APRIL 20, 2012
… all time is always present, but buried layer by layer under what people call Now.
— Jeanette Winterson, Tanglewreck
IN THE FALL OF 1996, I traveled from Southern California to London to interview Jeanette Winterson for the Paris Review. I was in my mid-thirties (one year younger than the author) and had recently left a heterosexual marriage to embark on what would become my new life as a lesbian. I had been teaching Winterson’s novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in my college English classes since its appearance in 1985, when it catapulted Winterson onto the international stage as a serious literary figure, and so I was elated when I got this assignment.
During the weeks preceding my journey halfway around the world, I prepped by rereading all of the Winterson books I had in my possession. By that time, she had already penned a fairly substantial oeuvre: in addition to Oranges, her works included Boating for Beginners (1985); The Passion (1987); Sexing the Cherry (1989); Written on the Body (1992); Art and Lies: A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd (1994); and Art Objects (1995), a collection of essays. I was unable to obtain a copy of her 1986 health manual, Fit for the Future: The Guide for Women Who Want to Live Well, but I didn’t think it would come up in the interview. I had plenty to work on with the material at hand. I took notes, wrote out questions, and imagined how I might prevent myself from gushing, “I’m a big fan,” or, “I’m a lesbian, too,” or some other ridiculous phrase that would betray my utter lack of sophistication. I purchased a cassette recorder, extra AA batteries, and an ivy green wheelie bag from T. J. Maxx.
When I arrived at Hazlitt’s Hotel in Soho — an eccentric structure of interconnected Georgian-era buildings, where I had booked a room because Winterson’s agent recommended it as a place frequented by writers and artists — the galleys of the latest Winterson novel, Gut Symmetries, were waiting for me at the front desk. I had less than 24 hours to make sense of the new book before my appointment with the author, and as I discovered right away, it was not a light read. I stayed up most of the night in a room with floorboards tilted at odd angles and worked through the following morning, trying to wrestle the novel into submission. Because of the slanted floor, my water glass kept sliding toward the edge of the table every time I set it down; I’d have to catch it in between furiously jotting down notes and underlining. After a few hours of disoriented jetlag sleep, I got up, reviewed my materials, checked to make sure my recorder was working, and caught a cab to the Granta offices. Inside, an assistant showed me to an office, where I took a seat on a couch. Punctual to the minute, Jeanette Winterson emerged from a door in back, walked across the room, and sat down beside me. She was 5 feet tall, to my 5’6″, with short, curly red hair and a fierce expression as if she were prepared to do battle on the spot. We got right down to business.
I felt at the time that I understood where Winterson was coming from as a writer. Like her, I was from a working-class background; I, too, had survived a dysfunctional family life and a domineering mother. Also like her, I believed early on that books and learning could supply you with a new, greatly improved existence and that if you were an author you could tell your own story. What I couldn’t have fully understood then was just how tumultuous her life in the late nineties had become.
Our paths crossed for a few short hours during a period in which Winterson was falling out of favor with the literary world, and she was in for some additional negative criticism in the years ahead. Even though I knew she had been having a rough time, I didn’t want to talk about scandals when we met. I had been told to think of the Paris Review piece as destined to become the “interview of record” — something that would stand the test of time — so I stayed away from messy personal details and posed mostly big questions about life and literature. I didn’t, for instance, ask her about the 1992 controversy over how she had named herself as her favorite living author. Nor did I ask about the infamous incident in 1995, when Winterson and a girlfriend showed up on the doorstep of a critic who had written a somewhat negative review, hurling insults and allegedly spitting, not knowing that said critic was hosting a dinner party that night for journalist friends. And I most certainly did not ask whom she was sleeping with — even if, sitting beside her on the couch that autumn afternoon, I was most definitely … intrigued.
Winterson would later say in The Guardian of this period of her life: “About 1992 I should have had an operation to sew up my mouth, and kept it closed till 1997.” In her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she chooses to keep her mouth shut about an even longer stretch of her life. She narrates her life story up to the point of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the permanent estrangement from her adoptive mother that took place after the book became a success, and then skips ahead to the relatively recent present when she meets, for the first time, her birth mother and begins to process what it means to have blood relations. Oranges infuriated Mrs. Winterson (what the author calls her adoptive mother throughout much of the book) because she said it wasn’t the truth, and although Winterson has frequently assented to her mother’s assessment, saying that the book is a work of fiction and not strictly true, the memoir gives us an even clearer sense of just how authentic the novel is on a higher plane.
In the interview, Winterson described Oranges to me as “in many ways a very loving portrait of a monster”:
[M]y relationship with my mother was operatic; it was Wagnerian and tempestuous. She was this huge, huge creature, physically and emotionally demanding, and I am quite small physically. So immediately there was this contrast and this tension … This great thing constantly bearing down on this very small thing, along with the manipulations and the brutalities.
She told me that the secret to happiness was forgiveness and that she had learned to forgive and let go of bitterness; “which is why,” she said then, “I am actually happy now.”
But happiness, it would seem, is something she has won and lost repeatedly in her life (and who hasn’t?). The memoir revisits Winterson’s origins as an adopted child growing up in a Pentecostal religious circle beneath the crushing weight of her mother’s indomitable will, and in this version we learn that if there were things in Oranges that horrified readers — the way the protagonist is locked up and tortured when her church finds out she’s a lesbian — the truth about Winterson’s early years was probably even worse than the novel made out. She was forbidden to read all but a handful of authorized books (she hid contraband reading under her mattress), was routinely shut up in a coal cellar overnight or longer, and was repeatedly beaten up by kids at school. Whereas Oranges punctuates its narrative with retellings of myths and Bible stories, departing into fantasy when the going gets tough, Why Be Happy takes us inside Winterson’s head and heart and gives us deeper insight into who she was then and who she is at the present.
As much as Winterson seeks to revisit the past in Why Be Happy, she also transforms it through the alchemy of storytelling and tries to find peace. She looks back at the “monster” and sees her as a struggling individual with limited resources: “She was such a solitary woman. A solitary woman who longed for one person to know her. I think I do know her now, but it is too late.” There’s a one-line gap here, followed by a reconsideration:
Or is it?
Freud, one of the grand masters of narrative, knew that the past is not fixed in the way that linear time suggests. We can return. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke. We can talk with the dead.
On the one hand, the memoir represents as absolute and irrevocable the rift between the author and the woman who raised her:
She didn’t answer. Not then. Not later. I never went back. I never saw her again.
On the other hand, here the mother is, in the pages of this book. Not seen again in life, but never fully left behind either. It’s fitting that the book’s interrogative title comes from the mother’s response to young Winterson’s coming out as a lesbian. The question appears at a crucial moment when things could have been different, if only the mother had said something else. After Winterson explains to her mother what she knows for sure about her relationship with her first girlfriend — “When I am with her I am happy. Just happy” — the story holds its breath and lingers over the mother’s reaction.
She nodded. She seemed to understand and I thought, really for that second, that she would change her mind, that we would talk, that we would be on the same side of the glass wall. I waited.
She said, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”
Breaks, fissures, and injuries have marked Winterson’s history, but her impulse has always been simultaneously to acknowledge the potential for fragmentation and to seek to transcend loss through the act of creation. In a chapter titled “Intermission,” she declares, “I am halfway through my biological life, and about halfway through my creative life.” Directly after that last goodbye to her mother she fast-forwards into the 21st century: “I measure time as we all do, and partly by the fading body, but in order to challenge linear time, I try and live in total time. I recognize that life has an inside as well as an outside and that events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.”
Because memoirs invite us to look back over an author’s life, as soon as I finished reading Why Be Happy I wanted to take stock of the Winterson canon. I realized that I had lost track of her in the last decade, and I sought to follow the path that brought her to this new place of disclosure and revelation. Naturally, I thought back to our encounter and the 15,000-word record of it in The Paris Review. Many of the grand themes we discussed remained relevant to her work over the ensuing years: autobiography as fodder for fiction, the metaphorical dimensions of life as seen in the Bible and myth, and the proper role of the artist; also, love, forgiveness, loss, and heroism. Looking over the stack of her books on my desk — 21 in all — I could see a pattern emerge, a coherence arising from seemingly disparate elements. And I could measure the distance this now-major author has traveled as an artist in the 27 years since Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
It makes sense to subdivide Winterson’s career into three periods. From 1985 to 1992, she enjoyed literary celebrity, publishing to great acclaim Oranges, The Passion, Sexing the Cherry, and Written on the Body, the four books that sold more than any of her others and that are still featured in college classrooms, dissertations, and monographs as her representative works. In this first phase, she was hailed as a literary lesbian with a gift for the fabulous. The second period, extending from 1993 to 2000, was characterized by rampant experimentation. This period includes Art & Lies, Gut Symmetries, the short-story collection The World and Other Places, and The PowerBook. In the work of this period, references to quantum physics and aesthetic theory abound, and linearity is defiantly absent. It was a time of bad press and diminishing sales figures. In her most recent phase, she has made the voyage back from those wilderness years and into the spotlight. This phase began in 2003, with a slim children’s picture book, The King of Capri, continued with the novel Lighthousekeeping (2004), and then took some intriguing — but not far-fetched — turns when Winterson published a retelling of the Atlas myth, Weight (2005); two novels for young readers, Tanglewreck (2006) and The Battle of the Sun (2009); and a fantasy novel, The Stone Gods (2007), in between. An additional children’s book, The Lion, the Unicorn and Me, appeared in 2009, followed by this year’s memoir. Why Be Happy may usher in yet another phase for Winterson, a new era that, one only hopes, will allow her to be comfortable with fame as she evolves and writes whatever she pleases.
As I grappled with Winterson’s entire body of work, my admiration for her increased. Back in 1996, focusing primarily on the books from her celebrity days, I was, indeed, a big fan, dazzled by the high-wire acts she performed in the service of storytelling, and mesmerized by her work’s oracular elements. I began my introduction to the Paris Review interview with a line from Oranges: “I cannot recall a time when I did not know I was special.” That assertion of ego propelled her through those early years. “The writer is at once the most abject of people and the most arrogant,” she told me. “Because the person who really knows, knows the glories of the past and how significant they are to him or her, is at the same time prepared to say, And now I will add to them.”
I asked about her penchant for experimentation, and, like a true lover of literary modernism, she spoke of wanting to move beyond 19th-century realist fiction:
I love those books and wouldn’t want to be without them … But it’s this business of reproduction furniture. You cannot keep producing the things that have been successful in the past or that have expressed the human condition in the past. You have to move forward; you have to make it new for every couple of generations, because otherwise it’s not a living thing anymore.
The former Jeanette Winterson probably wouldn’t have written children’s books or adventure novels for young readers or a sci-fi fantasy novel.
Throughout her career, Winterson has soldiered on in the face of acclaim and of condemnation. I see her now as having responded to early success by withholding from readers her biggest strength: the ability to spin a good yarn. She always knew she could do that, and so, in her earlier phases, she kept upping the level of difficulty. She broke up the form and shook her fist at linearity. She was a trickster, a thief, an escape artist. Catch her if you can.
Immediately following Why Be Happy‘s “Intermission” comes a chapter called “The Night Sea Voyage”: an indirect homage to the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Here she offers a brief career retrospective by way of comment on her writing process; if she’s going to skip over 25 years, she apparently wants to lend us a few stepping-stones as we follow her from one side to the other. “Whenever I write a book,” she says, “one sentence forms in my mind, like a sandbar above the waterline.” She then presents key phrases that appear in a selected bibliography of her works:
The Passion: “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
Written on the Body: “Why is the measure of love loss?”
The PowerBook: “To avoid discovery I stay on the run. To discover things for myself, I stay on the run.”
Weight: “The free man never thinks of escape.”
The Stone Gods: “Everything is imprinted forever with what it once was.”
She goes on to name Lighthousekeeping as a book in which she had been “working with the idea of a fossil record.” This list of six books, chosen from among other possibilities, is one way of mapping her output, and it’s significant that she jumps over much of what she wrote during her most experimental period.
Yet Winterson does provide a rationale for her experimental temperament:
Life is layers, fluid, unfixed fragments. I never could write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me. That is why I write as I do and how I write as I do. It isn’t a method; it’s me.
In her most recent creative period, she hasn’t stopped playing around with form. Lighthousekeeping bounces back and forth between the narrative past and present, and The Stone Gods time-travels even more widely, going from a post-apocalyptic future to the 18th century and eventually looping back on itself in imitation of the curved nature of space. But her imagination seems less in thrall to her intellect in the books of the past decade than in some of those mid-period ones. Maybe that’s because she’s no longer writing about obsessive love triangles and out-of-control emotions. When she writes of love in her more recent books — and she frequently does — she does so in a big-hearted way: as connection, an exit out of the prison of the self, a path to salvation.
Take, for example, her two books for young readers, which I confess to not having read until the memoir had me wondering what Winterson had been up to lately. I found them to be highly entertaining tales with life lessons that benefit adults as well as kids. In Tanglewreck, a boy finds rescue when he learns to travel “at the speed of love,” and the moral of the story — delivering a moral being a good thing to do in a children’s book — is that “one true heart can change everything.” In The Battle for the Sun, the villain wants to change the whole city of London into gold, and the book affirms the higher value of “a rare gold, an inner gold, that is of the spirit.” As one particularly wise character explains, “The inner gold of which we speak cannot be bought and sold or traded in the market place. It is yours and yours alone. And the sun is its emblem. And the battle is fought and lost every day. And sometimes, it is won.”
Atlas, condemned, as we know, to forever holding up the cosmos, becomes in Winterson’s Weight a stand-in for the author herself. “My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex,” the narrator/author tells us. “The more I did the more I carried. Books, houses, lovers, lives, all piled up on my back, which has always been the strongest part of my body. I go to the sun. I can lift my own weight. I can lift my own weight.” These lines helped me make sense of her 1980s fitness book (which I now own), where she writes, “Weights will retrain you … You will have to focus on your body in quite a different way. For a while it will be like watching a stranger and then you will realize you are becoming a new person.” If Atlas can walk away at the end of Weight — and who’s to say he can’t? I won’t give anything away — it will be because he learns, with the help of a little dog, how to drop the weight of self and expand into the power of love.
Why Be Happy reverberates with affirmations of the power of love and forgiveness. Although the shadow of Mrs. Winterson’s radical unhappiness hangs over the book, as in many of the author’s fictional works, there is a battle between the forces of darkness and light. This time it’s personal:
The night I left home I felt that I had been tricked or trapped into going — and not even by Mrs. Winterson, but by the dark narrative of our life together.
What would it have meant to be happy? What would it have meant if things had been bright, clear, good between us?
It was never a question of biology or nature and nurture. I know now that we heal up through being loved and through loving others.
All her life, Winterson suffered the pain of being simultaneously bound to and alienated from her adoptive mother, the woman whose worldview consisted of an absolutism that, as the narrator at the beginning of Oranges puts it, divided the world into “friends” and “enemies.” Having moved into the enemy column when she fell in love with a woman, Winterson could never go back. In the process of writing the memoir, though, she ends up being able to return to a time before this bond was forged and broken. She loses Mrs. Winterson and finds a mother she never knew she had.
In order to do so, however, she must first stay alive. One of the book’s saddest revelations is that of the author’s attempted suicide in 2008, when Winterson fell into a depression, induced, as she recounts it, from an excess of torturous feelings. Like a hero who descends into the netherworld, she sank further into darkness and became so alienated that she came to paradoxically view suicide as a life-affirming gesture:
Herman Hesse called suicide a state of mind — and there are a great many people, nominally alive, who have committed a suicide much worse than physical death. They have vacated life.
I did not want to vacate life. I loved life. I love life. Life is too precious to me not to live it fully. I thought, “If I cannot live then I must die.”
She recounts how she locked herself in the garage and turned on the car engine. And that’s when life came back to her in the form of a cat she’d inadvertently locked in, too. This cat, clinging to life with all of its cat tenacity, brought the author back to consciousness: “My cat was scratching my face, scratching my face, scratching my face.”
In the renewed strength that comes from this near-death experience, Winterson does some scratching of her own, pen-on-paper-wise, and writes her way into the future. She falls in love with psychoanalyst and author Susie Orbach, who helps her through the challenging process of searching for her birth mother. Even though the memoir accelerates when it reaches this section, which takes up less than a quarter of the book, what we learn of Winterson’s meeting the incredibly nice woman who gave birth to her is earth-shattering. Whereas the author had believed she was abandoned as an infant by a mother who didn’t want her, it turns out that her birth mother simply couldn’t afford to take care of her. Whereas Mrs. Winterson had said that her birth mother was dead, she finds out that this was a lie. As for her being a lesbian, something that ended all contact with Mrs. W., the birth mother didn’t mind at all. Things could have been different, and the book implies that from now on they might be:
I suppose it is because of the forking paths. I keep seeing my life darting off in the different directions it could have taken, as chance and circumstance, temperament and desire, open and close, open and close gates, routes, roadways.
And yet there feels like an inevitability to who I am — just as of all the planets in all the universes, planet blue, this planet Earth, is the one that is home.
I guess that over the last few years I have come home.
Winterson’s meeting with her birth mother, Ann, takes place in one of the memoir’s final chapters. It is both touching and awkward. The author is even surprised to feel protective of Mrs. Winterson when Ann criticizes her. “She was a monster,” Winterson notes, “but she was my monster.”
By the late 1990s, around the time I met Winterson, people were wondering if the once-celebrated author’s career was at an end. In a profile piece in Prospect Magazine in February of 1998, Angela Lambert traces what she views as Winterson’s downward spiral. Lambert recounts the numerous scandals and other details of the author’s private life that had earned her notoriety as a literary bête noir in England and looks back over the Winterson publication history, praising the early novels and identifying a steep decline after Written on the Body that portended the worst. “Perhaps it is the fate of literary shooting stars,” Lambert speculates, “to plummet spectacularly to earth, above all if they are young, combative and female.” She concludes, “It would be premature to say that she has shot her bolt. But for the time being Winterson does seem to have lost her way — perhaps through striving too hard for new effects.”
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? has brought Winterson back into the critics’ good graces, having so far received glowing reviews in major venues like The Guardian and The New York Times and in mainstream publications such as O: The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Vogue, and Newsday. Most reviewers take pleasure in the author’s return to the landscape and storyline of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. For those who meet her in this book for the first time, the story of a supposed orphan who survives childhood, an eccentric family, literary success, and near-suicide before reuniting with her lost mother will certainly be a heartening one. It’s clear from the reviews that few critics have stayed with Winterson over the course of her career, but what’s equally clear is why they took notice when she hit the literary scene in the first place: She has a serious talent for making us want to know what happens next.
“[A]ll my characters are on a quest,” Winterson said in our 1996 interview. “They’re looking for something that they don’t have, and then, of course, they find that it is within themselves. But not until the end of the book.” When we separated later that evening after sharing a cab part of the way, I was in such a state of euphoria and distraction that I didn’t notice until she was out of sight that she had left behind a blue wool sweater. Unsure of how best to get it back to her, I decided to pack it with my things in the green wheelie bag as I prepared for my trip back to L.A. Would she mind if I kept it? I couldn’t help but wonder. It smelled faintly of wood smoke with a trace of floral perfume (hers? someone else’s?). But I’ve never been much of a souvenir-hound, and besides, I had my cassettes. And the interview, once published, would connect us in a small way that would continue over time. I had her agent’s address. I would send the sweater there later. As I stuffed the tapes inside my baggage, I thought of a line from The Passion I had written in one of my notebooks: “There will be a moment (though of course it won’t be a moment) when we will know (though knowing will no longer be separate from being) that we are a part of all we have met and that all we have met was already a part of us.” I closed my suitcase and headed home.