AT 43 YEARS OLD, Jeanette Winterson looks back on a slew of books and an offbeat childhood. Adopted by Pentecostal evangelist parents in Northern England, she was obliged to leave home at 16 when her mother learned she was having a lesbian affair. She went on to write Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), The Passion (1987), Sexing the Cherry (1989), Art and Lies (1994) and The.Powerbook (2000). Her intriguing Web site (www.jeanettewinterson.com) contains examples of her prolific journalism on literature, the arts and gender politics as published in such newspapers as The Guardian and The London Times. An avid book collector and devotee of opera, ballet and champagne, Ms. Winterson is wintering in Manhattan where Benjamin Ivry caught up with her on the Upper West Side.
BI: Did your early experience with evangelical preaching give you verbal power?
JW: Yes, because I was brought up in an oral tradition, not a literary tradition,and this has enormous strength because you have to listen to the words themselves and hear the language, the way poets work - words are not simply vehicles that convey meaning.
BI: One reader wrote on the Amazon.com site - about your book 'Art and Lies' - 'This is my bible.' Do you want any of your books to be 'bibles'?
JW: My readers do tend to polarize into love it or hate it. Maybe it's because I was brought up as a missionary, it makes you determined in your work. I believe art is about changing the way people think, not just an entertainment or luxury.
BI: When you adapted your novel 'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit' into a prize-winning TV film, was it a complete re-imagining?
JW: A re-imagining - that's exactly right. It became in some ways more naturalistic than the book, but I think you have to adapt the work to the medium. I like to muddle up the real and inventive, historical and present. I didn't want to tell the story of myself, but of someone I called myself. If you read yourself as fiction, it's rather more liberating than reading yourself as fact.
BI: You are a big fan of Virginia Woolf's novels, especially 'The Waves.' Did you like the recent movie adaptation 'The Hours?'
JW: I loved it - thought it was a wonderful film, not least because it's a pleasure to hear a script that is not banal. Not only has Virginia Woolf become an icon, but her work has become a metaphor - she seems to sum up an age, speaking for her own sex and for the imagination.
BI: Your 'The World and Other Places' contains the story 'The 24-Hour Dog,' about a woman writer who returns a puppy she had wanted to adopt, saying she had prepared for everything 'except for those two essentials that could not be calculated: his heart and mine.' How long does it take to know a dog's heart - or one's own?
JW: Certainly a lifetime for one's own, but a dog's can be a little quicker. There's a new law in Colorado that upgrades dogs from pets to companions. If someone runs over your dog, you can sue them as if they had run over your companion. Soon you'll able to marry your dog. God bless America.
BI: You've praised the American science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin as 'the first person since Tolkien to create an authentic habitable world.' Was she an influence?
JW: Yes, she was. I read her Earthsea trilogy and was enthralled and have always wanted to make those authentic closed worlds that run by their own laws and are wholly believable. That's why I wrote 'The Passion,' to use history as an invented place where the imagination might inhabit and move freely.
BI: In a recent article about Posh Spice, aka Victoria Beckham, you asked, 'Is she a nice girl way out of her depth, or is she a shallow bitch?'
JW: I don't think she's an effective role model for young people. She hasn't got any talent, which is a problem in our wannabe culture, in which success has become an end in itself, instead of by product of talent. Young people say they want to be famous, not famous for anything, just famous. Success is not a thing in itself, but comes from deep inside when you want to push forward and make a difference.
MN: When Joan Collins married a man half her age, you applauded her for 'reinventing herself.' You've written, 'What you risk reveals what you value.' What did Ms. Collins risk?
JW: She risked ridicule and she got plenty of that, because we still find it strange that a woman should marry a man 30 years her junior, but not the other way around. The British press was unkind. Women do get stuck in patterns of behavior and sexuality and think they cannot be attractive unless they look a certain way. Men's status rests on their power, while women's status rests on their looks.