Jeanette Winterson: I’ve found happiness after a life of despair
She’s a ball of energy with a new book about her childhood and an ecstatic new love affair. Ciara Dwyer meets the force of nature that is Jeanette Winterson
On a grey afternoon in London, Jeanette Winterson bounds into the offices of her agent like a great gust of wind. The air is energised by her presence. Even her dark red hair stands on end. Her walk is on the cusp of a sprint. Here is a woman who runs regularly and does weights, too. It shows. There is strength and speed to her, but it's her broad smile that you notice first.
Just as she greets me, some of the girls in the office whisk her away; French magazine Marie Claire has awarded her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, a prize. Someone is on the phone from Paris.
Awards are nothing new for Winterson. Ever since her first novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, won her the prestigious Whitbread award at the age of 25, she has been collecting prizes for her books. Minutes later, Jeanette returns with an even broader smile.
“Sorry about that, love,” she says in a soft North of England accent.
I don't mind a bit.
Back in 2006, I saw her give a talk in the Gate Theatre as part of the Dublin Writers Festival and I was mesmerised. So charismatic was she that I left the theatre certain that if she set up a religion, I would happily join. And I could fully understand how a heterosexual woman, like her late lover, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, could fall in love with her.
Kavanagh, married to the writer Julian Barnes, and Winterson had what is described on Winterson's website as a “very serious affair”. Jeanette tells me that being with married women is not a good idea, as it causes hurt to others and herself.
Since the age of 40, she gave up married women — she is now 52 — and has been all the better for it.
“Loyalty has always been important to me,” she says.
Finally she is in a great relationship with Susie Orbach, the writer and psychotherapist. The sixtysomething writer and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue was married and has two grown-up children. She was just getting over her divorce when they met. Jeanette was supposed to interview her, but it fell through. Then Susie invited her to lunch. Both wondered if there was something more between them. Jeanette's friend advised her to “just kiss her”. And they did. They have been together for three years.
Jeanette doesn't believe that being lesbian is in the genes. For her, it was an emotional choice. She has been with men too — seven, she tells me, but she decided that she wasn't going to be able to be the female to the male ego.
“I was very clear in my 20s, when I was thinking about emotions and life, I thought, ‘I'm not going to be able to be the kind of person I want to be, and be heterosexual'. I'm too driven. I want somebody to look after me and
I'm going to put my writing first. Women are more supportive to one another in a relationship. Susie and I are mutually supportive. We both notice what each other needs and nobody is saying, ‘I am more important', in the way that it is with a lot of my heterosexual friends in their relationships.”
Born in Manchester in 1959, Jeanette was raised in Lancashire by adoptive parents who belonged to a Pentecostal Evangelist Church. Her mother, whom she refers to as Mrs Winterson, prayed at home alone standing up, and was an Old Testament-type of woman.
“She was a flamboyant depressive, like an operatic character,” says Jeanette. “She was larger than life, larger than her own life. My parents believed that God had led them to me, but when I did something wrong, my mother would say, ‘The devil led us to the wrong crib'.”
While Jeanette talked about her childhood that night in the Gate Theatre, she smiled and made the audience laugh with bizarre tales of her Bible-reading life. (There was even a prayer on the wall of the outside toilet asking for God's help to move bowels.) But as I read her autobiography, it is clear that at the Gate she had delivered the Disney-style version of her childhood.
In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her life story is much darker. You read it feeling nothing but sympathy for Winterson and admiration that she came out the other end and managed to become a success.
But that is not to say she was unscathed. The damage was done and the scar will always be there. She knows this now. It took her 20 years to get to this realisation. Jeanette was often locked out of the family home, left all night on the doorstep and sometimes she was locked in the coal-hole. There were beatings, where her mother would instruct her father to hit her, specifying with which instrument and how many times.
“It wasn't pleasant,” says Jeanette, in the understatement of the century.
At the age of 16, Jeanette fell in love with a girl and then another. It was a scandal and just before she ran away from home, a fuming Mrs Winterson asked Jeanette, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?' Although homeless, she lived in a Mini car she had borrowed and worked in several manual jobs.
A fearless survivor who was bursting with ambition, she got a place at Oxford and studied English. After that, her first novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, which was partly based on her childhood, was published to huge acclaim. From then on, she soared and writing became her passion and her life.
Books were forbidden in the Winterson home, but Jeanette had smuggled them in from the library and stacked them under her mattress, devouring them and believing that she was a character in every story.
When her mother found them, she made a bonfire of them. That only served to strengthen Jeanette's love of literature. “I'm sure those fantastic images in my childhood made me because I lived in that place where nothing was allowed to be ordinary.”
Even though Jeanette always yelled during the beatings, her temperament saved her. She was always “a merry child”.
“I've been blessed with a good nature,” she says. “I don't need a reason to be cheerful. It's my disposition. I need a reason to be depressed or unhappy.”
All that changed in 2007, when she found plenty of reason to push her into a gloom. Her six-year relationship with theatre director Deborah Warner had spluttered to an end. Jeanette was devastated. She couldn't pull herself out of depression. It escalated to a breakdown. There were days when she couldn't talk and sometimes she would force herself to keep a journal, writing down random words about her feelings.
What began as the heartache from the ending of a love affair spiralled into something bigger. One day she curled up in a ball, muttering the words “Mummy, Mummy”.
Her damaged childhood was coming back to haunt her. She couldn't cope with the cascading emotions about her late parents. She had never felt wanted. She thought about committing suicide. It seemed the only way out.
“Because I love life so much I was not prepared to see it diluted. It's really important for me to be in life totally. I didn't want to be one of those people who are nominally alive. If you become cynical and rigid and negative and sour, I thought I'd rather be dead.
“I thought my reason for life has left me and I'm not going to wait to die. I think it was a sane decision. I don't see suicide as always a negative choice. Sometimes I see it as the only choice and that's what it felt like at the time.”
She discovered that ending her life was not an easy task. It was impossible to put her head in a gas oven, as her new oven wasn't a gas one. And even with a car, it was a tricky affair. But she did her homework and figured out a way to kill herself, locking herself in the garage with the car engine running. By chance, her cat was also in the garage and when Jeanette passed out, the cat scratched her face and forced her to come round. She dragged herself up, got out of the garage and slowly worked on herself.
She realised that the end of her relationship with Deborah was a trigger for all these emotions about her childhood.
“I've forgiven Mrs Winterson and that's the best thing. I also understand her. Even when we have happy childhoods, none of us really understand our parents. We don't realise that they have their own problems and struggles. Mrs Winterson was a ferociously intelligent woman stuck in a life she couldn't get out of and I never appreciated that. She was a depressive and I feel real compassion for her now. That was a big step forward.
“If I could have chosen, I'd have chosen Winterson world because for all its craziness, it wasn't empty. It gave me the Bible and it gave me this bizarre love of books. I found a world that I'm not at all sure I would have found in another life.”
The breakdown spurred her on to look for her birth mother. She had presumed that she was dead, as Mrs Winterson had told her so. Eventually Jeanette met her birth mother — Ann. Having breastfed her for six weeks, Ann gave Jeanette up for adoption, as she believed it would be better for her if she had two parents. When Jeanette told her that she was lesbian, Ann told her that she had been married four times — and not to her father. The first meeting was an emotional event, full of love and warmth but it proved difficult to remain that way.
“I say to Ann now, I've had to understand why she gave me away and she has to understand why I can't come back. We're not going to be mother and daughter.”
Stories don't always have pretty endings, much like life. But for all that, Jeanette is happy with her lot. She came back from the breakdown and has begun to live with intensity again.
She longs to live with Susie but she says that after married life, her lover is enjoying the freedom of living alone and she understands this. They are trying a compromise where Jeanette has bought the house next to her own in the Cotswolds and they will knock down some walls, so they will be together but still have their space.
“When Susie and I have a fight, she'll always say, ‘Hey, are you sure this is about this situation?' Of course, it never is.” They fight? I thought she had finally found calm waters. “Oh, we always fight,” she says. “We can shout at each other for two minutes and then we'll laugh. Everybody fights. I think if you've got any spirit there's always going to be that. She's American Jewish. They're noisy. They don't just sit by and say, ‘Yes, dear'. That's what I like. I love the energy there.”
It sounds like she has met her match — full of soul and fighting spirit.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson, published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99