Interview with author Jeanette Winterson

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In 1985, author Jeanette Winterson celebrated success with her first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, the story of a young girl who is forced to grow up to be a missionary but instead falls in love with a woman. It was one of the greatest ‘coming out’ stories of the decade and later translated into celluloid. Today Oranges continues to touch readers – gay, straight and all degrees of sexuality in between.

Preparing herself for a visit to Australia to present a keynote address at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival in August, Cream caught up with the author to be told that not all her books are of an autobiographic bent and that she’s as comfortable reading a good old-fashioned hardcopy book as she is cuddling up to her Kindle.

Interview by Antonino Tati

 

Hi Jeanette. I wanted to start by going back to your first book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Just how much of that was autobiographical?

I don’t think of it in that way because in the end what matters is authenticity: it’s whether or not you can convince somebody of a story and whether they want to follow you. Every writer uses aspects of their own lives – especially when it’s your first novel. It stays in print 30 years later because it goes on reaching people; people whose stories it really isn’t and whose experiences are as far away from that book as anything could be. And that’s the test of a good book – does it reach outside of its own domain and own concerns, and move into the lives of others who are initially remote from it?

 

A while ago, I was speaking to Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter novels, and he was saying that even he ‘borrows’ stories from friends and incorporates these into his writing. Do you?

Yeah, I mean everybody does. It’s a huge melange of experience and imagination; it can’t be otherwise because that’s how we all live our lives. You know we don’t really separate the two… I think my books are true to that; a melange of experiences and invention.

 

But then do you have friends or relatives that come back to you after reading a book of yours, to say, ‘Well hang on a moment, that character is a little like me’?

I haven’t got any relatives. Well, they’re all dead. [Laughs].

 

The film adaptation of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was blatantly homoerotic. I remember it helped me when I was going through a difficult time, coming out as a teen.

Good!

 

Did you get much gratitude from people back then?

Very much so. It was a groundbreaking moment because it was entirely positive and it was very clear about its aims, and I think it worked for gay people and for straight people because you couldn’t help feeling sympathy for the situation and for the characters. It was one of those things – both the book and the movie – that helped people to see someone else’s life in a tolerant and sensible way, instead of in some tabloid way.

 

And what do you feel today when you can turn on the television or the internet and see gay culture everywhere.

Great!

 

Yes, but has it demystified the culture to a certain degree?

I’d like to think it has, but here we are with the gay marriage debate and everybody is still fussing over it, many wondering what the problem is. There isn’t a problem. It’s just that not everybody is on the same page. We don’t have equality across sexuality yet. We’re still some way off that.

 

How do you feel about the positive stance of someone as prominent as Barack Obama?

I’m glad he was able to say what he did [years ago]; it was a risky thing for him to do politically as it was coming up to the elections, because we know how redneck and bible-belt so many Americans are. They cannot tolerate difference. Some of them don’t even realise there are countries outside of their own, let alone that there are people who might want to do things differently.

 

Let’s move forward to one of your more recent books Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I’m not sure if I could call it an autobiography because you kind of told me off at the beginning of the interview…

No, no, don’t call it that. It’s a label. You know, especially when you’re gay, you spend your whole life trying to rip labels off of things and saying, ‘Can you look behind the label and to the person, please?’ and to me it’s just the same with books. We’re authors and we shouldn’t be sticking labels on things. And we’re at a time which is quite exciting where people are writing across genres and across media and across this so-called divide between imagination and experience. We’re seeing a huge change, and the labelling department just hasn’t caught up with that. I don’t call it a memoir. I don’t call it an autobiography. If I had to call it anything, I’d call it an ‘experiment with experience’.

 

I suppose that gives way to more poetic license on your behalf. Would you have embellished some of the stories that did come from experience?

We’re back to that redundant question, because that would be as though memory was a fixed point that we could go and revisit the way we could open up a photograph album and see the same photos, but it isn’t. Memory itself is an active narrative. When we remember, we’re telling the story not just to other people but to ourselves. Memory is so super-charged. You know yourself, sometimes you go back to something and a seemingly insignificant part of that memory suddenly becomes so important and you think, ‘God I never thought of it that way’. It’s simply which of the facts at different times becomes the more important to you or becomes highlighted in some way. To me, it’s simply not good enough to say, ‘I want this [story] to run like a CV or a documentary’. It isn’t – it’s a work of literature and that’s what I stand by.

 

You have such a classic-meets-contemporary knack to your writing…

Yes, and it has to all be in there. I don’t think a writer survives if they don’t have a way of joining together a great sense of the classic style with something that is modern; contemporary; they’re own voice. You need that double strength, otherwise the thing is either a museum piece and historical, or it’s just too frothy and bubbly on the top. You need a marriage of both. And if you look at any writer that lasts, that’s what you’ll find in their work.

 

I’m wondering if you have any tips for aspiring writers who might want to write from experience?

Everything starts with your observation and how you can describe that. People are very bad at seeing. And everything starts with seeing. You have to be able to look at something and say what it is. It’s like painting. If you can’t represent it in some way, then we can’t see it. That representation can be a distortion or it can be an impression, but we have to be able to see what you see, and that’s just as essential for a writer. A lot of aspiring writers are just so bad, they shouldn’t be doing it, but let’s just say they’re reasonably good at it, they have to concentrate first and foremost on the language because that is the only tool you’ve got as a writer. There’s nothing else there – it’s made of words.

 

Not mentioning any examples of books turned into blockbuster films, but does it upset you to see dumbed-down writing catered to the masses doing so well in popular culture?

No, I think everything can sit side by side. We need high culture and we need art but I’m comfortable with mass culture and popular culture. The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is that we assume everything is relative and that everything is equal. It’s not. We need to have our high-brow moments, as well as the rest of it.

 

I was wondering, do you miss the old days of puritan hardcopy publishing or do you enjoy a decent read on electronic format yourself?

Well, Kindle has its uses. I have a Kindle and I usually travel with it. It’s a handy format. But I’m interested in print media. I love a good book. They used to say that an apple is the ultimate fast food, and it used to be that print was the perfect format for a book so long as they can exist side by side, and the electronic format doesn’t wipe out the book entirely, I’m okay with it. But I use Twitter, and I’ve got a great website. I’m happy for most things to sit side by side but people tend to go for a homogenised culture. We find it very difficult to live with difference; to allow lots of things to thrive and survive together. And that’s very poor given that we’re meant to be imaginative creatures. You can tell where I’m at. I’m for diversity; I’m for complexity; I’m for the imagination.

 

In a tour collaboration with the Sydney Opera House and the Brisbane Powerhouse, Jeanette Winterson deliver the 2014 Keynote Address at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival in August. She will also be featuring in several festival sessions running between August 1-3, followed by events in Sydney and Brisbane.

For updates, visit www.byronbaywritersfestival.com.au.