'Winterson-world was bonkers!'

Jeanette Winterson discusses how close she came to despair and suicide – though she's terrific company now

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The last time I interviewed Jeanette Winterson at home in Spitalfields was 10 years ago, a fact neither of us can quite believe. Many things have changed since then. She now lives in an even more beautiful Georgian house, built in 1720. Back in the day, she talked warmly about the theatre director Deborah Warner, her rumoured but as yet unacknowledged new love. Of Warner's discarded partner, the actress Fiona Shaw, Winterson said thoughtfully, "Fiona just needs to move on". She meant professionally but there was an edge to her voice.

And now, 10 years later, I'm here to talk in part about the fallout from that relationship with Warner. In her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, published in paperback this week, Winterson talks frankly and movingly about the breakdown she suffered when the relationship ended. There were other factors too, she points out. "It was a constellation of events. The dynamite's on the inside, that's where the explosion happens, but the trigger is on the outside. Poor Deb, she didn't mean to trigger all of that. But she did."

First we have to brew a cuppa, have a "tea or milk in first" debate, and talk about the poet Adrienne Rich, whose just-announced death has sparked a melancholy mood in Winterson. "She was 82. In 30 years that'll be me, and someone like me will be phoned up and asked to write something." Thoughts of how best to spend those 30 years are concerning her. "I'm not scared to die. I want to live well because I want to die well. If I'd died in the garage I would have died badly."

Even in intense mode, Winterson is great company, and words that sound gloomy on the page are accompanied by belly laughs. This is why it's such a shock to read about this most vibrant of women reduced to a lovelorn jelly, a whisker away from committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in her old Porsche 911. "I don't have that car any more. I still think they're beautiful! But I won't buy another one."

We're sitting in her austere drawing room, the bright sunlight streaming over the roof of Hawksmoor's dazzling Christ Church making it even harder to contemplate such dark times. "I had to go to the very bottom. There was no further to go: That. Was. The. Bottom. But I didn't die," she says wonderingly. "What took place then was a slow and gradual healing; a return to, I suppose, a true state of wellness. I do feel remarkably well! Which is lovely." She gives a merry laugh.

In one extraordinary passage, Winterson describes talking to the "vicious disagreeable creature" that lived within her psyche and which seemed bent on destroying its host. "Susie [Orbach, the psychotherapist and writer] tells me that what I did was actually very dangerous, to start having a conversation with a split-off self without a therapist. She said, 'You could have gone completely nuts!' It gives her the heebie-jeebies thinking about it." Maybe being a fiction writer helped, I suggest. You're used to having characters in your head and negotiating with them. "True, true," she says. "I hadn't thought of that."

The conversation turns back to mortality. "In a previous age, I probably would have dropped dead anyway. Shakespeare was dead at 52! Time is different for us now. We do have a second life and a second chance, and it may be that in the second half of life, when you pass over what was probably a natural death point, maybe you have to confront things afresh in order to go forward in any realistic way."

Confronting things afresh meant re-examining her childhood, and the memoir fills out the story she fictionalised in her celebrated debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. There is an adorable picture on the cover of the young Jeanette on Blackpool beach, and I tell her how much I enjoyed her vivid portrait of Lancashire in the Sixties and Seventies. "I rather fell for it again, which I didn't expect. I'd like to write more about the North – Manchester as the alchemical city – and I think I will." She breaks off and looks sternly at me. "I don't know why you put your milk in first if you come from Bolton. I think you've been fancified."

Much of Why Be Happy? describes the protracted search for the woman she briskly terms "Bio-ma" – her real mother. The quest proved a head-on collision with blind bureaucracy that she admits she couldn't have tackled without her new love, Orbach.

More intriguing even than Bio-ma is Bio-pa, the "miniature miner from Manchester" of whom there is not even a photograph. Winterson was stirred to discover that he had been a Teddy boy. "I thought, that is a bit like me. There is a part of me that is swaggery and a bit wide." Perhaps this accounts for her famed belligerence; she's really on the lookout for rockers to beat up, I comment. (Winterson is still notorious for having turned up on a critic's doorstep unannounced to have a go.) "Yes, that squaring up tendency. And he was a little fella, only 5ft 2in."

But perhaps the most curious result of finding Bio-ma was a new appreciation of the woman she just calls Mrs Winterson, her adoptive mother. Finally she can see the gifts, as well as the drawbacks of her peculiar upbringing. "It has rather made me appreciate Mrs Winterson and her lunacy. I'm now convinced that the worst life for any child is to have an empty head. At least I got everything stuffed in there. Wintersonworld was bonkers, but it made me. I am Jeanette Winterson because of Wintersonworld!"

Thank God our most vivid, charming and pugnacious writer is back on such sparkling form. Where will she be in another 10 years? I look forward to finding out.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

By Jeanette Winterson

Vintage £8.99


"I never did drugs, I did love – the crazy reckless kind, more damage than healing, more heartbreak than health. And I fought and hit out and tried to put it right the next day. And I went away without a word and I didn't care"