is a best-selling and multi-award-winning author, notably of the novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Nick Thorpe sought illumination at her London home on 8 December 2011.
Photography: Peter Peitsch
Could you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was brought up in Accrington by Pentecostals, who intended that I should be a missionary and serve the Lord and save souls. It was a working-class household; it was poor – no toilet, no phone, no car, no nothing – and certainly no books, but not for reasons of poverty but rather because Mrs Winterson was convinced that anything secular would do enormous damage to the spiritual and they had to be rigidly separated.
Much of that formed the basis of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit1Pandora Books, 1985 – but according to your recent memoir2Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Vintage Books, 2012) the truth was even grimmer…
Well, Oranges is many things – a funny book, a work of fiction, a work of literature. It’s a cover version. I wrote something I could live with.
You were routinely beaten, locked in the coalhole, left on the doorstep overnight –
Yeah, but everybody was beaten. I mean, I wouldn’t get too excited about that. This was the North in the 1960s. Nobody thought it was wrong or odd to really wallop your children, or even to knock your spouse around. That was normal. We have to see things in context.
But it’s basically abuse, isn’t it?
Yes, it is, but at the time it wasn’t understood as that. No one thought – and my parents certainly didn’t think – they were being cruel, nor were they doing anything which made them look different to anyone else in the street or the church. They would have been progressive if they hadn’t been doing it – and whatever the Wintersons were, they weren’t progressive. Except in race relations – it was their extremely odd and rather endearing characteristic that they’d never, ever discriminate against a person for the colour of their skin. Both of my parents thought that God loved everybody.
My inclination would be that there probably is something bigger than we are in the universe, some forming intelligence of some kind; but I don’t know what it is. And actually I don’t need to know
And yet your adoptive mother told you that the Devil had led her to the wrong crib. The title of your memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, is something she said when she kicked you out at 16…
It’s a good line, and she did have a lot of good lines, because she was a very intelligent woman. She used to say things like ‘The Bible tells us to turn the other cheek, but there’s only so many cheeks in a day.’ She used to pin these aphorisms up around the walls: both texts from the Bible – ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,’ which was over the oven – and things for me: ‘Think of God, not the dog.’ That’s how we lived: in this world of text. It was very useful to a child on the alert for language.
Would you say now that she was severely depressed?
She was a very unhappy woman – but then that was the right response to her circumstances, wasn’t it? Again, it’s about context. You know, since Thatcher everybody believes that you have to privatise your problem along with everything else: it’s your fault, so you can get over it, you can ‘be empowered’, you can change everything – it’s up to you. Whereas, in fact, there is a huge social context which we can’t change and which isn’t up to us and which affects our lives enormously. And for those women who had been young in the war and had a taste of freedom and then were, really, forced back into the home – ‘Get them back behind the sink!’ – I think there was a lot of misery, and it wasn’t their fault. There were no opportunities. And what did we do to women in the Sixties? We managed to invent Valium in 1962 and the Pill in 1963. That was our response.
I’m a big believer in looking at the social and political context of the individual life. You have to run the two things together all of the time.
In her religious context, was it entirely understandable that she should try to exorcise you for being gay?
Yeah, completely. She believed that it’s a sin – and she would still, were she alive. I mean, many people do.
Your relationship with the church seems to me less hostile than I would have expected, given all that you went through. At the end of Oranges, Jess says: ‘I miss God.’ Is that how you feel yourself?
No, I don’t. I’m quite comfortable with the idea of God or no God. My inclination, if I were to bet on it, would be that there probably is something bigger than we are in the universe, or some forming intelligence of some kind; but I don’t know what it is. And actually I don’t need to know. Nor do I care whether there’s a life beyond this one or not, because it wouldn’t change the way I live now: which is to make the most of the time, because there isn’t very much of it.
So, although I feel anti dogma, and anti religion in the sense of what human beings have done with it, I’m not against a spiritual dimension to life – I think it’s really necessary. I am sure that life has an inside as well as an outside and it’s something we need to understand and focus on. My quarrels have always been with organised religion, which is usually the most fantastic excuse to claim that one’s personal prejudices are either natural or divine. And it’s, you know, so low to do that.
Is there anything that you miss in Pentecostalism? Does that upbringing still influence your writing?
Oh, it influences everything, because the idea of a spiritual connection, and one that isn’t embarrassing and doesn’t have to be hidden, is very attractive. The English are always embarrassed about things, and especially about emotion; and that’s a pity, because we are creatures who feel. There is no such thing as a thought without a feeling. If you say, ‘I’ll use my head and not my heart,’ all you’re doing is suppressing a part of the self, which seems to me to be unhelpful.
There is some deep need to understand our place in the universe and we’ve never managed to explain it through science or logic alone in a way that satisfies us. So, the problem continues
So, there are things from that time which of course I think are valuable. I guess it’s made me the kind of passionate person that I am in the sense that I think of life as luminous – lit up – rather than rather grey. And that’s definitely something that the Charismatic movement3Charismatic Christianity emphasises the activity of the Holy Spirit and looks for tangible experience of God. has.
I also like the idea of a genuine community where people support each other and are there for each other.
Do you see religion as a virus, like Richard Dawkins?
I’m not a fan of Richard Dawkins4Interviewed for High Profile in February 1995 – he always sounds rather disapproving when I hear him on the radio. And it’s no good just saying it’s a virus or a delusion – it’s been around really since there were human beings, which is far more interesting to me.
Why is that, do you think?
I think that there is some deep need to understand our place in the universe and we’ve never managed to explain it through science or logic alone in a way that satisfies us. So, the problem continues. And people seem to want to believe in something – and if it makes the world a better place, then that is a good thing.
Some people would argue that the whole problem with fundamentalism is a misunderstanding of metaphor…
Probably. I mean, the Catholic church has been rather good at metaphor and mystery and symbolism, whereas the Church of England, in its more muscular versions, and certainly the breakaway Nonconformist and Charismatic movements are really terrible at metaphor.
How did you escape from that very literalistic world?
Because I was deeply offended by it. And the moment comes where you think: If my imagination is this big, how can God’s be so small? It seems ridiculous, and you think: Well, if you are some sort of monstrous playroom tyrant, who cares about you anyway? I don’t.
Because it makes us better than God?
Yes. Which is very odd. You know, I love the Yahweh5The ancient name of God that used to be transliterated as ‘Jehovah’ and is rendered as ‘LORD’ in most translations of the Bible of the Old Testament: he’s so irascible and is always having to be persuaded not to destroy everyone. And this really rather engaging character develops through the course of the Old Testament – you get that marvellous transition from a God who can say to Abraham, after all the trouble getting a son, ‘Just kill him, will you?’ and then at the last minute, ‘It was a joke! Don’t worry about it!’6Genesis 22:1–18 to this God who will sacrifice his own son.7John 3:16f As a psychological development – from this bloodthirsty, disruptive God with a terrible sense of humour to a Being that recognises that humankind plays a part in [his] own development, own possibility – that’s quite something.
Thinking about that when I was 16 – I mean, I haven’t stopped thinking about it – coupled with the business of falling in love with a woman and Mrs Winterson’s response, I thought: I’m not going to do this any more…
And in literature you found a different way of looking at the world?
Oh, definitely. Literature is very generous and broad and encompasses all kinds of ideas and possibilities – you can try out multiple selves without having to become schizophrenic. It not only gave me a language, it gave me an expanded imagination. So, I didn’t feel stuck, and I certainly didn’t feel (and I never have felt) like a victim.
I hate it that the Bible has become a text on which people have to break themselves. I think these are things that act as walls and boundaries but also as places where you can test yourself and grow
That’s why I’m always rather appalled when people say [about my childhood], ‘How awful!’ It wasn’t awful, you see, it was just – it was itself. And it gave me a lot of things as well as taking away things.
What did it give you?
Resilience, creativity, the chance, I suppose (and I think all adopted children would say this), to be not dependent but independent, quite early in life. And the chance to think about life. If you have really no material goods but you have these vibrant, strong texts – and whatever you think of the Bible, it’s vibrant and strong – you can throw yourself at these things and they won’t break.
But the key thing is that you shouldn’t break, either. I hate it that the Bible has become a text on which people have to break themselves. That’s repulsive to me. I think these [texts] are things that act as walls and as boundaries but also as places where you can test yourself and grow, rather than being diminished or broken.
But people sometimes feel they need that dogma…
Well, they do, but I don’t know why they do. I mean, you can believe what you like, but if it’s going to affect other people you have to think very carefully about exactly why you believe it. You know, even the most rabid fundamentalist now is a bit nervous about saying that women are inferior beings and God made them that way – we realise that that’s not appropriate – but they still feel that they can talk like that in all sorts of other outrageous contexts – particularly around gay people.
Do you think that’ll change in the same way?
I don’t know. I don’t know. You know, will the church become the place of forgiveness and tolerance, development and openness, or will it be infested with reactionaries, people who don’t want the world to change and are only too glad to have a religious framework to sit that in? I don’t know, but I think it is a big battle.
In your 2010 Manchester Sermon last year,8jeanettewinterson.com/the-temptation-of-jesus you suggested that Jesus would be on your side in this.
I think he would be. ‘If people want to have a fundamentalist reading of the scriptures, then could they please do so?’ is my feeling. Here is someone who talks about love and forgiveness, and talks, in fact, about dissolving family ties and forming different kinds of obligations and friendships, and who isn’t afraid to hang around with whores and ‘sinners’ – it’s a very uncomfortable story and I don’t know why it has become so comfortable to so many people. I mean, whenever I read the Bible I’m surprised at how radical it is.
Your memoir is very candid about your attempted suicide in 2007. Do you mind talking about that?
No, not at all. I think that if you are going to go on developing as a human being, there will be challenges to the self. You can’t simply become habitual, or even known, to yourself – you have to take risks. And I think that the person I was, with all that energy and rage and determination, couldn’t go any further.
It’s very odd when you sort of run out of self – it is like the end of a road. It may be because we’re living longer and we should be dead around 50, I don’t know – I mean, Shakespeare was dead at 52. So, if you’re going to have a second life you probably need to have a second self to go with it, which is a self which has been broken and remade in some fundamental way. At least, that’s how it felt to me. I simply could not go on.
I’m a very alive person. I would rather be dead than living a kind of half life, which I know to be an utter diminishment, a kind of cowardice in the face of the big challenge
What actually precipitated the crisis?
Oh, two things. One was finding some adoption papers which made me think that my birth mother was still alive. Mrs Winterson always said that she was dead, and there was no reason to disbelieve her. And then there was the breakdown of a personal relationship, which was very upsetting. It became a trigger for something bigger, as happens from time to time – you know, one thing begins to shift and then the whole thing collapses.
So, you had almost to confront the possibility of ending your own life…
Well, you don’t confront it; it confronts you.
The alternative is that either you succeed in killing yourself or you have to repair in such a way that it’s a false personality – and we see a lot of that: people who cannot confront the big issues in their lives and so, in order to escape from them, they shut down the self. And then you’re not relating any more to other people or to yourself, you’re just passing the time. And I couldn’t do that. I’m a very alive person, which means I would rather be dead than living a kind of half life, which I know to be an utter diminishment, a kind of cowardice in the face of the big challenge. I can’t do that.
I suppose that many people would understand this in terms of a religious conversion, which is, after all, meant to shatter the self, to be a radical remaking of all that you are. I’ve always despised people who treat religion as a bolt-on. You know, at least let it be real, let it take over your whole self! Don’t play with it!
So, what actually saved you?
Well, I failed to die, and when that happens the animal kicks in. The animal that you are is always on the side of life and so once your attempt has failed and you are not actually dead, there’s a huge surge of life.
I was lying outside on the ground and a bit of the Bible came into my head, that ‘you must be born again.’ I realised that we all get a life, as a gift, but then we have to choose it. And so for me it was a moment of choice: Do you want to be alive? And, if so, how are we going to put this back together in a way that is real? At that moment, it was possible for me to start again.
And – this is where religious words are really useful – the past then is redeemed, in that you have bought it back: it’s no longer in hock or in thrall to some part of you that’s out of control, you can have it back and you can revisit it. I suppose writing Why Be Happy…? was a way to revisit the past, 25 years after Oranges, and try to reunderstand it.
How were you affected by meeting your birth mother?
It was the conclusion of a particular story, and I needed to conclude it. I needed to know. In a sense, it was irrelevant who she was (which isn’t to disparage her). It was rather that I had to know that somebody was.
And have you had a continuing friendship?
We see each other, yeah. Which is good.
I find it very difficult to respect arbitrary rules – but that’s a good thing. You know, creativity is anarchic, because you have to be always saying: ‘This is what exists. What can I do with it? How can I change it?’
And eventually you were reconciled with your adoptive father, is that right?
Yes. For many years I’d despised him for not standing up for me, and then, I don’t know, I looked at him and I thought – not just because he was an old man by then – [that] he was always a little boy, and actually a rather sweet-natured little boy, and I think Mrs Winterson was his mother figure. And that’s why, when I was able to see him in a different context, where I was no longer powerless and I no longer needed anything from him, I could understand and forgive, which I did.
We had a very good time towards the end of his life [in 2008]. It was lovely.
In your 2000 novel The PowerBook, the main character says that all her books are about two things: boundaries and desire. What are the boundaries you fight hardest to cross and what are the ones you need to maintain?
I think the thing is that we always have to be challenging our own boundaries to see whether in fact they are useful – as walls, and as markers – or whether they’re places where we hide because we don’t want to go any further. And I think that desire (whether it’s desire for knowledge, desire for change, desire for another person – you know, it can come in all shapes and sizes) is the thing that pushes against the boundary, that tempts the self out of the self into another state. And that’s very good. It’s also quite scary.
You’ve said that all adopted children are control freaks –
I do believe that – but it’s then how you handle that; and for me it worked terribly well until I was nearly 50, in that I was able to use that determination to shape my world in a very useful, imaginative way – most obviously, that I became a writer and you invent a world every time you write a book, so you’re always recreating a situation where there is emptiness or loss but then you’re filling it energetically. And of course that gives you a great sense of triumph, just in the feeling that you can create, and the repetition of this brings with it, I think, a kind of reassurance, as well as dissolving the fear that someone else is really in control – which is, I think, what the baby understands when it’s… I mean, it’s a controversial thing to say, but I really believe that the baby knows it’s being abandoned.
But how does your tendency to be a control freak sit with your urge to break boundaries?
Oh, it’s always OK if they’re your own boundaries. I mean, I’m naturally suspicious of authority and, while I can respect real rules, I find it very difficult to respect arbitrary rules. But that’s a good thing. There’s always a slight anarchy; but, you know, creativity is anarchic, because you have to be always saying: ‘This is what exists. What can I do with it? How can I change it?’
There was a time when the tabloids were calling you a marriage-wrecker and much else. Is it ever better not to break boundaries, in order not to offend or challenge people? Or is that what life is about?
Well, I would be very wary now about getting involved with anybody who was in a marriage, because it causes such heartache for everyone – and I’m staying with [my partner, the psychotherapist] Susie [Orbach,] anyway, so this is a completely irrelevant conversation. Fortunately, when she and I met [in 2009] we had both been by ourselves for two years, so it was very clean, a lovely new beginning.
There are certain questions that I probably won’t resolve, certain discussions with myself I’ll never get to the end of – and that is all right. In fact, it’s a rather healthy state of being
If she weren’t here, what would I do? I would protect myself better, I think. Perhaps when you’re young you don’t protect yourself, and maybe that’s good. Maybe you should risk more then and not worry so much for yourself or others. I’m not nearly as reckless now as I was, I’m sure of that – and I’m also more aware.
But I have no respect for the double standards of heterosexuality and patriarchy. None.
You have said that art is never a luxury, it always effects a transformation. How, ideally, should it transform us?
Well, it’s really the enlargement of the self, which is so important. We need two things: we need tools for self-reflection, which most people do not have, and we need tools for the imagination. Imagination is emotional because you can’t imagine something without really feeling your way into it; and art is all about a feeling tone, a feeling encounter – or it should be. It’s not meant to be a thought experiment, it’s meant to be a place where you can be made happy or desperately upset or deeply moved.
There’s a really nice line in Wordsworth where he says: ‘All my thoughts/Were steeped in feeling’9‘The Prelude’, Book 2, ll398f and that’s how it should be, so that there’s none of this completely false head/heart split. That isn’t us – look at us, we’re one thing. Every genuine work of art is a cohesive and fully formed act of feeling and thinking, all together. And that totality is what we seek for ourselves.
So, as a once would-be missionary, your gospel today is really that we should be more whole, less split.
Yeah, much less. I mean, you have to be able to have a playful relationship with yourself, you need more in there than just one, rigid thing. But for that you have to have a very strong self, which allows this rather boisterous family to argue within itself. I like that, and that there is a boundary of the self that is strong enough to hold on to contradiction, discomfort and not knowing.
You know, there are certain questions, I realise now, that I probably won’t resolve, certain discussions with myself I’ll never get to the end of – and that is all right. In fact, that’s a rather healthy state of being, I think – I say ‘being’ because it’s not just a state of mind – that we can feel discomfort without freaking out. So, it’s that sort of self that I’m interested in creating, where we’re brave enough and sure enough to take those risks with the world, both imaginative and emotional.
The body imagery that fills your books is very sensuous and often erotic. That’s quite surprising coming from the adopted daughter of Mrs Winterson, isn’t it?
Yeah, I don’t know what happened there. Susie’s puzzled by that, too, because there is genuine freedom there for me in my body. I know most women don’t like their bodies, because of the baleful effects of advertising, but I like having mine and I like being in it and I feel very comfortable and happy with it.
And also comfortable and happy with my sexuality. That has never been a difficulty for me. People would like it to be, but it isn’t. I don’t deny that it’s a product of my own situation – of course it is. So, people can say, ‘It’s because you had a weak father and a domineering mother’ and you think: ‘Yeah, and what about you?’ Every way we free-express ourselves, you know, will be in some part formed by what has happened [to us].
I would rather that two people were able to love each other, in whatever permutation, than that they had to live with deep fissures in the self and a feeling of falseness
That’s why I think it would be good if we could all just be a bit more comfortable with however sexuality manifests itself, because it seems to me that love is far more important and we have to be good at loving, and we have to get better at it, too. I would rather that two people were able to love each other, in whatever permutation, than that they had to live with deep fissures in the self and a feeling of falseness, or a feeling that part of themselves had to be given up or abandoned in some way. I don’t think that makes someone a better person.
Christianity is centred on an incarnation and yet the church has often been anti body. It strikes me that your work is very much about ‘enfleshing’ your characters…
It’s such a good story, the dying god and his rebirth, and that in itself is very interesting: that it’s a story we are drawn to. And it does have a holiness to it. I can reflect on this, I can be in this space and be quieted and renewed by it as an image, as an idea. It’s not either barren or exhausted for me. I think it’s very rich. You know, the scriptures are rich, and there are places where you can go and rest your mind and places where the big questions are asked. And I don’t find in them the splits that have become part of the dogma – I mean, what is the Song of Solomon if it’s not about sex and pleasure and eroticism? We always miss that bit out, don’t we, in the Church of England.
You definitely are not normal. Are you happy?
Yeah. I usually am, you see. I was quite a cheerful child – I was always going about singing and talking to myself, and I was not miserable! If there’s a reason to be depressed, then I’ll be depressed; but normally I wake up and I’m cheerful. Is that a gift? I suppose so.
Is being happy something you aim for, or should it always be a by-product in the search for something else – for truth or justice?
It’s weird, the pursuit of happiness – but I don’t think we should despise it. Some people think it’s uncool to be happy, but it’s not, as long as it’s based on something that’s real and you are prepared to work with it as only part of the whole person – as you say, within the pattern, within the meaning.
How would you like to be remembered?
Oh… As someone who did their best. That’ll do.
This edit was originally published in the April 2012 issue of Third Way.
[ + ]
|1.||⇑||Pandora Books, 1985|
|2.||⇑||Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Vintage Books, 2012)|
|3.||⇑||Charismatic Christianity emphasises the activity of the Holy Spirit and looks for tangible experience of God.|
|4.||⇑||Interviewed for High Profile in February 1995|
|5.||⇑||The ancient name of God that used to be transliterated as ‘Jehovah’ and is rendered as ‘LORD’ in most translations of the Bible|
|9.||⇑||‘The Prelude’, Book 2, ll398f|
Jeanette Winterson was born in 1959 in Manchester, but was brought up by her adoptive parents in Accrington, where she attended the girls’ grammar school.
She left home at 16, and for a while worked as a domestic in a mental institution before, in 1978, going to St Catherine’s College, Oxford to read English language and literature.
She then did odd jobs in the theatre until 1985, when Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published, winning the Whitbread prize for the best first novel.
After two pot-boilers, Boating for Beginners (1985) and Fit for the Future (1986), she began writing full-time after her second novel, The Passion (1987), won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. It was followed by Sexing the Cherry (1989), which won the EM Forster Award; Written on the Body (1992); Art and Lies (1994); Art Objects (1995), a collection of essays on ‘ecstasy and effrontery’; Gut Symmetries (1997); a book of short stories, The World and Other Places (1998); The PowerBook (2000); Lighthousekeeping (2004); Weight (2005), a retelling of the story of Atlas and Heracles; The Stone Gods (2007); and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011).
For children, she has written The King of Capri (2002), Tanglewreck (2006), The Lion, The Unicorn and Me and The Battle of the Sun (both 2009), as well as the screenplay Ingenious (2009) for BBC1.
Her 1990 adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for BBC TV won the Bafta for best drama series and the Prix d’Argent at Cannes. In 1994, she wrote Great Moments in Aviation for BBC2.
In 2002 she adapted The PowerBook for the National Theatre in London and Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris.
In 2006, she was appointed an OBE for services to literature. In 1998, she won the International Fiction Award at Mantua’s Festivaletteratura.
She writes often for the Times and the Guardian.
She has two homes, both of which she restored from derelict: a cottage in the Cotswolds and a Georgian house in Spitalfields, London, whose ground floor is now occupied by her delicatessen, Verde.
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2012