The Books Interview: Jeanette Winterson

How did you first discover books?
I knew nothing about literature, but fortunately I discovered the public library in Accrington. It was one of those well-stocked Victorian centres for public endeavour that the north of England was particularly good at. You knew you could learn and it wasn't elitist.

What were your early years as a writer like?
As a working-class girl, I hadn't been further than Blackpool before I left for university. I drove to Oxford with my van full of petrol and tin cans, as I didn't know there were service stations on the motorway. I pulled up on the hard shoulder and got my cans out. Then I filled up and set off again. That's how naive I was - so much not a cosmopolitan girl.

But when I got there, I could read, and that was all I really cared about. I was able to get from Beowulf to Beckett. I had huge ambition for literature. I don't see the point of doing anything if you don't have ambition for it. In a male, that would be welcome, but in a woman it would be arrogance. So early on I said: "Yes, I want to be an art-hero - I want to change the form of the novel." People said: "She can't
say that. She's a working-class girl; she knows nothing."

It's 25 years since the publication of your first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. How have things changed since then?
Now, there's a whole generation growing up thinking you shouldn't seek knowledge for its own sake, and that theatre and art and books are activities that you do after-hours, rather than things that are at the heart of life. That's a huge change.

Someone like me, who is from an earlier culture, could say, "I'm going to better myself and go to the library." But 30 years later you can't do that. In 30 years, a lot has been destroyed. That's something that I really hope we can reverse.

You've written that "art has a way of going to the hurt place and cleaning it". What did you mean by that?
As a writer, if you're prepared to work from your own wound, you're allowing people into the most vulnerable parts of yourself. And that perhaps gives them the courage and confidence to go into their own vulnerable places. Writing has to have a great deal of certainty and self-assurance,
but it's not arrogant.

So you're not talking about something straightforwardly autobiographical?
There's something about the authenticity rather than the autobiography [in my work] that makes my story and my pain move across and become your story and your pain. When pieces of work speak to us in a way that feels as if they were made just for us, those become our private worlds that we return to.

I know I've had an unusual beginning and a colourful life, but that wouldn't matter if I couldn't make it speak to other people. It has to be entirely yours, but also utterly separate from you. I care about doing the work as best as I can do, and that it should go on reaching people. It's not about fame and it's not about me. It's about creating something that might allow someone else to create something.

What motivates you?
I want to get to the end and feel that I've done all I could, given the limitations and given the opportunities. What did life deal me, and what did I do with that? That is a huge part of my character and motivation.I will go on until I've said everything I can. It is about going down to the space inside you and bringing things up. If there's nothing left to bring up I'll have to stop. That doesn't worry me: I'll be quite happy to grow vegetables.

Where do you belong in the world of writing?
I think of myself in a continuum as a woman. Two hundred years ago, it would have been very difficult for me to write at all. Not so if it was a man sitting here talking to you now. I don't see myself as some kind of lone figure standing out there and doing my work in solitary splendour, but as part of the human condition and part of the continuum of writers. Above all, this is about creativity and connection. We're passing something on, one to another.

The 25th anniversary edition of "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" is published by Vintage Classics (£20)

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis