Jeanette Winterson took off like a meteor with her magical first novel but then fell to earth under the weight of vitriolic personal attack. Now, strength regathered, her passion for married women unquenched, she's launched herself into the cyber age with her new novel. Is she still the monstrous ego of legend? Libby Brooks finds out.
Tell a story about Jeanette Winterson. Once there was a girl with a gift. This girl sprang from nowhere. Nowhere taught few niceties to its daughters, and the journey elsewhere had made her tough, so when her gift drew fame and fortune she couldn't respond in the proper way. She wasn't grateful. She was proud. And worst of all, she loved her gift so intensely that she made the mistake of assuming others would love it for its own sake. Instead, they burned her.
Begin again. Once there was a girl with an ego. She made a fuss about where she came from (this girl was working class). She believed her writing could save the world (this girl was a megalomaniac). In fact, it was pretentious and undisciplined (this girl called herself an artist). She was cruel, controlling and sexually manipulative (this girl was a lesbian). And as her work sagged with self-indulgence, the ego became more monstrous still, until she burnt out.
Tell a truth about Jeanette Winterson. She doesn't foster indifference. But the truth is many-minded, and the easiest facts mislead. Where does she end and the story around her begin? How does reputation happen?
"It's no secret that the 90s weren't a great decade for me, so maybe that's why I'm glad they're gone," says Winterson, neat and tiny in the parlour of the east London house she renovated from derelict, and which remains her occasional city base.
"If you come through that with your joy returned to you... " the phrase tangles, and she pauses. It's jarring - she normally speaks demandingly swiftly, in complete and perfectly grammatical sentences. The period she is describing with such elliptical rawness followed the publication of Art And Lies, her sixth novel, in 1994. Almost a decade after the rapturous reception of her debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, in 1985, the primacy of Winterson's image was swiftly outflanking her own modernist agenda of the primacy of the text. The evangelical fervour of her childhood, which she used as a basis for Oranges, had transmuted into an absurd, messianic self-belief in adulthood, it was said.
The exuberance and experimentalism of The Passion (1987) and Sexing The Cherry (1989) were soon subsumed within her own weighty prophesies. In the 1991 introduction to Orange's reissue with publishers Vintage, she dismissed the notion that hers was straightforward semi-autobiography: "[it is] an experimental novel: its interests are anti-linear. It offers a complicated narrative structure disguised as a simple one, it employs a very large vocabulary and a beguilingly straightforward syntax... Oranges is a threatening novel." Meanwhile, she was demanding chauffeur-driven transport on book tours, and declaring herself the natural heir to Virginia Woolf in a Late Show special on TV.
She next told a tabloid interviewer that the relationship in 1992's Written On The Body was based on her own affair with her married agent, outing the woman in question. She then nominated that book as her Book Of The Year in a Sunday newspaper, and the following year nominated herself as her favourite living author. She "sacked" a close friend, apparently because she felt that her high-profile position in the media was corrupting her.
Having left her British agent, she formed her own company to look after her UK interests, and surrounded herself with a "coven" of close female friends, including her partner, the broadcaster and academic Margaret Reynolds, who left her husband for Winterson. In 1994, following the publication of Art And Lies, she doorstepped a journalist who had written a critical profile of her, in which she suggested that her splendid isolation was affecting her writing.
She was outrageous; her sins writ large, time and again, from the monolith of the cuttings file, ego without irony, action without context. Nor was she safely outrageous. Winterson may have invited a sharp response with her swank and insensitivity, but the judgment that followed bit far deeper - at her eccentric lifestyle, her sexuality, her unfeminine choices, her humourless determination to take her work seriously. The backlash was ferocious, her next two fiction works greeted with blanket hostility and ridicule.
"It's one of the reasons I left London [to live in Gloucestershire full-time, in 1994]. I wanted to retreat completely and find a different space for myself. It was a moment of transition, when I said, 'Am I going to go on, can I go on, is there any point going on?' And I thought I wouldn't for about two years. I couldn't write anything, couldn't do anything. I just carried on doing the only thing I could think of, which was reading books, listening to opera and going to look at pictures. I thought, 'This will heal me. I have my own medicine, and if I really believe in this as much as I say I do, I'll just have to wait for it to change its course.'"
She doesn't blame other people, she says evenly. "I'm responsible as much as the press are. By the time the early 90s came, I'd done three books, won a Bafta, been published all over the world - there was bound to be trouble, and I didn't handle it well. I shouldn't have got as angry as I did. Criticism is not personal, it happens to everyone, but I didn't understand that. It keyed into all my own insecurities and anxieties, thinking that I shouldn't be here, this isn't what I'm meant for. Then, to defend yourself against that, you get caught in a kind of arrogance that says, 'No I am good enough, just fuck off.' You get very angry and defensive. I had a lot of rows with people."
Begin again. "I feel I've been waiting for the 21st century all my life." At the age of 41, Winterson - never knowingly lukewarm - hails cyberspace with a zealot's tongue. "It feels exciting, risky, it just feels new. I love the web. I love email, I like the swiftness of it. It's always been an irritation to me that you can't communicate as swiftly as you can think. I love the thought that there are no obvious barriers between us, and I like the pretence of it."
Winterson recently won a ruling against a Cambridge academic who had registered her domain name and those of other authors on the internet, and plans to launch her own website, in conjunction with the publication of her new novel, The.PowerBook.
"The domain name business was like being taken by the scruff of the neck and forced into a serious learning curve," she says. "I've always had the philosophy, because it's been true for me, that no matter how bad a thing is, some good will come out of it for yourself. If it hadn't happened, maybe I'd have been slower on the uptake. Where it will end, I don't know. I imagine I'll probably do everything on it eventually." Is it easier to dissemble in cyberspace? "Oh yes!" She twists her adolescent frame around the chair excitedly. Dressed in black and white, with wire hair and fussless face, she is less mannish than femininity-free. "The potential for trouble is high," she adds with relish. "But also I think the sense of the expanding self is exciting, the thought that you're not locked into the way you look, the way you talk, your social position, even your gender. You can play with all those things in a way that can be quite liberating."
The.PowerBook does just that. The story of an e-writing lover and her (married) lass, it is threaded with Winterson's usual high concerns - the nature of time, love and gender, the knightly quest for the grail and the journey that maps it - but pulls back from the grandiose involution of her recent work. Hyper-eloquence at bay, her lean reworkings of Written On The Body and Oranges anchor denser references to TS Eliot, Woolf and Dante, while fluent contemporary characterisation balances archetype. Language remains beloved, but is no longer fetishised.
The.PowerBook, she says, brings together everything she has done so far: the story and the language, the linear and the multiple. "I'm trying to do it all, and nobody can, but I don't mind. I don't want to read a page of print which is really just printed television, or where the words aren't doing the work." This is her journey. "I love 19th century fiction, but I don't want to read reproductions. If we're not moving fiction forward, we're not doing anything with it. And if art's not moving forward, it ceases to be connected to the past. You have to risk failing. Nobody expects science to stay in the same place, but everybody moans like fuck when people start doing new things in art."
There is no such thing as autobiography, she wrote in a previous novel, there's only art and lies. What's the difference? "I believe in art as the true means of not telling the truth. You're not setting out to deceive. You're setting out to find an ultimate reality. Lies are just lies. They're deceptions that you create for yourself or others, and most of us live our life in a lie from beginning to end, because it's comfortable. What art tries to do is cut through all that and come up with something that really is objective, and which is trying all at once to deal with the mundane tables-and-chairs world of the everyday and also with imaginative and psychic worlds which we know are there and which we so often split off.
"I try not to tell lies to people I love, and I try not to tell lies where it matters, but I will sacrifice a fair bit of fact if I can tell a good story," she laughs. "It's being lashed to facts that I'm not interested in. I want the elbow room. It's not just the stories you make up yourself, it's the stories people make up about you. Never mind being a character in your own book, you become a character in your own life. All of that you weave in yourself, and you stop minding about it. I've come to see the whole thing now as one giant story, which I'm sometimes in control of but mostly not."
Life's the messy bit, she says, art is where we have the chance of getting it right. Experience through art is as important as anything that happens in life. In The.PowerBook, a storyteller weaves himself into his stories: "What he is, what he invents, becomes part of the same story..." Does she filter her own life through her writing? "I do. Otherwise [the emotions] are in an inchoate condition where they're not much use to me and they're certainly no use to anybody else. It's only by endlessly filtering and refining, like pushing water through limestone to extract the impurities, that you're left with the emotion which then becomes useful to other people as well as to yourself." Art and life, she says, are completely intertwined.
But whose life? While she accepts that art is not classless, she appears to be more concerned with the effort people make with it than the access they have to it. And she demands that effort from those who read her, as well as their submission. Nothing has changed since the tease she set down in her third novel, The Passion: "I'm telling you stories. Trust me."
Winterson is often accused of showing contempt for her readers and, by extension, contempt for the ordinary, of lacking imaginative empathy with the everyday, and preferring to explore her own rarefied vision than the world around her. She doesn't like it when people don't try, she responds. "I'm not interested in laziness, sloppiness, or bad manners. Sometimes that makes people cross. But I really care about this art business. I can't take it anything but seriously. It's everything to me. But I have no contempt for ordinary people. I'm not a middle-class wanker. I've made myself into what I am, because it's what I wanted to be. I am convinced that if anyone wants to make that effort, then all these things are as open to them as they are to me." It's rigidly Old Testament, as well as deeply Thatcherite. It also exhibits a strange kind of generosity for a woman so self-consciously self-made.
She tells me later that she voted for Thatcher in 1979, when she had just been accepted to Oxford University. "She really believed that everyone could pull themselves together if they were given the opportunity. I'd just got into Oxford, and I thought, 'Of course, working-class kid gets in, it'll all be like this now.' But I don't think that now," she acknowledges, contradicting her earlier brimstone on the primacy of effort. (This happens a couple of times during our conversation, when she gets carried away with the joy of a thought, a delicious yarn, or a fervent rant, and dances over rigour. Or is she just teasing the truth?) She now accepts that ability also plays its part in achievement. "But I still don't think that's any excuse for general laziness," she nips.
Naturally, she is ambitious for her work, she says. "I want it to be really good. I have to be able to hold my head up, I have to feel that I'm doing the very best that I can. It doesn't matter to me how other people think it measures up. You have to set those high standards. You have to care about it." Later in the conversation, she adds that it will be another 20 years before anyone can judge whether her work is worthwhile. "If it's good, it'll last the course, if it's not good, let it go. I think that the work I'm doing is making a difference, but in the end everybody else has got to be the judge of that." Is this another reckless contradiction, or does she trust the judgment of the future more than that of the present? "I'll be satisfied. It's worked for me. This is the life I wanted. I'm very lucky. I don't know what it'll look like in the end, but I intend to live a very long time so I can see.
"Sometimes I feel I've done something really good and I'm pleased," she says. "Other times I look at it and I can see all the gaps but I can't do anything about it. I'm pleased with The.PowerBook. It was hard to do, and it fulfils the goals that I set for myself." She trails off. "I hate talking about this because people always misinterpret it as vanity."
Would you like her to be simply vain? Can you hear the phrases stressed with vulnerability as clearly as those delivered with swagger? She loves words. Her love is ruthless, romantic, not nice. It is complex, and so is she.
Born near Manchester, in 1959, Winterson was the adopted daughter and only child of Elim Pentecostalists, a fringe evangelical church which teaches every word of the Bible to be literally true. Her father was a factory worker, her mother a housewife, who raised the young Jeanette to be a missionary. Her extraordinary childhood - culturally void, emotionally sterile, obscenely Godly - forms the basis of the Whitbread Prize-winning Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which she later adapted for the BBC. At the age of 16, she was publicly denounced by her church after they discovered that she was having a lesbian affair. She left home, took A-levels at a local technical college, and supported herself doing odd jobs, before going to St Catherine's College, Oxford, to study English.
The portrait of her adoptive mother in Oranges is neither cruel nor kind, it is loveless but tempered with an odd, accommodating respect. When I ask a question about her mother, I am immediately corrected. "Mrs Winterson?" She stares at me, daring shock. She has vivid eyes. "It was never going to work between us. I don't know what fate put me with her, or her with me, but at least I was able to use all that and make something of it. Whereas for her it was just purgatory. She was a very unhappy woman. And I was a happy child. In a way, the battle between us was the battle between happiness and unhappiness."
The language is clean, disconnected. The woman who brought her up is character, translated into archetype, and not felt. Mrs Winterson, estranged from Jeanette since she left home, died soon after the television screening of Oranges. She was reportedly devastated by the portrayal of her daughter's childhood. Does Winterson feel any guilt for that now? "No," lobs back, with teenage challenge. Nor does she regret hurting her adoptive father, with whom she continues to correspond occasionally. "You can't have regrets. I wanted it to be made, and I think it's good, and you can't not do things because one person's not going to like it. That would be ruthlessness I suppose.
"But also, remember one of the things she was particularly miffed about was that she thought it was all not true, but I never said it was true anyway." She laughs at her cleverness. It's an ugly moment. "Oranges isn't autobiography. It's a way of using yourself and the past to create a fiction around all of that. When Paul Auster and Milan Kundera put themselves in their work it's called metafiction, when I do it it's autobiography." Art and life, completely intertwined. In the circumstances, I doubt if Mrs Winterson cared about metafiction. Art and life, a literary term in the feelings gap.
The Wintersons, or their metafictitious representations, resurface in The.PowerBook as Mr and Mrs Muck, the parents of the narrator. The passages detailing their relationship have none of the diverting bravado of Oranges. They are flayed raw. "I stopped being angry a long time ago," she says. "But it's all still there. When I was writing stuff in The.Powerbook, I was a bit surprised. It had to come out." Her buttery Lancashire vowels draw tight. "It was about settling an old score as well. Oranges had become so mythologised, even to the absurd point where people would say how lucky I was to have such a childhood. I needed to write something one more time about the particular kind of pain that was there."
In the new novel, she also writes achingly for the first time about her birth mother. "I was working in Cornwall at the time, I had a high fever and I was on my own. All this stuff was coming up, and I thought, 'You can let go of this.' And it was letting everything go. It was from that time, in March 1999, that I really felt the bad period [since Art And Lies] was over. That was the end of it. The fever went, I got up, wrote all that stuff down much as you read it now. I thought, 'Good, I think I've got to the bottom of the heap here', and went home."
She has never attempted to contact her birth mother. "It would be a huge mistake. She made the choice she did. I've been in the public eye, and she knows what my name is. Some things are over before they start. Family life is a bit of a mystery to me. I don't understand it. I have no experience of such feelings, so I'm pretty sure I haven't got them. Clearly, family life isn't for me. Maybe it's what keeps me focused, and in the early days what kept me ruthless. Because you have to be ruthless to fight your way up. I didn't have to worry about anyone. I didn't feel I owed anybody anything. Once I left home, I thought, 'I'm on my own, I always have been in effect, and now I have to get on with it and make it happen.'"
There is human sadness here, no matter how she words it as indifference. There is ugliness and randomness that she will re-write as beauty and control, for herself, for her readers. What could family life have taught her? Without the lesson, she writes for belonging, for certainties, to make herself new and to keep herself all her own work.
Yet, despite this uncharacteristic deferral to circumstance, her emotional life is hardly void. Her friends all employ the same descriptives: difficult, loyal, worth it. "I give a lot, but I demand a lot," says Winterson. "I suppose because I never had a family as such, my friends are my family. So all the things you would expect in a family circle, where people really go at it but know that they really love each other, is what happens to me with my friends. I've lost friends, there are some that I regret and that are totally my fault. There have been times in my life when I've just wanted everything different, and I've walked away. And that's hard."
What violence must that singular quest for renewal do to softer hearts? In Winterson legend, sexually she was ever the Casanova, particularly where married women were concerned. She is not a pretty thing, nor is she superficially flirtatious, but one can imagine the force of her, the desire to be drawn into her, must be compulsive.
There is a yarn about Winterson involving saucepans. In 1997, to much attendant media moistness, she divulged that, when she first arrived in London as a boyish twentysomething, she serviced frustrated married women from the Home Counties in hotel rooms off Knightsbridge and Sloane Square. Having minimal access to the hard stuff, they paid her in Le Creuset.
The hilarity - of the story, of the telling of the story - tickles her still. " That was funny. It got blown up out of all proportion, but it was such a good story!" The kernel is true, she concedes, before adding, tantalisingly, "and I do have an awful lot of pans. Even now, if we get a big one with risotto stuck to the bottom, I say to Peggy, 'You've no idea how hard I had to work for that, and look what you've done to it...' - and I get biffed. It got all dressed up as lesbian prostitution, which it really wasn't. It was simply to do with a very strange and particular time which couldn't happen now, with ladies leading double lives. I was very young. They just wanted to buy me presents, and I needed cookware."
As in her art, so in her life, married women have appeared frequently. "I've always had a strange attraction to and for them. I think it's a kind of pleasure and danger thing." Did it stem from a fear of involvement on her part? There is no lover so tempting to the commitment-phobe as the already-partnered partner. "No, I hate it. I mind subterfuge. I made it clear to Peggy that I couldn't get involved with her while she was married [the pair have now been together for 11 years]. She had to leave for her own reasons, and I wasn't promising to be there. Which is a bit brutal, but I'd had enough of all that. Peggy left and found me again. I thought that was incredibly brave and completely honest. It's actually the only proper way to proceed."
Her sense of the proper is endearing, her lust for control confronting. She sets up the sexual, and therefore gendered, choices in her life like ladder rungs. "Kids don't leave home at 16 because they've fallen in love with another girl. That's a big either/or choice. But I wanted that more than I wanted any of the other things that were on offer. I don't put stability and comfort very high up the list anyway, they're not worth sacrificing anything for. So I suppose I became a conscious sexual being, thinking I'd made a choice for another person that I desired early on, and that continued, because it was a way of understanding myself and who I was, and of laying claim to the world. It was about power, but not about power over other people. I wanted power over myself, and I used sex to find that. It told me who I was in a very straightforward way. I went through boys, girls, at random and whenever I could, because I just thought the more the better."
Lesbianism is another choice, she tells me. "It's very fashionable at the moment to say that everything is genetic, but it's a choice that I made quite consciously. I don't have any problems going to bed with men, don't dislike it, don't dislike them. I could choose, and with women I was able to get on with my life and do my work, and I'm not sure that I would have been able to do that if I'd been heterosexual. I feel like I didn't make a problem for myself, I made a solution. I knew I never wanted any kids. It would take up all my time because I would have to do it properly.
"Femininity is a construct," she continues, "and I don't trust it. I think it's still difficult for women to be themselves in the way that men can, without any regard for what's happening around them. There is still that self-consciousness in women, that they are women, which is hampering. It's very difficult to do good work if you're self-conscious. It's not arrogance, it's straightforward single-mindedness, which people accept in men."
Tell a truth about Jeanette Winterson. She divides like Moses and the Red Sea. Phoning round for context before I met her, I had never encountered such definitives: a sociopath, a seducer, fiercely loyal, impossibly demanding, a bitch, a blessing. For so many certainties, she must be a mystery. I was warned: she'll flirt, she'll charm, she'll give you what you want.
So who did I meet? A brilliant child, compelling and easily bored, who one is moved to protect. A woman for whom self is absolute, keen and knowingly dissembling, who has found her place of safety behind the words. No comfort, no coward. She must be a bugger to love. She's probably worth it. Older now, more even, she is delighted by her life: her horses and her haybales, country domesticity and her beautiful woman, though she teases that she may take a mistress in the future "now that the 40s are the new 30s". She'll never know when to stop.
In The PowerBook, she writes: "In this life you have to be your own hero. By that I mean you have to win whatever it is that matters to you by your own strength and in your own way."
Tell a story about Jeanette Winterson. She'll match you.