Jane Corn­well sur­vives an au­di­ence with the fe­ro­cious and wildly in­ven­tive Jeanette Win­ter­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IT’S pour­ing with rain in the East End of Lon­don and Jeanette Win­ter­son isn’t in her shop. ‘‘ She’s tak­ing a shower up­stairs,’’ says the per­ox­ide- blonde as­sis­tant in Verde & Co, an or­ganic green­gro­cer sell­ing ev­ery­thing from rat­tan bas­kets to home­made le­mon­ade here in arty Spi­tal­fields.

When not at home in the Cotswolds — a twohour drive away in her vin­tage Porsche — Win­ter­son lives in a re­fur­bished flat above this fiercely in­de­pen­dent side ven­ture, her mon­ey­where- mouth- is ri­poste to what she calls cor­po­rate takeover by stealth.

Hav­ing got drenched on the way back from a book sign­ing for The Stone Gods , she is, I’m told, a cup of cof­fee away from be­ing ready. I step out to a nearby cafe, tuck my­self in with what is her 16th book, and wait.

A sort of lit­er­ary sci- fi novel, The Stone Gods is set in a fu­ture where gov­ern­ments have been dis­banded and a cor­po­ra­tion called MORE runs the planet; where ge­netic fix­ing is a given, gad­gets talk and re­sources are nearly used up; where ru­mours abound of a new, blue planet, as pris­tine and hab­it­able as Earth used to be, and to­wards which pro­tag­o­nist Bil­lie Cru­soe spins with her lover, Spike, a gor­geous rebel ro­bot.

This wildly in­ven­tive tale of what Bil­lie calls ‘‘ a re­peat­ing world’’ is abruptly fol­lowed by an in­ter­lude from the fic­tional di­aries of one of James Cook’s Easter Is­land crew and abruptly again by a semi- au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal piece set in a post- nu­clear Lon­don, in which Bil­lie- Jeanette finds her au­then­tic voice.

‘‘ My tears are for the planet be­cause I love it and be­cause we’re killing it,’’ Bil­lie says to Spike, ‘‘ and my tears are for these wars and all this loss, and for the chil­dren who have no child­hood, and for my child­hood, which has some­how turned up again, like an or­phan on my doorstep ask­ing to be let in. But I don’t want to open the door.’’

I’ve just fin­ished re- read­ing this bit when Win­ter­son — sparky, bird- like, freshly scrubbed — comes into the cafe to find me.

‘‘ I’m so sorry!’’ she says, all smiles, in her thick north of Eng­land ac­cent. ‘‘ Let’s go up to mine. I’ve put the fire on.’’

A gas fire, it turns out, but one with leap­ing flames, their glow re­flected in the crim­son and green walls and wooden floor­boards of what was orig­i­nally the home of a Huguenot lace maker. A copy of The Stone Gods lies on a table,

prompt­ing me to en­joyed read­ing it.

For though the book whizzes off on tan­gents, though the ag­it­prop can get a lit­tle tire­some, it is also el­e­gant, lyri­cal, hu­mor­ous, pow­er­ful and prob­a­bly ev­ery other ad­jec­tive that has been thrown at Win­ter­son’s oeu­vre since her ac­claimed 1985 de­but novel, the thinly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and its Angela Carter- es­que suc­ces­sors, 1987’ s The Pas­sion and 1989’ s Sex­ing the Cherry.

In­ter­view­ing Win­ter­son, 47, is a nervewrack­ing prospect. Back in 1994 she doorstopped a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist who pub­lished a mildly crit­i­cal pro­file. In 1995, asked to se­lect her favourite liv­ing writer, she said: ‘‘ No one work­ing in the English lan­guage now comes close to my ex­u­ber­ance, my pas­sion and fidelity to words’’, a state­ment that had Lon­don’s literati splut­ter­ing over their Bolly. But her writ­ing is un­doubt­edly as fe­cund and poetic as it is con­tentious and chal­leng­ing. Con­ven­tional think­ing and gender bound­aries are anath­ema to an au­thor who main­tains a con­sid­er­able pub­lic pro­file through news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and a reg­u­lar blog on www. jeanet­tewin­ter­son. com. As are la­bels: fem­i­nist, les­bian and post­mod­ern among them.

Her per­sonal life has long been in the pub­lic realm. Born in Manch­ester, she was adopted and reared in Ac­cring­ton, Lan­cashire, by Pen­te­costal Chris­tians who took ev­ery­thing in the Bi­ble lit­er­ally. A child preacher, she read books in the out­door toi­let — they weren’t al­lowed in the house — and left home after fall­ing in love with

blurt out how much I’ve a girl from church. She got into the Univer­sity of Ox­ford after bad­ger­ing ad­mis­sions staff (‘‘ I was the work­ing- class experiment’’), went on to have an af­fair with her lit­er­ary agent, Pat Ka­vanagh, and a 13- year re­la­tion­ship with Aus­tralian- born aca­demic Peggy Reynolds (‘‘ I feel very con­nected with Australia be­cause in a way I lived with a bit of it’’). Her present part­ner is the lauded Bri­tish the­atre and opera direc­tor Deb­o­rah Warner.

A few months ago, help­ing her father sort through his be­long­ings, she found her adop­tion pa­pers. Though their de­tails were in­de­ci­pher­able, the ef­fect was such that she re­called The Stone Gods from her pub­lisher and rewrote a cen­tral sec­tion.

When a staff mem­ber fa­mously left the man­u­script be­hind on the Tube, she wove that episode into the story, too.

‘‘ That’s the great thing about not writ­ing se­quen­tially,’’ she says, open­ing two bot­tles of Ital­ian min­eral wa­ter. ‘‘ You can use ma­te­rial to swing the bal­ance of the book if you want to. It’s high risk but it has enor­mous advantages.’’

She has blogged that left- brain peo­ple don’t like her work. ‘‘ If you have a very lin­ear mind it’s likely that I will an­noy you. But I think peo­ple’s men­tal pro­cesses are more like a maze than a mo­tor­way.’’ She was in­fu­ri­ated when Howard Davies, chair­man of this year’s Man Booker Prize com­mit­tee, es­ti­mated that judges have to speed- read about 80 pages an hour to keep up with their read­ing load. He was, she said, a ‘‘ bloody id­iot’’. ( Davies sub­se­quently de­clared The Stone Gods ‘‘ a com­plete fail­ure as a novel in my point of view’’, a quote that she is con­sid­er­ing putting on the pa­per­back.)

‘‘ Peo­ple ei­ther love my stuff and it’s meant a lot to them over a pe­riod in their lives,’’ she says, tug­ging a hand through her curls. ‘‘ Or they get very cross with me.’’

Which, pre­sum­ably, is how they are with her as a per­son. ‘‘ Yeah, I think so,’’ she says, nod­ding. ‘‘ I’m very loyal but I don’t re­ally put up with id­iots.’’ It may have some­thing to do with her evan­gel­i­cal up­bring­ing, but she isn’t some­one who can stand back, ei­ther. She has stepped in to stop street fights (‘‘ If I keep go­ing like this I’m go­ing to get mur­dered’’), sets up feed­ing sta­tions for stray an­i­mals when­ever she goes on hol­i­day (‘‘ If I’m on a Greek is­land I’m al­ways foot­ing vet bills’’) and is part of a MyS­pace cam­paign in­tended to give the 18- 30 gen­er­a­tion a plat­form for en­vi­ron­men­tal de­bate. ‘‘ I am lucky that these new waves of young peo­ple keep­ing find­ing me,’’ says Win­ter­son, whose work has graced many a school syl­labus.

The Stone Gods is the first time she has taken on a global theme and de­liv­ered such an ob­vi­ously cau­tion­ary tale. ‘‘ If we found a new planet, would it be any dif­fer­ent?’’ she muses. ‘‘ You could be sure we’d screw it up. Hu­mans are re­ally bad at us­ing things wisely.’’ All this liv­ing on the out­side — shop­ping and tex­ting, nip­ping and tuck­ing, pol­lut­ing and trou­bleshoot­ing — is cost­ing us big time, she con­tin­ues. Ques­tions aren’t be­ing asked. Moral re­spon­si­bil­ity is be­ing left be­hind. Our sci­ence- can- fix- it men­tal­ity is de­stroy­ing the planet be­cause sci­ence can’t, not re­ally. Only peo­ple can.

‘‘ I put my faith in the power of thought,’’ she says, as she sees me to her door. ‘‘ We need to change from the in­side out. The life of the mind needs strength­en­ing and pro­tect­ing. And we need to take ac­tion now.’’

I walk off past a closed Verde & Co, think­ing she has a point. Jane Corn­well is a lit­er­ary jour­nal­ist and broad­caster based in Lon­don.

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