Jeanette Winterson

  • 11 August 2006

This article is from 2006.

The author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit talks to Allan Radcliffe about her sophisticated new children’s fable.

Jeanette Winterson takes everything seriously. ‘It’s the only way to have fun,’ as she puts it. The novelist’s cultural interests range from opera to fitness; she is passionate about cars and motorbikes and has a food shop on the ground floor of the London house she restored from derelict.

Contacting her for a telephone interview, I provide temporary relief from her long internet trawl for a new G4 Mac Powerbook. She loves Macs, she tells me, but hates the business of ping-ponging between sites, comparing prices. Later in our discussion, the sound of a plane flying over her Oxfordshire home from nearby RAF Brize Norton briefly distracts her. ‘There it goes: off to bomb Lebanon,’ she mutters.

Winterson’s insatiable curiosity is apparent across her body of work, from her groundbreaking debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which drew on her experiences as the adopted daughter of working class evangelical Christians, ejected from the fold at 16 after falling in love with another young woman. Sexing the Cherry was inspired by the 17th Century travels of John Tradescant; Gut Symmetries deals with quantum physics, while The Powerbook was the first love story to be set in cyberspace.

At first sight, Winterson’s new children’s novel Tanglewreck seems the Dickensian tale of an orphan, Silver River (the name borrowed from Winterson’s own novel Lighthousekeeping) dragged up by her cruel, selfish aunt, Mrs Rockabye, and regularly tormented by the vindictive rabbit, Bigamist. But Silver and her tormentors live in a world where time itself has become erratic, leading them on a quest for the Timekeeper (‘for whoever controls the Timekeeper controls time’) in competition with the sinister Abel Darkwater and wily scientist Regalia Mason. In a typical Winterson-esque weaving of fiction with real life, there are even guest appearances from scientists Stephen Hawking and Susan Greenwood among others.

The novel shares elements in common with works such as Oranges, Sexing the Cherry and Lighthousekeeping: a zippy pace, larger than life, archetypal characters and an obvious zest for language. Indeed, Winterson rejects the notion that you have to wear different heads when writing fiction for different age groups.

‘I approached Tanglewreck in the way I approach all my books,’ she says. ‘I wanted to write about what I find interesting. I love science, I always have; I buy New Scientist every week. But I also knew there was a strong enough story that if the science became a bit of a struggle for the readers they could always skim over that and find out what Mrs Rockabye was doing, or laugh at the other comic villains.’

For the first time in her fiction career, Winterson had collaborators in the form of her godchildren Eleanor and Cara.

‘They brought me their ideas. Of course Silver had to be an orphan, because all kids long to dump their parents. And there had to be a good cat and an evil rabbit. Those were their stipulations.’

More generally, the author declares herself happy with the balance between the solitary business of writing novels, cocooned in the Oxfordshire countryside, and collaborating on theatre, film and television projects, including a forthcoming BBC adaptation of Tanglewreck.

‘I can quite happily be on my own, but I like to collaborate too. It’s all about throwing something against the wall and seeing if it smashes. And it’s important to put aside your own ego and vanity in those cases.’

Not all of Winterson’s forays into screen drama have been unfettered triumphs. While her screen adaptation of Oranges won sweeping critical claim and a booty of awards, and her re-imagining of The Powerbook for The National Theatre was equally well received, Winterson refers disdainfully to her Hollywood experience. What started out as a promising project - a screen adaptation of her second novel, The Passion, produced by Miramax and starring Gwyneth Paltrow - bloated into a worst case scenario of endless rewrites coupled to the inevitable law of diminishing returns. It’s an experience she won’t be repeating in a hurry.

‘Hollywood come along and offer you a bin bag full of cash, and then take your work and turn it into rubbish. It’s pitiless. That version of The Passion will never happen now because the rights have reverted to me, and I would rather see it in the cesspool than leave it at Miramax.’

Happily, she has no such qualms about returning to the beeb.

‘I had such a nice time with this that I didn’t want it messed about with. And I was offered a very good slot over two evenings at Christmas 2007. The BBC can’t offer you a bin bag full of cash but they can offer you a good slot. Anyway, they like me because I won so many awards for them with Oranges.’

She sees her adaptation as returning children’s films to traditional values.

‘I like JK Rowling. I think she’s done great things in this world. But I couldn’t get out of the last Harry Potter film quickly enough. It was just weighed down with special effects. I don’t want to see one more event movie. I want to watch something with fantastic characters, good dialogue and a good story.’

In Winterson’s hands this simple formula seems a recipe for success.

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