Jeanette Winterson: It is the Imagination that Counts

“Everyone’s talking about the death and disappearance of the book as a format and an object. I don’t think that will happen. I think whatever happens, we have to figure out a way to protect our imaginations. Stories and poetry do that.”

My senior year in high school, I went to my public library looking for queer books that talked about abandonment and rejection, and there was nothing. In so many ways, Jeanette Winterson’s new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove Press) is the book I’ve been waiting a decade for.

The memoir is about “a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an north England industrial town…”  It is a book about survival and triumph but also about deep wounds. It far exceeded my already high expectations. I devoured the book in just a couple of days, but still found myself needing to close the book and my eyes every few pages to savor the exquisite and painful way Jeanette Winterson’s story mirrored my own. The book embodied so many of the words I needed to hear.

Getting the chance to talk with Winterson about the memoir, her writing process, and gaining a peek into her thoughts about queer community was quite a treat, and I’m thrilled to be able to share it with Lambda readers.

In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? you’re working with some similar material from your first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit but this time as memoir as opposed to fiction, what was the experience like for you?

Life…we understand it differently at different stages. It’s what is interesting about getting older, you realize your relationship with the past is always negotiable. There is a lot of freedom in that, because you realize you can go back to what you did such a long time ago. You can talk with the dead, talk with your lost self, your disappeared self, and you can visit those places again, and understand it differently. That makes a huge difference.

What do you hope readers will take away from the memoir?

It’s not a misery memoir. I hope readers take away the sense that you’re not caught or trapped by life, at any stage.

There is a bit where I talk about “keeping the heart awake to love and beauty.” That’s very difficult in our world, even when things are going well. It’s not a world with much room for love and beauty.The daily news is [filled with] everything that goes wrong in our world, and everything horrible and unpleasant. I think that saturates your mind with negativity. I really think we need something to counteract that. I don’t think it’s Pollyanna or sentimental to focus on the ways we support one another on the micro level.

Part of your story I most connected with because of my own experience as a homeless teen was the maternal rejection and leaving home as a teen because of your sexuality. I edited an anthology of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth, and a lot of my creative work has involved homeless queer youth. What advice if any would you give to youth today who have been rejected by parents and kicked out of home?

You need a lot of energy. Often that energy is there, and it feels like anger and rage. Kids, if they have been thrown out, they will be furious. Underneath that there will also be guilt, and fear, and feelings of worthlessness. The thing you can’t always get rid of is that feeling that it’s your fault.

Whether the family is violent, or alcoholic, or rejecting, or whatever the reason kids are thrown out of families, kids always blame themselves. I think it’s important to try to not to let that calcify around the heart so that you are shut off and closed down. You have to do that often at the beginning to survive. God knows I did, but it needs to be a temporary position, it can’t be the whole story.

The thing I would say to kids is to [keep a sense] of dignity. I had to keep dignity even when I was living in a Mini. It was eat and read in the front, sleep in the back, and that’s dignity. It’s saying, “I’m pretty low, but these are my circumstances. I’m not low; my circumstances are low.” It’s having some creativity around the problem, no matter how horrible, which gives you a sense of your own dignity.

Treat yourself like you would a good friend. You would do everything you could to help them. You must pull yourself through this.

I also grew up hiding books filled with the kinds of dangerous stories that I needed. Like for you, their eventual discovery was a critical component of my leaving home. Can you talk a little bit about the power of books for you?

Everyone’s talking about the death and disappearance of the book as a format and an object. I don’t think that will happen. I think whatever happens, we have to figure out a way to protect our imaginations. Stories and poetry do that. You need a language in this world. People want words, they want to hear their situation in language, and find a way to talk about it. It allows you to find a language to talk about your own pain.

If you give kids a language, they can use it. I think that’s what these educators fear. If you really educate these kids, they aren’t going to punch you in the face, they are going to challenge you with your own language.

“Why be happy when you can be normal?” was the last line your mother said to you as you were forced to leave home, and it sets the stage for this happy vs. normal dichotomy that is such a central theme in the memoir. Can you talk a little bit about that?

It was a great line. She always had the best lines, no question. I’m grateful to her for giving me that to think about when I left home. I still think about it. “ Is this a false question? Are these genuine opposites? Is this a binary I should be worried about?” I had to give it real thought.

If you want to seek happiness, or a person, or vision, or commitment, does that mean you will always be at odds with the larger society? If you’re in the larger society, does that mean personal neuroses and depression? Those are the things we see when gay and transgender people try to conform. They are trying to part of society because we all want to be loved, but the price to the self is so high. We feel we are so tolerant, but we pay it lip service. So many kids find the world isn’t so tolerant when they try to be themselves.

Young people want to please. They want to be part of a society that wants them. We make that impossible because we’re always casting people out because they don’t come in with the right wrapper.

My whole life is trying to get this balance right. There is this bigger world and I want to contribute to it, but I must limit my exposure to it so I don’t go mad. This is a personal quest for a sense of worth and a sense of self. It is a lifetime effort, and it’s not going to be accomplished by guru speak or self help books. It’s a conversation that happens with the self every day. Of all the things I need to stress, it is that we cannot be passive in our own lives. We can’t coast along. We can’t be unreflective. It’s that everyday focus that’s important. This really is your day; what are you going to do with?

What advice would you give to emerging lesbian writers?

You have to work your brain. We’re pretty lazy, and being anything is hard work. What are we going to make time for? Or, what are we going to say we haven’t got time for? While I want to encourage anyone to do their own work, I want them to be realistic about it. People ask, “How can I be a writer?” I say, you have to write! You have to do it!

I believe you have to write every day–make the time. It’s about having an organized mind instead of a chaotic and untidy one. There is a myth that writers are bohemian and do what they like in their own way. Real writers are the most organized people on the planet. You have to be. You’re doing the work and running your own business as well. It’s an incredibly organized state.

[Also reading]…one of the things reading does do is discipline your mind. There are no writers who are not readers.

What does your writing process look like?

I’m always up early and in my study. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to produce something that’s worthwhile, which is frightening. You’re there for a long time, days, weeks and you might want to throw away everything you’ve done because it’s not working and not right. You have to be able to do that, and not feel defeated by it, and not have false expectations.

You talked a few minutes ago about the importance of reading. Can you talk a little about your own reading practices?

Wide reading is important. You don’t have to like it, but it’s important to grapple with things you don’t understand. I’ve been spending the last six months getting up an hour early to try to understand economics because I need to. I don’t want to be one of these bewildered schmucks. The things that you understand will inform your writing. The bigger your mind, the better your work is going to be. You’re not born with a big mind; you have to build it. If I don’t read for an hour a day, I get ill.

How does touring with the release of the memoir impact your writing?

I can’t do both. I can do small journalism pieces, and small essays, but I can’t do a big project until after this upcoming ten city tour in the states.

Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts around the LGBTQ community and how it impacts you as a writer?

I don’t think sexuality is fixed anymore. I think more from the gay male side than the lesbian side, there is often a wish for things to be fixed. I heard Lady GaGa’s “Born This Way” and I don’t know why they like it. Maybe, they need more certainty than girls do. For me, it’s like why do you care anyway? Maybe you were, maybe you weren’t. What’s the big deal? I can’t connect to that emotionally, so it baffles me.

I don’t want to have the gay community laying down rules anymore than I want the straight community to. We shouldn’t be adding to the guilt concerning sexuality. I want kids to feel that they can experiment without having to ask, “Does this mean I’m gay, or not gay?”

I’ve seen the sort of unhappiness amongst kids when they feel immediately they must label themselves. We were meant to be out of the box and braver and wilder. We’ve become part of the labeling culture, and I hate that. I don’t want us to become formulaic. It’s always the imagination that counts. We have to be on the side of freedom. We are the alternative, so it should be about making your own choices and not being a mirror image of the heterosexual world.

What can we look forward to next from you?

I think I should start a new book.



Photo: Jeanette Winterson  
Photo Credit: Peter Peitsch