THE POST- NUCLEAR EVANGELIST
Jane Cornwell survives an audience with the ferocious and wildly inventive Jeanette Winterson
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.