processor?  

WINTERSON

Yes. It does mean that. I don’t. I love my typewriter. It’s electric, of course, but it’s one of those wonderful old-fashioned models that never, never break down. It’ll just go on forever. I have written everything on it since The Passion. It’s a friend of mine. I know all its little ways, and I wouldn’t want anything else.

I like the physicality of the piece of paper. I like cutting up my bits of paper if I want to change it around. I am very messy in that respect. My original manuscript of Gut Symmetries has all the corners cut off because I had to repaginate it. I thought, What is the quickest way of doing it? So I just cut all the corners off and then photocopied it and redid the photocopies, so mine has got these stupid triangles. But I like that. It’s my manuscript. I can do what I want with it. I don’t care what it looks like, as opposed to that kind of self-publishing, where people hand in these amazing word-processed things and you just think, Well, that looks very nice, but . . .  

INTERVIEWER

Do you compose at the typewriter?  

WINTERSON

Yes, straight on the typewriter. I don’t like doing it any other way. I don’t even like doing it with pen and paper. I will if I have to. But I tend not to at all.  

INTERVIEWER

How do your books come to you? Do you think first of a character?  

WINTERSON

Well, every book has been different. Each touching-off point tends to come as a surprise and is unlooked for. I have a pact with myself about my work: I simply go to my study every day and wait. I read, I write things, but when I’m not writing a book, I don’t necessarily expect anything to happen. But I still go there. It seems to create the necessary psychic space and also the necessary tension out of which something will be formed. With Gut Symmetries it took an awfully long time. The book collapsed on me three times. I had to throw away three drafts well into two-thirds, because I hadn’t quite got to the point where I could actually write it. You really have to have faith then—and it is a question of faith—and you do have to believe, because there is no other way. There is nothing objective about this. It is faith and it is belief. There is nothing to say that because you have covered pages in the past that you will cover them in the future. Or that they will be any good. There are no guarantees. But I had some idea of the characters, and I knew what I wanted to deal with in terms of physics and what that might say. It was a question of finding a structure that would be in fact simple enough to hold some very complex material and direct enough to get across things that are very elusive. I needed to set up a contrast, so that the form and the material could be best presented without either getting tangled in the other. That was in fact extraordinarily difficult to do.  

INTERVIEWER

Once you had the structure, did the book come quickly, or was it still an uphill climb?  

WINTERSON

When it’s written, of course, it could never have been written any other way. You just think, What was all the fuss about? Yes, it was difficult. It’s like stoking a fire. To start with you must tend it very carefully; it won’t burn anything you throw on it. By the time it’s a big blaze you can chuck old tires and sofas on it and it will burn. But to start with, that will just put it out. I kept putting out my fire by throwing on too much unwieldy, unsuitable material before it was blazing; then I would have to start the whole thing painfully again with little twigs and bits of paper, and nurse it and make it go until I got to that point where I thought, Right, I’ll just chuck the lot on there and it will be incandescent.  

INTERVIEWER

In your own works, do you see philosophy as driving the plots, or are philosophy and plot so interconnected that it’s hard to separate them?  

WINTERSON

It’s really to do with thinking. Sometimes I look at my work, and I think, Oh God, my characters don’t do anything except think! But that is what I do. I have to think about things constantly, ceaselessly. So that leads to abstract speculation, but always I hope to pull it through some very concrete experiences. I like to think that my work is tangible, something that you can touch, taste, smell, feel. I wouldn’t want to become so lost in philosophizing or abstractions that it didn’t have any relevance anymore, which again is why I try to use stories in particular ways to concretize the image . . . to express it in terms such that people will feel it is alive with color rather than an abstract thought. I myself don’t really need things concretized, but that’s the way I want to pass things on. I love abstract paintings, and I find pictures of things rather distressing. That’s not because I despise them, or that they are less than the sort of stuff I like; it’s simply what feeds you, what works for you in a particular way. I like to look at harmonies of color or sound or language in a way quite separate from their meaning, that is, their superficial meaning.  

INTERVIEWER

This goes along with your dislike of realism?  

WINTERSON

I dislike it simply because the narrative function of the novel has been overtaken and done much better now by television and cinema. For instance, when photography was invented, a great many painters thought that they would be out of a job, and a great many of them were. But not painters like Picasso, who rejoiced in photography and took a lot of pictures himself, who thought that this would lead to a new freedom for painters because they would no longer have to represent what was there. Instead, they could paint much more subjectively and, as he thought, more honestly. They would no longer be bound to the narrative of fact. Now I can’t see why for us as writers it shouldn’t be the same thing. If television and cinema can mop up that need for narrative drive, for life as it is lived, for a picture of the everyday, then great! Let it. Because it is a function and people need it, that should free up words into something far more poetic, something about the inner life, the imaginative life . . .  

INTERVIEWER

You have criticized contemporary writing for being too focused on narrative, and you even say that you don’t write “novels.” Do you believe that the novel as a genre is dead?  

WINTERSON

Yes, I do think so, because novel is a historical word from a historical period. The novel is a nineteenth-century construct, and I don’t see what place it has now on the borders of the twenty-first. I prefer to talk about fiction because, to me, the novel means something very specific, and comes out of a particular nineteenth-century sensibility. I love those books and wouldn’t want to be without them; I wouldn’t want anybody not to read them. I shall have my little goddaughter on Dickens as soon as I ever can. But it’s this business of reproduction furniture. You cannot keep producing the things that have been successful in the past or that have expressed the human condition in the past. You have to move forward; you have to make it new for every couple of generations, because otherwise it is not a living thing anymore. Books shouldn’t be printed television, they should be something in their own right.

INTERVIEWER

You express a kind of self-consciousness about the novel as a genre, which hearkens back to the eighteenth century, a period in which novelists were very self-conscious about the newness of the form.  

WINTERSON

Yes. In fact, the eighteenth century is a century of which I am particularly fond. I have a Georgian house, I like things eighteenth century. I like that sense of liberty and anarchy along with mathematical preciseness and civility and ridiculously artificial manners. I like the self-consciousness of the century, which I feel disappears in the nineteenth century into a kind of debased moralizing, where self-consciousness becomes self-righteousness. You can see it in the art, you can see it in the social constructs. I think of the apotheosis of the novel as a nineteenth-century phenomenon, and something that was not present in that particular form in the eighteenth century or again by the early twentieth. It seems to me to be something that belongs to a particular period, and should be understood in its period. I wouldn’t call Orlando a novel—and neither did Virginia Woolf—and I don’t mean that’s because she called it a biography. I mean it simply isn’t. It in no way resembles a nineteenth-century product; it’s closer, if anything, to an eighteenth-century piece. So it’s really about trying to use words precisely so that we know what we are talking about, rather than saying that I hate novels. I don’t. But I want to know what it is we’re writing now, and I don’t see that they are novels. Or they shouldn’t be.  

INTERVIEWER

If moving beyond the concept of the novel allows you greater scope for creating a more authentic form, how do you proceed to do this? Does the form of a work develop organically or is it something that you impose on the work from outside?  

WINTERSON

I think the two things come together. Just as if you were painting a picture, you would want to use particular colors depending on your subject matter, depending on what emotional intensity you wanted to express. So it is with the written work—the form must somehow be created organically from within, not so much the content, but the mood that you want to create.

I suppose sometimes you’re really lucky and you hit something that works together beautifully, and then other times you have literally to make it up as you go along. You say, What can I try now? Will this work? Will that work? Can anybody help me? And that’s when you go back desperately to your private ancestors to see how they’ve solved a particular problem. There is a whole technical side about what you need to know in order to write well—which is continually overlooked, though never overlooked when people talk about pictures and music. Unless you are absolutely and thoroughly soaked in English language and literature (if you are writing in English), you will never know what you need to know. The funny thing about creative-writing courses is that they busily rush around teaching people how to express their banalities without teaching them how to source the things that they need to discover. If you go and study music or painting, you learn about the past. You learn where to look, you learn what to look at, how to look things up. You need creative-reading courses not creative-writing courses. Then people would have something that they could actually use in a positive way instead of rushing in thinking, How can I express myself?  

INTERVIEWER

In Art and Lies, you write, “It is right to question standards but wrong to assume that there aren’t any.” Where do the standards come from?  

WINTERSON

You have to choose the best of the past—and the standards are very high in the English language—and ask yourself, Where do I figure in this, do I come anywhere near it? If not, you may as well stop. If you really think that you are nowhere compared with the people you admire—and that has to be a very ruthless and honest self-examination and not simply flattery—then really you should stop. It’s only by thoroughly knowing those other writers and daring to challenge them, even, that you would ever write. So there’s always this paradox of respect and challenge, of recognizing that work exists that you should always be striving towards, which you have to look up to, which is fantastic and which probably you will never reach. It is almost a balance—either you have got it or you haven’t. I don’t know how you really teach it to people who want to write, because there is always too much of the one or the other, too much reverence or too much audacity: either “I know I can do it all,” or “I’m so timid, I’m just going to copy.”  

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that some people experiment by simply disregarding standards without fully understanding them?  

WINTERSON

Yes. You can’t know what to challenge unless you know what you are up against. You have to know the rules, and then you can break them. But if you don’t know them, then you are working in a kind of formless chaos, which is not to say that you might not accidentally produce something interesting. It will certainly mean that you can’t repeat the trick, and it will mean that you yourself are utterly unshored from what it is you are trying to do. It makes you a kind of pinball in a great pinball machine. You fire around the game, and maybe you will hit something and maybe you won’t.  

INTERVIEWER

So you agree with what T. S. Eliot says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” about an artist’s relation to the past being one of altering tradition even as he or she absorbs and enters into it?  

WINTERSON

Yes, oh yes. I think Eliot was also right to be very wary about people who want to express their personality. It is important, first of all, to be sure that you do have something to express, but also to show a care for language that suggests that it comes first, before you, before your personality, before your own ambitions. There is always that level of humility. Whenever we talk about writing, we start to talk about paradoxes. We’ve talked about respect and challenge. Now we are talking about chutzpah and humility. The writer is at once the most abject of people and the most arrogant. Because the person who really knows, knows the glories of the past and how significant they are to him or her, is at the same time prepared to say, And now I will add to them.  

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe your own relation to language?  

WINTERSON

I like to use lots of different words, and the accusation has always been leveled against me: why do you use these strange words? The answer is because they’re there. If you have a very refined and subtle instrument such as the English language, which has been in use for many hundreds of years, it will do almost anything you want it to do. But it is also an old language, so you need continually to be refreshing it, revitalizing it, and putting it together in surprising ways, which it will allow you to do if you will take the time. That’s part of my challenge: to make sure that the language I’m using is fresh and revived and isn’t in any sense a clichéd language or one that doesn’t demand any thought from me. I try hard to get not only the right word but a word that’s got buried in it lots of other associations.  

INTERVIEWER

And sometimes you offer up etymologies for words, such as invent or metaphor, in order to recover their lost meanings?  

WINTERSON

Yes. Again, to take those words back through the history of the word and history of the individual using it so that we can see how its meanings have accreted over time, and therefore how it might be able to freeze up. Because there are small words with so much in them, and to loosen one out and put it back into common consciousness, I think, is a good idea. Because then when people see the word somewhere else, maybe it will have more meaning for them.  

INTERVIEWER

Does your attempt to do this rely more upon poetry or prose? Does poetry lift language higher somehow than prose can, away from the realm of everyday speech?  

WINTERSON

I think it depends who is using it. In the past, poetry has had that function of crystallizing and expanding the possibilities of language because of its preciseness. But I don’t think that has to be the case. It is possible, and we have seen it many a time, for prose to work on the same levels that poetry does. Not all the way through, because you can’t sustain that kind of intensity. The pieces have to be slacker. I don’t mean that they should be thoughtless, but while parts of them are intense and fused and hard in every sense, others should allow the readers some space so that their own minds can relax a little bit. You have to be in control to bring in the densities of poetry and understand, too, that you need places—passing places, pausing places—where you and the reader can sit down for awhile.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you see literature as making demands on readers to take some sort of responsibility for their own lives? Does your work challenge readers to see themselves in new ways?  

WINTERSON

Yes, I do think so, at least I hope so. It would be a failure if someone were to come at my books and not be able to take away something like that about their own lives. I want my books to make them think, How could I do it differently? How could I have made more sense of it? But not everything works for every person. Some things that move me very much would leave other people cold. Which is why you need so much variety in art and why you need a lot of it as well. We can never have enough. The idea that there is a limit and you can’t have any more or you don’t need any more, which people cite from time to time: We’ve got enough now, surely. That will be all right. Some people hate, say, Kathy Acker’s work, really hate it. And yet, a lot of kids really love her stuff; it means something to them, it means something particular. It helps them to understand who they are in a very formless society. Which is great.

I get very tired of people endlessly slagging off work by writers when they don’t know what’s happening out there. If anything, the writers have a better idea than any critics or single readers because they at least get more feedback from a wide variety of people; they know whether or not things are getting across. There is something absurd about books being praised or dismissed by one person reading it in their front room and then writing up what they think in a newspaper. In a way, nothing could be more ridiculous, because while a book has to be a one-to-one relationship, it’s also going to be a relationship with thousands of people, each of whom will have a different experience. One reason why I don’t worry too much about reviews is because in the end the book has to survive on its own terms and on its own merits. There is a lot of patronizing reviewer criticism that suggests people want to read things that are easy or about themselves in a very obvious way. That has not been my understanding or experience at all. It always makes me laugh when I do a public reading. For instance, I usually do one at the National Theatre when I publish, and it’s always sold out. There are always about fourteen hundred people there; they all turn up and pay their three quid. Now, what do they do it for, if they are not getting anything out of it? No reviewer—because they are so high and mighty—would ever go to an event like that. So, they don’t see the people who come in off the street and want to know about books. It’s the same with pictures, it’s the same with music. I think reviewing is very isolated from the string of people who are actually going out and paying to experience this and wanting it in their lives.  

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned in Art Objects that students are demanding your works in their classes. Why do you think your themes appeal to young readers?  

WINTERSON

I think it is really to do with the kinds of characters that I use to get at particular situations. I have talked about the hero motif. That is something that is true for every young person: they have to be the hero in their own lives. They have to kill a certain number of monsters, usually escape from a wicked overbearing parent, leave home and go into the big wide world to seek their fortune. So, the hero motif is very powerful. It’s in their own lives, and it’s something that they can readily identify with when they see it reflected back to them in a way that tries to get across both the dangers, the perils, as well as the great pleasures of that sort of individuation.

But growing up isn’t necessarily to do with young people; it is to do with anybody who simply hasn’t done it. There are a lot of much older people who refuse to be the hero in their own lives, who put it off—a lot of women, for whom that was not seen to be appropriate, which is very sad. You always see young girls, full of life, launching themselves on the world, and then so quickly getting smacked down in the way that young men are not smacked down. Obviously, women are beginning to find that they really won’t put up with that. They want to see what it is they can achieve for themselves. So, I think that’s a large part of the appeal of my work. Because all my characters are on a quest. They’re all looking for something that they don’t have, and then, of course, they find that it is within themselves. But not until the end of the book.  

INTERVIEWER

All of your works involve a love plot. And yet, things don’t usually work out for your characters; you seldom allow them to have a kind of a perfect bliss in love.  

WINTERSON

Well, I don’t do happy endings, do I? They always end ambiguously by the water. I do not think that the endings are depressing, but I don’t think that they are contrived in human terms either. Things are continually beginning again; they’re never really resolved, you know. They are only resolved temporarily. We live in a society that peddles solutions, whether it’s solutions to those extra pounds you’re carrying, or to your thinning hair, or to your loss of appetite, loss of love. We are always looking for solutions, but actually what we are engaged in is a process throughout life during which you never get it right. You have to keep being open, you have to keep moving forward. You have to keep finding out who you are and how you are changing, and only that makes life tolerable.  

INTERVIEWER

You are often concerned with journeys in your books, the space traveled—physically and metaphysically—between two points. You repeatedly circle around the idea that travel can take place on different levels. Do you see travel as a metaphor for narrative? What do journeys represent to you?  

WINTERSON

Well, I am a bit obsessed with them. I have noticed this. I have also noticed how most of my books end at the sea or by a river, always some water at the end. Once you start recognizing your own obsessions, you know you’re getting old. I suppose I am fascinated by journeys because—and my partner complains about this enormously because she loves to travel—I loathe travel. I will do anything not to travel. She says, Let’s go to this place, and so we get all the books, and I read about it and then I make up stories and describe it all. Finally she says, You don’t want to go now because you’ve been, haven’t you? Unfortunately, this is true.

I wrote The Passion before I had been to Venice. I just imagined it. I hadn’t been to New York for seven years when I wrote Gut Symmetries, but it didn’t make any difference. I do travel in my head. It’s the old joke about the magic carpet or the broomstick. That’s how poor people used to make journeys, because they couldn’t afford to make them literally. Certainly when I was a kid, it was one of the games we used to play. We invented places we would go, describing them to each other because none of us could ever afford to go anywhere. I didn’t go to London until I was twenty-one.

It may be that because it gave me all that pleasure when I was a child it continues to give me pleasure now. But it now works on a different level. It’s something more profound to me, because it’s one of those good metaphors, isn’t it, the idea of the journey? Everyone understands it straightaway. They also understand that you are talking about an inner journey and an outer journey at the same time. It’s quite a simple trope for conveying some very complex information. That is what I try to do—to choose something that is simple and yet works as an enormously powerful conductor. That is what the journeys in the books are really about, trying to get somebody away from victim status.

INTERVIEWER

One might say that your writing is characterized by a kind of excess. Have you gotten different responses to that aspect of your work?

WINTERSON

If you want something to be clear straightaway then it’s probably better not to read my books. Read somebody else’s. I don’t really feel that I should be held accountable for writing the kinds of books that I want to write just because some reader I can’t imagine or will never know doesn’t want to read them. It seems a bit unfair. You can’t win in the art stakes, because there is always somebody who is cross with you. So that’s why it is better not to care and instead think, Well, I must really do my work, hope that it reaches people and leave the rest to chance. That’s often mistaken for arrogance, but it isn’t. You have to believe that you are good, because if you think you are rubbish, why are you doing this stuff anyway? And what are you doing chucking it out there for people to buy? I think that would be the true arrogance—if you thought your stuff was rubbish and still got people to pay good money to read it.

INTERVIEWER

Have you been accused of being arrogant?

WINTERSON

Yes, largely because I do insist on doing my own work in my own way. I suppose it is a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, but then people are at liberty to leave it. That’s their choice. I can’t second-guess those choices. You can’t tie yourself up in knots trying to please all of the people, and you can’t make a kind of computer-generated product that is just meant to target an interest group. I suppose that is what, to some extent, the publishers would like, because that’s where the money is. But writers don’t work like that and can’t. If it is arrogant to wish to do the best that you can in your own way, then, sure, I’m arrogant. 

INTERVIEWER

You frequently represent gender as a plot that we’re handed. Do you see gender as something flexible and fluid?

WINTERSON

Obviously society doesn’t see gender as unimportant; it sees it as extremely important indeed. And thereby many injustices are caused. I see it as less important as I get older. I no longer care whether somebody’s male or female. I just don’t care. Which is strange, because I used to care very much, especially because my emotional and sexual affinities are with women. That was obviously a very specific choice and, again, there is this business of having to define something clearly and really know what it is that you feel before you can relax. I defined myself very clearly as somebody who preferred the company of women and wanted to arrange my life as such. It’s not that I’m not that person anymore, because my partner is a woman, and I hope we will stay together because we are very happy. But I have many more male friends, say, than I used to, and I feel much more relaxed about the whole issue—it’s changed. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know exactly what’s going on out there.

INTERVIEWER

Characters in your novels often cross-dress or play around with gender. Villanelle does this in The Passion. Jordan in Sexing the Cherry dresses as a woman, and is able to gain access to women’s ways of talking when men aren’t around. Do you see gender as a kind of performance?

WINTERSON

I think I do. If we can do a hop and a skip out of the nineteenth century and land ourselves back, we find that it very much is so: the eighteenth century is a century where there is much more flexibility. Men could wear makeup, for instance. Byron wore makeup, and nobody thought anything about it. He was the last man to wear makeup like that. The eighteenth-century dandy is not a figure who exists in the nineteenth century until you get to Oscar Wilde, and you know what everyone thought of him.

In opera in the eighteenth century, the composer—say Handel or Mozart—would simply write for a particular voice. He wouldn’t think, Is this a man or a woman? He liked that voice and would write a part. So when the person got on stage, sometimes they’d have to be a man and sometimes a woman. This does not happen in the nineteenth century. You don’t see it again until Strauss’s Rosenkavalier in 1911, which is extraordinary. It does tell us so much about the nineteenth-century sensibility about gender, a huge fear of anything crossing over. Men are men and women are women. But it is a distortion. Take the plays of Shakespeare, for example. You are meant to believe that a man is falling in love with another man. You’re not meant to see it as pantomime. You are meant to see and feel that element of risk and fear and danger and trespass. In As You Like It when Rosalind cross-dresses, you’re meant to believe that she becomes a boy. You should not see through the disguise, anymore than the people around her can see through the disguise. I am quite glad now, because in present productions of Shakespeare that ambiguity, that tease is really coming back . . . that people are meant to have their own affections and feelings dislocated from their normal seat into something a bit more threatening.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see yourself as taking part in a tradition of women’s writing explicitly, or is that something that you eschew in favor of a broader sense of tradition?

WINTERSON

It’s both. I feel that the broad tradition is mine; it has to be because I claim it. It’s an inheritance, which is given to you, but you have to be worthy of it; you have to win it to make it your own, then you have to use it. It’s rather like the parable of the talents in the Bible. The great lord gives out the various bags of money to his servants and says, What are you going to do with it? and then goes off. Some invest it, and one person buries it in the ground. We are given this enormous literary heritage—certainly you are as a writer—but then you have to make it work for you. You have to use it. If you just bury it in the ground, it’s dead. So for me it is vital constantly to use the broadest tradition and to get as much from it as I can. But at the same time, within that, I recognize that strand in women’s writing of which I am directly a part and which speaks to me in a very personal way. It has to, because I am part of that struggle.

As well as being a writer neither male nor female, I am a writer who is a woman. I am very conscious of that. I am conscious that the voice does get stronger all the time, the voice of the woman writing. Which is why I feel I have to continue, and do a bit more and take the bat on a little bit further, if possible. Otherwise, I am letting down the past as well as the future. You’re insulting those women who did it absolutely to the best they could, making huge sacrifices at the time. There is a passage at the end of A Room of One’s Own where Virginia Woolf says we have to work for women writers so that they will appear. My work is to do that work.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a pressure from your audience to be a spokesperson for women, for lesbians?

WINTERSON

Oh, yes! But it would be a very bad thing indeed if I were to do that. The best I can do is the best I can do, which is my work. I have no objection to all of this stuff being pumped out; there really is a place for it. But I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be a political writer, or a writer whose concern is sexual politics.

INTERVIEWER

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own faults Charlotte Brontë for allowing politics to come into Jane Eyre. Specifically, she points to the passage in which Jane is reflecting on the limitations of her life as a woman and raging against the boxes into which she has been put. Woolf sees Brontë’s introduction of this anger into the text as an artistic flaw. What is your view of the relation between political engagement and artistic creativity?

WINTERSON

I think Virginia Woolf was speaking quite rightly from her own anxieties, something that she personally was very worried about, but I don’t think that she was right. It may be better to try to speak honestly even if that anger, to some extent, flaws part of the work than to try to suppress and possibly dampen down your own rocket fuel in the process. I think it’s better to take the risk. You can edit it out later if you want to, and if you can’t—because it would be sort of an amputation, or a surgery that would damage the rest—then leave it in, and let the passages speak for themselves. And let people say, Well, this passage doesn’t work. I mean, it annoys me in D. H. Lawrence when he starts his working-class rant. I have written about that. I know I do it as well. But it probably doesn’t matter, because no work is perfect. We can’t endlessly be worrying about how to write a perfect work. We can only do the best we can. So it may not be worth wasting energy on.

INTERVIEWER

A large body of people want to read your work strictly as lesbian literature. Is that a problem for you?

WINTERSON

No, it’s not. There is nothing I can do about it, so it can’t be a problem for me. That’s another one of the obsessions we’re in at the moment. We will pass through it, and if the book lasts, then it will cease to be a problem. I have to take the long view and really not mind. Because it’s only a slightly more extreme version of anybody reading the text in a way that they like . . . that it has become a group rather than an individual identity with the book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that lesbian relationships in your fiction come across as superior to heterosexual relationships?

WINTERSON

Yes, probably. But they don’t in Gut Symmetries, no. And we don’t really know what’s going on in Written on the Body do we? 

INTERVIEWER

The single most discussed aspect of Written on the Body is that we don’t know what the gender of the narrator is. Did you intend for Written on the Body to be completely ambiguous in terms of gender?

WINTERSON

Well, no, I just couldn’t be bothered. I didn’t want to pin it down. I thought, There is no need to do so, so I won’t do so. If I put in a gender then it weights my story in a way that I don’t want it to be weighted. So I didn’t. I didn’t expect that a huge furor would arise. I must say that took me totally by surprise. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of the fact that some reviewers of Written on the Body praise your understanding of the male psyche based on their reading of the narrator as a man?

WINTERSON

That’s a bit weird. But that’s all right. It’s an open text. To some extent when you read a book that you care about, you do build it again as your own text. That’s inevitable. We all do that. You set up a very jealous and personal relationship with it, and then it can only be your text, and the last thing you want to be told is that there is another way of reading it.

INTERVIEWER

What is your view of heterosexuality now? Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit presents heterosexuality as something that can only oppress women; however, at the end of Gut Symmetries, it is not really clear who will end up with whom, or whether any of them will end up with any of the others. That is, you don’t seem to be promoting the same-sex relationship at the expense of the heterosexual one.

WINTERSON

I didn’t want to have a clear winner in this book; it is more complex than that. I think men can really get in the way when you are trying to sort your life out and get on with it. Because they just take up so much space. I’m not under any illusions that I could have been where I am now in literary terms if I had been heterosexual. I really believe I would not be. Because—and this has gotten me into huge trouble before, but I suppose I may as well get into trouble again—I can’t find a model, a female literary model who did the work she wanted to do and led an ordinary heterosexual life and had children. Where is she? I am no fool, I mean I looked at this at the time. I don’t think people’s sexuality is really that fixed. I had various boys at various times as well as various girls. There was a part of me that instinctively knew that in order to be able to pursue my life, which was going to be hard enough anyway, I would be much better off, either on my own or with a woman. A man would simply get in the way, and I would have to use up energy that I didn’t have to spare. I do believe that to be the case. It probably wouldn’t be the case now, say, if I changed to a new partner, because I am sufficiently established. But I do think that when you are young and you are trying to make your way in the world it really is an issue.

Women who have tried to push it aside as an issue say things like, Well, I won’t even think about having children until I am forty. Then of course they are completely knackered. It seems to me difficult enough to have children when you have got all the energy of being twenty-one. Some of the people I know who had children quite late, pushing forty, are exhausted. They are not the women they were twenty years ago, and they can’t manage not to have any sleep for two years. So by pushing the problem into the future you don’t solve it. The issue of how women are going to live with men and bring up children and perhaps do the work they want to do has in no way been honestly addressed. It is simply being made into a problem that you have when you’re forty instead of when you are twenty.

INTERVIEWER

In your last few books, you have taken up the topic of disease. It comes up in Written on the Body and then again in Art and Lies in which Handel is a surgeon, and you allude to it in Gut Symmetries, as well. How do you see disease functioning as a metaphor, and does it connect to other ideas that you have about the body in general?

WINTERSON

It’s one of those useful metaphors that everyone understands. People are rather terrified by the idea of a degenerative disease, whether it’s cancer or AIDS, which will hijack the entire healthy organism and ruin it. Even the dimmest people can see that this is not only to do with their own bodies but a kind of metaphor for the state crumbling away. So it’s one that writers can easily use for their own purposes. I used it because I wanted to exploit that fear, to make people really sit up and take notice and try to fit the inner body onto the outer body, as it were. To say, What is it that is really going on with you? What do you know about your body and your psyche, your sanity? It goes back to the idea of people continually being at the mercy of things that they don’t recognize because they refuse to recognize them. As we know, cancer and aids in their early stages are virtually undetectable unless you’re lucky. By then the damage is done. I feel very strongly that people—because they shut so much out—are prey to destructive forces that take them over, gut them as human beings, leave them as nonfunctioning shells, and by the time they discover this it is too late. So that’s why some of the stuff in Written on the Body and Art and Lies is not necessarily for the squeamish. I wanted people to recoil and to have to think about it. 

INTERVIEWER

You often present forgiveness as an important gateway to healing. That’s something that Picasso in Art and Lies must learn to do. She thinks about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family and feels that she has to forgive herself for being complicit in her own suffering. Could you discuss your view of forgiveness? 

WINTERSON

Well, there are only three possible endings—aren’t there?—to any story: revenge, tragedy or forgiveness. That’s it. All stories end like that. There aren’t any that don’t. I suppose it depends temperamentally on which ones you want to choose. I have noticed that for me forgiveness is important. I have had quite a rackety life. I knew that my parents would never forgive me for what I had done but there came a point where I had to forgive them. That was a choice I made, knowing that it could not be reciprocated, and perhaps not even wanting it to be anymore. It wasn’t reconciliation, it was about forgiveness . . . Simply for me to try to look at them honestly and recognize what they were and not judge them and not be angry with them anymore. So, for me, finding in myself that kind of compassion was partly to do with Oranges, which is in many ways a very loving portrait of a monster.

In a sense, that’s where autobiography does come in: my relationship with my mother was operatic; it was Wagnerian and tempestuous. She was this huge, huge creature, physically and emotionally demanding, and I am quite small physically. So immediately there was this contrast and this tension . . . This great thing constantly bearing down on this very small thing, along with the manipulations and the brutalities. I am wondering what one does with all that—and this comes up in Art and Lies—in that you can’t spend the rest of your life saying, Look how I’ve been treated; I am a terrible victim. This is Picasso’s great saying too: I will find something else; I will put that behind me. It is only possible if you can forgive and let the bitterness go. I have found that most resolutely in my own life, which is why I am actually happy now. That was the first lesson to me—of learning to forgive other people, and I have had to do it quite a lot since. I don’t mean that’s because I’m a saint, but I mean you have to choose. In the end it is better to say, I can’t change them, but I can forgive them and I can change myself.

INTERVIEWER

Is it a way of changing the stories that one tells about oneself? 

WINTERSON

Very much so, yes. The way you depict your own life is important. For some people, it’s either revenge—they’re always looking for someone else to blame and to get back at—or it’s tragedy because the whole thing is such a bloody mess and they’ll never get out of it. But the moment that you can forgive, you take back the power and the healing waters flow. I know that personally, and I find it in literature. It’s the end of the Shakespearean comedies where in the fifth act everyone comes together and sees each other for what they are. You get it in As You Like It, where at the end of the play the characters return from the Forest of Arden, all rather sobered by their experience. None of them are what they thought they were or perhaps even what they would like to be, but there is a great deal of acceptance, and then, of course, the play’s joyous ending. Even in the tragedies you find this. What else is there at the end of The Winter’s Tale when Hermione steps down from the statue, and she and Leontes find in each other a reconciliation and forgiveness of all that is past? What was stonelike, her mirroring his stolid heart, is suddenly fluid and warm again. 

INTERVIEWER

There is also a potential for a new beginning there, a clearing of the way for the future. You have written that “to continue to do new work is to continue a development of style that allows the writer to surprise herself.” How have you surprised yourself lately and do you have ideas of what you will be doing in the near future? 

WINTERSON

Well, Gut Symmetries was a very different book from Art and Lies, and yet it concerns all the things that have always concerned me. It’s obviously my book. It couldn’t be anybody else’s book. It’s important to be able to construct for yourself a new book that you didn’t expect and something that moves away from what you have done immediately before. I have tried to do this. But I can’t be sure that I will be able to go on doing it. No one can know that. In the short stories I am writing now, there is a kind of straightforward happiness and ease, which I always get when I have finished a book . . . an extra run of energy, which can turn into other things. That’s a very nice time. So I am enjoying that. But I know perfectly well that the real work will begin in about a year when I’ll have to start another piece of fiction, and I have absolutely no idea . . . That’s a lie. I have a very tiny idea, which is not really an idea at all, which is something very deep in the water, which has a light, but not a very bright light. But I’ll get it. So it’s there, but it’s going to take a long time to come up, and it will be about a year. It may be hell, it may be like Gut Symmetries, to get started on it. It may feel like utter defeat rather than something new.

There was very much, after I left London, after Art and Lies, a period of retreat and breakdown. Not in a sense of nervous or mental breakdown, but a breakdown of what I had become at that point because it was no longer of any use to me. In a sense, I was having to remake myself in order to be able to write Gut Symmetries. That process will have to continue. If I stop, if I stop remaking myself, I won’t be able to do any good work anymore. So the challenge is to continue to do it, to continue to keep sane. Also, to remember what I’m here for, no matter how many voices tell me I am really here for other things or really here for nothing at all.

There is a fairy story about the prince and the black stones. On top of a crystal mountain is a princess, i.e., the thing of highest worth, the thing desired. The prince, the hero, the questing self, wants to get to the princess, the thing of highest worth. He starts to climb the mountain, which is crystal and therefore extremely slippery, difficult. On the way, he does all right for a bit. Then these black stones in his path start to speak and they say, You are a fool. Why are you going up this mountain? You will never get to the top. In any case when you get to the top it won’t be worth it, there is nothing there. Or, You’re going to die of thirst, you’re going to die of hunger. This continues all the way up; he becomes more and more depressed, and he thinks, I will never, never get to the top. Then, of course, eventually the hero does get to the top and frees the princess. He looks back and realizes that the black stones were the souls of all the people who had failed before and therefore didn’t want anyone else to succeed, because the only thing that justified them was their own failure. That’s a useful story if you are a writer, because the way is full of black stones. All you know is that there is this thing of highest value, of great worth, that you want to keep trying to achieve. Every time, up the slippery rock, with no sense of being able to get there, you simply have to stuff your ears and keep climbing.