|Vintage Living Texts
Windrush : September 14th 2002
MR: Have you always written? When did you first start writing and what were you writing?
JW: I think I started writing before I could read because I wanted to write sermons, because I was driven by a need to preach to people and convert them which possibly I still am, except that now I do it for art's sake, and then I did it for God's sake. Being brought up by Pentecostal Evangelists meant that there was tremendous drive to go out there and make a difference, and think that literature does make a difference. I think that that's it's purpose - to open up spaces in a closed world, and for me, it's a natural progression which seems bizarre perhaps - from those days of preaching the Word to these days of trying to make people see things imaginatively, transformatively.
MR: So if you were writing before you were reading, do you still write in order to read the world?
JW: Yes. I write so that I'll have something to read, but I also write so that I can explain the world to myself, because writing becomes a third person - it becomes something which is separate from yourself. It's no longer you, although it's generated by you, and when it returns to you it explains things. It explains you to yourself and it explains the world. Books are always cleverer than their authors. They always contain more than the writer intended to put into them - at least they should - otherwise they become rather formulaic. I suspect creative writing school books contain only what is put into them, which is why they're so dreary.
MR: And when you were writing Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, what were you trying to explain to yourself?
JW: I was trying to explain where I'd come from. I was trying to make sense of a bizarre childhood and an unusual personal history. And I was trying to forgive. I don't think it's possible to forgive unless you can understand, and one of the things that writing can do - that literature can do - that all art can do, is to help you understand. It can put you in a position which is both inside and outside of yourself, so that what you get is a depth of knowledge otherwise not possible, about your own situation, and a context in which to put that situation, so you're no longer alone with feelings that you can't manage. People's powerlessness comes from feelings that they can't manage, and especially those that they can't articulate. Being able to write a story around the chaos of your own narrative, allows you to see yourself as a fiction, which is rather comforting because, of course, fictions can change. It's only the facts that trap us. I've always thought that if people could read themselves as fictions they would be much happier.
MR: Was the present first line of the novel always the first line of the novel?
JW: 'Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father'? Yes, it was. My first lines aren't always written first, but they never change when I have written them.
MR: And in that particular case, it was the first line?
JW: Yes, it was.
MR: All right, what about the title? Was that yours? Or does it come from something else?
JW: Well I don't know, because it's lost in a kind of pre-history now of conjecture and myth. It's a stupid title. It's definitely not a selling title, but it's become part of the language. Which just shows you can persuade anybody of anything if you do it for long enough. I don't know where it comes from. I can't remember how I thought of it, all I can remember is that it came out of the idea - the central metaphor of the orange - but why Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit I really don't know. People often ask me to explain it but I can't.
MR: But all of your titles have ended up becoming icons and end up getting used: Sexing the Cherry turns into 'Sexing the shopping trolley', even Gut Symmetries has been turned into a headline, even the simplicity of something like The Passion gets reiterated. Why is it? Why do these titles move into a language that then becomes more widely used?
JW: I think because they are evocative and memorable. It's very important to have the right title for a book. Usually I think of my titles before I've written the book, and not afterwards. Which suggests that something has formed already, and simply needs to be written out - perhaps that is what happens. But I think it's important to have a title which means something to people, which they can remember and use as a talisman for what they've read, so that they associate the title with the content. It's not something separate from it. It's not just simply a way of labelling or tagging what you're writing - it's integral to it. It must be so I think, otherwise you end up with a book that is divorced from its title. I don't want that. I want the whole thing to work together.
MR: And yet it has a bigger, shadowing meaning behind it. Even 'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit' and the way it get uses as a proverb...
JW: Well people can then play with them and use it themselves as they see fit. Journalists love to do that. Nothing wrong with that, because it gets the book about more widely than it otherwise might be. I think it's pleasure in language. If you care about words, you'll want to have the best words on the front cover won't you?
MR: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - for obvious reasons - is written in the first person, but actually the first person is your favourite mode. Why?
JW: Because it's direct. Because it sets up an intimacy which is and isn't true. People think that you're talking only to them. You're not, of course, because hopefully other people are reading the book at the same time. So there is a little trickery there. But there's also an honesty to it, because reading is a one to one experience. It's a direct connection between reader and writer. It's not the same as going to the cinema or the theatre. It's something that you do privately, silently, no one can see what you're doing, you're not sharing the experience and that does make it peculiarly intimate. I think that's valuable in a world where people have very little private time and space now because it sets up a virtual world of your own. And I like to make that space as close and as secret as I can. I like the reader to feel that for that time, at least, nothing else exists and they are entering a world - a bit like the Ancient Mariner I suppose - where somebody is stopping them on their busy ways and saying 'Listen to this. Here's a story'.
The third person to me always seems rather omnipotent and remote and better left in the nineteenth century where it was done rather well. Some writers use it, but I prefer not to. And if I do use it I usually do so for the purposes of distance, to get away from the kind of intimacy I'm usually aiming for.
MR: In spite of the fact that you're using the first person, it's not monolithic, because you do tend to do this double strand technique. Even in Oranges you have the first person, but then you have the fairy stories interweaving; obviously in The Passion, Henri and Villanelle; the Dog Woman and Jordan in Sexing the Cherry; even in The.Powerbook a story, and then lots of other stories set against it. What's the strength of using this double strand?
JW: I continually break my narratives. Nothing depresses me more than seeing a page with no breaks in it. It's such a lot to read, apart from anything else. I like the spaces and the pauses that you can make. I think it's also important to offer these forceful interruptions to people's concentration, because the problem with a running narrative is that people skip. We all do. You're looking for the story. The language becomes something which simply conveys meaning, and not something in it's own right. I believe it should be something in its own right, and that it needs to be concentrated on, just in the way that poetry does, without looking for the next bit of the story. Otherwise reading becomes faintly pornographic doesn't it? Because you just look for the next bit of excitement. So what I try to do always, is remind the reader that they are reading. That this is something which demands concentration. It's not like watching television. It's a dialogue, and it's not a passive act. It's something which is absolutely active. And just as you would listen to a friend talking to you, so you have to listen to the book and you have to pick up its rhythm and move in the time that it creates. It's very important to get the right tempo and to get the right pace when you're reading somebody's work. Other wise you're likely to read it wrongly simply because you're reading at the wrong speed. One way of helping people to pick up the rhythm is by this variety of form, and use of language which changes as you go along. I don't do it accidentally. Everything that I do is very deliberate in this. And it is about telling a story in such way that, I hope, people will remember it.
Of course some people find this vastly irritating and simply want to skip along and read a monolithic narrative. I feel sorry for them.
MR: At the end of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit we get one of the inset 'fairy stories' as it were, with a character called Winnet Stonejar, which of course is an anagram of Jeanette Winterson. Why is naming such an important topic for you? What is it about the magic of naming that interests you?
JW: Names are places where you pause. They are places where you recognise, they are places that tell you something about where you are. They're not accidental. Whether it's people or states or situations. And I like to play with names. Sometimes I don't use any names at all. Or the names change for the character. In Written on the Body the narrator doesn't have a name. I wanted that narrator to be a kind of Everyman. In Oranges the narrator has my name, because I wanted to invent myself as a fictional character. There has been some confusion around this, because people have thought, 'Well, it must be autobiography'. In part it is. Because all writing is partly autobiography in that you draw on your own experience, but not in a slavish documentary style, but in a way that transforms that experience into something else. I saw myself as a shape-shifting person with many lives, who didn't need to be tied to one life. So it's not been difficult for me to use myself as a fictional character. Other writers do it. Milan Kundera does it, Paul Auster does it. Of course when they do it, it's called 'metafiction'. When women do it, it's called 'autobiography'. Unfortunate.
MR: You've adapted Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit for the television. You've adapted The PowerBook for the stage. You've actually written a screenplay for The Passion. What are the pleasures of adapting your own work? Or are there any pleasures? Are there only difficulties?
JW: Yes. You give it a new life, and of course, for the adaptation of Oranges for the telly, I had to cut out all the fairy stories, and that was right, because the demands of television are very different to the possibilities of the fictional form. It would have weighed it down. As it was, it was three one hour episodes, which is a lot for a book which is only 180 pages or so. But that's just because there's plenty packed in there. When you start unravelling, it becomes a different thing. Television and cinema work best with a simple single narrative stretch. It's hard for it, it's hard for that medium to jump and to shift and to play and to move about. Not least because you have to film it. You have to endlessly set it up and take it down again. It's very cumbersome. You can do it in a single sentence with no effort at all in a book. It involves a crew of 50 when you try and do it on the screen. So I wanted it to be simple. I wanted people to be able to enjoy what it was, and then come back to the book if they were so interested and find the rest there. I never have any worries about that with adaptation. I don't think you need to be faithful to the letter. I just think you need to be faithful to the spirit. And then hope that people will be drawn to the work itself.
And of course it does take on a new life then. It's very exciting to watch it go into somebody else's hands, somebody else's life. When they change it and work with it it's a collaborative venture, and writing's a very solitary venture. So, for somebody who has to sit on their own for a long time, it can be rather exciting to go out in the evening.
MR: Moving on to The Passion - can you remember what was the starting point? What was the key idea?
JW: I wanted to use the past as an invented country. So I knew I was going to land on some moment of history and re-discover it. And I also wanted to play with a double narrative. Having had a single voice in Oranges , I wanted to use two voices - again both in the first person - but contrasting and playing one off against the other. So it was a formal challenge for me, and it was one that I thought would work well with the material because I wanted to have two people in there who were of very different sensibilities whom we could get to know through their, initially separate, journeys which would then come together.
MR: In The Passion you owe most obviously - more obviously than in other places - a debt to another text, which is Calvino's Invisible Cities. But in other works you do use and work through other texts as well. What is it about using one text that already exists, and raiding it, that attracts you so much?
JW: All texts work off other texts. It's a continual re-writing and re-reading of what has gone before, and you hope that you can add something new. There's interpretation as well as creation in everything that happens with books. But for me, working off Calvino was a way of aligning myself with the European tradition where I feel much more comfortable. That's a tradition which uses fantasy and invention and leaps of time of space, rather than in the Anglo-American tradition which is much more realistic in its narrative drive and much more a legacy of the nineteenth century. Modernism here really moved sideways and has been picked up much more by European writers. We lost it completely and went back into something, from the 30's onwards, which was much closer to the nineteenth century fictional form, whereas writers like Borges and Calvino and Perec wanted to go on with those experiments and didn't see Modernism as a cul-de-sac, but as a way forward into other possibilities. I think we need that , I think it's got to be there. The playfulness and the challenge has to be there. We're not telling a story, we're not making a documentary. We're trying to get to some truths about people's lives, which by their very nature are myriad, fragmentary and kaleidoscopic. And I think cannot be best understood by a single narrative thread, however deftly told. For me, there's always something unsatisfactory about that.
MR: You work a great deal with cities as characters....Venice in The Passion, Paris in The.Powerbook, London in Sexing the Cherry...Why do cities appeal to you as they come alive in this way?
JW: Because cities are living things. Peter Ackroyd has talked about this better than anybody else in his biography of London. They are not simply a collection of buildings inhabited by people. They have their own energy, energy which lasts across time, which doesn't simply disappear. It becomes layered like a coal seam. And you can mine it and discover it. So cities are very exciting. They are repositories of the past and they are places where energy is kept locked, and can be tapped, and I think if you are at all sensitive to that, you will pick it up. I used Spitalfields a lot in The PowerBook because that's a place where there is layer upon layer of life from Roman Britain, through Elizabethan times, the Georgian period into the life of the fruit and veg market in the twentieth century, and now into a whole different world where it's part of the City, where it's about money. And all of these things co-exist. It's not that one takes over from the other. It's rather that one is superimposed on the other and the other can be uncovered at any point. And Ackroyd is terribly good at this, both in his fiction and in his biographical writing. It think it's always a mistake to try and lock yourself into any one place or time, because it's simply not how the mind works. The mind always travels, and it travels dimensionally. And those people who say that this is unrealistic are themselves missing the point. Realism isn't simply about this day in the twenty first century where we're alive. Realism is about all of those lives, all of those histories, all of those moments which can be collected and shaped by us. It's the whole picture that I'm interested in, not a part of it. Which is why I get rather cross when people say 'Yes, but you don't write realist narrative'. I do. But it's the whole picture.
MR: What does 'What you risk reveals what you value' mean?
JW: Well I don't know. Everybody likes 'What you risk reveals what you value' don't they? They say it to one another....
MR: What does it mean?
JW: It means......it means...'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree'. [Winterson is quoting T.S. Eliot. This is the first line of Eliot's poem 'Ash Wednesday'. When an inquirer asked him what it 'meant', he made this famous reply.]
MR: What about 'I'm telling you stories. Trust me.' Should we trust you?
MR: I think writers should always be trusted because they are rather like Autolycus in [Shakepeare's] A Winter's Tale, rather dubious characters with pockets full of ribbons and coins and some things of immense value, and some things that are entirely worthless, and you're never quite sure what you might buy from them. You may do well, you may not. But it's the trustworthiness of the unreliable narrator, in that nobody is going to pretend that this is objectivity. Nobody is going to say 'This is how life is'. The writer will say, 'Here's a possibility, here's a set of clues, here's a pattern which may or may be useful to you'. And in those hesitations and gestures, I think, we come closer to a truth than in any possible kind of documentary objectivity. So we trust writers because they are untrustworthy, because they do not claim to have that certainty and that knowledge, but they do claim to have map, passed down from hand to hand, re-drawn, uncertain, but the buried treasure is really there.
MR: You spoke about re-writing a moment of history in The Passion. In Sexing the Cherry you also invent a language for doing that. How difficult was it to create seventeenth century language? How did you go about it?
JW: Well is isn't a real 17th Century language. It's a language which is not that of the present day. It's very annoying when you read what we might call a conventional historical novel and either everybody's going around going 'Zounds!' and 'Aye sir', and their cloaks are fluttering in the wind...or - which is the American way - they sound exactly like we do. Which is irritating, because neither will do. I think all you can do with the past is re-invent it so that people don't feel that they are in a place that they know, because the past is not a place that we know. We weren't there. And no matter what records are given to us, what objects, what stories, what histories, we don't know, because we weren't present. So to get at the past fiction is as likely a way of interpreting it as any. And I do think that history is a collection of found objects washed up through time, and that some of them we do hook out, and others we ignore. And as the pattern changes, the meaning changes. We are continually understanding our past in a different way because we are continually re-interpreting it and fiction does that very well. But you can only do it well if you let some freedom in for the imagination. You can't do it well if you're trying to lock yourself slavishly into your notion of the past - which will not be true anyway. Or if you're making the past into the present, but in a silly wig and a different costume.
MR: You are a writer of poetry who happens to work in prose. Do you have any technical rules for creating imagery, metaphor, figure?
JW: Well I don't think of myself as poet. I think of myself as somebody who tries to use poetic disciplines and align them in a narrative stretch. But what interests me is that every word should do its work. I'm not happy for words simply to convey meaning. It can if it's journalism and it's perfectly all right if you're doing a particular kind of record or memoir, but it's not all right in fiction, because fiction itself demands a vividness and a transparency which is only possible through an exactness of language. It must not be cloudy. The words themselves mustn't be muffled or people won't be able to hear them properly. Using just any word will not do. You have to able to justify to yourself each word that you choose and make sure that it is doing its work in the sentence, and that sentence in the paragraph, and that paragraph in that part of the story. If you can't do that, then it means that some language has slipped away from you, and that language will not work on the reader, because you haven't made it work in its own right. It has to be muscular. It has to be agile and quick, it can't be sloppy. And we think that we can use words because we use them all the time, but we use words all the time in a very everyday, approximate way in order to convey our needs and wants, and that's not what fiction is. Fiction isn't approximate, it's precise. And that's why I get angry when I read things which seem not to care about that at all, because it just becomes journalism by another name, and indeed the best journalism is much more precise than quite a lot of fiction.
MR: You have said that Sexing the Cherry is a meditation on T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. How?
JW: It's about time. It's about the nature of time, and time is one of the things that I'm obsessed with...What it is, how it affects us, how it moves through us, how we move through it. And so I took that poem as a starting point to explore. And of course the river runs through Four Quartets and there's always water in my work, but the river runs through Sexing the Cherry, the river Thames is very important there. Just as it is in Virginia Woolf's Orlando. We use these things because they come, already full of meaning. It was Peter Ackroyd who said in his Dickens biography that simply to introduce the Thames into a book is to bring with it all of that weight of history which has gone before, and I was trying to do that. I was using it literally and metaphorically as a place where time could flow.
MR: At the end of Sexing the Cherry there is a meditation about the future, there's a reverie about what the future means. How it draws us, the city that is beyond...What does the future mean to you?
JW: The future is a place no one can go, until it becomes the present. And the present is made up of so many tiny decisions that then become significant and cumulative. For me, it doesn't matter what the future brings, it matters how we live now, and it matters that we are conscious of the moment that we are in, and we make it vital, as we ourselves should be vital. To use the future as an escape, which is increasingly what's happening, is sad, because you lose the moment, and what fiction always does is hold you in the moment, though that moment is then endlessly expanded in a very Walter Pater type way. You add more beats to your life by being able to concentrate completely in the present. It's the aim of all mysticism, possibly of all spirituality, to be here now. Very few of us can do it. The future is always luring us away and the past is always tormenting us...the things we didn't do, the things that we long to do. But really, this is the only time we've got. And when you sit down to work, you know that fully. Because you are in the moment, you cannot be in any other moment, because either you're concentrating completely on what you're doing, or you're not doing it at all. So I think it's a great privilege for a writer because you have a freedom that few people ever experience. You really are in the place, at the moment, but that moment itself is fully expanded because you are travelling in time and in imagination to all sorts of other moments. In itself, the act of writing is proof that time is neither constant nor straited...that it is this vast moving thing, entity, energy, that none of us can fully realise and that our only chance is to inhabit as best we can.
MR: The PowerBook, in so many ways, works and re-works a lot of your themes, a lot of your ideas. What would you say your key themes are?
JW: Oh, boundaries, desire, time, identity. I suppose what the stories can tell us. I'm always trying to understand life as a story - we talked about that. But I don't know what I do next because I haven't done it. I only know what I have already done, and you can see patterns emerging, but it's very important not to get locked into them. So those themes are there, and possibly I will go on exploring them, but I wouldn't want to be slave to them, any more than I want to be a slave to anything else.
MR: Why do you quote yourself in your work?
JW: Because all the books speak to each other. They are only separate books because that's how they had to be written. I see them really as one long continuous piece of work. I've said that the seven books make a cycle or a series, and I believe that they do from Oranges to The PowerBook . And they interact and themes do occur and return, disappear, come back amplified or modified, changed in some way, because it's been my journey, it's the journey of my imagination, it's the journey of my soul in those books. So continually they must address one another. And you don't know that at the time. You only know that when you've done enough of them. But that's why I say it is a series, and that's also why I say it's finished now with The PowerBook and there has to be new beginning. Whether or not I'll go on quoting myself in this new beginning, I don't know.
MR: And when you were working on the adaptation of The PowerBook for the stage, did that turn it into a completely new work?
JW: No. The weighting of it changed because it had to for the things that we decided to emphasise or to drop. There had to a narrative in that there had to be something that happened over the 90 minutes. It has to be an emotional journey. It's particularly important when you've got a finite piece of time. When you read a book you can take as long or an short a time as you like. When you go to the theatre or the cinema, the thing is going to unfold before you in the time allotted, the 90 minutes. So it's a different approach. And it was necessary to re-work The PowerBook to fit that space. We were very conscious that it shouldn't be too long, and we wanted to wrap a moving story - the story of a love affair - around certain iconic moments, like Paolo and Francesca, Lancelot and Guenevere, the story of Mallory, and that was the choice. I think it worked well. And it was also a way of setting against each other things that are formulaic possibilities in the book, between having something which is a story that stands on its own, and a narrative that moves through the whole piece.
MR: You have a particular public profile beyond that of being a literary writer - especially through your website and through your Guardian columns. What 's important to you about that role? Do you feel a public responsibility?
JW: I do now. I think as you get older and you carry on being published, you have to have a public role because people look to you, especially when times are difficult, for some sort of guidance or light. I think this may be a very bad thing, but nevertheless it's what happens. And I think you have to be able to speak carefully and honestly and well about the issues of your own time, however controversially, and about the thing that you do - which is, in my case, write books. I am quite happy to fulfil that role, the only thing that troubles me is that, more and more, we want other people to speak for us, rather than thinking things through for ourselves. That's the only danger. And of course people get very cross with you if you don't agree with them, or if you don't think in the way that they think. They can take that very personally.
MR: Does that bother you?
JW: No, it doesn't bother me. Because it can't bother me. I think that any public figure is going to be controversial in some way and simply, you meet the challenge as it comes. The Website is used extensively, and people argue continually with the columns or they get cross with me because I hold some view which they consider to be completely unreasonable. Sometimes they say, 'Well now we know you think like this, we'll never read your books again'. The truth is that if we needed people to think the way that we did before we read their books, we should have to give up reading altogether. There are very few writers with whom one can agree, certainly in the past. I don't suppose for a minute that I would get on with T.S. Eliot. But I don't have to. Any more than people have to get on with me, or even like me. What we hope simply is that there will be an excitement about reading the books, because in some way it challenges or it chimes with somebody else's thinking.
MR: I know what the Website does for readers of your work. What does it do for you?
JW: I do the Website completely as a public service because I think I should. And I'm one of the few writers anywhere who runs a Website like that. It is expensive in terms of my time, and it costs several hundred pounds a month to keep the site going. It costs a few thousand pounds a year to re-vamp it. And I don't get any money back for that, but I do it because I know that there are people all over the world who see the Internet as a genuine resource, and who want to know more about my work and who can't always get my work. They want to read the journalism, or think about some of the issues, and there's a message board up there now where people can talk to each other. They like that. This is the world we live in. It's no good saying, 'I won't communicate in this way', because more and more people will communicate in that way and people want you to have a Web presence.
MR: Has it changed your attitude to writing?
JW: No, not at all. I don't think technology can change your attitude. I think it's simply something that you use or not, depending on where you live in the world and how you live in the world. The Web doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that people should go on having creative ideas and go on producing interesting work. How they do it, and how they disseminate it is really unimportant. I don't care if books end up being electronic, or they end up being as they are now, paper between covers. What matters is what's in them, and not necessarily the form that they take.
MR: When Mark Hogarth bought your name [along with several other well known literary names] and set up a Website - apart from obvious practical reasons - why did that make you angry?
JW: It made me angry because I felt he had no right to cash in on other people's work, and he was not the best person then to be having an official site which people would assume was somehow authorised or blessed by the author in some way, and he could have put anything he liked up there, and it would have been very difficult to do anything about it. But I also felt that one has a right to one's own name. And I do in particular. I have made my name, from nothing at all, and it belongs to me. Very little in this life belongs to you. But your name should. Especially if that's what you're known by throughout the world, and for your work. And it absolutely didn't belong to him. So I felt it was a kind of robbery. Which is why I was determined that he should fail.
MR: So your name's your own again?
JW: Yes. Completely.
Vintage Living Texts
Margaret Reynolds, Jonathan Noakes
'One of a series introducing some of the most exciting works in contemporary fiction. This volume deals with the themes, genre and narrative techniques employed by Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, The Passion, Sexing the Cherry and The.Powerbook. It also features an interview with the author, detailed reading plans, questions for essays and discussion, contextual materials, suggested texts for complementary and comparative reading, a picture essay, extracts from reviews, a biography, and a reading list of literary criticism'.
Paperback 204 pages (February 9, 2003)
Buy from Amazon.co.uk