What happened to the bad girl of Brit lit? Since 1985, when Jeanette Winterson burst on the scene at the precocious age of 24 with her stunning, semi-autobiographical debut Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, she’s been the object of both great acclaim and hostile scorn.
After winning Britain’s prestigious Whitbread Award, Oranges was adapted into a popular television miniseries and her next two novels, The Passion and Sexing The Cherry, drew more raves and prizes. But in the 1990s, Winterson appeared to be getting too far above her station: She declared herself the greatest living English writer and the “natural heir” of Virginia Woolf; nominated her own book as a book of the year; publicly announced that her 1992 novel Written On The Body was about her affair with Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent and wife of novelist Julian Barnes, effectively outing Kavanagh; and, with a group of friends, stormed the home of a journalist who had written critically about her. Britain’s media and literary establishment quickly turned on her. When her next few books received lukewarm notices, she was dismissed as an arrogant home-wrecker and pretentious has-been.
The woman who cheerfully answers the phone at her home in the newly trendy London suburb of Spitalfields certainly belies those assessments. She effusively apologizes for missing my earlier phone call – “I was trapped in a train, I just felt awful!” – and chats about her gym routine and recent visit with her godchildren.
When I ask if she’s mellowed, explaining that her reputation had led colleagues to speculate that she’d be a “tough interview,” she laughs. “I think that there are some writers who are magnets for gossip,” Winterson says. “Martin Amis is one of them. I’m another. We’ve all gotten a bit wiser. Writers have become celebrities, but unlike film or television celebrities, you don’t get a machine that protects you. So you say things that get quoted in newspapers and your cuttings file follows you for the rest of you life.”
When asked if her sexual orientation made her a particular target, she pauses. “Probably,” she says. “I had success very young and I made a lot of money very young. And I’m a woman. Certainly there was this prurient interest in my being gay. But I think the bigger issue was the British have a problem with success.
“I have high ambitions for myself and my work and admit to them. I believe that art matters. I believe that it’s important to make a place for women in the world of art. And I think that some people had a problem with that.”
At its best, Winterson’s work is fabulist, sexy and poetic, with gender, time and place being equally fluid. Her characters tend to exist in exhaustingly heightened states of passion, crashing down only occasionally to the banality of daily life. Her latest book Lighthousekeeping is classic Winterson. Inspired by the works of Charles Darwin and Robert Louis Stevenson and blending historical myth with modern day reality, it tells the interconnected of stories of Silver, an orphan taken in by an ageless and blind lighthouse keeper called Mr Pew, and of Babel Dark, a 19th-century clergyman.
“The Passion ended in a lonely tower and that image stuck with me. Lighthouses are such romantic, wonderful things. Their image is both lonely and comforting, and both dreamlike and practical.”
Dreamlike and practical is a description that could be applied to Winterson herself. She is wildly inventive and equally driven by a desire to succeed. Born in Manchester in 1959, she was adopted by Pentecostal parents who brought her up in a working-class mill town in northern England. Her religious family was suspicious of education and Winterson, creative and bright, grew up in a house with only six books on the shelf – including the Bible – and no bathroom. She read the contraband books she snuck home by flashlight in the outhouse. After she fell in love with another girl, she left home at 16 – an experience that was the basis for Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – and managed to get into Oxford, supporting herself at a series of odd jobs, including driving an ice cream truck and working as a cleaner at a mental institution.
These humble roots are another reason why she often rubs her critics the wrong way. According to Winterson, “Working-class girls from the north” are not encouraged to be clever or confident.
Her public rehabilitation began with the 2000 release of The PowerBook, a technophilic love story set in cyberspace that reminded critics of Winterson’s wit, eroticism and intelligence. Its publication coincided with the launch of her chatty and entertaining website Jeanettewinterson.com, of which the writer is deservedly proud. (She famously won back the domain name from an academic who had registered the names of 130 authors in order to sell them at auction for profit.)
“I started up the website as a public service, really, to archive my work, the articles I write for magazines and newspapers, and to write a column. Now I get 20,000 hits a month. It’s a very intimate site, which appeals to my readers. It’s like the trick of fiction writing: The best of it feels like you are having a one-on-one conversation, only you’re doing it with thousands of people.”
Her on-line column tackles both her personal and domestic concerns – travel, food, holidays – as well as her increasingly left-leaning political beliefs. Like the gospel-tent evangelist she once was, she says that, “There is a battle going on between dark and light. The liberal left is under attack, despite the fact that all the civil rights we now enjoy, like racial and sexual equality, are the result of activism on the part of the liberal left. We’ve reached a point where people are afraid of the disarray that freedom brings. A secular, free society can be a very frightening thing. That’s the draw of religion – the rules and certainty. But I think if God does exist, she is religion-proof.”
These days, her bad-girl streak is satisfied by her cars: a black and chrome Landrover and a vintage Porsche. She’s also preoccupied with the Italian delicatessen called Verde’s that she’s recently opened on the ground floor of her home. Years before, her house had been a grocery store called Verde’s And Co Importers and Winterson was delighted to hear from a neighbour that the shop once had a sign out front reading “JW Fruits.” As for her romantic life, she and her longtime partner Peggy Reynolds, to whom many of her books are dedicated, are no longer together. She has a new girlfriend, but Winterson won’t elaborate on the relationship.
And, of course, there are more books to write. A children’s book called Tanglewreck is in the works. After that, she’s waiting for the next inspiration to hit.
“After 20 years of writing, you develop your skill enough that you technically know how to write. That’s an act of will. It’s not the same thing as an act of imagination. You can’t force that. Some books, some ideas, just won’t come in the time you want them to. I think creative writing classes have done damage in insisting that anyone can be a writer with enough hard work. It’s not just about the work.
“I’m not scared of losing my imagination, but if I do, then I’d start selling real estate. You have to be to be an honest critic of your work. If I can’t stand by what I write, then I’d stop.”