Jeanette Winterson talks to AN Devers. Photo: ILLUSTRATION BY TIM MCDONAGH

Weird science: Jeanette Winterson talks writing, teaching and queer visions of the future

Jeanette Winterson’s inventive fiction has always pushed boundaries. She tells AN Devers why her new novel is taking on gender-fluidity and the rise of humanoid robots
May 9, 2019

The world doesn’t yet realise, Jeanette Winterson tells me, that the robots are here—and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer science fiction. Earlier I had mentioned seeing a headline about how Amazon’s Alexa is eavesdropping on its users. “Yeah, it’s really upon us, and people don’t get it,” says Winterson.

“Lots of people haven’t even seen the YouTube videos of Sophia the robot, created by Hanson Robotics.” Sophia is a humanoid apparently capable of 50 facial expressions. “They are astonished when they do see her in person. And they’re not aware of how this new world will change our lives really in a way which will be very hard to turn back. It’s much bigger than anything we’ve seen before.”

Such are the themes investigated in Winterson’s new novel Frankissstein: A Love Story, a dark and playful reanimation of Mary Shelley’s 201-year-old masterpiece. Winterson’s novel explores what she calls “the quintessential story, which is how we relate to one another. Because of the hugeness of our lives and the forces that we can’t manage and the things that happen to us… whether we’re good, whether we’re bad.”

It’s been 34 years since her semi-autobiographical debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit shook up the literary world, rescuing “gay fiction” (a problematic term we’ll come back to) from the cultish obscurity of bespoke shelves in bookshops in Brighton and Soho, and bringing it into the living rooms of Middle England. Oranges was a fictionalised account of growing up as a lesbian in a northern family of fundamentalist Christians. It won the Whitbread Award for First Novel and was adapted for television by the BBC in 1990—to some controversy over the sex scenes and its portrayal of the Elim Pentecostal Church. Today, though, the novel is a staple on school syllabuses.

Winterson is interested in the possibility—and limits—of transformation. Speaking of our troubled times (Trump, Brexit) she says: “The one thing you can’t change about your life is the time you live in.” She adds: “You can change everything else, including your gender. You can even change the colour of your skin if you’re Michael Jackson. You can movecountry. You can leave everything behind. You can remake yourself continually. But the time that you live in is fixed, and that’s the hand you’re dealt with, and you have to manage it. And ours is turning into the most turbulent and surprising time.”

Winterson has written 29 books of which 13 are novels. Then there are two novellas, and four works of non-fiction, including provocative essays on art. There are four children’s books and a collaboration called Land with sculptor Antony Gormley and photographer Clare Richardson. Some of these were ground-breaking; many were experimental and gender-bending. There was her 1989 novel Sexing the Cherry, an intertextual time-travelling tour de force addressing the invisibility of women in the history books; The Passion (1987), a meta-fiction about a French soldier working in Napoleon’s larder; Gut Symmetries (1997), a love triangle between physicists exploring quantum mechanics; and 2000’s prescient The PowerBook, which looks at the ways in which the internet and email have taken over our lives.

Winterson writes in many forms then, but always with complete verve and disarming self-confidence. Notoriously, when she was asked in 1995 who her favourite writer was, she nominated herself: “No one working in the English language now comes close to my exuberance, my passion and fidelity to words.”

She also knows that she is a pioneering feminist. “I don’t think I realised when I was setting out how much sexism there was in the world,” she tells me. “Now it’s clearer, but back then I really thought that if you worked hard and you were good enough, it would all come to pass and things were level. Obviously feminism began to show me that was not so.”

Despite her reputation among some critics for writing self-important prose—“How sad that she should bury her talent beneath a froth of pretentious verbiage,” Allan Massie once wrote—she has never shied away from the playfulness her fans relish, or from writing in more commercial genres. During the glory days of women’s presses in the 1980s, she wrote a book on fitness for the modern women for Pandora Press, and in 2016 she published a book on Christmas and holiday cooking.

It is Winterson’s fiction, though, that has inspired a generation of writers—especially gay writers who have struggled with being open about their sexuality. The acclaimed American novelist and poet Garth Greenwell, the author of What Belongs To You, is one of them. “Growing up as a gay kid in the pre-internet American South,” he told me by email, “discovering Winterson’s work was mind-blowing—it wasn’t just openly queer, it was exuberantly, gorgeously, joyfully queer.”

After pulling The Passion down at random from the gay and lesbian literature shelf at Hawley-Cooke’s independent bookshop, Greenwell became a lifelong fan. She inspires a particular kind of devotion. When I told fellow American writer Hugh Ryan, author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, that I was interviewing her, he excitedly sent me a sestina he had written about her in his youth.

Winterson has now been welcomed by the establishment and has won many awards, becoming first in 2006 an Officer and then last year a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2012, she became a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. She doesn’t need to teach—her books have been successful enough for her to earn a comfortable living from them—but after being apprehensive at the start, she tells me that she likes the programme. It made sense as an appointment too. “Martin Amis had done it before me and then Colm Tóibín, and they needed a woman.” The word on the street is that she is a generous and attentive instructor—and she is enthusiastic about drawing students to the city of her birth.

Winterson herself spends 10 weeks a year in Manchester to fulfil her teaching obligations. “I’m a northern woman, these are my roots. It’s rougher, it’s raunchier, it’s friendlier, and it’s got completely other energy to down here [in London]. So I get a hit from that when I go up there,” she says.

When not in Manchester, Winterson divides her time between London and the Cotswolds, where she lives with animals and a large collection of books. In 2015 she married the psychoanalyst and writer Suzie Orbach. Orbach prefers London to the countryside, though, and so this thoroughly modern couple doesn’t live together full-time or in the same place. It sounds like a lot—the three-location life—but she assures me it’s not. “My deal [at Manchester] is a very good one. I only have to do one term out of the year.” She used to ride between her homes on a motorbike, but has given it up to allay Orbach’s concerns.

In 2017 Winterson gave a talk on modernising the institution of matrimony at the Hay Festival. The lecture touched on literary and historical examples from Shakespeare to Jane Eyre (which she described as Wuthering Heights for depressives) to point out the inequalities enshrined within marriage. “We don’t talk about women who have sex outside of marriage as fallen anymore,” she says, “but we still have double standards—the slut, the stud, the one who sews his wild oats.” And yet, she explains, “marriage is too important, too embedded, for any of us to take for granted. The fuss about civil partnerships and lately equal marriage has brought marriage into the news in a way that I think is wholly good.”

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit dealt a blow to the assumption that fiction was something primarily about, and for, straight people. Yet it is still classified by Amazon as a lesbian novel. Winterson dislikes the label. Replying to readers on her website she writes: “It’s for anyone -interested in what happens at the frontiers of common sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.”

That conundrum—“To stay safe or follow your heart”—is at the centre of nearly all Winterson’s novels. It is her story, after all. She was adopted at the age of six months by John and Connie Winterson and brought up in a small terraced house in Accrington, Lancashire. As she related in her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?—the title comes from a question her adoptive mother once asked her—she absorbed her family’s Pentecostalism as well as the rhythms of the Bible. After leaving home at 16, she worked in a mental hospital and an ice-cream parlour before going on to read English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.

Around the same time she discovered Mary Shelley. “I read Frankenstein alone in a hut by the sea when I was 20,” says Winterson. “It frightened me and gave me courage. Frightened me because the vision was so bleak; humans seem unable to turn our ingenuity into lasting good. And hopeful because here was a young woman who really could write. And I wanted to be a young woman who could write.”

Frankissstein is an exploration of artificial intelligence and its origins, but it is also about the ownership of the body and the self, and about how women—the life-givers of all mankind—are therefore also the mothers of technology. Winterson gives us a glimpse of Byron’s genius daughter, the mathematician Ada Lovelace, as she works on her first algorithm.

Frankissstein switches between early 19th-century Lake Geneva and Brexit Britain before crossing over to America. There we meet Ry, a transgender doctor, as they—Ry’s preferred pronoun—are about to enter a robotics conference at the invitation of professor Victor Stein. Stein is a visionary who conducts ethically dubious experiments in secret laboratories, and who starts to gain popularity as a leading voice on artificial intelligence.

In explaining her decision to retell Mary Shelley’s story, Winterson says she wanted to take readers into the “wild world of AI and robotics, which is going to happen without most people even realising that their entire universe has changed forever.” Her book—as its punning title suggests—is a love story, but it is one conspicuously set against a backdrop of consumerism and out-of-control technological “progress.”

The American novelist AM Homes, a friend of Winterson’s, sees Frankissstein and her wider body of work as taking on “the intersections of power, technology and gender.” “Her commitment,” says Homes, “is to free her characters from the bounds of -gender—and the culturally imposed limits of what women can do or are capable of.” She adds that: “The rights and roles of the LGBTQ community continue to evolve along with the right to self-identify gender—ideas that Jeanette has been exploring for many years. Her very being resists society’s desire for people to conform.”

Ry is a captivating and resonant narrator: a trans person who is relatively comfortable with their body, while acknowledging that it may still cause confusion in others. “I am what I am,” Ry tells us, “but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness.”

It is also arguably an act of daring to create a character such as Ry at a moment when the conversation around transgender issues is highly polarised with feminists of different stripes arguing vehemently. As trans people suffer baiting from -Donald Trump and the American right, the liberal British media has been chastised for its anti-trans opinion columns. British feminist and queer communities are turning out not to be so cohesive after all. Some feel affronted by the idea of trans women bringing their pre-operative genitals into female changing rooms, or other women-specific spaces. Feminist blogger Viv Smythe labelled this position as “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” or “Terf,” a term that’s taken on an angry life of its own. The debate is fraught, especially on the internet.

Winterson has given it plenty of thought. “We don’t know that if our world was genuinely inclusive and tolerant that there would be such agony, such body dysmorphia, such a need to find another gender. There should be more than two genders anyway, of course there should, it’s daft. People don’t always feel either that they are totally male or totally female, and we haven’t done very well with that.”

She acknowledges that she sees validity in the argument that those who have transitioned into becoming women have had the privilege of being men first. “The world sees what the world sees, and we’re still in a world where white men in -particular get the privilege and are the norm. Those things have got to be factored in the transitioning space. Just leave a bit more room for everybody, and I think we will perhaps be able to stop having the debate.” She adds that she hates the “‘what’s a real woman, what’s a real man’ conversation. It’s like being back in the 1950s.”

Ry’s story could easily have been a disastrous mish-mash: the Frankenstein element, AI, off-the-wall scientific experiments, plus a romance story. But readers are in deft hands with Winterson. It helps that it’s a lighter read than you might expect: the schlocky history of Frankenstein and its many film spin-offs have given her permission to have some fun. And the sex robot business is truly hilarious.

Winterson and I spoke for nearly an hour and a half, covering the possibility of a future without novels because of the loss of libraries and the onward march of icon-based communication à la emojis and Instagram. We talk about how the internet has helped people feel like they matter, and how everything from trolling to conspiracy theories is involved in harnessing this need to matter. Winterson is constantly surprised at the speed of the transformation. “I’m a fiction writer, and I’m astonished at this Alice in Wonderland world that’s been created.”

Frankissstein, at its heart, is about the same process: people trying to work out how to make themselves matter, in whatever form they find themselves taking. I can think of no better guide to our transforming world than Winterson, who has had the courage to fashion herself into a pioneering experimental writer willing to travel through time and space to uncover histories and invent futures. Though unsettled by our times she remains optimistic. As does her scientist character Victor Stein: “Humans are evolving,” he says. “The only difference here is that we are thinking and designing part of our own evolution. Time—evolutionary time—is speeding up. We’re not waiting for Mother Nature anymore.”


Jeanette Winterson is discussing “Frankissstein” on Monday 27th May at 2.30pm at the Hay Festival