Winterson’s tale

Jeanette Winterson has broken convention from the moment she stormed the literary world with Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and now she is rewriting Shakespeare. She speaks to Antonia Charlesworth

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Growing up in a household where the main reading materials were the Bible and a worn copy of Jane Eyre – with the ending changed to fit her tyrannical adoptive mother’s morals – young Jeanette Winterson found sanctuary in Accrington Library. There she methodically worked her way through English literature authors, starting at A and finishing at Z. There was only one writer for whom she broke convention. Shakespeare, she felt, is no more part of the alphabet than black is a colour. 

“Shakespeare is everything,” she tells Big Issue North. “He is an ongoing continuity – you can have Shakespeare in all areas of your life, from the beginning onwards.”

Her favourite of the plays was The Winter’s Tale, which she describes as a talismanic text she has carried around with her all of her life – finding new relevance in it with age.

“It’s got an abandoned baby so it’s bound to be one I like the look of and I think that’s what drew me to it early on,” explains Winterson who, after a fanatical upbringing with her adoptive Pentecostal parents, traced her birth mother in adult life.

Her formative years in Accrington formed the basis of the celebrated debut novel that shot her to fame, aged just 24. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a coming-of-age tale about an adopted child in Accrington who is groomed to become a Pentecostal preacher and missionary but is then rejected by the church and her mother because of her sexuality. She eventually escapes life in Lancashire for Oxford, on a quest of sexuality and individuality, and to study English. The book is highly autobiographical but Winterson has always insisted it is fiction – preferring to refer to it as a “cover version”.

“Life is a cover version,” she explains. “It’s part fiction, it’s part fact. We’re not just our CVs, or our experiences, or the things that have happened to us. We’re also our imaginations, we’re also our dreams, we’re all of the things that lie below the event horizon that are not obvious, even to those who are closest to us.”

“Art reflects our complexity and that’s one of the reasons that we need it.”

Thirty years since Oranges, she has now written another cover version. The Gap Of Time is a modern retelling of The Winter’s Tale. Winterson transports readers to New Bohemia, where a black man finds an abandoned baby, and to London where, following the financial crash, one man struggles to control his jealousy and paranoia that his new baby isn’t his at all. The novel launches the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which Shakespeare’s plays are reimagined by celebrated authors such as Anne Tyler (The Taming Of The Shrew), Gillian Flynn (Hamlet) and Margaret Atwood (The Tempest).

Much like Oranges, the late Shakespeare play is both tragedy and comedy – making it one of the Bard’s so-called problem plays. When it was first staged in 1623 it was considered subversive for its non-linear structure – the gap of time referring to a 17-year unexplained interval in its action. When Oranges was published in 1985 it was experimental too, with a complicated narrative structure Winterson describes as a spiral. Thematically too both texts address love, loss and the passage of time.

“We’re absolutely bound by time because our life is finite. We all die and there’s nothing to be said about that – we do,” says Winterson. “But imaginatively, we always feel that we’re escaping time and we can live outside of it, which is liberating, and I think it’s very important to hold the two things together – one to recognise that time is finite, so use it well and make the most of your life, and the other to realise that actually you’re not bounded in that way. You can make great leaps backwards, and forwards, and sideways… We’re complex and I think art reflects our complexity and that’s one of the reasons that we need it.”

Despite the parallels between the texts Winterson says she did not reflect on her approach to Oranges when undertaking The Gap Of Time.

“You’re a different person after 30 years has gone by, or you should be. Anything that you’ve worked at for that amount of time means you have both tremendous confidence and tremendous capacity, and so you bloody should,” she says, illustrating the characteristics that have often led to her to being perceived as arrogant. Perhaps that was misrepresentation, or perhaps she has softened with age, but Winterson, now 56, is down to earth, witty, approachable and pragmatic. “By now I should be able to do an awful lot, because I’ve done it for so long.”

She inverted the structure of The Winter’s Tale for the novel, to make it more conventional. “Twice in the play the phrase ‘the gap of time’ is mentioned and it’s a lovely phrase. In the play everything does happen in the gaps – that’s what’s so bizarre – or rather the explanations for the behaviour are in the gaps because nothing is explained, everything is just presented with no psychological background. As a fiction writer you want to know how we got there, and that’s what I’ve done in the book – I’ve filled in those gaps and tried to imagine the circumstances while translating them to the modern world.”

Winterson acknowledges that this approach is not dissimilar to the one she has taken in her own life – investigating the circumstances that led up to her adoption and the early weeks of her life.

“There’s always that question mark, that sense of thinking you are there after curtain up, or with the first few pages missing, if you don’t have that sense of where you come from. Invention is your only route, by which I mean you have to self-invent in a way that perhaps you don’t if you’ve got a more secure family structure. It can have its advantages – you have to make yourself.”

In her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – so called after the question her mother asked about her daughter’s sexuality – she says the character of Elsie in Oranges, fictional Jeanette’s close friend, did not exist in real life but it was too sad a story without her. The author says what she did as a young adult, in looking at her life through the lens of fiction in Oranges, is not dissimilar to what young people do today with social media, where they can curate the image they want to project.

“People can’t even get on the 68 bus without posting it on Snapchat!”

“Social media is a perpetual archive of the self that’s been created. You know how it is when you look at photos of people you don’t know? It’s pretty meaningless because you don’t really care about anyone. It’s only when there’s a connection that you care and we’ve got to be careful to make sure we don’t become the meaningless pictures, that we keep hold of ourselves in a way that is authentic so that we actually recognise who we are, rather than just becoming one other face in this worldwide myriad of faces.”

By contrast Winterson is still a private person and believes that is the human condition.

“People can’t even get on the fucking 68 bus without posting it on Snapchat!” she laughs. “But even with all of that, in our minds, in our heads, people are still private, still misunderstood, perhaps even more so feeling isolated. Sometimes I just want to say to kids: ‘Can you stop panicking about it because it’s normal. You will always feel like you’re sat in your bedroom being misunderstood, even if you’re wired to the entire world. You’re still on your own – that’s what it is.’”

Given her difficult childhood, in which love was conditional on godly behaviour, it is perhaps no surprise that Winterson has had tumultuous personal relationships. Her extensive work since her debut has often addressed the theme of love. Her 1987 novel The Passion was inspired by her affair with her literary agent Pat Kavanagh. In Why Be Happy? she describes her difficult break-up with theatre director Deborah Warner, which, along with finding adoption papers that posed more questions than answers, led to a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt. She admits she has struggled to choose the right people in the past, but this summer she married her partner of six years, Susie Orbach, the therapist and writer of such works as Fat Is A Feminist Issue.

“Lucky me!” says Winterson sincerely. “I asked Susie two years ago and she said no because she thought it was a waste of time. She’s been married twice before – one lasting 34 years – and said: ‘Look,
I don’t need to do that again – I’m doing something else with you.’ Perfectly right and proper. So I forgot about that and then all of a sudden she decided she did want to get married. Typical!” she laughs. “We did and it’s great because we’re going to stay together.

“If you don’t have a good attachment when you’re a child, if love is all wrong at the beginning, it takes a lot of time to get it right. The first line of [her 1992 novel] Written On The Body is: ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’I thought we knew love by its pain or its problems or its difficulties. That fact that you could know love by its generosity, its steadfastness, its reliability, its openheartedness, has come to the fore. It took me 50 years to get there but I did get there, and that’s why we need the passage of time. We need to live long enough to get somewhere and, by some grace, we do live long enough. Whether we get somewhere, or not, is a different matter.”

Q&A with Jeanette Winterson

Winterson JeanetteWere you reluctant to put yourself into The Gap Of Time?
No, I’m never reluctant to put myself into anything. There is no other way to work. You can only work from the eye that you are. The person that does the work is you. This idea of detachment or objectivity is a myth – it’s a nineteenth century myth and it’s a male rational myth that’s completely blown apart and disproved by everything we know about the universe. You can’t separate the observer and the observed… One of the reasons people make such terrible decisions is that they forget they are emotional, non-rational beings and that that is in play all of the time. That’s one of the great discoveries of psychoanalysis. If you don’t understand your unconscious, your unconscious is going to be running the show. I’m not only in Oranges and Why Be Happy? I am completely in all of my books.

You recently fasted for 11 days. How did you find it?
Once you’re on that fourth day it’s really easy and also it’s the most remarkable experience. I put in a lot of research. I wouldn’t do anything off the cuff because I’m a control freak and the way I deal with stuff is by doing my best to know about it beforehand, so I felt mentally prepared. I think we do consume too much – it’s become a kind of anxious self state that people always have to be putting something in their mouths. I think: “Why? You’ll be fine.” Anything that we start to do compulsively and automatically is bad for us and often some people are just shoving stuff in their gob compulsively and automatically, and that disturbs me. I wanted the freedom from all those considerations and concerns and I thought it would be interesting to see what happened… The research that’s going on there is fascinating. It’s all being suppressed by the food and diet industries because this is the last thing they want anyone to understand. The health benefits are very convincing and my own experience of it was entirely positive.

Does that all-you-can-eat mentality reflect our political lives?
Yes. People aren’t being encouraged to actually consume less. They can’t because capitalism depends on consumption so we’ve got this totally mixed message. It’s contradictory, it’s babblespeak. On the one hand we’re being told about austerity measures and to tighten our belts and at the same time they’re asking how can we stimulate consumer spending – it’s absolutely mad. And I just think it’s this unsustainable world that we’ve created – the whole thing is linked. It’s a migrant issue, it’s climate change, it’s economic meltdown – they’re just signals that we cannot live in the way we are living. Why should some people live behind razor wire and be told that they’ll never have a future – especially by those countries that benefitted entirely from empire, benefitted from taking resources of the countries of those people we’re now saying have no stake in a modern civilised future. How can that be?

How do you think Britain should respond to the refugee crisis?
I think first of all Britain can’t do anything on its own. We do need to be part of Europe in this. It does really matter. And I also think that Europe needs to be part of the world, so it’s a complex solution. I do want to see the Arab countries that are doing so little at the moment get involved… We talk about globalisation in trade but the moment we actually see a global problem it becomes atomised and we say: “No, it’s somebody else’s problem.” This is where you really need global solutions. It’s not about Apple having a factory in China – it’s about how do we deal with the fact that we’re living on one planet and we are one people. How do we share the resources in the future? What kind of a world are we building? The consensus is there that capitalism is done for – we need a different system and not just one that is about being more equitable but one that is an imaginative leap. And that’s what we’re not making. So it will be very interesting to see if Corbyn actually has any effect or if it will end up like Syriza, where he’s basically drummed out. That’s what I suspect is going to happen.

Do you think Corbyn is the right choice of leader for the Labour Party?
I feel that at least he’s offering something different. I wasn’t a fan of the Blair-Brown era. It just seemed like they were making Labour into the Tory Party with a bit more care and benefit. Tony Blair ruined the Labour Party for me with the Iraq War, I don’t know how anybody can go forward after that. We’ll have to see what Corbyn can offer because it is early to judge him. I preferred him to the other candidates because at least he’s got some ideas. Whether those ideas can translate into mainstream politics I don’t know. He will need to bring in younger people with different thoughts – but maybe he will. But what people say before and what people actually do when they get the job is always very different, isn’t it? But I really dislike this Tory government. I think they’re quite scary.

You are a professor of creative writing at Manchester University. Do you notice a marked difference travelling between the north and south?
Manchester is so on the rise. The buzz there is great, the energy, the feeling that this is a city that’s going up. If I was a young person now starting out I wouldn’t bother about coming down south. I think Manchester is where the action’s going to be. It’s affordable, there’s a chance of getting a home, you’ve got all the culture that you want. It’s a vibrant city, a young city, there’s a great future – why would you not want to be there? It’s tremendous, and that gives me optimism. Manchester began as the engine of England. I think everything comes back full circle, and we’re going to see that again. We’re going to see Manchester revving up a new economy and being a real challenger to this southern hegemony.

Would you like to spend more time in Manchester?
I’m grateful this happened because I don’t think I would’ve gone back without this connection at the university and yet I like the feel of it – it gives me a lot of pleasure to be up there. I wanted to get away from Accrington, but who wouldn’t? That really is a hollowed-out town. There’s nothing there and I’m not going to Accrington, I can assure you, but Manchester is a different thing. If I stay on at Manchester then Susie and I will get somewhere. I’d like that because I’d like to be a part of the city. We’re looking at the development in New Islington because that’s going to be an interesting place round there and I like pioneering areas where you help to be part of the change. I like being among northern people. You can smile and have a chat without people thinking you’re a psychopath. I’ll never get used to that down south. You can’t open your mouth to talk to anybody and if you do they don’t talk back. They just look really frightened, like you’re going to bung them into a minicab or rape them or beat them, and all you’re doing is having a little chat. I am made by the north, there’s no question of it, and I don’t want to change that, so to be able to contribute again there directly and to be part of that life is a great thing.

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