Jeanette Winterson talks to Richard Wirick

Text by Richard Wirick

Photography by Peter Peitsch

Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal recounts her childhood and early adult years, much of which received fictional treatment in her 1985 breakout novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Oranges won a Whitbread and numerous other prizes, and was made into a much-acclaimed BBC film. Winterson's subsequent books include The Passion, Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body. Richard Wirick is the author of two story collections (Telegram Books & Soft Skull Press). The two recently talked in Santa Monica.

Richard Wirick Your new book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, is, among other things, non-fiction; a memoir of the events behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Has another 25 years or so given you a different perspective on your eccentric evangelical adoptive mother, Mrs W?
Jeanette Winterson Not really. Most of the shifted perspectives concern romantic love. If anything, my assessment of Mrs W is sharpened and made somewhat harsher by the discovery of my kinder and less thwarted biological mother. 

RW Since she was a fundamentalist, an evangelical, one equates that with her intolerance of non-religious writing.
JW Yes, but that's too simple. The religious impulse - which I and many writers have - can also be expansive and accommodating. Mrs W was quite frightened of sex and the body, so anything that talked of that was sinful and seditious. 

RW She called Lawrence a satanist and a pornographer.
JW Yes! [Laughing]

RW She was your first experience of the fearfulness of the text - and the text can be.
JW Law-giving texts, yes. The tablets brought down from the mountain. The trouble Mrs Winterson found in reading a book was that "you never know what's in it until it's too late". But that's the case with almost everything. Certainly the case with parenthood, adoptive parenthood, they're bringing me home. She then retroactively, once I became something other than the friend she sought to raise me as, had it that "The Devil led us to the wrong crib".

RW You individualise fanaticism through her. So you don't agree with Freud or Philip Rieff that religion, or hyper-religiosity, is a type of collective madness?
JW Freud simplified, and did not learn enough from Jung about the pure imaginativeness of religious qualities of mind. I am grateful for that and for those aspects of what I was forced into with her. A useful, sometimes really dazzling by-product.

RW Getting back to your tent-preaching youth, and then Oxford. That institution's philosophers, who were also mine, saw the elimination of religion and metaphysics through the "logical analysis of language".
JW But, again, they were too one-dimensional. You notice that some of the most vehement denouncers of religion - Nietzsche, Schopenhauer - were really making faith-based, essentially religious statements.

RW And with religious gusto.
JW Oh yes. Religious fuel, religious lamp oil lies behind that "clear light of reason". The religious or irrational. On the other hand, the religious are two necessary sides of the mind that work off one another, sharpen their claws on each other, like cats. Jung saw it quite early on and kept with it right until the end; Freud not so much. Aphorisms - Nietzsche's, Wittgenstein's - have such biblical vestments. Hume, certainly a guide to your and my teachers, saw reason as fit, "only to be the slave of the passions". But he, ironically, doesn't give reason enough credit. Probably not passion's slave, but passion is certainly the bridle that turns it this way and that.

RW Yes, the mixture of the two. Nietzsche's holy roller-style rejections of holy rolling, a recurrent theme in Why Be Happy is: "There is nothing that is thought that is also not felt."
JW I really believe that. That's the essentially human factor behind the process of thought. And if computers get to the point where the Oxford philosophers will grant them consciousness, then they will not be humanly - that is fully thinking in my sense. Because they will not be feeling their observations. Consciousness is irreducible and really not capable of being replicated because it is felt. With characters, you don't want the reader to know what it is like for the writer or narrator to be experiencing those characters' consciousness. You've got to get the reader imagining what it is like for the character to be experiencing her own consciousness. That's when they jump up at you.

RW Why Be Happy has a lot to do with endings, and as Louise Glück said: "The love of form is a love of endings."
JW As I say in the last third of the book, there are only three endings: tragedy, revenge and forgiveness. We have a long way to go to learn about the third. But I believe there are only three branches to the path.

RW Edward St. Aubyn is all the rage now with his Melrose family novels, At Last being the most recent. When asked if he could forgive his father raping him at five years old, he said: "There's something morally condescending about forgiveness."
JW We would have to know what he means by "forgiveness", but I basically disagree. We forgive or we annihilate one another. Remember, you can forgive an act without letting go of your strong negative judgment of it, or your conviction that the act will still be punished. Punishment and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive.

RW There is a touch of modern British political and social history in Why Be Happy, and it is instructive for American readers. I just saw Meryl Streep in Iron Lady. You came of age under Thatcherism.
JW Wasn't Streep superb? Yes, Thatcher. What she and your Reagan did that was so dangerous, I think, was to convince everyone that the post-Second World War advances in consciousness towards collective responsibility - that we owed something not just to the flag but to one another, as you say, to our children and family and thus to civilisation and culture - that this was somehow wrong because it was morally flaccid, too cumbersome, too expensive. We suddenly were going to cut through all the bother of looking after one another with Milton Friedman and his laissez-faire scalpel. And talk about religion! Conservatism's trashing of a whole generation's regard for the sick and old and unemployed; that new steeliness was all dressed up, as I say in the book, as some kind of new salvation. A kind of enlightened selfishness came to her and Reagan with the force of a revelation. They were the compassionless prophets - they wanted to save us from the "evils" our compassion had created. And correctly institutionalised.

RW You voted for her.
JW As did many of my contemporaries, and yours for Reagan. There was something unique about that 1979 election, and Reagan a year later in the States. Thatcher had the vigour and the arguments, and she knew, as I say in the book, the price of a loaf of bread. It convinced a lot of ambitious young women that if a grocer's daughter could be PM, they - that is, I - could write a book that would be up on the shelves with the best of them.

RW Well, that you certainly did. Oranges was written when you were 24 years old.  Did early success spoil you in any way, make you take anything for granted? I was reading Joyce Carol Oates's journals where she said, when talking with him, that she could feel Updike was "almost guilty" about his "early and seemingly effortless success".
JW Well, certainly not guilt. But gratitude for good luck? Or what the religious might call grace? Sure. There is something wrong with you if you try to do something significant and are not frightened of failure. I was full of rage and visions and, yes, some of the writing came with what felt like effortlessness. I stumbled more in the personal than in the professional world. In my work I found a way to talk about love - and that was real. Readers connected with it. But I am not sure I had found a way to love. But that changed with new relationships, not the least being the one with my birth mother.

RW The last sections of the new book are spent with her. They are almost unbearably poignant.  It seems like you were in shock.
JW That's what my partner said, yes. Well, as I write, my mother had to sever some part of herself to let me go. She wrote on the adoption forms Better for Janet to have a mother and a father. Though she is my mother, and though there is that transcendental connection, she is someone I am just getting to know. It is difficult. I am glad you didn't say "unbearably emotional", because you are reading correctly - it wasn't that, and I don't relate to these overwhelmingly emotional accounts of reunion. At least that's not how I experienced it. What I can say is that I am pleased that my mother is safe. Once again, the balance of the rational with the passionate. As I write in the coda: "I don't blame [my birth mother] and I am glad she made the choice she made; clearly I am furious about it too. I have to hold these things together and feel them both/all."

  • Jeanette Winterson Talks to Richard Wirick