An Interview with Jeanette Winterson

British author Jeanette Winterson discusses her love of books and language—and their redemptive effects on the human spirit

March 13, 2012

Author Jeanette Winterson
Author Jeanette Winterson Photo: Sanhita SinhaRoy

British author Jeanette Winterson grew up in poverty, with few books and even fewer prospects for escape from the small industrial town where she was raised. In her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove Press, March) the author pays tribute to the power of books and the influence libraries and librarians had in helping her break away from an abusive upbringing and build a better life for herself.

Born in Manchester in 1959 but raised in the bleak working-class north England industrial town of Accrington, Winterson and her adoptive family had no phones, no cars, no indoor toilets, and lived in a community where few if any had job security. Her mother was an evangelical Pentecostal who was “apocalyptic by nature” and kept only a handful of books in the house. As a child, Winterson writes, she was not allowed to read fiction because “the trouble with a book . . . is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late,” her mother would say. (She did read Jane Eyre to Jeanette but changed the ending so Jane becomes a missionary.)

Winterson gradually acquired books of her own, which she hid under her mattress. One night, however, her mother found one poking out and went into a rage, throwing them out the window, dousing them in paraffin, and burning them. Winterson eventually fled home at age 16, entering Oxford University and immersing herself in a life of books.

Now, several decades later, Winterson is an acclaimed writer with more than 20 published books under her belt, including her 1985 bestselling novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which she wrote when she was only 25.

The author, who is currently touring the country to promote her new book, spoke with American Libraries’ Associate Editor Sanhita SinhaRoy about the effect of libraries and language on modern culture.

American Libraries: Can you talk a little about the libraries and the librarians you cite in your memoir?

Jeanette Winterson: The library in Accrington was built in 1907 with money from Andrew Carnegie. It is one of those splendid Victorian constructions that was meant to be impressive. And it was. You went up the steps into this beautiful building with the enormous stained-glass windows. “Industry and prudence conquer” was written on the great big oak staircase, and there were books everywhere.

The library was meant to give working people a sense of pride in their town, and also a belief in self-education. Those days of bettering yourself through books, which are gone now, were really good for people who weren’t educated. People didn’t think they were in any way disadvantaged and impoverished; they thought that they could use the library and the lectures that went with it.

The library was meant to give working people a sense of pride in their town, and also a belief in self-education. —Jeanette Winterson

I didn’t know anybody who had been to university. Yet the library provided a surprisingly high level of culture in some ways. People could talk to one another. There was that fluency with language, there’s the oral tradition and the sense that a lot of these people had interests that they could develop through the function of the library—political interests and interest in the history of their town.

I’m sorry that we’re now going through a very bad phase with libraries. The thought has been that (a) libraries shouldn’t have any books, and (b) they should be about the lowest common denominator.

Obviously, books are useless if you can’t read, so you need literacy programs. More complex, challenging books are useless if people haven’t been taught to be confident in their abilities. We don’t empower people by saying, “This is too hard for you” or, “You can’t do this; we should make it easy.” I’m really against that. I’ve got more optimism in human nature, more belief in people’s capacities to learn. Most of us would find that interesting and stimulating.

I was just in Amsterdam. They built a new library and decided they wanted people to use it. It looks like a Guggenheim or a Getty building—it’s beautiful! It reminded me of my own public library but on a much bigger scale: On the ground floor, you come in and it’s full of sofas and places to sit and hang out and be. It’s really seductive. Glass escalators take you up to where the books are. Kids are using it because it’s cool. They want to meet their friends there, and the librarians encourage them.

And that felt like a real future for how libraries could be, because in England now, it’s really moribund. Funding is being redrawn, and there are all these arguments about whether a library is even worthwhile anymore.

I went back to my own library—it’s still that fabulous building—and it’s heartbreaking because the books have gone. There’s no room for English literature, A to Zed [the collection Winterson read as a child]. I could not do that now.

Of course, librarians were very serious, and they were proud of their profession. They never apologized for books. You felt you were achieving something to start reading. You could always go and ask them questions about anything or move your way along and develop your own mind.

When we learn to read, it’s a real product of civilization and a civilized society. It affects your brain. It affects the way you think, and it gives you that capacity for self-reflection that you simply do not have without the agency of books.

I learned that capacity for self-reflection very early, finding it through those wonderful interior monologues that books are so good at and that visual media is so bad at because it’s so boring—nothing’s happening. In a book, you can be inside the narrator’s head for 50 pages, and nothing needs to happen. Then you learn to be inside your own head without something needing to happen. It’s a very good antidote to a crazy, restless, “what’s next?” culture—that you can just be in your own head and nothing is happening except that this is a rich place. I love that.

I love the apparent quiet of reading a book. You sit there; you’re not really moving. It looks very solitary. It looks very boring, but actually it’s the most exciting place because it’s going on for you, and you’re in that relationship. In that sense, it’s like being with a lover. Nobody else can intrude on that space. It’s the two of you. It’s your own world. But from that private world, which is so rich, you go out into the wider world equipped with ways to think about it and ways to live in it. I don’t think there’s any better way to do that than through a book.

You mentioned that the collection of English literature from A to Z is no longer there. What has replaced the books at the Accrington library?

Lots of computer terminals, which is good; you need that. They’ve just stripped out the things they don’t think people will want, so literature isn’t big.

There’s lots of chick lit. There’s lots of pulp fiction. There’s lots of airport fiction—all of that kind of thing that doesn’t really belong in a library. I’m very snobbish about libraries in that sense. If we’re going to have all that stuff, stick it over in a corner somewhere. Can’t we let the library be what it is, which is a place of excellence, and a place where you can find things you wouldn’t otherwise find?

It should have an element of challenge in it. It shouldn’t be like the easiest floor in a chain bookstore, which is what it’s becoming—you know, with cookbooks and celebrity biographies and how-to manuals and 10-step diets and all that stuff.

The good thing is that libraries tend to get big on local history, which I like. Libraries have really picked up on that—oral history, written records of where people live. There’s been a big interest in that from people using libraries too, but that can be only a part of it. It’s more than local because the mind is more than local. The whole point is that you should be global in a real sense. That you reach out to literature that you would never otherwise find, whether in translation or from your own country. You then see the size of the world—both the connections in human thought and also the great disparities between them. You see that we’re not all the same and that society changes over time. The past isn’t merely the present in costume drama.

If you were growing up today and the library was what it is now, do you think it would have altered your life?

A poor kid like me going into that library now wouldn’t find the stuff I did, and that’s upsetting. They simply couldn’t do it. There would be a few books that I read, but it would be much more randomized, and you wouldn’t get a sense of the sweep and scale of literature, which was essential for me because I needed a bigger perspective. Yes, it really changed everything.

Also, with the librarians: It was somebody you could talk to and discuss books with—who just takes it for granted that books are great and that you should want to be here. They don’t have to persuade you of anything; they aren’t apologizing. I found it very calming that I could go in that space and not have any of the troubles or difficulties of home.

I hate that we give kids books that we think somehow mirror or mimic their own situation, so we wouldn’t want to give them Madame Bovary or, perhaps, not even Gulliver’s Travels. We’d want to give them some social realism about where they are now. That’s self-defeating. It might make you feel better, but, in effect, you’re living in a homogenized culture where everything is the same, and books are not a homogenized culture. They are extremely varied, and they’re eccentric because they are the product of an individual mind. They are not, in any way, mediated.

You have to engage with people who are different from you and try to work with their thinking and their mind. That’s a real challenge. That’s much better than shooting down aliens in some video game. Reading isn’t the only thing, by any means. I don’t even think, strangely, that people need to be voracious or omnivorous readers.

We’re in a strange situation now where people either don’t read at all or they read a lot. There’s a huge gap in between. That’s something that would be good to bridge so it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. Books could be part of life in a more relaxed way. I’d like to see that.

You’ve spoken in the past about digitization. Let’s talk a little bit about that. The trend is moving toward ebooks.

Lest we forget, the people who decided in their wisdom that we’re all going to go over to ebooks, they are not readers. These are technical people. These are people who think that somehow this is progress. It isn’t. It’s regressive. But even if we say it’s neutral, whom does it serve? It’s not progress to take books off shelves. If one more person says this is the new Gutenberg, I will probably commit homicide, because the whole point of Gutenberg was to put books on shelves, not to take them off.

It just seems to me to be such an overwhelmingly obvious fact that what we’re doing in our new revolution is taking them off of the shelves, which means that there’s no such thing anymore as democratic access. That is very serious.

We have a generation of kids who may never see a bookshelf or never see books in houses. What are they going to think about books? How will books become meaningful in their lives except as yet another form of digitalized content? A book is not just digitalized content.

The crazy thing is that when we go to somebody’s house, what’s better than looking at their bookshelves? Nobody’s ever going to say, “Can I see the index to your Kindle?” It’s so depressing and so unsexy. Sure, it’s there, but nobody is going to get excited by that.

It’s seeing these things on the shelf and thinking that this person’s put them together over the years. How are they organized? Are they organized alphabetically? By content? Even that tells you so much about the way somebody has, over the years, put together their private library, which is a reflection of their minds and their selves.

I’ve got about 10,000 books in my private library. All the poetry you can think of. There’s a lot of essays going right back from Montaigne forward. Whether it’s Adrienne Rich or Harold Bloom or Susan Sontag. You know, crazy things like Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, W. B. Yeats. I love just reading widely.

Every year, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, my girlfriend goes away for the sun, which I hate, so I stay at home. All I do every night, I light the fire in my library and I go up there about 6 o’clock and will be there until maybe 12 or 1 in the morning. The whole point is to spend time with those books. I rearrange some of them. I play with them. I say, “I haven’t seen this for years!” I really will spend seven or eight hours in that week organizing and rereading. It makes me so happy, because now that I’m 50, it is a life in books. There’s great pleasure in that.

I’m very happy there. Some people are happy when they are at the sea; I’m happy when I’m standing in front of a shelf of books. It feels like the known place and also the beginning of a new adventure. It has that simultaneous paradoxical effect of making me feel absolutely calm and very excited.

Do you still hide books under your mattress?

Well, yes! When I first went to Oxford, when somebody would knock on my door, I used to hide the book under the pillow as a reaction. It took me almost all of my first term to get out of that habit of hiding the reading—suddenly thinking, “This is why you are here; you can do this, forever.” I don’t think that secrecy around books and loving books so much has ever really gone away.

Knowing that books are something that is hidden, that almost has that alchemical quality to it. There is a secret society in here, and if you belong to it, you’ll be able to transform your lead into gold. I still have that rather magical sense about books—that they do, somehow, have special powers.

I still have that rather magical sense about books—that they do, somehow, have special powers.—Jeanette Winterson

For me, the most painful thing is the thought of shelves without books. This is the problem with the digital thing. I do not want to see it on electronic. I do not want to see all of those indices on Kindle. I don’t want this physical object to disappear, because when it’s there and it’s present, it’s continually suggesting new relationships in a way that an electronic index couldn’t.

Say my 10,000 books were here now, listed for you on microfiche, Kindle, or whatever it was, it wouldn’t mean anything, really. You would think, “Oh, she’s got a lot,” but it would be very boring. But if we were standing in front of them and accessing the condition of them, and the date (because I write dates in them all), then it’s a private diary of your own life, which can never be replicated by the electronic book. It doesn’t matter if you write notes in the Kindle or if you date it. There is not that visceral relationship, which is so important.

In the memoir, you write about postwar Western society and its goal to create a sense of community. You use the term “collective responsibility.”

If people aren’t educated, they can’t question. If they can’t question, they can’t change anything, which is great for the status quo and all the people who can question them at their own level.

The other side of it is that if you don’t educate people well, then you’re going to have a lot of violent, angry young men, particularly, and also young women. Then, of course, you can go around saying they’re all so violent, just throw them in jail, this is an underclass, what can you do? You can create fear. The issue of violence is very suitable for a repressive society. Then you can have more legislation, more police, more laws, you know, to fight crime, when all you need to do is to encourage people in a different way.

We do need to stand up and say, “No, we’re not going to go backward and have just one world for the rich—the 1%. What are we going to do for the 99%?” It’s going to have to be a personal movement, as well, because it’s up to each of us to also occupy those parts of ourselves that are not for profit. We have to make decisions in our own lives about what we want.

That’s why I go back to books, because I think this will give you an inner life as well as this outer life where everything is about how much you earn, what job you have, and your status. The 1% isn’t going to give up its wealth and privilege. Those who make up the 1% are going to do everything to say that society is reasonable, fair, and the only way forward.

It’s very easy to ban protests. In fact, they have, haven’t they, with Occupy? They say you’re breaking the law. They change the law all the time so you won’t have a legitimate way to protest. Then they criminalize you.

I am getting much more political as I get older. It’s the duty of any writer, in particular, not to stand back from the world. You have to challenge it and use your platform to be asking questions. Saying, “Whose interest does this serve?”

Books are something that I love, and I’m going to fight for them and everything that they stand for. You know, when we say we can pull resources away from libraries, from culture, from those parts of the education system that are not about utility, what we are really saying is that the life of the mind is unnecessary. It seems to me to be sick as well as wrong, and it has to be challenged.

When people stand up and say there’s no money for this, we have to say there’s no money for being human? Because that’s what we’re really talking about. It’s about our humanity. We mustn’t become bamboozled by these people who are talking about these choices in this way. It’s completely false. They set up false binaries. They say, “Oh, it’s health care or it’s libraries.” They say, “It’s culture or it’s defense.”

You just think, “Hold on! Nobody said that. There are plenty of other things.” The moment they set that up, they then force you to try and argue in those terms. We find we are suddenly fighting people who are saying we need the hospital, and we are saying we need the libraries. They cleverly put people, who should be on the same side, at odds with one another, fighting over resources. We’ve got to be smarter and tell them we won’t argue on these terms, because they’re false, and here’s what we think.

I’d like to talk about language for a minute. One of the problems with watching TV is that you’ve got a fairly low level of language operating all the time. Quite a small vocabulary and really no conceptual or abstract thinking. That’s an issue. If you’ve got a wide vocabulary, you can learn. The complexities of grammar, in themselves, force you to think about time in a particular way. Force you to widen your outlook on the world.

The best language is always found in books because it’s considered. It’s a high language. Sometimes, it is complex and difficult. It’s empowering and offers a way to speak about yourself that you don’t have if all you are doing is reading the newspaper and watching TV.

Some people shout at the television. I shout at the book because I’m really in there. You’re never alone with a book, are you? It’s a dialogue. I love reading aloud, too. I always did, and I still do. I talk to books. When I get to something I don’t understand, I might say, “What’s this about, then?” Or I’ll shout to the character and say, “Don’t do it!”

If I’ve got a new book of poetry, I’ll read it all the way through out loud, poem by poem. You always stumble the first time you read a new poem. That’s interesting because the language that’s being used is complex and it tends to be arranged differently from normal speech.

So, you will stumble, but that just forces your brain to rework and immediately gives you another understanding of what language can do. It’s fantastic. As well as having an emotional impact of hearing through the voice, through breath.

On most days, I read a poem out loud. I always start my morning, and if I have a half an hour, it just makes sense before I go to work. Most always, I read a poem before I start work, and then I feel like I’m in good company.

What are you reading, now?

Carol Ann Duffy, the British poet laureate. She’s just got a new book out, which I’ve just got. I brought it with me, so I’m reading that. I was reading Mary Oliver before I came away. I like to find books that seem to be unjustly neglected in some way. Muriel Rukeyser, who Adrienne Rich is such a fan of. You know, she’s a terrific poet.


Winterson appeared at the 2012 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Dallas.