Jeanette Winterson: 'You shouldn't grow up in public, it's a really bad idea'

After decades of creating fiction, Jeanette Winterson found herself too depressed to write before the idea for her latest children's stories provided salvation. She talks to Nicolette Jones about her goddaughters, stern mother and making peace with the past

Interview,Nicolette Jones
Friday 06 November 2009 01:00 GMT

Jeanette Winterson's children's books involve travelling in time, and visiting her in her London flat is like doing precisely that. She lives over Verde's, a quaint, characterful caf/deli in Spitalfields, in a 1780s building she painstakingly restored from roofless dereliction. She declined a very lucrative offer from a coffee shop chain to rent the downstairs, because she "didn't like the coffee and didn't like the politics", and came to an arrangement with chef, Harvey Cabanis, trained by Fergus Henderson of St John's, who now serves wild rabbit soup and suckling pig to local bankers a menu so up-to-the-minute it seems like 18th-century cuisine. Upstairs, we talk in a room with rust-red walls, grey-green wooden panelling and a roaring fire that feels like Dr Johnson's house; it turns out that the next room has floorboards from a coffee house he and Boswell used to frequent.

Winterson admits that when she wakes early to work, she lights candles and a wood-burning stove. No wonder she recreates with ease, in her latest book, The Battle of the Sun, (Bloomsbury, 10.99) the atmosphere of 1601. She more or less lives in it. Winterson's main home is in Gloucestershire, and her life there is also anachronistic: hunting, growing vegetables and owning few possessions even fewer now she has given up vintage Porsches, for environmental reasons (and after the last one blew up). Contrary to some reports, she lives alone and not surrounded by "handmaidens" "I can't think where that idea came from; it's nuts!", she says, also putting paid to a few other persistent myths about herself.

The doorstepping incident, for one, in which she famously called on critic, Nicci Gerrard, to take issue with her over a piece of writing, is mitigated by the information that they knew each other already (Winterson had babysat for Gerrard's children). "I come from a part of the country and a class", Winterson tells me in her Lancashire accent, where "if you have an issue with someone you just go and tell them about it. I didn't know then you should go through a third party. I would now." Winterson does put her hands up to a few other legends: that she once chose her own book (Written on the Body, 1992) as a book of the year, that she posed nude for the press and that she sold sex for saucepans or at least that she used to pick up women at a club and was given pans in exchange because husbands would not pick that up on the credit card bills.

"You shouldn't grow up in public, it's a really bad idea," she says. In the 1990s, she believes, writers began to be treated as "miniature celebrities", and they had neither the experience, or the accompanying PR people, of real celebrities. "The media had great fun at our expense because we all - Martin Amis, me ... made stupid remarks all the time."

Winterson was prepared to talk about sex, which sold newspapers, especially since she had suddenly made money: "That mix of sex and money affairs with glamorous women like Pat Kavanagh it's too good, I can really understand it."

Though she wanted a private life, "I didn't want to be secretive about the fact that I was gay." She thought it a civil liberties issue, and also believes being "prepared to stand up and say it's fine to be gay, get over it" contributed to a change in attitudes. "I was constantly veering between rage at these intrusions and thinking I don't want to lie."

The candour is endearing, as is the cheerful, outgoing manner of this garrulous, diminutive person in brown cords, with her unbrushed hair and the bright-eyed face of a small furry creature. She seems to have found the life that suits who she is, and to live it with confidence, conviction and relish. It is surprising when we know, from her 1985 Whitbread-winning Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, that she had such a constrained upbringing, as the adopted daughter of evangelical Pentecostalists. And, from her own account, that she has had her dark times.

Yet that austere upbringing fed her teeming imagination (19 books in 25 years), and her rhythmic, almost Biblical prose. "I think it's being in the coal hole a lot when I was little. I was always shut in there for various misdemeanours. The thing about Mrs Winterson (as she always refers to her adoptive mother), who was a flamboyant depressive, is that I was determined that she should never see that she had hurt me. And in that dark, cramped, claustrophobic space I made up stories. I wasn't in the coal hole. I was anywhere I wanted to be."

Mrs Winterson was a large woman 5 ft 10" and 20 stone in contrast to her adopted daughter. "She was the dog woman in Sexing the Cherry (1989]), and Mrs Rockabye's best lines in Tanglewreck (2006) are Mrs Winterson's." She died when Jeanette, at 29, was "too young to mend (their relationship)", and "just after the screening of the episode of Oranges (adapted for television in 1990) with the sex scene in it." She had burst a blood vessel from shock once before. "When I told her the first time I had fallen in love with a woman, she had varicose veins and the whole thing burst and hit the ceiling. I was running round in a panic with cloths trying to staunch the flow; I had a tourniquet of tea towels. And she was lying looking up at the ceiling and all she said was: "We've just had that ceiling decorated." Winterson assumes the television dramatisation was finally too much for her.

Some of her history might make Winterson seem an unlikely author of children's books. At home she had only six books including the Bible and La Morte d'Arthur (apart from library books she hid under her mattress). And she did not have a childhood most children would relate to centered around the church, and preaching on street corners by the age of 12.

Her inspiration for the new genre was principally her goddaughters, the children of her best friend from Oxford, Vicky Licorish. She has both girls to stay with her every second weekend. "If you know your limitations and you are not going to do children yourself, you can throw yourself into this other possibility."

Her first book for children, The King of Capri (2003) was a fairy tale inspired by the time she took her goddaughter, Eleanor, to Capri and all their washing blew off the line in the night. "We had to ferret about for our socks and knickers secretly in the garden below."

The goddaughters "started asking questions about time and why grown-ups never had any." It led to Tanglewreck (2006), in which different layers of levels of time coexist. Her next children's book, just out, was a retelling of the nativity story from the donkey's point of view, The Lion, The Unicorn and Me (Scholastic, 12.99), written at a bad time for Winterson. "I had split up with Deborah Warner (after a six-year relationship), and was feeling absolutely wretched." She wrote it through one night, back home in a cold house after giving a lecture in Holland, too depressed even to cook. "It cheered me up." Not least because she gave the donkey who was herself a golden nose. "That's the joy of being a writer: you can give yourself a golden nose if you want to." The nose, though, was a glimmer of light in a longer period of gloom. The end of the relationship coincided with "some very unwelcome information about my adoptive mother, and that whole situation ... Things shifted almost overnight from being quite stable to being seriously unstable. I was in a very bad way. Trains came and I couldn't get on them. I couldn't write at all. I used to sit outside in the rain, and didn't even know if it was raining." She took nothing for the depression: "I prefer my own suffering to other people's solutions. I kept reciting poetry, and listening to music, and I used these things like ropes when I got very panicky and felt seasick reciting a poem over and over again steadied me. It felt like a life and death struggle."

In March 2008, she went back into her studio. She wrote The Battle of the Sun in six months. "I got better and better mentally as I worked and by the time I finished it on my birthday last year I was through it, like when you've got a fever and you're not sweating any more." The story concerns a boy who is abducted into a magical world on his 12th birthday and has to battle an evil magus to save London and his mother. Winterson wrote, as always, without a plan, so as not to interfere with the "unruliness" of the imaginative life, spreading the sheets of writing around the floor of her studio. To Winterson's surprise, the story, which did not begin as a sequel, reintroduced Silver, the 21st-century girl from Tanglewreck. Silver is also the name of the woman in Lighthousekeeping (2004), partly because of the piratical connotations of Long John Silver, and of Winterson's "semi-luminous" cat.

In the book, the Battle of the Sun is both literal and, she says, "the daily battle to be master of oneself." Winterson was strong enough to cope with the death of Pat Kavanagh a month after it was finished, and of her father last Christmas: he had lived long enough to be reconciled with her. "I coped very well, but not by shutting things off, by accepting them, so I knew I was better."

In the story, London is turned into gold, in a sequence which teaches the reader that it is better to have food on your plate and friendship with your neighbour than riches. "The book was quite prescient, just before the crash, because the whole push of capitalism was at that point to turn the whole planet into a money-making machine and forget all about responsibility and social values. I hope at a subliminal level kids will make the connection, that if you do that, the consequences are shattering. I'm a moralist, there's no question. I was a preacher for too long not to want to convert everybody and make them better." Unusually for Winterson, the mother in the book is good, and, having been turned to stone, she is returned to her son at the end. "It is the end of The Winter's Tale, which is my favourite Shakespeare play - I am always working with it."

The Battle of the Sun is dedicated to Winterson's goddaughters, but also to herself as a child. "The bizarre thing is that those three things for children happened in that place where I was again that abandoned child both adopted and in the coal hole. I found her again. And I suppose I got her out."

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