September 6 2000
Into cyberspace: Jeanette Winterson tells Rachel Campbell-Johnston why there's no time like now
Well yes, I was apprehensive about meeting Jeanette Winterson. I had read too much about her not to feel qualms. There were all those those half-remembered stories: about her barging in on a dinner party to lambast a journalist who had displeased her, about her claims to write as well as Shakespeare, about coteries of sycophants, about her black housemaid - you name it, and there seemed to be tittle-tattle to match.
"She'll probably make a pass at you" a couple of well-wishers (male ones) advised. And that, I suppose, was what first made me suspect. No one has ever said as much when I was off to interview a man. And doesn't that betray a certain prejudice? For all the liberated opinions which the modern age professes, a giggling suspicion still confronts the gay woman. Winterson's reputation has probably borne the brunt of that.
Not that she seems much perturbed by the gossip any more. "Some writers are just magnets for rumours," she says. "It happens around Martin Amis. It happens around me. And in a way it's okay, because controversy over the work is healthy. But on a personal level it's a bit of a bore. Sometimes I have to calm down friends who get over protective. I have to remind them that it's just a construct, is not to be taken seriously."
Still, I feel that some effort should be made to put the record straight, because the Winterson that I met was open and warm, sparkling with the convictions that her laughter brings to life. Where was the woman without irony? Where was the arrogant queen of the coterie? Rather like the black housemaid, she simply doesn't exist. Instead, here was a woman who reminded me of nothing so much as some rufty-tufty terrier, a struggling ball of energy which refuses to stay still. Throw her the red rubber ball of a question and she is off, so fast she's almost tripping over her skidadelling tongue. She retrieves the answer with a wide grin.
Sure, she believes in Northern straight speaking. She is tenacious in arguments (too tenacious, she admits). She believes in expressing her feelings, she doesn't mind a spat, but as soon as it's over it's forgotten. "I don't bear grudges," she says.
In life as in art, she always moves on. She wins an audience with one book, then shifts territory and loses it again. "Some readers get very cross," she says. Reviewers often do too. "I don't care, the reviews can't change it," she says. "You've written your book, trusted it and decided to put it out there, and what comes next shouldn't enter into that. So not caring about reviews isn't about arrogance. It's simply about deciding at the start what you're going to do and then keeping faith with it."
Her latest novel, The.PowerBook, a passionate series of linked love stories set in cyberspace, is as progressive as her core of loyal readers have come to expect. "To avoid discovery I stay on the run. To discover things for myself I stay on the run," this new book opens. The words have a heartfelt ring. "You must always push yourself on," says Winterson. "A formula gets in the way of any real confrontation."
"In the 21st century we simply can't be writing 19th-century novels," she says. "The book can't be static if it wants to stay alive." That is one of the reasons why she wanted to write something new based around the cyber element of life. "It was beginning to fascinate me, it was becoming so much a part of everybody's thinking. The Web isn't about the end of culture, as some people say. It's the new beginning."
Winterson sees this new century and its technological advances as an inspiration for art. "The doomsayers just got it wrong," she declares. "I've been waiting for the 21st century for the last 40 years. This is the century I want to be in. It feels full of optimism and change, and for the writer the opportunities are limitless."
She has a proselytising faith in her ideas. "Remember I was brought up as a preacher," she explains (her autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, tells her story as an orphan adopted by evangelists). "The old gospel tenet still looms. I do a lot of public performances. It's like throwing a golden lassoo around the people, drawing them in, making some sort of magic between you. So, in a way, although it's about a one to one dialogue, it's also about a public space, which is very much what this 21st century is about: how you reach people through a kind of mass communication."