Jeanette Winterson


“I was so angry and I thought, I’m not playing the game. Because I didn’t want to play the literary game. I wanted to write books, which is different.”
Americas identified by Winterson on her travels:
Frightening America
Benign America
Crazy America

At book events, the acclaimed British writer Jeanette Winterson likes to tell audiences that “we all meet at the steps of the story.” Perhaps so, but I would have preferred to encounter her as we’d planned, at Los Angeles International Airport. On the third leg of an American tour celebrating her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her publisher had charged me with driving her around town. Having missed her at LAX, I fell into a fifty-five-minute panic, before finally tracking her to her boutique Hollywood hotel. Bounding down the steps to the front desk, Winterson greeted me with open arms and a warm smile. “It’s not your fault!” she cried. And we were off.

“If I were a rock star, this place would be great,” Winterson remarked, as we headed outside, through the hotel lobby, whose twilight lighting and voluptuous furnishings she laughingly likened to a brothel. “But I am not one.” She is, however, a literary star, having catapulted into the public imagination in 1985 with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which won the Whitbread Best First Novel Award. Since then, Winterson has published seventeen more volumes of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature, plus two screenplays, a stage adaptation, and a large body of journalism. Her work, for which she received the Order of the British Empire in 2006, grapples with questions of identity, the mythic imagination, sexual politics, and the nature of love.

Her latest work published in the U.S., Why Be Happy, traces her journey through madness and attempted suicide, her return to health, and the promise of new love. It is also a reworking of a story she first told in Oranges—a coming-of-age drama dominated (and often terrorized) by the towering figure of her adoptive mother, Mrs. Winterson, “a flamboyant depressive” whose fondest hope, besides witnessing firsthand the Battle of Armageddon, was that her daughter would become a Pentecostal missionary.

In a sense, I think Mrs. Winterson got her wish, though not quite in the way she imagined. Jeanette Winterson has indeed grown up to be a missionary of sorts, expertly employing the skills she picked up in the revival tents of her youth. In any arena, she is a fierce and eloquent emissary for books and their power to redeem us from our darker selves, and an advocate for the joys of creativity and the primacy of the life of the mind. Winterson calls for readers to come right down to the front to be saved. “If you take anything away,” she told a rapt audience at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, “don’t live a half life.”

I watched Winterson live fully in L.A. in March 2012. She marshaled astounding energy and focus at every turn, dispatching print and radio interviews with white-hot intelligence and seeming ease, then delivered her breathtaking reading. On her last day, before flying out to the next tour city, she talked with me over breakfast in the deserted courtyard of “the brothel.”

—Andrea Tetrick


THE BELIEVER: Over a decade ago, I had the privilege of seeing you read in Washington, D.C. You hadn’t traveled very extensively in the States at that time. One of your fans in the packed house asked you what you thought of America, and you said you thought it resembled nothing more than an adolescent’s bedroom.


BLVR: A lot of people were quite amused by that, but many were also startled. Now that you’ve had a little more travel time in the United States, do you have a differing view?

JW: I have two views. I have one that there is no United States, because everywhere I go is so different. I’ve learned that there are many different Americas. There’s frightening America, and then there’s benign America. There is the crazy America, which is the religious right and the huge belt of superstition, which seems very odd to somebody coming from Europe. The belief in devils and demons and all that… it’s a vast, vast country with so many contradictions, yet strangely homogenized, because there are bits everywhere you go that look exactly the same as everywhere else.

BLVR: Yes, the character of small-town America has largely been effaced by corporate interests. It’s changed dramatically in the past twenty or thirty years.

JW: Do you think there is recognition of that, and mourning for what’s been lost?

BLVR: Yes. A lot of people call it progress, but others do mourn the loss. Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

JW: Not many people would agree with that now, I think.

BLVR: No, I think people are fearful.

JW: The difficulty is that if you have a soul, whatever that word means to you, then the journey of the soul is going to mean that you have to take risks, which is sometimes very difficult and will make you extremely insecure, and means that you have to be at odds quite often with what is both common sense and the social norm. I think that anybody involved with the arts understands that, whether they are readers or writers. But it is very difficult to explain to a larger population. They don’t believe in any of that. They may think they believe in the soul, but not in its journey. They think it’s just something that will be retrieved by God at the last moment and everything will be all right. See, I am not even sure that you’re born with a soul. I think that you have to reawaken it in some way or encourage it.

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Andrea Tetrick is a publishers’ representative to independent booksellers in Southern California and the Southwest. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Gargoyle, the Baltimore Review, Eastside magazine, and Cleis Press’s Best Lesbian Erotica series. She lives in Bishop, California.

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