First transmitted in 1994, Jeremy Isaacs talks to writer Jeanette Winterson, who reflects on the ways in which her upbringing and sexuality have influenced her work.
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you write some of the most excitingly written fictions of our day.
The very first of them, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,
in which a girl, a young woman called Jeanette,
discovers she loves other women,
had as great a success on BBC television as it did as a book.
To what extent is Oranges autobiographical?
I have very often been asked the question about
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and its autobiographical content.
And I have to say that when I was 24 and I was writing Oranges,
I thought that, as a Northern, working-class girl,
suddenly thrown into the big city,
that I would find sophistication and a culture
which had perhaps otherwise been denied to me.
So when I made myself into a fictional character,
I did not believe that those critics and reviewers,
who seemed to me to be authority at that time,
would therefore assume that Oranges was autobiographical.
I thought that they would be cleverer than that.
It was a play on form,
in the same way that Virginia Woolf called Orlando a biography,
in the same way that Gertrude Stein wrote
the autobiography of Alice B Toklas,
both saying, "I'm telling you the truth," but with a large wink,
both inviting intimacy, both offering confidences,
but in a playful way,
in a way which was from the very outset challenging a genre,
a boxing-in, a way of looking at the world.
I thought I would do that with Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.
I wanted to challenge, and one way of challenging
was not just to talk about lesbianism or...
the fear, as well as the love,
that the Church can inspire in people,
but to play with the whole literary works.
I am a literary writer and... I like to get my tool box out
and dismantle what already exists.
So...there is a great game going on in Oranges
and some of it, of course, is based on experiences in my life,
but that is true of every single book that has been written by anybody.
You always use things that you know.
But more importantly, you use the power of your imagination,
you transform those experiences and you invent other ones.
And if you cannot remember, you must invent.
And most of Oranges is invention,
though, of course, I was brought up by Pentecostal parents
in a working-class, Northern town.
Er, are there elements of autobiography
in any other of your fictions?
I have always used my own experience in my work.
But it's true to say that there is more autobiography
in Sexing The Cherry,
um, which is set in an invented historical past,
than perhaps there is in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.
I want to knock down those walls.
I don't want to tie myself in in any way.
And so...whenever I take a situation for my books,
whether it's a historical situation or a contemporary situation,
it is nevertheless an invention.
That place does not exist, it never did exist.
It's not authenticity, it's not realism.
It's a great game, it's a pretend,
because I think that the greatest truth is in the most feigning,
and so I set up what is an entertainment, an enchanted place,
um, a forest which grows up overnight and then collapses.
The next day, you walk through it and you say, "What was that place?"
It is a fiction. I am a fiction writer.
And I cannot stress too highly enough
how important I think the role of the imagination is in literature.
And I really have very little time for realism.
If you want that, you can get it on the streets.
Using your imagination, however,
you write about passionate love between women
in a way that didn't used to be possible.
I mean, when Radclyffe Hall wrote Well Of Loneliness,
and it was published in 1929,
the nearest thing it contains to a description of lovemaking is,
"And in the night, they were not divided," or something like that.
- Yes. - And that book was prosecuted.
- Yes. - It must be possible,
it is possible, to write much more openly
about women's love for women today than it was then.
It is certainly possible, I think,
for a writer...to exercise greater moral freedom,
greater freedom of choice in subject matter,
but with any extension of freedom comes concomitant dangers and risks
which also beset the writer, and when everything is possible,
you must be very careful to make your own boundaries,
to make your own limitations,
otherwise chaos is everywhere.
We must have shapes, forms to our lives to make them significant,
and it seems to me that a writer's job is
to look into that chaos and make it shapely, make it coherent.
So, when I write about love between women,
when I talk about passion, when I talk about sex -
which I hope to do, movingly and startlingly
and shockingly, if need be -
nevertheless, um, I am my own judge, my own censor,
which is better than having someone on the outside
judging and censoring you.
But you must still be...you must be your own critic, first and foremost.
Is there such a thing as lesbian fiction?
There is such a thing as lesbian fiction
and it's genre fiction, like science fiction,
like crime writing, like thriller writing,
and its scope is necessarily narrow.
It must be.
Just as you have to have a body in a murder story,
so you will have to have obligatory sex scenes,
love scenes, in your lesbian books.
And that's fine. They speak to a particular audience
and they are necessary,
but they are a kind of Mills & Boon.
And I'm not interested in them.
Just as I wouldn't be interested in Mills & Boon,
or in that kind of very narrow writing.
I want everything in my work. I don't want to say,
"I'm only going to write about lesbians."
I want the whole thing, the whole gamut,
and I will have to draw it in, disciplined only by a lasso of words.
In your most recent book, you say,
"There's no such thing as autobiography,
"there's only art and lies."
I said that partly as...
one of my challenges, because I was so tired of people assuming
that much of what I wrote or write is autobiographical,
because I think it's a way of limiting women's work,
of trying to make it domestic and contained,
so that imagination is a male prerogative,
but women write about experience,
they write about what they know, they write about their lives.
And of course, this has been true.
You know, the semi-myth of gentle Jane Austen
sitting in the drawing room
scribbling under her sampler what she saw going on around her.
True and not true. It's more than that.
And I think...although feminism has done so much work -
I couldn't be sitting here today if it wasn't for feminism -
nevertheless we have to be careful
not to concentrate too much on experience,
but to recognise that there is something outside of that,
which is spiritual, which is cerebral, which is intellectual,
um, and which is purely to do with ideas
and not to do with "what I did today".
Can I begin, however, by asking you about you?
And we'll come back to the writing.
Could you tell us where you were born?
Yes, I was born in Accrington,
which is the place where the football team once came from
and where Harrison Birtwistle comes from,
and it's in Lancashire and it's a small mill town...
Uh, typical, cut out of the hills, smoky, dark,
but then, suddenly, into a rush of green space,
into a rush of air, a rush of trees.
And those two things, that tension is important to me.
Who brought you up?
I was brought up by my parents, my adopted parents,
um, who took me from an orphanage in Manchester
because they wanted a child that they could dedicate to God.
Um, for my parents, religion was a vital thing,
a muscular thing, an everyday thing
and God was not a remote being.
God was on the doorstep,
God was in the armchair,
and if the larder was empty, God would fill it.
So, since neither of them, it seemed, could produce a child,
they had to adopt one, and that was me.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
No, I had no brothers and sisters.
My mother felt that she would prefer to concentrate on one.
What was your mother like?
Ah. Mrs Winterson!
Um, my mother is dead now.
She was...a gargantuan figure, she...
was Rabelaisian in her dimension, she was biblical in her anger.
She was too much for a small child,
and so the small child had to, perhaps...
..begin to be like her in those dimensions,
and some of my own feistiness
and willingness to put up my fists and scrap,
if I am challenged, comes out of having to scrap with her,
because if you didn't stand up for yourself in my household, um,
you were finished.
Did your father stand up for himself?
Um, no, my father didn't stand up for himself.
I think my father was
born on his knees and he stayed on them throughout his married life,
um, always in supplication, either to my mother or to God.
It didn't really make much difference
and I don't know that he thought there was much difference.
How religious was the religiousness of the household?
It was religious, but it was not conventional.
It was a household where miracles were expected
and where, indeed, they happened.
It was an Old Testament household -
this is really the God of Moses
and you expect the God of Moses to be ever-present,
but also a God that loses his temper,
a God that is difficult, a God that is irrational.
All this played out through the large frame of my mother.
The Bible, was that read?
Yes, there were six books in our house until I left and went to Oxford
and one of them was the Bible. Another was Cruden's Concordance
so that we knew where to look things up in the Bible,
um, and it was necessary to read it before school
and, for me, at lunchtime as well,
I had to take my own, and in the evening,
the evenings were entirely given over to church activities.
The church was about five miles away
and I think most of my health comes from the fact
that I had to walk to school two miles there and two miles back
and to church five miles there and five miles back every day.
Was your childhood happy?
Yes, my childhood was happy.
I was a happy child, largely because I believed that I was special,
chosen by God,
that my relationship to the world was unique
and that I had a place in it
and that place was to change what I saw around me.
And I think if a child has a strong framework,
even if it's a difficult one, that is a help to the child,
and if the child grows up in a loving atmosphere, no matter how bizarre,
the child will be happy.
I look back, I know it was bizarre,
but, to me, I thought everyone lived like that.
Are you still in touch with Accrington or your father?
I'm not in touch with Accrington any more.
I don't think I can go back there now
because it exists for me as an invented place.
..do use any of your own past, you write it out,
you finish with it somehow, you make it into fiction
and therefore it's accessible in a way which real life is not,
but it's also closed in a way which real life is not.
The Accrington that means something to me does not exist.
So I'm not going to go and look at it.
And I do keep in touch with my father, yes.
He's married again and he's happy.
Um, did you ever meet your real mother?
No, I never met my real mother.
I often wondered about her and I know that my parents knew who she was,
but it was a part of the fierceness with which I was guarded
that that would not have been possible.
You see, I was snatched out of the fire -
as my mother saw it - out of the sin of the world
and redeemed to a better place
and she was absolutely determined that nothing - nothing -
would come between me and my vocation.
Well, it hasn't, but we just have
a different idea of what that vocation was.
When your adoptive parents, your father and mother, read Oranges,
what did they think of that?
Did they think that that was what they'd adopted you for?
No, when Oranges was published,
I hadn't seen my family for some time - many years, in fact -
and when they read it, my mother wrote to me and she said,
"Oh, Jeanette, it was the first time
"I had to order a book in a false name."
And I did feel for her.
And she was torn, of course, with a mixture of absolute hatred,
and some understandable pride.
But it wasn't possible for her to find a place to put that pride,
um, so we couldn't discuss what I was doing.
We couldn't discuss what I had become.
My father is now very proud of me.
Now that Mrs Winterson is gone, he's able to say what he feels.
How did you think... How do you think you acquired your love of,
your fascination with language?
Well, my fascination with language
comes straight out of the King James version of the Bible.
I think there's no better book to be brought up on,
and if you've only got six books in your house,
let's pray that one of them is the Bible!
Because those rhythms, that prose...
It is a magnificent work of literature.
I'm reading it through again now, though I'm not very far on -
I'm only in with the Prophets, but I'm fond of the Prophets.
Um, and I grew up hearing a language which was...
which was both special and intimate,
which was detached and had presence and had authority,
and yet spoke to me directly,
just as it speaks to millions of people directly,
and it is that wonderful tension which a writer seeks
because writing literature...
it's lovers' talk, it's whispers in the ear,
but it's also a public declaration, and that's what the Bible offers.
After school, what did you do?
Ha! Well, after school, it is true, I did work in a funeral parlour
and I did have to make my living making ice cream and flogging it
because I needed money. I'd left home.
What did you do in the funeral parlour?
Made up corpses.
Um, I know it's an unusual job for a girl,
but it was quiet
and, er, I was able to get on with my own thoughts
and the alternative would have been to work in the pea-canning factory
and I felt that that would be more of a hindrance
to the contemplative life
than making up dead bodies.
A mental hospital?
Yes, I did work in a mental hospital for a time,
again, because I had nowhere to live and they offered me a place to stay,
so I worked amongst the mad and I found them very companionable.
I mean, they didn't interfere with the contemplative life either.
What did you learn from that experience?
When I was working in the mental hospital...
..I learned how quickly that those who work among...the damned -
and I mean that because they are cut off
from all those points of human comfort
and sanity and love and warmth
that are so necessary to us -
I learned that people who work in that atmosphere
become like it very, very quickly. It's terrifying.
And in there steps an inhumanity
which is very uncomfortable, very unpleasant,
and there was much brutality in the mental hospital I worked in.
I'm sure that there still is, and it is because people become cut off
from those points of human sympathy which are so necessary.
You went to Oxford. Why Oxford?
I went to Oxford because I had fallen in love with the idea of it,
because if you're a working-class girl
and you have to fight to get at books
and you have to memorise passages of poetry and literature that you love
because you can't have the books,
and anyway, books are rather suspect in your house if it's not the Bible,
then the idea of somewhere which could be devoted to reading,
which has a magnificent library, um,
which is a place of learning,
um, and where, when somebody knocks at the door
you will not have to hide the book under the pillow
and pretend you weren't reading it,
seemed to me to be a charmed place, an enchanted place,
and I thought, "If I can just go there, it will be my talisman,
"I will get out of this, it will be rocket fuel to me,
"and I will change my life." And that's what I did.
I needed something large, a framework,
through which to push my energies
so that I could break away from the smallness
of what seemed to be around me.
How did you start as a writer?
Well, I suppose I started as a writer
when I was very young because I always wrote sermons.
I had enormous success as a preacher in my early youth
and converted many souls.
I don't know what's happened to them now!
Um, and it seemed natural to me to try...
to persuade people of my point of view,
um, to be declamatory, to be public -
which is not usual for a girl.
It was that particular upbringing, I think, which allowed me to think,
"Yes, my place in the world is a loud one."
So I was prepared from the start to...
..offer myself up as a target,
and you have to do that if you're a writer
because you'll always get knocked down.
You have to have a lot of confidence.
So I started to write Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
when I had no job, when I was in London thinking,
"This is a complete mess, how did I get here?"
Um, "I must amuse myself." So I did.
Were you influenced by other writers? You've already mentioned Orlando.
- Mmm. - What about Angela Carter, say?
No, I don't think Angela Carter is an influence, because...
..in a way, part of the problem with being brought up as I was,
is that I have been influenced by things
which are a lot older than my generation
and many of the things that were influencing her
were also influencing me in parallel.
The fact that she's older than me really wasn't a point.
- Um... - Did you admire her?
I do admire her, yes, I admire her work enormously
and I am sorry that she didn't get the kind of recognition
that she should have got while she was alive and I hope
that that changes.
Books like The Passion and Sexing The Cherry
are feats of invention on a grand scale
and sprawling across huge, historical landscapes.
What is it that draws you, when you're writing,
across the more conventional confines of time and space?
I need to have a broad canvas. I like the large challenges.
It's not enough for me to...
..ever to try and speak about what I know,
because what any of us know is so little.
I want to speak about what I can imagine.
And that's the challenge that I set myself in my work,
and when I was writing both The Passion and Sexing The Cherry,
I wanted to create a place where people could come
which would be freed from the problems of gravity,
where they would be outside of the confines of their daily life,
where they would have to -
as we do, say, in Shakespeare, in the Forest of Arden -
go to somewhere other,
somewhere set apart from that which they usually know,
and in this set-apart space, the normal problems of life
would be altered or character would be revealed.
Of course, you have to go back to the real world - you always do -
and that's the lesson of the Shakespearean comedies -
you step out of your own world, your own place
and you go somewhere different, but then you return with a knowledge
which allows you to continue, um, as a better,
and, always with Shakespeare, a more moral human being.
and Shakespeare is a great influence on me, and I thought,
"What I want is to make a space for people where they will enter
"into the separate world of fiction, into the world of art."
That's why I love opera so much,
because it's quite outside
of everything that we know on a daily level.
And in this extravagance, and my books are extravagant,
the smallness of life -
which is the thing I fear most, the smallness -
will drop away.
Certain themes recur - there are searches in your books,
there's separation in your books,
there are powerful, dominant women
on a Rabelaisian and gargantuan scale in your books.
There's a great deal of cross-dressing in your books.
Um, and yet the woman's body
is described as a love object in several of your books.
- Mmm. - Is that a coincidence?
Is that reality or is that invention?
I think that we push ourselves forward,
as individuals and as a species,
by inventing what we want to be -
by imagining ourselves as something other than we are.
And that seems to me to be one of the virtues and the point of art,
however you find it -
that it tells you there is more to it
than this little life, than the daily round, than the everyday existence,
that there is something larger.
And it's not just for statesmen, heroes and great figures,
it is for you, in your own life.
Because art's not elitist, art leaves nobody out.
As long as you are prepared to come to art with an open mind
and do a little bit of work, the rewards are infinite.
And it is, for me, I think,
an opportunity to stretch...
..the ordinary material, the fabric of life,
and make it more than it is, make the individuals who read my work
perhaps a little bit more than they are, even if it's only for a while.
And so I will use every device possible to bring that about,
whether it's love, or whether it's war,
whether it's history, whether it's passion.
Whatever I think will act as a grappling hook for my reader,
I will use.
When you adapted Oranges for the television,
how necessary was it to change it?
When Oranges was adapted for the television by me,
I had to go back to the book and read it again, which was dreadful!
It's awful reading your own work because all you are ever conscious of
are the failures and the things that you did wrong.
One of the things about developing
is that you do become a better craftsman,
and ten years have passed and I'm a much better technician than I was,
and so when I read Oranges, there were yawning gaps, I felt,
and things that had just been written badly.
You know, I think both Oranges and The Passion
are in some ways rather like Wuthering Heights, um...
They're not that well written, but they have an intensity and a power
which cuts right through them,
but they are a young person learning a craft.
Are you concerned to invent new forms? I mean, the novels, the books,
are not in the form of a conventional linear narrative.
They jump around all over the place.
Or are they actually more sophisticatedly arranged than that?
They're not linear, no. I'm not interested in a linear narrative,
but I do try and write a spiral narrative,
a narrative which is continually returning to itself,
and as far as the images and the ideas are concerned,
but primarily as far as the language is concerned.
And this is nowhere clearer than in my new book, Art And Lies,
because that occupies very large territory,
and it has a sophisticated narrative which requires
that the reader follows very closely the linguistic clues
as much as the strain of ideas which run through it.
And when you get to the end of Art And Lies, you have to see it
in quite a different light to the one which was thrown upon it
as you went along.
Would you call it a novel? Would you call that a novel?
No, I don't really call my work novels.
They're called that by other people. I am a fiction writer
and I am trying to push into my fiction
the discipline and the denseness of poetry.
That seems to me to be a proper late-20th-century challenge.
But, no, in so much as the novel is a 19th-century idea,
I do not write novels.
You have a very wide and a very refreshingly novel vocabulary.
Where do you find these words?
I find these words in the dictionary! I'm a great dictionary lover
and I have the OED in full,
not the horrible, shrunk-up miniature version,
and I have Johnson's dictionary,
and I spend many, many hours going through the dictionary,
um, delighting in words.
And it's because I delight in them
rather than care about them pedantically,
or even in any fashion of scholarship,
that I'm able to use them in my work and they don't sound forced.
But it seems to me that if words are what you love,
if words are your craft, then you are honour-bound
to have as many as possible in your tool chest.
Are words weapons?
Words are weapons, they are also love affairs.
They always reach you on every possible front,
they attack you from all sides simultaneously when well used.
Words work, but they need the discipline of the writer behind them
because you can't just string words together
like so much washing on the line,
you have to arrange them.
And I cannot stress too highly the importance of craft.
In some of your books, your characters, as I said,
appear to be searching for something.
What are they searching for? Are they searching to be joined to someone?
Are they searching for a still place?
Or are they fated always to adventure on?
I think we're all fated always to adventure on.
I don't think there's any stopping. I think there's only a development,
which is why I suspect there is an afterlife.
I really can't believe this is it. It's so short.
And in my books people do go forward.
They go forward out of the last page of the book as much as anything else.
They still exist. They exist for me, they exist for other people.
They are trans-time. They are beyond time,
they are not caught in it.
And I don't think the human spirit is caught in it either.
Let us not be caught.
Art is a way of opening the cage door and saying, "Fly."
You say somewhere that there's a choice between staying with
a ready-made world that may be safe but which is also limiting
or pushing forward into a personal place, an unknown and untried.
Do we all have that choice?
Yes, we do all have that choice.
Everybody in their life, large or small,
whether it's mundane or marvellous,
comes often to the frontiers of common sense
where they are required to retreat into a world
that they know and is safe
or to push forward into a world which is unknown.
And those choices get harder as we get older
because there are small threads that bind us throughout our lives
and suddenly you think, "I want to change everything,"
and you can't because you're caught.
And that's why it's important to make real decisions, serious decisions,
early on and through your life when those challenges arise.
And I hope that my book, my books,
offer something of the courage and the strength needed
to make those moral choices.
Is there a self of you between...beneath the writer?
Is there a private you?
There certainly isn't a me... that isn't...
Jeanette Winterson, the writer.
I am caught up in that. I am that.
People don't always find their way forward in life,
but this is what I am, this is what I am here for.
This is everything to me.
It is my blood and my bone.
It is my body. It's my breath.
It's my daily exercise. It's my pleasure. And, yes, it is my passion.
Are you a vulnerable person?
I'm vulnerable in so much as I am very open.
I could not do my work if I wasn't open.
I must always be open to experience and to the natural world.
I think Walter Pater was right
when he said, "Failure is to form habits."
And one of the worst habits is to become dead to your surroundings,
to be so used to everything that you no longer notice it,
that you no longer notice the face of the person you love
that perhaps you've lived with for 20 years,
that you no longer notice the things that you bought with such excitement
and decorated your house with,
that you no longer notice the fields and the natural world.
That's deadness, and the artist cannot be dead.
And the artist is always arranging things
in a way to say to the onlooker, "See, here it is.
"It's what you thought you knew, but it's different, isn't it?"
It's not the shock of the new, it's the shock of the familiar,
arranged so that we can actually see it, and that is very vulnerable,
so in that way, yes, I suppose I must be.
Are you a violent person?
I get very angry. There's plenty in the world to be angry about.
But...I think if you do have a temper, and I do, um...
you must be very disciplined about that anger
because it's a destructive force as well as a positive one,
so I try and channel it into my work.
But over my typewriter I do have a little text which says,
"Rant is out."
What have been the greatest ecstasies of your life?
If I said what had been the greatest ecstasies,
it might presume that there were perhaps to be no more,
but the truth is that it is a daily ecstasy for me.
It is ecstasy for me to be able to do this work, to be alive,
to live with the woman that I love. I am surrounded by good gifts.
If I were not happy, I would be...churlish,
because there is so much about my life which is wonderful.
And it is that daily ecstasy that keeps me pushing on with this work
because I believe it comes from that.
What have been your worst experiences?
My worst experiences?
I think my worst experiences were early experiences.
They were to do with having to leave behind everything that I knew -
my own frontiers of common sense, to leave behind the church,
to leave behind my family, to leave behind the people that I love,
to leave behind a framework that I had been brought up in
and to set out again. That was very difficult.
And I've had some really terrible love affairs.
But I'm settled now and I hope...
I've been with my partner five years. I hope I'll be with her for 50.
Without wishing to disrupt that,
that is precisely the stillness that...
perhaps, that earlier you were rejecting.
It is a stillness, yes.
It's a stillness, but it's not a passivity, and there is a difference.
If I ever thought that I was forming habits,
that I was settling into a comfortable armchair,
I would surely find a way to blast myself out of it.
What do you fear most?
I fear mediocrity.
I fear the settling.
Not only settling down, but settling for less, settling for second best,
settling for the easy option, making life small
instead of noticing how glorious it is.
We talked about ecstasy, and it is there every day,
it is there every moment,
if we can but see it, if we can but have it.
It's there for us.
Suffering is not part of the human condition,
and I think it's very important to reject it in your own life because...
Anybody who reads Dante will know the special circle of hell
reserved for those who wilfully lived in sadness.
You had a huge success very early. Was that dangerous?
Success is dangerous.
Yes, it was very unbalancing, it was very unsettling
and I had nobody I could trust at that time with Oranges,
um...and nobody with whom I felt absolutely secure.
It was a rocky period for me.
And...I nearly lost sight of my own way
and I couldn't hear my own voice any more.
I think that very often happens to writers.
And I wrote a comic book called Boating For Beginners,
which is great fun, but it wasn't worth writing.
Fortunately, it only took two weeks, so that cheers me up.
And I had a contract for another book,
you know, of a similar vein, which I had to throw away.
And then I wrote The Passion.
You've said, and I think you've said more than once,
that writers divide into priests and prophets.
- Yes. - Could you explain that distinction?
It was something I wrote in Oranges
and it's a little bit rhetorical, actually,
because it was really to do with those writers
who use the well-known words
and tread the well-known paths and simply offer
a kind of magnified version of what we already are,
which is comfortable enough to look at, and solid,
strong in a particular way.
And then there are the writers who want to challenge all that
and say we must have it differently,
that the purpose of the world is not to describe it,
but to change it,
and I do believe that.
I think art is...a changeful thing. It is metaphor.
I think it's transformation.
Um, and I do not want to be one of those writers who becomes
a grand old woman or a grand old man
and settles back into a life of letters
where everyone says, "Wonderful!"
Because then I won't be challenging anybody any more.
As long as I'm still being targeted and...pummelled,
as I often am in the press, I know that I'm on the right track.
You say that prophets cry out because they're troubled by demons.
- Mmm. - Are you troubled by demons?
Yes, I am troubled by demons,
but not the same demons that used to trouble me.
I have got my sanity back, which is something, because I had...
When did you lose it?
Well, in my rackety early life,
it was quite hard to hold on to everything.
You can't hold on to everything. Some things have to give.
My mental equilibrium was not always what it is now,
because I left home early, because I had to fight my way into Oxford,
um...and because I had no support,
and normally people cannot let go of everything
and forge through on their own.
Um...and I've always had to do that.
And there were certain things in my early life and upbringing
which were damaging to me, and you have to heal yourself.
It is important to be healed, to be well.
It's not enough to go through the rest of your life
baring your wounds and polishing your scars
and saying, "Poor me, what can I do?"
And for me, to be well, to be sane and to be well,
has been a significant achievement.
Each book exists entirely in its own world, its own right.
But what's the single most important thing
that you are saying to us in your writing?
If there was a single thing - I don't think there is -
but if I wanted to hone it down,
we would come back again to the point of challenge -
to say that there is no lot that is so great
and so burdensome that it cannot be changed.
And I do believe in the transforming power of art.
I believe that it can unlock locked lives
and that it can quicken the dead places.
I put all of my faith in it, all of my trust in it, in art.
And I want to bring it to people and say, "This is for you.
"It's not rarefied, it's not academic, it's alive.
"It's the most alive thing you will probably ever touch and feel
"because it comes from a vortex,
"a great core of passion in the artist...of whatever kind."
Do you sense from readers' response that you are communicating that?
Yes. I have a huge mailbag. We get endless letters
and the push of those letters always is that the work is speaking to them,
which is important - again this question of intimacy.
It speaks to them one to one,
even though there are tens of thousands of people reading it,
and that people have been able to use it, as a rod and a staff,
to move on, to move forward, to break through.
So I think I've given them some dynamite and also some salve.
That must make you very happy.
It does make me happy, but it's a duty.
I must not fail. Perhaps I am a missionary after all.
First transmitted in 1994, Jeremy Isaacs talks to award-winning writer Jeanette Winterson, who discusses her love of writing and reflects on the ways in which her upbringing and sexuality have influenced her work. Winterson also explains her desire to avoid being categorised, either in terms of her work or her life, and the ways in which her non-conformist style of writing and 'taboo' subject matter reflect this and have, perhaps, contributed to her success.