An Audience with Jeanette Winterson
Ahead of her Australian appearances, acclaimed author Jeanette Winterson talks writing, fiction and the media. Interview by Colin Fraser.
When the hard-bitten commentator Gore Vidal sings praises, you take them seriously.
“The most interesting writer I’ve read in twenty years,” he said of Jeanette Winterson who seized the literary world with her debut novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit back in 1985. She’s since written over a dozen novels, several teleplays, short stories, children’s literature and a memoir – Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? Love and desire are dominant themes, perhaps not surprising for a woman who – destined for a life as a missionary – came out at 16 and became a writer instead. Winterson has had a number of significant relationships, the spoils of which have informed much of her work. But it is the worlds in which her stories evolve, worlds that often transcend the modern and metaphysical, that have entranced audiences for nearly thirty years.
SX: Love and desire has been a big theme throughout your work. Why do you think it has such a hold on us in ways that say, food, doesn’t?
JW: I think for some people probably food does! It’s a substitute for something that is deeper because people’s emotional needs aren’t being met. I think it’s impossible to live any life at all without love – it’s not simply about sex and reproduction. People need a significant attachment in their lives. If that bond’s not there, we seek it for the rest of our lives. Whether that’s successful or not in our lives seems to be the root of everything else – and without that people compensate in other ways: whether they’re workaholics, alcoholics or foodaholics.
In Sexing the Cherry (1989) you wrote that ‘as your lover describes you, so you are’. That suggest a certain fatalism – do you think love is fate?
Well, I don’t think you should take lines out of context and any way, what my narrator says is not what I say. I am not my book, my books are not me. I think the way people hold up mirrors to us is very important. We’re always looking for mirroring in other people. The chronic disorder of modern life is the way we look for mirroring in the mirror – people are obsessed with their image. With our loved ones we look for something deeper, we asked to be reflected back to ourselves, children certainly do. If you’ve got a bad relationship earlier on in life, if your parents are telling you you’re bad, you’re worthless, that’s a reflection people take with them. And either they live up to it or shake it off. People hold up distorting mirrors throughout our lives and I think the only way forward is to get a sense of self that's not dependant on that mirror, on any mirror.
Is that troubling in your profession – the media, like I am now, holding up a mirror for you to respond to?
Yeah, but it’s our job. We are discriminating critical creatures trying to understand the world. Describing it, interpreting it. But we could all do with being a little less judgemental in life, couldn’t we? That’s one of the reasons I believe in writing fiction – it’s about trying to understand people who are different from ourselves, whose motives and desires are not ours, to give us a wider and deeper knowledge of other people. And ourselves. People who say novels are a kind of entertainment, something you do on a plane, impoverish our own understanding and the experiences we can get from other people's imagination. We need that exposure. I want to be a bigger person, not a smaller one, and I certainly don’t want to be a product of Fox News.
You came out at 16 and left home shortly afterwards. At what point did you decide to become a writer?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was always writing sermons as a child, and telling a story. Telling my own story. I think if you can understand that you are the story, then you can change it and be much freer imaginatively. You are no longer caught in a secular fatalism. We used to think it was all God’s fault, now we believe it’s DNA, social conditions. That there’s always a reason we can’t be that person who's just out of reach... That's why I love the idea of fiction: we are the story we tell ourselves, or we tell other people. In the beginning, writing was a way out of the fatalism of my family, the idea that I would be a missionary. There was a path laid out that I didn’t want to follow. I thought I’d have to come out with a pretty good alternative, and that’s how it happened.
Is there any sense of the missionary, the zealot, in being a writer?
Not for everyone, but for me it can’t be otherwise. You don’t just jump out of where you began, you take it with you. And if you’re brought up to save the world then you’re going to go on doing that – just maybe not for God. Art in all its many forms is vital for our psychic health and spiritual wellbeing. Although we are finite creatures, in that finite there is also a sense of infinity. That’s what makes humans so glorious and so very difficult.
Jeanette Winterson was the keynote speaker at the Byron Bay Writers Live. She will appear live on Sunday, August 10, at the Sydney Opera House. Go to www.sydneyoperahouse.com.