“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.
Why did you leave London?
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.
What happened with the press to make you feel so exposed in London? Did it have to do with reviewers?
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.
Do you see yourself as a recluse now?
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.
It’s not surprising that you want to retain some contact with London since cities play such an important role in your works.
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.
Do you take part at all in a community of writers?
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.
In spite of your emphasis on your own working-class roots, your books are not particularly marked by class.
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.