Jeanette Winterson Q&A: “I couldn’t live without books and an open fire”

The novelist talks the Pankhursts, the Bible and climate breakdown.

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Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester in 1959 and raised by adoptive Pentecostal parents. When she came out as a lesbian at 16 she was forced to leave home. Her semi-autobiographical debut novel “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” won the 1985 Whitbread Award for a First Novel; she has since published over 20 books. She is married to the psychotherapist Susie Orbach.

What’s your earliest memory?

Turning the pages of Orlando the Marmalade Cat in the children’s library in Accrington as a very little girl. The book was too big for me to hold.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Jesus. In adulthood, my heroes change – but right now, Margaret Atwood.

What book last changed your thinking?

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. Feminism has always been a practical movement. This book reminds us why!

Which political figures do you look up to?

The Pankhursts. I was born in Manchester and back then I would have been a mill girl in clogs wanting my chance to vote. Discriminating against women on the grounds of gender is the open door to every other kind of irrational discrimination.

What would be your Mastermind subject?

The Bible. Is that cheating because it’s really 66 books? I heard it every day of my life before I could read, and later read it every day for myself until I was 16. It is an embedded text. Better to work with the fact than try to repudiate it.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The 18th century, because it feels real and close to me. But not as a woman. I’d be pregnant or cleaning floors. Shakespeare’s England would be pretty good too: the beauty of the natural world, the excitement of London – and only five million people in the UK!

What TV show could you not live without?

I enjoy some TV and this is a fantastic time for telly as new voices get heard. But I could live without it. I could live without most things, except books and an open fire.

Who would paint your portrait?

Susanne du Toit, the BP Portrait prize-winner, is doing it right now for the National Gallery.

What’s your theme tune?

U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Only listen to people you can trust.

What’s currently bugging you?

Climate breakdown, and the idiocy of self-obsessed politicians in the pockets of big business.

What would make your life better?

If my cat and dog could live forever. They are both 14. However, I have read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and I know it’s a bad idea.

When were you happiest?

I have a cheerful disposition so I am often happy. The answer is, don’t seek happiness but the things likely to bring happiness. In my case: work, love, living in the countryside, animals, friends.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

A crook. I don’t like working for anyone and I get bored if I am not occupied.

Are we all doomed?

We deserve to be doomed. Britain has retreated into petty nationalism and deserves to sink without trace. l

Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein” is published by Jonathan Cape on 28 May

This article appears in the 17 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question