I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
As Jeanette Winterson says, when you read a page of Jeanette Winterson, you instantly know who’s writing. Her voice is like no one else’s: passionate, punchy, lucid, lyrical. She’s a contemporary fabulist who spins strange, brief tales, and believes adamantly in re-inventing the novel. Born in northern England, she lives in London, a self-declared outsider on the London literary scene. Still only 33, she is the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (which was made into a BBC TV movie), Boating for Beginners, The Passion, and Sexing the Cherry. She is currently working on a feature screenplay. As a writer, she sure isn’t marginalized and her books have been hugely successful on both sides of the Atlantic.
In previous novels, Winterson has switched androgynously between male and female narrators, delving into both gay and straight affairs of the heart. She’s capable of being coy (think of a title like Sexing the Cherry). In her new novel, Written on the Body, Winterson has, she insists, created a narrator who isn’t gender-bound at all—who is never specifically defined as male or female. But the narrator’s sensibility seems, in fact, decidedly gay and female (as I and plenty of others assumed while reading it). One of the risks in creating a genderless narrator is that this person must of necessity remain oddly bodiless. Instead the narrator’s attention fixes on the body of “her” red-haired lover, Louise.
I met Winterson at her London rowhouse on the outskirts of Hampstead Heath, a couple of months before the English release of Written on the Body. She’s a small woman, still with a trace of the North in her accent, feisty and unflaggingly spirited in defense of her vision.
Catherine Bush Can you talk about the origins of your new novel, Written on the Body. Where do you begin when you start a new work?
Jeanette Winterson I’m most interested in what you can do with structure and with style. I think the concerns of a writer are how to make things new, how to shock, how to revive the commonplace, how to take the banal, everyday experience and make it into something specific which has resonance—so that people see their lives not simply offered before them as a photograph might be in a flat, two-dimensional way but offered with proper resonance, magnified so that they see the dignity in the little life. Their concerns and love affairs are the stuff of tragedy and drama. It’s not some squalid little bypassed underworld. It’s not as though only the few people who end up in Dynasty or Dallas are worth looking at. Often writers make the mistake of portraying such lives as very urban and depressed, the dirty realism way. For me, the point has always been to take people who are exiled or come at life at an angle, who are slightly askew to the mainstream vision of the world—which, let’s face it, most of us are (the majority is so small I can never find it)—and then to use the glorious power of art, the power of language, to really elevate these lives.
CB A kind of transformative power?
JW That’s what people deserve. It’s one of the reasons why opera isn’t elitist at all, because in opera even ordinary people in ordinary situations are given this sense of huge, lavish spectacle. You cannot fail to go and feel you’re part of something important and your life matters. I wish to give people that huge and lavish spectacle in my work.
CB Is opera an art form you feel a strong allegiance to?
JW Very much so. I like strong visual explosions. I like things to be said loud and clear. Not in a crude way but shouted from the rooftops to be heard. Art’s not a shrinking violet. Certainly in Written on the Body I wanted to try and move my own style along further, make it tighter and more precise. I also wanted to deal with the problem of gender as I see it. I don’t think that viewing sex from an androgynous model is necessarily a good idea but I do think there’s too much emphasis put on gender. If you could take away all the obvious clues, all the structures and scaffolding around which gender is normally constructed and have a narrative voice which is really powerful and moving but nonetheless is not identified as either male or female, that would be a very liberating thing. So I decided to do it. I wanted to have somebody who is passionate, who is sexy, but who is also vulnerable, subject to the whims and misrules of the world. A narrator that men and women could identify with.
CB Have you found that happening?
JW It’s very interesting—people of course read from their own assumptions. So even at Cape, my publishing house in England, a lot of the older middle-aged male sales reps said, “She understands men so well, men really think like that, I can’t believe she’s a young woman and has written it.” Then my editor said, “Well, how do you know it’s a man?” They were absolutely horrified. They said, “It must be a man, of course it’s a man.” I’m sure a number of women will read it as a woman and I’m glad about that. The point is that it doesn’t actually matter. What my private view is doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a space created in a text into which a male or female consciousness can enter and be redefined.
CB You don’t think people will read it in an obvious, autobiographical way, knowing that you’re a woman?
JW No, I don’t. Well if they do—you can never guard yourself against absolute stupidity. People are so desperate for certainties that they would rather art were not art. They would rather it were history or autobiography because art’s really scary. If you’re saying this comes from nowhere, then they have to contemplate that. They have to contemplate not only the act of creation but the fact that things do come from nowhere, they’re not always propped up with experience and with precedent. That’s quite hard to deal with. It’s also very liberating.
CB There’s been a lot of debate within the literary world about whether things can just come from nowhere—what gives fiction a validity of experience, a kind of authenticity. It’s liberating to hear someone validating the power of imagination.
JW Experience and experiential writing is given far too high a value in our culture. It doesn’t actually matter what has happened to you if you’re a writer. It doesn’t matter who you are. Your own character, your own preoccupations are of no interest. What matters is what you can do with the raw material that is your life. And that is why a writer must be very humble as well as very imaginative because you must be prepared to do the Indian rope trick and disappear at the top. It’s not about you, it’s about the work. Over and over again, I say to people, particularly in connection with Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, forget about me and look at the work. Certainly, when I read or look at pictures or go to the cinema, the shaping spirit of the artist is important to me, but most of all I want to be affected by the experience, quite apart from who did it or why they did it or what mood they were in when they did it. After all, I hope that my work will outlive me. In fact, when people write to me, as they often do, saying, “Can you give us some more information or what did you mean?” I just say to them, “Look, consider me dead.”
CB You’re talking about creating a narrator who is androgynous, who is trying to disappear behind the text. On the other hand, do you feel that describing female sexuality is a particularly pressing issue for women writers today?
JW I’m not interested in writing about women who are not in control and who are not strong. I’m quite prepared to display their vulnerabilities and their questionings and conflicts, but I don’t believe women are weak. The overall portrayal in much fiction of women as essentially weak is very disturbing. As a woman writer you would want to redress the balance on that because it is not true.
CB Especially in terms of how women are portrayed sexually?
JW The stereotypes abound. Either they’re vampires or femmes fatales or madonnas or mothers. In fact what’s fascinating about women is their complexity and their wholeness. I have always tried to create women who have to be in control of their lives and in control of their environment. They make things happen. Whether it’s the Dog-Woman in Sexing the Cherry, who has this exuberant hugeness and this refusal to take anybody’s rules as her own, or Villanelle in The Passion who says throughout, “No, I won’t do it your way, I must do it my way”—although she’s very sympathetic—or now Louise, the object of desire in Written on the Body. All these women share this particular thrust. It’s very important that the women in my books should make things happen. The men—Henri or Jordan or even should we choose to say the narrator in Written on the Body is a man—belong within the sphere of their women’s happenings. They are buffeted about by them and directed by them. If they’re the little ships, it’s the women who are the sea and the wind and the moon. And so it should be.
CB In Written on the Body the narrator tries to seize control of the situation, often in this totally misguided way.
JW It’s really trying to seize control of love, which you cannot do, because it’s much stronger than you are. It’s Louise’s particular passion and very pure certainty which really push the novel along. She is absolute in her vision whereas the narrator is always wavering. I wanted to have a woman with that 19th-century heroine’s certainty and absoluteness about what she was doing. As you know, Louise is sometimes described as looking like a pre-Raphaelite heroine. She walks out on her former life without even a single bag. You can keep that pleasure of having a heroine who knows her own mind and still make her complex and multidimensional. For me, the problem of 19th-century fiction has always been that the pleasure of the narrative drive and its structure often inhibit the characters it would release—particularly women. The women are very circumscribed and yet they have many advantages which I wanted to bring through to my fiction.
CB Do you feel a tie then to 19th-century fiction?
JW Only insomuch as you have to destroy it. I’m totally uninterested in the traditional narrative novel. The terrible thing is that, in this country, since Virginia Woolf died, nobody has really bothered about experimenting with the shape and the form of the novel in a way that keeps it readable and pleasurable. That experiment must be continued. It’s shoddy just to go back to traditional narrative structures inherited from the 19th century, which I’m sorry to say is what started to happen here after the war.
CB There’s a tension between breaking down the form and sustaining the pleasure of reading. Losing that pleasure usually means losing readers.
JW I think it is possible to bring the two together, to go on pushing forward the boundaries of the novel and still make it something that people really want to read. I want to reinterpret this art form. Other people developed the 19th-century novel and for me to use it is just theft of the worst kind. To use the experiments of modernism without doing any work myself would be theft. It’s important to push the form further. So with all the preoccupations of modernism, which are my preoccupations, and the glorious realities of the 19th century, I hope to bring together a different kind of fiction, certainly a fiction that makes space within it for the female voice in all its complexity.
CB Your book is narrated by an androgynous figure. You describe Louise as a heroine and yet you also talk about her as an object of desire. Of course what traditionally happened to women in romances is that they were turned into an object of desire, objectified by being endlessly described. Are you running the same risk here?
JW I think Louise is an object of desire. She is also the subject of desire, and really it is she who decides that her marriage will end and she will have the narrator at any cost, although not at the cost of herself. By the end of the novel, the narrator’s heroics have caused Louise to rethink her position. She is present throughout that last section if invisible. It’s her choice both to go away and to come back on her own terms. The moral lesson the narrator is taught is very Shakespearean—what you lose cannot return to you until you know why you’ve lost it. I feel all the time that Louise is in the background orchestrating this transformation for the narrator. I wanted to see whether I could bring about that sense of absent power in the second half of the book with someone that we’ve met and to some extent fallen for in the way the narrator has. It’s one of the problems, isn’t it, with feminism and the women’s movement. You have to be very careful that you don’t take away things simply because in a particular form they have always imprisoned you. Romantic love, for instance. It’s been a very bad thing for women, it’s stereotyped them, it’s put them in a very particular role, forced them to act in certain ways. That is, however, a very male interpretation of romantic love. It doesn’t have to be like that. Passion can be wonderful and it should be that women can be adored and pursued and looked up to. Why can’t they have all that and have it on their own terms? It’s the same reasoning that makes me look at cliché and think, well, nothing can be a clichés unless it’s had a particular effect. Things become clichés because they mean something to us, just as conventions of stereotyped love are clearly very deep within the individual psyche as well as the social construct. I don’t think you can say, “Let’s get rid of it all because it’s bad.” I think you have to say, “Let’s reinterpret it and take the best for ourselves.” That’s what I want to do.
CB So it’s possible to be a late 20th-century romantic?
JW Of course it is.
CB The latter part of the novel, where Louise is not present but is at the same time a presence, has an almost elegaic tone. The narrator tries to deal with loss, and tries to capture someone physically who isn’t present. When you’re writing about sexuality or desire in the late 20th century, does this mean dealing with loss, with illness, with absence? The conflation of sex and death has become very powerful in our culture.
JW The first sentence of the book, “Why is the measure of love loss,” is a sentence that I carried around with me for quite some time before I began the book. I’d been thinking both specifically and generally about the failure of the human heart to truly value what is present. Only in absence is true value revealed. I’ve dealt with this in The Passion. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish with this question because for me it’s a rather serious and big question and you can come at it from so many angles. Again it was bothering me before I started Written on the Body. Also I was wondering how it would affect me: what would I feel if someone I loved very dearly was gone? I’d been talking to friends of mine who have lost lovers or people who were close. One of the things that both frightened and interested me is the fossilization, the atrophy of the beloved once gone. There’s a reference to it in the novel: the person can no longer go on developing—rather like a photograph. I wanted to look at two views—both the finality of “it’s over, it’s gone, this person is dead and lost to me,” and the sense that this person is not gone but you are having some strange, quasi-spiritual relationship, which I’ve also heard people talk about.
CB In the book there’s a sense of intense physical loss experienced not in terms of sex but in the attempt to recreate someone’s physical presence. There’s no way to overestimate the intensity of that loss. Is part of the dilemma for you as a writer how to capture the physical presence of someone on the page, using nothing but ephemeral words?
JW I’m a very physical writer. The hallmark of my books is their strong visual images and their texture. I like to think that people can put their hands into them like thick clay and find that these words are not ephemeral, they’re strong and sinewy. Certainly, for me, words are strong and sinewy. And I think that language is the best way to describe those feelings which verge on being entirely incoherent. When your throat’s clogged with words that you can’t speak, you must get those words out and find out what they are so that they no longer have any power over you but you can have power over them. Writing Written on the Body was very difficult because it’s so easy in dealing with an emotional situation to let the emotion itself carry the thing for you, to run away with it. So, for instance, I was very careful not to exploit Louise’s illness because I thought that would be cheap. I didn’t want her to have a more commonplace cancer like breast cancer or throat cancer. I just did not want all those associations to start overwhelming either my work or the reader’s response. The more you go into boggy terrain where emotions are flying about and you have very little control over them, the more you have to be disciplined with what you’re doing with language. You have to keep restraining it, pulling it back. Oddly, the more you pull back, the tighter and more powerful the effect will be. But it is a matter of great discipline. It would be far too easy to go down the Dickens route and have everyone weeping and wailing and end up in bathos. Which is what I don’t want to do. Rather I want to use language in a very raw and tough way so the reader can’t pull back from the experience, from how shocking the experience of loss is.
CB What does the title of the book conjure up for you?
JW A book deserves the best title that the writer can imagine and it has to be a title that will stick in people’s minds. For me, the image of Written on the Body is about being tattooed with love and with loss. The middle section, the poetic section, is the best explanation of that. I want people to look at the title and be intrigued and curious and want to read on.
CB There’s been a lot of talk, certainly a lot of trendy theoretical writing about how to talk or write about the body, especially in terms of articulating a female language of desire or sexuality. Do you think it’s a good thing or even possible to create a particularly female language of desire?
JW I think that you must simply tell the truth as you believe it to be, not the truth looking over your shoulder wondering what people will think, not the truth as you have absorbed it through corrupt mediums. Women find it very hard to be in touch with their real expressions of desire because they’re told so often what those feelings ought to be. The business of a writer, in every area but particularly in the area of the heart and of sexuality, is to dust away the layers of prejudice and presumption and get down to that raw, vulnerable level where you might be able to tell the truth about yourself through the agencies of the characters or the story or the structure. I do not feel trapped in any way by language. I don’t feel it’s a male language that I have to deal with, although it’s been largely wrought by men. I feel enormous freedom in the face of language. This gives me certain advantages because I know a lot of women don’t feel this. I believe I can bend it to my purpose, and because I am a woman those purposes will be womanly ones. In Written on the Body, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to create an androgynous character. I didn’t. I wanted to create a character who could act in ways that were stereotypically male or predictably female and have those clues continually undercut one another, so you have a narrator who is soft and will cry or will punch the shit out of somebody on the front doorstep. I don’t believe these things are contradictions, I believe they run together. For most women fantasies of violence are very strong. It may be that they act them out, or if they don’t, perhaps they will. It should not be shocking to think of a woman slugging somebody on the steps. It should not be shocking to think of a man crumpling in a corner and weeping. And yet those images are shocking. Particularly if you are a woman you must simply write those things out and not attribute particular gender characteristics to them but say, “This is within the human complexity, this is within the human psyche male or female.” And wait for people to identify themselves with those emotions, with those events. I think Written on the Body is quite a sexy book, not because it’s a particularly female or male book—but because I’m interested in how human beings express their sexuality and I like writing stuff that’s tough and moving, that’s palpable. That’s my job. I didn’t sit down thinking I must create a language of sexuality or of physicality, I simply wrote what I believe to be the case. And if that works for people, good. I don’t think it’s a matter of politics or a matter of theory, I think it’s a matter of words. If the words on the page say what you really want them to say, if you believe that you have been true and honest, then that’s going to work for other people. Probably they’ll think that there was a theory behind it but there isn’t, there’s nothing behind it but the language.
CB If, as a fiction writer, you start off with an agenda and are simply trying to transfer it to the page, you’re going to run into problems. At the same time it seems to me that as a writer working within a cultural milieu there are things you may be thinking about even if, when you sit down to write, you’re using another part of your brain entirely.
JW In fiction there is a much wider agenda for the writer to contemplate, which is the area of love and passion and human emotion. I do think that love is the most significant achievement and most people never realize that achievement whatever else they manage. It is my purpose to dignify love and rescue it from all those pasty-faced misnomers and lies that are so often used against it—both in the conventions of romantic fiction and in the conventions of pornography and in all those spaces where sexuality is addressed in a way which minimizes its terror and danger and also its liberating pleasure. We were talking earlier about how people were afraid to look art in the face. It’s the same with sex, with love—human beings run away from anything big because they’re scared. I’m really trying to drag people back to these big questions and say, “Look at them, and yes, it’s frightening, and yes, you may be turned to stone, and yes, it may ruin your life, but what life is there unless you do face up to these things?” People who are lost to art and lost to love tend to lead very comfortable lives, watching the television and having a cup of tea with their partner, but that’s not living. If we’re only here for 70 years, let’s do it to the uttermost.
CB Your books draw on the qualities of archetypal tales, like folk tales or fairy stories, stories in which big, elemental emotions certainly play an important role. Could you talk about this presence in your work? Has your language also been influenced by the language of biblical stories?
JW One’s cultural heritage is something that no serious writer should turn their back on. It’s there for us to use. And if you don’t use it—there are American writers like Easton Ellis or McInerney, to name but two callow examples, who don’t wish to use it and want to start at year zero—I think that’s facile. Embedded in all of us, whether we recognize where they’re coming from or not, are stories and archetypes and shapes from which we cannot escape except by confronting them. I really believe in confrontation in life, not in an aggressive way but simply by facing up to what is going on. If you’ve got inside yourself endless amounts of stories and shapes and myths that you’ve never brought to light, you are not free—not unless you know what kinds of thing affect you and why.
CB What do you feel are the particular challenges for a novelist today?
JW The challenge for anybody working with words is entirely the challenge of language. It’s a problem that language for us is the speech of the everyday. It’s our shopping list, our laundry list as well as our poetic expression. No other art form suffers from this so particularly. When you give people a book, or when they think about writing a book—which is one reason why so many people write and do it so badly—they don’t know how to make the distinction between the language of the everyday and a poetic language. This is absolutely necessary for the stuff of fiction. Unless you are prepared to heighten your language, to intensify it to such an extent that it absolutely leaves behind the commonplace vernacular that we all use in order to get by, then you cannot really say you’re a writer. All you’re doing is using what’s available, and using what’s available with no work isn’t art. It pains me very much that people are not trying to redeem, transform, heighten and intensify language, that they’re still prepared to use it as though they were just speaking to a friend on the telephone about a meeting for coffee. This is what’s so bad about a lot of women’s movement confessional novels. There’s simply no art there, no artistry, no craft.
CB Do you continue to identify yourself and write from the position of an outsider, from some kind of psychological exile?
JW It is a place I write from and I doubt that that will ever change, because there are not any women writers who have come from the working class and are lesbian who are anything like as successful as me. And this is a funny place to be. At the end of Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own, she says that sometime women are going to come along and start writing about themselves and about their experiences and it will be art, it won’t be polemic. It’s taken a long time. We had to get through the ’70s confessional and now women are doing just what she said they would. But this really is early days for women to be entirely independent economically and artistically, to be free from the shackles of male thought and—crucially—not necessarily to be middle-class. Certainly the novel in Britain has been entirely taken over and colonized by middle-class writers. That isn’t a position of exile, it’s a position of absolute insiderness. Literary London is a very nasty place, a very bitchy, particular place where people just like to rub each other up. It doesn’t matter now that I’ve got a great deal of money and a huge house and all the trappings of success. The point is that I came here from nowhere, from a two up, two down with no bathroom, and fought both for education and for the kinds of openings into the writing world that would have come as a matter of course if I’d been white, male, and middle-class. There’s a point where you have to have something to push against, you have to have something that drives you on, the flinty edge, the spark. If you’re always on the inside, which is a nice, comfortable place to be, how can you really grapple with anything artistic or political within your work?
CB What do you read, for inspiration, or nurture, or curiosity? Do you read much contemporary work?
JW I don’t get very far. I get everything sent to me and I look at it and I think, “OK, where’s the style?” And if I can’t find any I take it down to the Oxfam shop in disgust. I want to be challenged. I don’t care about the content particularly—or I don’t care about it first and foremost. I want to open a book and have somebody, another voice in this room that will speak to me in accents that are unmistakeable. If I can’t find that, forget it, because it’s just going to drain you off, it’s going to take rather than give and that’s very dangerous. I tend to stick to poetry for reading pleasure and I always have. I still read the Bible a lot because it’s such wonderful prose and I read Shakespeare a lot. I like things that use a really wide vocabulary, that aren’t afraid to use words in strange places and take risks. I’m sorry to say that 95 percent of the stuff I get now doesn’t go very far. Martin Amis, for instance, is a great stylist but he has no heart; however I can bear to read him, even though his level of self-disgust is very worrying—I can put that aside, because he really cares about the way words hang together.
CB I notice you don’t use a computer, just a typewriter.
JW I like the physicality of the paper. I like to hold it in my hands, I like to see the words coming out and I like, of course, to throw it away. I’m an extremely fast typist. I change things a lot. I cut masses and masses. You often find that it’s all been said anyway. You have to be a conductor, a lightning conductor of experience and imagination. It has to pass through you very powerfully in order to reach other people equally powerfully. All your own weakness and your worst fears will be highlighted in the written work, therefore you really have to be your own surgeon and cut out all the bad parts, all the feeble, scared parts. I always burn drafts. I never leave work extant. I burn everything. It’s not good enough, so why should I have it anywhere? If it’s crap, throw it away. I burn it on the fire. If it’s not good enough for me, it’s certainly not good enough for somebody else.
CB All your novels are lyrical and very compact. Are you making a deliberate choice about length?
JW The question of length is a real one, it’s not arbitrary. Life’s too short. This is not the 19th century. People’s lives are far busier than they ever have been before, particularly among the reading classes. I think you have to recognize that. So you have to get them as quickly as you can. It’s a choice that Bergman made while he was preparing to cut two hours off Fanny and Alexander for commercial release, even though the original film was five and a half hours long. Yes, you can have your dream vision and your triumph of imagination—of course you can and you must, but it’s still got to go out there. I don’t think these decisions are compromises. There’s a fine line between compromising yourself and simply being bull-headed about the realities of life and being rude to other people. I think it’s rude to write long books. I prefer to make a talisman for people to carry in their hands rather than create a huge suitcase that they have to drag around with them and open now and again to get at the contents.
CB When you look at your own work, from Oranges onward, what trajectory or development do you see between them?
JW There’s an obvious development in style and language. One of the things I’m glad about is that at least if you read a page of Jeanette Winterson you know who it is because it’s a distinctive voice. You’ve got to have a voice. If I didn’t have a voice, I’d give up. It’s so rude to write and offer yourself to the public and just be like some ventriloquist or some gramophone with nothing new. I will go on working until the time comes when I feel that my own experiment is complete. It isn’t complete yet. I don’t know when it will be but I think I’ll know when it is and when I really can’t go any further—God help me if I go back and start writing the same book. I hope that I’d have enough self-knowledge never to do that. If, for instance, my personal experiment had been complete now with Written on the Body, I wouldn’t write again. However it isn’t and I know that there’s further to go, but there will be a point—you know when you look back chronologically at a writer’s work, when the work’s extant and the writer’s dead, their last works are very rarely their best. You can see with hindsight the point where they achieved the apotheosis of their vision and after that things trail away or become repetitive or dilute. I don’t want to do that. I’d rather be able to stop. I think I will know because I keep such a close eye on it, and then someone else can take over.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee