At last it’s here, and it’s the story of the overwhelming presence of one mother - Mrs Winterson, and the overwhelming absence of the other mother - my birth mother.
It is the back-story to ORANGES. It is a true story that is also a cover-version. Life going forward allows us to re-read life backwards; we understand ourselves differently at different stages in life. We make ourselves up as we go along. That doesn’t mean we lie; it means that identity is not congruent with experience. What happens to us, what we happen to, can be understood in so many different ways. No two people will tell a story in the same way. And we don’t tell our own story in the same way every time. We can’t, because it isn’t the same story. The emphasis changes. Something we never thought of before suddenly becomes more important than all the rest. We start to tell the story of ourselves and feel it changing because we have changed.
I didn’t set out to write this book 25 years after ORANGES. There was no plan. And it has always been my rule not to sell a book before it is written. I did this when I was poor, and I do it still. So there was no publisher to please, no deadline.
What happened was strange. I sat down to see what would come out, and 2 weeks later I had 14,000 words. That told me that there was a book ready to be written and that I should go with the flow of that energy.
While I was actually writing the book I was in the process of tracing my birth mother. I had no idea what would happen there, and a late point in the book I was writing in real time. I added the CODA after the Proof stage, which is pretty late.
Life does not come in neat parcels. Life is messy and unexpected. One of the things that fiction does best is to leave the messiness while creating a narrative that gives some sense to this underlying craziness. It is not so much that what we do is crazy (though often that is true) but that life itself is inherently chaotic. This is better understood than ignored or denied. Life is as it is. What we can do is find a pattern that works for us; a pattern out of all the possible patterns. Human beings need meaning. To invent a meaning is not deception. The meaning is the meaning we invent.
I am self-invented. All adopted children are. We have no choice. I am not saying that many others are not self-invented too - just making a statement about one of the impacts of adoption on the forming child. The first few pages are missing, ripped out. You enter after curtain-up, after the story has started. So you do the only thing you can do and read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact. This is unsteadying but potentially liberating and it liberates your potential.
I want WHY BE HAPPY to work on many levels: Story, self-help, quest, poetry, narrative of hope, dreaming space. And more. Life is many levels but it’s not a multi storey car-park. The levels are simultaneous - your parking is quantum. Whatever the level, we are there but we may not know it, may not be able to access that floor. But we are there.
I know I will come back to this narrative again in another 25years and it will look different again - then I will be much closer to death instead of in the middle or at the beginning. And yes, age matters in the sense of finding your point on what is, after all, a very short time on earth.
I was dismayed when the press got hold of proof copies. I am usually dismayed. What everyone wanted were the sensational highlights - and there are some of those - but they belong embedded in what is around them. Pulling them out is pornography.
Still, I cannot live or write worrying about newsmedia makes of my work. I don’t write for the press. I write for you, the reader, and for myself, the writer. It feels like us, our relationship, our context, and the rest is a necessary intrusion. Necessary because I have to let you know that I have written a book. Maybe Twitter is better. I will be tweeting, god help me, at WintersonWorld.
Because that is what is was/is. My mother, the late Mrs Winterson was her own world, gloomy, cloudy, bombed, Jurassic. She told me that the Universe is a cosmic dustbin, and when I asked her if the lid was ON or OFF, she replied ‘ON. Nobody escapes.’
But we do. Imagination and love, books, music, art, are outside the dustbin. Whatever we make that is real is outside the dustbin.
My WintersonWorld has the lid off anyway.
WHY BE HAPPY is a book about love. The possibility of love. I believe that love - in all its forms - is the highest value and the one thing that stops us devouring each other. Love is worth all the effort. Love is worth the best of us. It is where our chances begin. It is our chance at becoming fully human.
I took the title from a classic Mrs Winterson phrase - it is her phrase, offered to me as I was leaving home. I told her I was in love and that it made me happy, and her response was WBHWYCBN?
Normal/happy. Happy/normal. I spent so many years wondering whether it was a real or false problem. Lots of people are very normal and normally unhappy. Others are not normal and not happy either. For gay people, or anyone immediately outside the box, the big questions arrive early. For me it all started at 16 when I realised that love could be called perversion and hatred could be called family life.
We have to question social values all of the time. Everything we call normal behaviour is propositional. We shape our world, it is not handed down on tablets of stone, whatever Fundamentalists like to think. The shape is always changing, and things do get better, but they can always get worse, and they can also just drift along without thought. WHY BE HAPPY is a book about thinking. Think hard. Use your brain. Question. Challenge.
It is also a book about feeling. I have said before that the things I regret in my life were not errors of judgement but failures of feeling. Feeling is frightening. And we are feeling something every second, whether we like it or not. There is no such thing as a thought without a feeling. Shutting off your feelings does not make you a better thinker - only better at self-deception.
We have to try and live whole - heart and head - instinct and reason - body and brain. It makes sense to try and be with our feelings - if not they soon get their own way, and that is not always to the good. I am no expert at this - just trying my best.
Above all this book is about the unendingness of the journey. I don’t want to come over all New Age, because so much of that is poor thinking and banalities. But the moment we get somewhere, we have to move forward again. That seems to be the rule. Why, I don’t know. And why, when it takes a lifetime to understand anything, we then drop dead, I don’t know either. But here we are, this life. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.