Online Edition: Summer 2005

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An Interview with Jeanette Winterson

by Vincent Francone

photo by Lorena Ornelas



Achieving recognition early as a writer of wild invention--Gore Vidal once called her "the most interesting young writer I've read in twenty years"--Jeanette Winterson earned the respect of many with her novels Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, The Passion, and Sexing the Cherry. Later books divided readers, but her fanatics have become fiercely loyal, especially as she wrapped up her self-proclaimed cycle of unconventional novels with 2001's astonishing The Powerbook. A culmination of the themes (love, gender roles, mutability, longing) that span six previous books, The Powerbook embraced the 21st century without alienating the past, resulting in a creation of rare vision.

Like all visionaries, Winterson continues to evolve. This year's Lighthousekeeping (Harcourt, $23) travels in a new direction, incorporating myth and whimsy, loss and laughter. Using an orphan girl, Silver, and her blind lighthouse-keeping mentor, Pew--a teller of impossible tales--to convey the story, Winterson tones down her usual metaphysical narrative play without compromising her creation. Less of a tinkering with convention than her previous novels are, Lighthousekeeping represents a logical step in Winterson's career as an artist and is perhaps this millennium's first great love letter to the art of storytelling.

Vincent Francone: I hate to start this off politically, but back in November when Bush got reelected, you wrote something on your website (www.jeanettewinterson.com) about America being in a state of civil war. Now that you're here touring the country, do you have any more thoughts on this?

Jeanette Winterson: I haven't seen enough yet. I think by the end of the tour I'll have certainly formed a view, and it'll be on my website next month. But it's the same dividing. The kind of people that I like, that I'm drawn to--of course they're appalled at George Bush, and they didn't vote for him. Then you've got these twenty million people who call themselves the Evangelical Christians who will put their hand up and say, I believe in the devil, I'm against abortion and gay rights, and we have to blow up the world. It's frightening.

VF: A lot of us couldn't believe he won.

JW: I think it's bad for Americans because it makes them paranoid. They start to think, was the election rigged in some sinister fashion? Is it as bad as Zimbabwe? So I think there's a nervousness which is new to the America I know, which is making people feel uncomfortable on both sides. The good guys don't want to appear anti-European and the bad guys just want to say, it's our country and we'll blow up what we like. There's a new attitude, I feel, coming from Europe.

VF: Speaking of the differences between Europe and America, do you notice a difference in readers? Your books seem very European inasmuch as they're somewhat modernist, but a lot of the people I know who are new to your work sometimes have problems with the broken narration and so forth.

JW: I think the Anglo-American tradition is much more linear than the European tradition. If you think about writers like Borges, Calvino, Perec or Marquez, they're not bound in the same sort of way. They don't come out of the classic 19th-century novel, which is where all the problems start. 19th-century novels are fabulous and we should all read them, but we shouldn't write them. I think that's the important point. People are obsessed with narrative, which has had its day. I used to think that the movies would mop up all of that need for straightforward narrative, and allow fiction to find a whole different path, rather in the way that photography freed up portraiture from the necessity of realism. All the bad portrait painters immediately went out of business when photography came along. The really interesting people like Picasso thought, This is fantastic. I don't have to make it look like anybody ever again. I will do something which is much more of a psychological drama.

It seems to me that all those early experiments with novels were really trying to find a way of constructing narrative which is in fact truer to our own experience. There's nobody on this planet, even the stupidest person, who lives in one time anyway. You're walking down the street and at the same time you're thinking of something that happened to you a couple of years ago and you're wondering about something that is going to happen the day after tomorrow, and you hold these realities in your head simultaneously. It's not a problem. So for a fiction writer to try and reproduce that seems to me to be more authentic than somebody who says, No, we all live in this monolithic reality. The same with the idea of progress, or our lives being this straight line. I think most of us have experienced these strange loops and curves and whirls, and we see patterns repeating over and over again in our lives. That's not a straight line. That's about a journey which is much more contoured--the recognition that space-time is curved, not straight, there's nothing in this universe which is straight--which is good if you're gay. [laughs]

VF: Of course.

JW: And why try and impose a straightforward narrative on something when all of our discoveries, scientific and creative, have been showing us that the world simply does not run like that, and our own mental processes do not run like that? We're much more of a maze than we are a motorway. Things are always in flux, they're always in movement, they're always twisting back on each other. I think the straight line is such a lie. The critics say, This is artificial, this isn't good storytelling... and I think, Well, let's look at the way people think and the way they live and let's find a narrative which really embraces that. Because life is fragmentary, and the pattern that creativity can offer is not one that is imposed, not something rigid, but rather something which can reveal the intrinsic patterns of that fragmentation. Things are in a perpetual dance, but there is an order. It's not really random at all. When you look into the world of the very small, the microscopic world of how we're made up, it's beautiful, it's strange, and we don't understand it. But it's certainly not rigidly formed.

VF: Never.

JW: Never. I love the idea of a dynamic universe where nothing is static and everything is changing at every moment. You know every cell in our bodies is completely renewed every seven years, so how can we talk about being the same person? We're absolutely not. I really believe in the power of art to show us this, to hold up a real mirror to reality and to say, This is how it is: much wilder, much stranger, much more chaotic and exciting than you could ever dream.

As people get older they have these rigid patterns that they impose on themselves, and it kills them. They become dull, they become dead to new experience, they become afraid, biased, and bigoted. It's really simply to do with refusing new experience. I think art is always challenging you out of that refusal, challenging you towards the new, towards confrontations with the self and the world and with other ways of seeing. And that's got to be completely good. I mean, I love going to things that drive me mad. I think, why is this driving me crazy? And then I'm forced to assess my own position, because all of us, even the best of us, the most broad minded, all have assumptions, prejudices, biases which stop us from engaging in the world. When you have a very strong reaction to something and you say, I really hate that, it's a good moment to wonder why. You might be completely right because it's absolute trash and it offends every finer sensibility. But you might be wrong. When the Turner Prize [for visual arts] is given, it's Britain's biggest honor and it's always given to something which is really controversial. It's the polar opposite of the literary world, where prizes tend to be given to things that are quite safe. In the art world in Britain it's really wild.

VF: Really?

JW: Yes! It's fantastic. And they just give this amazing prize and every artist wants to win. And I think these things are very good and I like the heated debates that art offers. It really does force people to rethink every situation. So I just go to everything. I don't have to like it, I don't care. I want to be involved and I want to be exposed to that kind of assault. Sometimes it's fabulous and sometimes it really is hard to take, but at least I'm there engaging in it.

VF: I remember reading reviews of Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before--I don't know if I've ever seen reviews that were that split. People loved it or hated it, and more than anything it really made me want to find out why.

JW: People being encouraged to make up their own minds and think for themselves is so important. This world talks endlessly about freedom of choice, but we've never been more of a nation of robots. Everybody is seduced by corporate culture. They more or less do what the big sinister, faceless companies want them to do: spend money, buy stuff, don't think about anything, don't question anything. It's a crazy way to live. If you're involved in art at any level you're always questioning the status quo, because that's what art does. And it's absolutely not a luxury. It's essential. It's one of the things which makes a tolerable life possible. Otherwise it would all be Wal-Mart and shopping malls, wouldn't it? [laughs]

VF: In the "Virginia Woolf Intro" on your website, you talk about critical theory and how convoluted it can be; you also say that art is communication. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

JW: Yes, I believe that absolutely. It's about the connection, not just that one human being makes to another but that we make across time with each other. Science is always updating itself with discoveries. But art doesn't live in that kind of perpetual updating. It lives in a present tense, so we still want to read Shakespeare, we still want to read Dante, and we still even read the Bible, not just because we're fundamental nutcases but because it's interesting to us. It goes on existing and therefore it gives you the most astonishing connection across time. You don't feel that you are isolated in your own moment in history. You can recognize all those other voices, all those other expressions through painting, through music, through books... it doesn't matter. They're still absolutely relevant because they tap into those permanent truths about the human condition which go on no matter how society changes around them. And that's why we still go back to great art, whether it's text or pictures or music, because it's still working, it's still speaking to us.

I think that connectedness is really important at a time when people have very little sense of how they've arrived here and what the past is, apart from wars and disputes of what the future might bring. One of the strongest threads connecting the past, present, and future is art--and I think that is a huge achievement. Even if people make the mistake of forcing art into a kind of glorified documentary. But yet, when we think about the works of art that last, we see at once that they go on speaking to us long after any contemporary interest in their subject matter is dead. I mean, nobody goes to Shakespeare to find out about life in Elizabethan England. You go to Shakespeare to find out about yourself now. When you look at a Caravaggio you don't think that you're in the 1600s in Rome; you go there because there's something compelling about that dark and light and that vision and strangeness that still moves us. That's why there are art galleries, that's why we still listen to classical music, why we still read books. It doesn't matter that they are not of the moment, it matters that they speak to something very deep in us which isn't of the moment either. We talked earlier about the cells in our body being renewed, but the fact is that every atom that we're made of is part of that first explosion of a nuclear star billions of years ago. We're connected to the entire universe. That's the way that we're made. It's a wonderful thing and I think that's part of the connectedness that art offers.

My godchildren are just starting Dickens--they're eleven and nine--and they don't know anything about Victorian society in England in the 19th century. And they don't care. They just love the characters, they love the stories, and they're excited by the language, and so already we're creating a common ground between us--me in my generation and them in their generation, and we're doing it through the shared space of literature, which is fantastic.

VF: You've written a kid's book and you are working on another...

JW: It's finished.

VF: Do you write these with your godchildren in mind?

JW: Yeah, stories is what we do. They're language-based children, they don't have any choice [laughs]. We played word games and learned poetry since they were tiny. We tell each other stories; I'll start off a story and one of them will pick it up. I want to keep their imaginations elastic--that's one of things I can give them. I can give them language and I can keep their minds free so that they love the power of wordplay and they love their own creativity and they take delight in it.

VF: It sounds wonderful. I think a lot of people would kill for a childhood like that.

JW: I didn't grow up with any books at all but I did grow up in an oral tradition, where people were telling stories all the time because they couldn't read. Books for them weren't containers of wisdom, they were closed books, nobody knew what was in there, nobody cared. But what they did do was talk. So I had that and I value it, and I suppose in a way what I am doing now is passing on to the kids the value of the spoken word, because language is in the mouth first and foremost. And then they find the pleasure of that in the written word as well.

VF: Regarding your own creative process, do you keep anything around you when you work? Favorite pictures or anything like that?

JW: No, I always work in a separate space than my domestic space--always have, always will. My studio is completely separate from my house and it has nothing in it at all, except a desk, a lamp, and a wood burning stove, and I take my dinky little G4 Powerbook in there and that's it. The cats come in, the dog comes in, I make coffee; I light the fire when it's cold and look out the window down onto the river and that's it.

VF: It reminds me of how Dylan Thomas had to work in an empty shed in the back of his property with just a desk and his typewriter.

JW: Yeah, and I understand that. I just found that the rest of the stuff doesn't help at the moment of work. I have lovely things in my house, lovely furniture and pictures and books, it's a soothing and a creative place to be in my everyday environment but I don't want to work in it. I have to work with nothing.

VF: It makes sense. I don't want to bring my work home with me.

JW: No. But at the same time, if I'm in an anonymous place I can work anywhere. I'm very good at working on flights, on trains, in tunnels. I don't get distracted by the outside noise. I can switch it out very easily.

VF: We talked earlier about your upbringing. I know you were raised by Pentecostal Evangelical parents, so I would be interested to know what your spiritual beliefs are now, if any?

JW: Well, I'm certainly not interested in organized religion, which I think is a very bad way of passing on spiritual values because it becomes so corrupted with political and repressive agendas which don't help anybody to develop their spirituality. You can't tell a woman in Africa who's giving birth to her eighteenth child that it's good for her soul that she doesn't use a condom. The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. But at the same time I do believe that there are spiritual values, that life has an inside as well as an outside, and the church was one of the few places or institutions that would really recognize that. The problem with rampant capitalism and our loss of religious faith is that the outside now has assumed a grotesque dominance. People have forgotten about the inner life all together. They're almost embarrassed by it because there's nothing there protecting it. Even at their worst, true believers--Muslim, Christian, even Evangelicals--recognize that there is something inside which is not bound by shopping or television. And we need that.

I do think that art is one of the latter-day protectors of life's inside against the endless pressures of the outside, because art itself has very different values. Genuinely alternative values about what matters and what's worthwhile and where you should put your energies. All of those things are very different in the world of art than they are in the world of politics and commercialism. The church used to be good at that. Time to pray is really just withdrawing from the world, which everybody needs to do. Some of us have tried to do it through Eastern religions, through Buddhism, but it doesn't often fit the Western way. People feel slightly uncomfortable that they have a Western outside and an Eastern inside, and there's a tension there. But it's something that we're really going to have to resolve. The 21st century is bringing up a lot of interesting problems and if we don't resolve them in the next fifty years than we won't be around to resolve them in fifty years after that. One of these questions is, How will we nourish our inner life, our spiritual life? You can make brave and strong decisions that say to the rampant outside, We've got to stop; we're not going to buy every blade of grass on the planet; we are going to start feeding the world's poor.

These aren't just political decisions, they come from a place of real compassion, and I think that's part of the inner life not the outer life. Do-gooding is never enough, political will is never enough. You have to feel deep compassion for other people and for the planet, otherwise it's superficial and it doesn't hold. Things happen for a few years and then we go back to the old ways. Whereas if it comes from a deep place and deeply held belief, then we really can change things in the long term. But most people now don't have any deeply held beliefs, which makes them uncertain, fearful, and prey to all kinds of outside forces. It also makes them feel powerless to affect change. You always hear people say, There's nothing I can do. But anybody with a strong inner belief never believes that. Look at Mother Teresa. We may not like her belief system, but she believes in something so strongly that she goes out and does something. And you see that in every remarkable individual; they have a deep inner conviction which the outside world didn't give them and can't take away. So, one of the things I would like to see is more people with that deep inner conviction, but stripped of all its awful religious connotations. We don't want missionaries [laughs], not in the old-fashioned sense. We do want people who will go out there and care passionately.

VF: It's interesting that you speak of conviction. In November of 2004 you put Yeats's "The Second Coming" on your web site, asking people, especially in America, to find the conviction... I love the web site, by the way. I know you had to battle to get the rights to your name back for the domain.

JW: I did, the creep [laughs]. It was that Wild West moment there, wasn't it? When the rest of us were all a bit sleepy, these techno-maniacs thought they could make a fortune.

VF: Selling the rights to your names back to you?

JW: Right. But I spent considerable sums and a lot of time winning the case... in fact it's gone down on the law books as a landmark case, which is great. The next day Julia Roberts got hers back, the next day Madonna got hers back, and I thought, Listen girls, you could send a few pounds... [laughs].

VF: Julia Alvarez refused to pay someone for the rights to her own name so she named her web site her own name backwards...

JW: Well, I was furious. It felt morally wrong, I thought, You can't steal my name. I felt like I was in a fairy tale. Somebody was stealing my name!

VF: Like out of one of your books... someone gambled your heart.

JW: Yeah. I told him at the beginning, I said if you give me my name now back you'll save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run. He took no notice. [laughs] But I love doing the web site. It's going to be five years this September since we started it. And it's grown and grown; it's got 250 pages on it with an internal search engine so it's quite easy to find things, and we'll keep adding things. There's really good feedback on it. People seem to like the message board.

VF: It's a useful tool. Reading The Powerbook was interesting in that regard; I love the way so much of it takes place in cyberspace. I was wondering what you thought about technology as either a subject or a tool for art.

JW: Well, we talked about it a bit at the beginning when we discussed photography and how these things have the potential to free up art forms, and then they don't. I don't think technology will alter the way creative artists do business. It might alter some methods or some means or media, but it will never alter the essential spirit of people sitting down and creating something from themselves, no matter how many fancy tools they've got. They still have to have something. It's like those ridiculous screenwriter programs, isn't it? "This is all you need to become a professional--just add the words." But the internet, I think, is fascinating creatively because it allows people to do what's always been the pursuit of artists, which is to disguise and distort or obscure their identity or invent a completely different role. Orlando is perfect internet material as someone who pushes time in different genders, different guises. And that's exactly what happens on the internet. People go into those chat rooms and they feel they can be anybody, which is great. It's sort of virtual transvestitism--all these guys who would never wear knickers going into chat rooms calling themselves "Jennifer." [laughs] It's crazy.

VF: And liberating.

JW: And I like that. I partly think that might free up people's minds to understand a bit more about the freedom and playfulness of art itself, that you don't have to be bound by the facts or any straight narrative. You can be who you like in that virtual world.

VF: You've mentioned in the past that your first seven novels represent a cycle of recurring stories, and that The Powerbook is the culmination of that cycle. If so, how does your new book, Lighthousekeeping, fit in with the rest of your work?

Buy Lighthousekeeping at Amazon.com

JW: With The Powerbook, I do feel it was the end of a cycle--not as a theory or an intellectual conceit but as something instinctively understood. The Powerbook is an extravaganza; I threw in everything that I could. I wanted it to be as wild and audacious as I could make it, to work with all the things that I'd been thinking of and playing with for the last however many years... And I did do that and I was pleased with it, so I knew that whatever happened next would have to be far away from that territory. You have to keep away from the book that you've just written because the thing that was so difficult for you then becomes the thing that is familiar to you. I was reluctant at first to go back to character-based fiction, but as it began to come together as an imaginative idea I realized I should just follow it. It was difficult because I was tempted to just go back to a Powerbook shape. I had to consciously stop yourself.

VF: Well, mission accomplished, because Lighthousekeeping is very different.

JW: It may be that doing the kid's stuff has helped with breaking certain patterns that might have formed. As you get older, you know it's a double-edged sword: you have enormous experience and you know a lot about your own process, but you can fall into the habit of becoming a parody of yourself, which would be awful. I want people to be able to pick out a page of any of my books and know that it's me, to recognize it because of the way the language is used, otherwise all is lost from my point of view. But it also has to be a different book.

VF: I once read that Italo Calvino felt that he never had a singular voice or style that was immediately recognizable. He was more known for his really great concepts, not the language.

JW: But you might know him just from the concepts. [Calvino's] Invisible Cities is a perfect book. He just plowed through and did his own thing in spite of everybody else and he was a great inspiration for me.

VF: Not to change the subject, but how is your new business, Verde?

JW: My shop? Oh, I love my shop. It's a continental deli that's fair on labor, fair on the land. Everything is either organically farmed or well fed farmed--no additives--and it has got to come from either small producers or single producers, no shady corporate deals. Fresh vegetables, organic olives, all of that; our pasta is made fresh every day by a family up the road. We're not going to give Wal-mart a run for their money, but it's this question of everybody doing whatever they can to make things a bit better. And we can all do something. I had the space in the house that I own and I thought it would be great to have a shop there. I was offered a huge amount of money, 60,000 pounds a year, from an American coffee company [for her retail space] and I was very pleased to say no.

VF: Please tell me that was Starbucks.

JW: I can't tell you who it is. When they made the offer I had to sign a bit of paper saying, if she turns it down, which she won't, she can't tell anyone... if I had taken it I wasn't allowed to say for how much, but I reckon as I'm not saying who, I can say how much. Miserable bastards [laughs]. I don't want these people in my life. I don't like their politics, I don't like their coffee, and I don't want to come down the street to my apartment in London every week and see this. So I thought the best thing would be to open a shop myself. I went into partnership with somebody who's a chef and has a lot of experience, and we're making a go of it.

VF: Is it more of a local thing or do you have people coming in from all over?

JW: Oh, people are coming in all the time because it got a lot of publicity when it opened. It looks gorgeous: wooden floorboards, wooden shelves, there's a little fire going in the corner and you can have an espresso while you're choosing things. And we do nice bouquets of flowers as well that you can take to your girlfriend. So you can buy something to cook for her, get her a bouquet of flowers and a nice bottle of Italian wine...

VF: Sounds amazing.

JW: Well, it's how you can exercise power. Organic food is expensive, but if you can afford to buy it, buy it. You might not be able to afford to buy it everyday, but the day you can, do. That makes a difference. I really believe in cumulative and collected little gestures toward a better world.

Click here to purchase Lighthousekeeping from Amazon.com.