Authors: Jeanette Winterson
What was it like to start, finish and sell
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
? What was that first book like?
It was entirely innocent. You really only get that for a couple of times in a writer’s life because then you start to be out in the world, you become a published figure – the whole perspective changes. The innocence goes and your only hope then is to make a William Blake-style journey from innocence to experience. There is no other way to recover that particular joy and surprise that you
get in your work right at the beginning. Trudging through the middle period can be rather dreary. I have got the joy and surprise back now but it has been a very particular journey.
Thinking back on
it was done in the heat of enthusiasm; it was done without consideration for what anyone might think, without looking over my shoulder, without hesitation. I had nothing to lose, I had everything to gain, it was very free. Inevitably that changes. I was surprised that it did as well as it did. It shouldn’t have because it was only published in paperback and it didn’t get any marketing behind it, but it began to move under its own momentum and the rest of the story is, I think, well known.
was enormously successful both as a book and as a television series. None of your other books has been televised. Would you want them to be?
I wouldn’t particularly. I enjoyed doing
for the stage, for instance, but although television is very persuasive because everyone watches it and you hope that then they’ll buy the book – well, publishers do because then they make lots of money – it’s not something I feel is particularly necessary. For me the pleasure is the book and the books are what I want to write. So it may happen but I don’t really care either way.
Boating for Beginners
is often dismissed whereas it is in fact a very funny, very enjoyable book. Does it annoy you that it
doesn’t get as much press as some of your other books, that it’s a lost book?
No, if it’s a lost book it is because, I have let it be lost simply because although I’m very fond of it, it is what it is. It’s a particular kind of comic book and I didn’t put myself into it in the way that I have done with my other books because I didn’t take it seriously. It was written very quickly, it was written in six weeks and it was just to fund me. I didn’t have any money in those days and I was asked to do it for the humour list for Methuen at the time and I thought,’Why not?’ It was at the time that I was writing my fitness book and I would do anything just to keep myself going. I’m a writer, I hope I’m a good writer – if not, everybody’s been conned for the last twenty years – but that means you can turn your hand to anything. I often think of myself as running a little workshop: I make things to sell, I’m not precious about it. I feel that I can pretty much write anything that anybody wants me to write because that’s the professional side of it, the skill side of it, and then there are the things you do because you put your heart into them.
‘My own writing life has run parallel to a change in the way that writers are perceived by the public and the media.’
Do you have a favourite book of yours?
No, they all occupy particular spaces. To some extent it’s like looking back on your old record collection, or diaries that you don’t read any more. You were there, you were that person, they meant everything to you at the time. But you move past them, you are somebody else, you become somebody else because of writing the book. The books are
your tutors and your guide: they make you as much as you make them. But then they are absorbed at the level of familiarity because they’re in your DNA and at the same time, which is a paradox, they’re absolutely strange. I look on the shelf – in a bookshop somewhere – and think, ‘Oh, I wrote those’, and that’s always a little bit of a surprise.
‘I think it’s unhelpful that writers are treated as celebrities; we should be treated as nobodies and only the work should be on show.’
Your website not only supplies information about your own work but also that of many other writers, especially poets. Would you say that poetry is something that influences you, or that you are trying to achieve, and would you ever consider writing it?
I wouldn’t consider writing it, no. Poetry is the thing that matters to me more than anything else. I use it like caffeine: when I’m tired I’ll have a shot of poetry. I always carry it with me; I look for that exactness of language, that sensitivity and feeling. But I won’t write it because I have decided that my experiment is to use those poetic disciplines and work them against the stretchiness of narrative. It may be a foolish experiment in a world that speed-reads – although I only write short books, they don’t lend themselves to being read very quickly. The sentences matter, every word in every sentence is made to matter, it’s not simply about conveying information. I try to do more than that. So it’s absolute anathema to the idea of reading six books a day leaning against the fridge, as I believe they do for the Booker Prize!
I don’t have any plans to produce a book of poetry but, who knows, that may change. I think poets and poetry are having a
renaissance at the moment – people understand perhaps better than they have done for a long time what poetry is and that it matters; there’s room for it in people’s lives now. That’s a good thing.
When discussing your editions of Virginia Woolf, you mention how much you dislike literary criticism, especially critical theory. How does it feel, as a writer, to appear on syllabuses the world over?
We get a lot of emails on the site saying, ‘I’m doing this or that essay’, meaning ‘Can you write it for me?’ The answer is no! It entertains me, and again it’s one of the things that I’m surprised by, that I’m there and being taught. I think you have to leave people alone to work out their own interpretations. I don’t mind what people write about my work and I don’t read it because there’s no need to read it. I think you have to allow the thing to go on its own way and collect whatever it wants along the way without worrying too much or saying, ‘I didn’t mean that.’ It’s redundant for a writer to say, ‘That’s not what I meant’ or, ‘I meant something else.’ The text lives outside of that very simplistic space.
‘I often think of myself as running a little workshop: I make things to sell, I’m not precious about it.’
Of course it’s always difficult when one’s alive; it’s much easier when you’re dead! I think the whole critical push for the death of the author was really wishful thinking on the part of the critics who longed for it. If criticism brings people to think about books, if it helps them to formulate their own thoughts and to read more then it’s a good thing, always a good thing. I think now that there’s so much pressure put on people to
produce papers, for academics to write books, the work must end up being poor quality and rather low grade, which is a pity for everyone. Nobody wins in that situation. You should only write about things that you love and where you feel that you’ve got something to contribute, and of course that’s not fashionable any more. I had some A-level students emailing me the other day to ask, ‘What did you mean in
by the “rough brown pebble”?’ and I thought,’Oh, I have no idea!’ I’m going to come up with something for them, I must have meant something, mustn’t I?!
‘I look on the shelf – in a bookshop somewhere – and think, ‘Oh, I wrote those’, and that’s always a little bit of a surprise.’
Your shop opening received a lot of press coverage. What inspired you to open it, and is it in any way a distraction?
Well, I don’t run the shop. It’s a fantasy of the media that I am to be found there selling olives and Parmesan cheese. I’ve never sold an olive in my life and I don’t intend to start selling one now. I own the building and it’s right that there should be a shop and I wanted the kind of shop that I like to shop in. I didn’t want cushions and candles, a lifestyle shop, and I didn’t want to sell out to a corporation doing coffee or plastic sandwiches. I wanted a real shop and I wanted a beautiful shop. I wanted to know that when I come to London I can pick up my supper and take it upstairs and eat it. It was a great muddle of altruism, high-mindedness, selfishness and ‘I’ll do this because I can’. So I did.
You write journalism, columns, have edited Virginia Woolf and now own a shop. When
do you have time or space to think about writing your next book?
I’m thinking all the time. I don’t think that ever stops except when I’m in the gym. In fact one of the reasons that I go to the gym is because I can stop thinking there, which is an enormous relief.
I’m not a New Yorker by temperament; I’m not a frenzied person who only sleeps four hours a night and thinks she has to put everything in and that’s the way to live a perfect life – not at all. But I do think that it’s right to put as much into life as you can and to get as much out of life as you can. Of course that includes doing things slowly and doing things well – finding time for your friends, cooking properly, reading, going for walks, playing – all of the things which apparently yield no results. You don’t make money that way and you don’t get on in life that way, but what you get is something much more important. You get space for your mind. We don’t have a lot of that and of course you can’t believe in art in the way that I do and not believe that people need space for the mind, to slow down and to find time.
‘I do think that it’s right to put as much into life as you can and to get as much out of life as you can. That includes doing things slowly and doing things well.’
People are always saying that they haven’t got time for anything: I think there is time, but it demands prioritising and it demands rethinking the way we live our lives. So I just make sure that I take time: I walk every day, I think about things, I read, I let things come up from that deep place that I talk about. You have to find time for that still small voice. Some people do it by meditation, I do it by switching the phone off, going out and being by myself with my own thoughts.
Do you know what your next book will be yet?
No idea. I’m doing a children’s book for Bloomsbury which will be published next year. I’m not thinking about any other projects until I’ve finished it.
Accrington Girls’ High
School; St Catherine’s
Oxfordshire and London.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Written on the Body, The Passion, Sexing the Cherry
I write for as long as it takes. I don’t limit the day or structure it like that. I simply do what has to be done.
In a special wooden barn in Oxfordshire or on aeroplanes.
Both. It just depends what I feel like. I have an Apple G4 laptop which I take everywhere with me.
It was a natural thing to do.
The studio is almost empty and obsessively tidy. I hate clutter and I can’t write with clutter around me.
More than one but lists are misleading.
The state of the world and the chance to make a difference in it.
I don’t really have a reading one but I do listen
to The Archers.
THESE ARE NOT in any order of preference. I have had to miss out all the plays I love to read, and so many of the poets, but this is a representative choice, and an honest one. In an ideal world I would have added the Bible and the
of Jung, plus loads of art books by old fogies like Roger Fry, Clive Bell and Kenneth Clark. As it is, my top ten has stretched to eleven, and I haven’t got in any of the exciting thinkers, like Susan Sontag.
The perfect anti-realism, short-form narrative. An antidote to those big fat documentary novels that pretend to be a slice of life.
Wild, driven, uncouth, poetic. This is not Jane Austen’s rigorous admirable style or George Eliot’s magisterial narrative, or Charlotte Bronte’s contained explosions.
is untamed. True feral energy for the first time in fiction by a woman.
What a carve-up! Such a daring thing to do in 1928. Here is the boldness of a fiction masquerading as a biography, a woman masquerading as a man. She smuggles across the borders of propriety the most outrageous contraband – same-sex love, time travel,
shape-shifting, a revision of history. All the things we have come to take for granted from modern fiction, including the collapse of genres, begin here. It is Woolf’s finest achievement, as well as her most popular novel.
All of the Moomin books have to go in here for their celebration of imagination and the richness of their fantasy. Moominland is a complete world and one that challenges the dreariness of ours. I still read them sitting on the loo in my study. I love them.
A strong dark poem, as urgent in feel as it was when Dante wrote it six centuries ago. Which of us has not felt ourselves alone in a dark wood? That
of the soul? The best English translation is the 2002 text by the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson – a really fabulous piece of work, as chewy in the mouth as Dante’s original.