Lit from within
Interview by Nick Thorpe
In her recent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be
Normal?, the best-selling novelist Jeanette
Winterson tells the story glossed in her first novel,
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Third Way sought
illumination at her London home.
Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood? I
won't assume that everyone is familiar with your work.
I was brought up in Accrington by Pentecostals, who intended
that I should be a missionary and serve the Lord and save souls. It
was a working-class household; it was poor - no toilet, no phone,
no car, no nothing - and certainly no books, but not for reasons of
poverty but rather because Mrs Winterson was convinced that
anything secular would do enormous damage to the spiritual and they
had to be rigidly separated.
Much of that formed the basis of Oranges Are Not
Only Fruit1 - but according to your recent memoir2 the truth
was even grimmer…
Well, Oranges is many things - a funny book, a
work of fiction, a work of literature. It's a cover version. I
wrote something I could live with.
You were routinely beaten, locked in the coalhole, left on
the doorstep overnight -
Yeah, but everybody was beaten. I mean, I wouldn't get
too excited about that. This was the North in the 1960s. Nobody
thought it was wrong or odd to really wallop your children, or even
to knock your spouse around. That was normal. We have to see things
But it's basically abuse, isn't it?
Yes, it is, but at the time it wasn't understood as that. No
one thought - and my parents certainly didn't think - they were
being cruel, nor were they doing anything which made them look
different to anyone else in the street or the church. They would
have been progressive if they hadn't been doing it - and whatever
the Wintersons were, they weren't progressive. Except in race
relations - it was their extremely odd and rather endearing
characteristic that they'd never, ever discriminate against a
person for the colour of their skin. Both of my parents thought
that God loved everybody.
And yet your adoptive mother told you that the Devil
had led her to the wrong crib. The title of your memoir, Why
Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, is something she said when
she kicked you out at 16…
It's a good line, and she did have a lot of good lines,
because she was a very intelligent woman. She used to say things
like 'The Bible tells us to turn the other cheek, but there's only
so many cheeks in a day.' She used to pin these aphorisms up around
the walls: both texts from the Bible - 'Man shall not live by bread
alone,' which was over the oven - and things for me: 'Think of
God, not the dog.' That's how we lived: in this world of text. It
was very useful to a child on the alert for language.
Would you say now that she was severely depressed?
She was a very unhappy woman - but then that was the
right response to her circumstances, wasn't it? Again, it's about
context. You know, since Thatcher everybody believes that you have
to privatise your problem along with everything else: it's your
fault, so you can get over it, you can 'be empowered', you can
change everything - it's up to you. Whereas, in fact, there is a
huge social context which we can't change and which isn't up to us
and which affects our lives enormously. And for those women who had
been young in the war and had a taste of freedom and then were,
really, forced back into the home - 'Get them back behind the
sink!' - I think there was a lot of misery, and it wasn't their
fault. There were no opportunities. And what did we do to women in
the Sixties? We managed to invent Valium in 1962 and the Pill in
1963. That was our response.
I'm a big believer in looking at the social and political context
of the individual life. You have to run the two things together all
of the time.
In her religious context, was it entirely understandable
that she should try to exorcise you for being gay?
Yeah, completely. She believed that it's a sin - and she
would still, were she alive. I mean, many people do.
Your relationship with the church seems to me less hostile
than I would have expected, given all that you went through. At the
end of Oranges, Jess says: 'I miss God.' Is that how you
No, I don't. I'm quite comfortable with the idea of God
or no God. My inclination, if I were to bet on it, would be that
there probably is something bigger than we are in the universe, or
some forming intelligence of some kind; but I don't know what it
is. And actually I don't need to know. Nor do I care whether
there's a life beyond this one or not, because it wouldn't change
the way I live now: which is to make the most of the time, because
there isn't very much of it.
So, although I feel anti dogma, and anti religion in the sense
of what human beings have done with it, I'm not against a spiritual
dimension to life - I think it's really necessary. I am sure that
life has an inside as well as an outside and it's something we
need to understand and focus on. My quarrels have always been with
organised religion, which is usually the most fantastic excuse to
claim that one's personal prejudices are either natural or divine.
And it's, you know, so low to do that.
Is there anything that you miss in Pentecostalism? Does
that upbringing still influence your writing?
Oh, it influences everything, because the idea of a
spiritual connection, and one that isn't embarrassing and doesn't
have to be hidden, is very attractive. The English are always
embarrassed about things, and especially about emotion; and that's
a pity, because we are creatures who feel. There is no such thing
as a thought without a feeling. If you say, 'I'll use my head and
not my heart,' all you're doing is suppressing a part of the self,
which seems to me to be unhelpful.
So, there are things from that time which of course I think are
valuable. I guess it's made me the kind of passionate person that I
am in the sense that I think of life as luminous - lit up - rather
than rather grey. And that's definitely something that the
Charismatic movement has.
I also like the idea of a genuine community where people support
each other and are there for each other.
Do you see religion as a virus, like Richard
I'm not a fan of Richard Dawkins - he always sounds
rather disapproving when I hear him on the radio. And it's no good
just saying it's a virus or a delusion - it's been around really
since there were human beings, which is far more interesting to
Why is that, do you think?
I think that there is some deep need to understand our
place in the universe and we've never managed to explain it
through science or logic alone in a way that satisfies us. So, the
problem continues. And people seem to want to believe in something
- and if it makes the world a better place, then that is a good
Some people would argue that the whole problem with
fundamentalism is a misunderstanding of metaphor…
Probably. I mean, the Catholic church has been rather
good at metaphor and mystery and symbolism, whereas the Church of
England, in its more muscular versions, and certainly the
breakaway Nonconformist and Charismatic movements are really
terrible at metaphor.
How did you escape from that very literalistic
Because I was deeply offended by it. And the moment comes
where you think: If my imagination is this big, how can God's be so
small? It seems ridiculous, and you think: Well, if you are some
sort of monstrous playroom tyrant, who cares about you anyway? I
Because it makes us better than God?
Yes. Which is very odd. You know, I love the Yahweh of
the Old Testament: he's so irascible and is always having to be
persuaded not to destroy everyone. And this really rather engaging
character develops through the course of the Old Testament - you
get that marvellous transition from a God who can say to
Abraham, after all the trouble getting a son, 'Just kill him,
will you?' and then at the last minute, 'It was a joke! Don't worry
about it!' to this God who will sacrifice his own son. As a
psychological development - from this bloodthirsty, disruptive
God with a terrible sense of humour to a Being that recognises
that humankind plays a part in [his] own development, own
possibility - that's quite something.
Thinking about that when I was 16 - I mean, I haven't stopped
thinking about it - coupled with the business of falling in love
with a woman and Mrs Winterson's response, I thought: I'm not
going to do this any more…
And in literature you found a different way of looking at
Oh, definitely. Literature is very generous and broad and
encompasses all kinds of ideas and possibilities - you can try out
multiple selves without having to become schizophrenic. It not only
gave me a language, it gave me an expanded imagination. So, I
didn't feel stuck, and I certainly didn't feel (and I never have
felt) like a victim.
That's why I'm always rather appalled when people say [about my
childhood], 'How awful!' It wasn't awful, you see, it was just -
it was itself. And it gave me a lot of things as well as taking
What did it give
Resilience, creativity, the chance, I suppose (and I
think all adopted children would say this), to be not dependent but
independent, quite early in life. And the chance to think about
life. If you have really no material goods but you have these
vibrant, strong texts - and whatever you think of the Bible, it's
vibrant and strong - you can throw yourself at these things and
they won't break.
But the key thing is that you shouldn't break, either. I hate it
that the Bible has become a text on which people have to break
themselves. That's repulsive to me. I think these [texts] are
things that act as walls and as boundaries but also as places where
you can test yourself and grow, rather than being diminished or
But people sometimes feel they need that dogma…
Well, they do, but I don't know why they do. I mean, you
can believe what you like, but if it's going to affect other people
you have to think very carefully about exactly why you believe it.
You know, even the most rabid fundamentalist now is a bit nervous
about saying that women are inferior beings and God made them that
way - we realise that that's not appropriate - but they still feel
that they can talk like that in all sorts of other outrageous
contexts - particularly around gay people.
Do you think that'll change in the same way?
I don't know. I don't know. You know, will the church
become the place of forgiveness and tolerance, development and
openness, or will it be infested with reactionaries, people who
don't want the world to change and are only too glad to have a
religious framework to sit that in? I don't know, but I think it is
a big battle.
In your Manchester Sermon last year,3 you suggested that
Jesus would be on your side in this.
I think he would be. 'If people want to have a
fundamentalist reading of the scriptures, then could they please
do so?' is my feeling. Here is someone who talks about love and
forgiveness, and talks, in fact, about dissolving family ties and
forming different kinds of obligations and friendships, and who
isn't afraid to hang around with whores and 'sinners' - it's a very
uncomfortable story and I don't know why it has become so
comfortable to so many people. I mean, whenever I read the Bible
I'm surprised at how radical it is.
Your memoir is very candid about your attempted suicide in
2007. Do you mind talking about that?
No, not at all. I think that if you are going to go on
developing as a human being, there will be challenges to the self.
You can't simply become habitual, or even known, to yourself - you
have to take risks. And I think that the person I was, with all
that energy and rage and determination, couldn't go any
It's very odd when you sort of run out of self - it is like the
end of a road. It may be because we're living longer and we should
be dead around 50, I don't know - I mean, Shakespeare was dead at
52. So, if you're going to have a second life you probably need to
have a second self to go with it, which is a self which has been
broken and remade in some fundamental way. At least, that's how it
felt to me. I simply could not go on.
What actually precipitated the crisis?
Oh, two things. One was finding some adoption papers
which made me think that my birth mother was still alive. Mrs
Winterson always said that she was dead, and there was no reason to
disbelieve her. And then there was the breakdown of a personal
relationship, which was very upsetting. It became a trigger for
something bigger, as happens from time to time - you know, one
thing begins to shift and then the whole thing collapses.
So, you had almost to confront the possibility of ending
your own life…
Well, you don't confront it; it confronts you.
The alternative is that either you succeed in killing yourself or
you have to repair in such a way that it's a false personality -
and we see a lot of that: people who cannot confront the big issues
in their lives and so, in order to escape from them, they shut down
the self. And then you're not relating any more to other people or
to yourself, you're just passing the time. And I couldn't do that.
I'm a very alive person, which means I would rather be dead than
living a kind of half life, which I know to be an utter
diminishment, a kind of cowardice in the face of the big challenge.
I can't do that.
I suppose that many people would understand this in terms of a
religious conversion, which is, after all, meant to shatter the
self, to be a radical remaking of all that you are. I've always
despised people who treat religion as a bolt-on. You know, at least
let it be real, let it take over your whole self! Don't play with
So, what actually saved you?
Well, I failed to die, and when that happens the animal
kicks in. The animal that you are is always on the side of life and
so once your attempt has failed and you are not actually dead,
there's a huge surge of life.
I was lying outside on the ground and a bit of the Bible came into
my head, that 'you must be born again.' I realised that we all get
a life, as a gift, but then we have to choose it. And so for me it
was a moment of choice: Do you want to be alive? And, if so, how
are we going to put this back together in a way that is real? At
that moment, it was possible for me to start again.
And - this is where religious words are really useful - the past
then is redeemed, in that you have bought it back: it's no longer
in hock or in thrall to some part of you that's out of control, you
can have it back and you can revisit it. I suppose writing Why
Be Happy…? was a way to revisit the past, 25 years after
Oranges, and try to reunderstand it.
How were you affected by meeting your birth mother?
It was the conclusion of a particular story, and I needed
to conclude it. I needed to know. In a sense, it was irrelevant who
she was (which isn't to disparage her). It was rather that I had to
know that somebody was.
And have you had a continuing friendship?
We see each other, yeah. Which is good.
And eventually you were reconciled with your adoptive
father, is that right?
Yes. For many years I'd despised him for not standing up
for me, and then, I don't know, I looked at him and I thought - not
just because he was an old man by then - [that] he was always a
little boy, and actually a rather sweet-natured little boy, and I
think Mrs Winterson was his mother figure. And that's why, when I
was able to see him in a different context, where I was no longer
powerless and I no longer needed anything from him, I could
understand and forgive, which I did.
We had a very good time towards the end of his life [in 2008]. It
In your 2000 novel The PowerBook, the main
character says that all her books are about two things: boundaries
and desire. What are the boundaries you fight hardest to cross and
what are the ones you need to maintain?
I think the thing is that we always have to be
challenging our own boundaries to see whether in fact they are
useful - as walls, and as markers - or whether they're places where
we hide because we don't want to go any further. And I think that
desire (whether it's desire for knowledge, desire for change,
desire for another person - you know, it can come in all shapes and
sizes) is the thing that pushes against the boundary, that tempts
the self out of the self into another state. And that's very good.
It's also quite scary.
You've said that all adopted children are control freaks
I do believe that - but it's then how you handle that;
and for me it worked terribly well until I was nearly 50, in that I
was able to use that determination to shape my world in a very
useful, imaginative way - most obviously, that I became a writer
and you invent a world every time you write a book, so you're
always recreating a situation where there is emptiness or loss but
then you're filling it energetically. And of course that gives you
a great sense of triumph, just in the feeling that you can create,
and the repetition of this brings with it, I think, a kind of
reassurance, as well as dissolving the fear that someone else is
really in control - which is, I think, what the baby understands
when it's - I mean, it's a controversial thing to say, but I really
believe that the baby knows it's being abandoned.
But how does your tendency to be a control freak sit with
your urge to break boundaries?
Oh, it's always OK if they're your own boundaries. I
mean, I'm naturally suspicious of authority and, while I can
respect real rules, I find it very difficult to respect arbitrary
rules. But that's a good thing. There's always a slight anarchy;
but, you know, creativity is anarchic, because you have to be
always saying: 'This is what exists. What can I do with it? How
can I change it?'
There was a time when the tabloids were calling you a
marriage-wrecker and much else. Is it ever better not to break
boundaries, in order not to offend or challenge people? Or is that
what life is about?
Well, I would be very wary now about getting involved
with anybody who was in a marriage, because it causes such
heartache for everyone - and I'm staying with [my partner, the
psychotherapist] Susie [Orbach,] anyway, so this is a completely
irrelevant conversation. Fortunately, when she and I met [in 2009]
we had both been by ourselves for two years, so it was very clean,
a lovely new beginning.
If she weren't here, what would I do? I would protect myself
better, I think. Perhaps when you're young you don't protect
yourself, and maybe that's good. Maybe you should risk more then
and not worry so much for yourself or others. I'm not nearly as
reckless now as I was, I'm sure of that - and I'm also more
But I have no respect for the double standards of heterosexuality
and patriarchy. None.
You have said that art is never a luxury, it always
effects a transformation. How, ideally, should it transform
Well, it's really the enlargement of the self, which is
so important. We need two things: we need tools for
self-reflection, which most people do not have, and we need tools
for the imagination. Imagination is emotional because you can't
imagine something without really feeling your way into it; and art
is all about a feeling tone, a feeling encounter - or it should be.
It's not meant to be a thought experiment, it's meant to be a place
where you can be made happy or desperately upset or deeply moved.
There's a really nice line in Wordsworth where he says: 'All my
thoughts/Were steeped in feeling,'4 and that's how it should be, so
that there's none of this completely false head/heart split. That
isn't us - look at us, we're one thing. Every genuine work of art
is a cohesive and fully formed act of feeling and thinking, all
together. And that totality is what we seek for ourselves.
So, as a once
would-be missionary, your gospel today is really that we should be
more whole, less split.
Yeah, much less. I mean, you have to be able to have a
playful relationship with yourself, you need more in there than
just one, rigid thing. But for that you have to have a very strong
self, which allows this rather boisterous family to argue within
itself. I like that, and that there is a boundary of the self that
is strong enough to hold on to contradiction, discomfort and not
You know, there are certain questions, I realise now, that I
probably won't resolve, certain discussions with myself I'll never
get to the end of - and that is all right. In fact, that's a rather
healthy state of being, I think - I say 'being' because it's not
just a state of mind - that we can feel discomfort without freaking
out. So, it's that sort of self that I'm interested in creating,
where we're brave enough and sure enough to take those risks with
the world, both imaginative and emotional.
The body imagery that fills your books is very sensuous
and often erotic. That's quite surprising coming from the adopted
daughter of Mrs Winterson, isn't it?
Yeah, I don't know what happened there. Susie's puzzled
by that, too, because there is genuine freedom there for me in my
body. I know most women don't like their bodies, because of the
baleful effects of advertising, but I like having mine and I like
being in it and I feel very comfortable and happy with it.
And also comfortable and happy with my sexuality. That has never
been a difficulty for me. People would like it to be, but it isn't.
I don't deny that it's a product of my own situation - of course it
is. So, people can say: 'It's because you had a weak father and a
domineering mother' and you think: 'Yeah, and what about you?'
Every way we free-express ourselves, you know, will be in some part
formed by what has happened [to us].
That's why I think it would be good if we could all just be a bit
more comfortable with however sexuality manifests itself, because
it seems to me that love is far more important and we have to be
good at loving, and we have to get better at it, too. I would
rather that two people were able to love each other, in whatever
permutation, than that they had to live with deep fissures in the
self and a feeling of falseness, or a feeling that part of
themselves had to be given up or abandoned in some way. I don't
think that makes someone a better person.
Christianity is centred on an incarnation and yet the
church has often been anti body. It strikes me that your work is
very much about 'enfleshing' your characters…
It's such a good story, the dying god and his rebirth,
and that in itself is very interesting: that it's a story we are
drawn to. And it does have a holiness to it. I can reflect on
this, I can be in this space and be quieted and renewed by it as
an image, as an idea. It's not either barren or exhausted for me. I
think it's very rich. You know, the scriptures are rich, and there
are places where you can go and rest your mind and places where the
big questions are asked. And I don't find in them the splits that
have become part of the dogma - I mean, what is the Song of Solomon
if it's not about sex and pleasure and eroticism? We always miss
that bit out, don't we, in the Church of England.
You definitely are not normal. Are you happy?
Yeah. I usually am, you see. I was quite a cheerful child
- I was always going about singing and talking to myself, and I
was not miserable! If there's a reason to be depressed, then I'll
be depressed; but normally I wake up and I'm cheerful. Is that a
gift? I suppose so.
Is being happy something you aim for, or should it always
be a by-product in the search for something else - for truth or
It's weird, the pursuit of happiness - but I don't think
we should despise it. Some people think it's uncool to be happy,
but it's not, as long as it's based on something that's real and
you are prepared to work with it as only part of the whole person -
as you say, within the pattern, within the meaning.
How would you like to be remembered?
Oh… As someone who did their best. That'll do.