From the heart or not at all

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‘Old English was not useful. It was entertaining though, in a morbid sort of way. Vocational degrees are of limited use anyway. We are human beings, not machines. It doesn’t matter what you study as long as your mind starts to work. I can’t help thinking that the zombie craze is because we educate people to be as dead as possible while still alive.

Working class students need people like me to talk to them and to go into their schools. Oxford could do a lot better with its time and money if it asked those of us who understand the problem first hand to get involved. Also, there is no point pretending that when students from difficult or disadvantaged back-grounds arrive at Oxford, they will just fit in.

The first term is crucial and help should be there. Oxford’s breakdown and suicide rate is shameful. Many more students suffer terrible personal difficulties – and these difficulties are compounded if you feel like you are ‘wrong’ in some fundamental way. Whenever I couldn’t cope, my horrible tutor asked me if I would be more comfortable at Aberystwyth.

I help to pay for my godchildren to attend private schools – one is at City of London, the other at Westminster. I see what a good school does for a child. They love school and they are confident, happy girls. How different for a child from some dump up north, like me.

It is good that Michael Moritz has given £300 million to Oxford for scholarships for poor students . Let’s not waste that money, but let’s not pretend that Oxford is for everyone; it isn’t.

Oxford is not and never will be an equal environment. Life is not an equal environment. What we have to do is address real problems of education and achievement and access lower down the food chain in the school system.

Catz was genuinely mixed and pretty democratic, but on my first day my tutor turned to me and said, “You are the working class experiment.” Then he turned to the young woman who was to become, and has remained, my closest friend, and he said, “You are the black experiment.” That is why I help to put her girls, my godchildren, through private school.

Interestingly, I wrote about this in the Catz Yearbook just recently, and they refused to print it. It is a long time since I have had an article rejected.

Our tutor was a dreadful man; refused to teach girls because of his malevolent homosexuality and made the lives of the boys quite a challenge. I am glad to say that he is dead.

On Feminism and female characters

We have to keep reinventing the wheel. When I studied English we were told that there were only four women novelists worth reading: the Brontës, George Eliot and Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf was not taught. When I was a kid in Accrington, I more or less taught myself by going into the library and making my way along the shelves of English Literature A-Z. This story is in Why be Happy? I did notice that most of the books were written by men, but it wasn’t until I got to N that I felt let down: Nabokov. I wondered why he hated the mature female body so much, why he was so vile about women. It does matter – style or no style.

I write for everyone. Women do write for everyone, but there is still an assumption that only men write for everyone. You will have noticed that men don’t really read women if they can get away with not doing so.

I write strong women characters. Of course I do. I want to challenge every status quo. There is no point being a writer if you are not prepared to take risks. I believe that literature makes us better human beings – and that being able to read deeply is itself a challenge to sound bite culture and the three-minute attention span.

As a writer, I am not here to make things easier; I am here to fight back. I believe in the political and moral purpose of art. This isn’t about propaganda – it’s about what it means to be human, the societies we try to create, the life of the mind, the primacy of imagination, the refusal of money and power as dominant values. The refusal of patriarchy as a natural or normal template for social organisation.

Everything about society is propositional. The way we organise ourselves is actually a choice, not a law like gravity. This is worth remembering most mornings.

My own characters? The Dog Woman in Sexing the Cherry – first woman in literature to make filth into a fashion accessory. Villanelle, the cross-dressing croupier in The Passion. And myself, of course, because I am a character in my own fiction. How could it be otherwise?

If I could be a woman in someone else’s fiction I’d choose to be Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. How irresistible to cross time and gender all at once. My friend, the American writer A. M. Homes, prefers to write from a male point of view. I don’t. Sometimes I prefer not to make it clear what the gender of the narrator is. We have so many assumptions about gender. Fiction is one way of challenging those assumptions.

As for feminism being coffined? Are you mad? 50% of women in the Arab world are illiterate. Are we so smug as to think that feminism is about clever girls from Oxford and London? We have more choices, more opportunities, but women do not earn as much as men do, or make it to the boardroom. And look at the Cameron Cabinet.

Childcare should not be the reason for the scarcity of women at higher levels of power and pay. Childcare shouldn’t be a woman’s problem – it is a family issue. A child has a fa- ther as well as a mother. And all of us in the 21st century should be talking about what family means now, what heterosexuality means now, and how we can remake society so that it actually works for families and not against them.

And don’t you want to see an end to body hatred? Why should young women be made to think about their bums, tits, weight, hair, clothes, shoes, ALL the time? The misogyny of advertising needs urgent address. As does the fashion industry. The West’s biggest export right now is body hatred. China is the fastest growing market for plastic surgery – and for women under 30. Is this what we want? Don’t you want to change it? That’s feminism, girls. Caitlin Moran is GREAT. I loved How To Be A Woman.

On Autobiography

Not a useful word. Authenticity is the only word that matters in art. Creative work is a lie detector. There are no shortcuts or cheats. Crazy or sane is not relevant; truth is relevant. The truth of art is complex, always challenging. That is not to say there isn’t delight and humour and pleasure. Creativity isn’t either/ or: it’s everything. The richness and contradiction of life is magnified in art. Above all, art is a place to feel. This isn’t a hiding place; it’s a place of discovery.

I do not believe in false oppositions of imagination versus experience, or experiment versus realism. Maybe that works for critics and academics, but creativity is not about binaries. This is the work of your soul – and if that is an old-fashioned word, too bad.

Anyway, Why be Happy isn’t an autobiography. It isn’t a memoir either. It is an experiment with experience.

So I wrote Oranges when I was 25 and Why be Happy when I was 52. Maybe I like inverting numbers.

On The Daylight Gate

This was a bit of a dare in that it was suggested to me by Simon Oakes who owns the Hammer outfit and who decided to augment the sexy movie part of the empire with a sober sister (not much money) and revitalise the Hammer imprint. Random House agreed to publish these new novellas. Simon suggested I write something about the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, because I was brought up in the shadow of Pendle Hill. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I am high- minded but not precious.

I am interested in genre writing. No, I am interested in everything – what is life for, otherwise? So I decided to give it a go. And writing a page-turner is hard work. I am not plot- driven, so this was a specific challenge. I think it worked.

What next?

Well, with reservations, trepidation, excitement, and interest I am taking over from Martin Amis and Colm Toibin and going to Manchester as Professor of Creative Writing for a couple of years.

It isn’t an everyday job by any means. I will teach once a week for one term a year and put on a few events and be an ambassador for the course. Let’s see how it works out. I have only signed for two years. And I am starting a new book and getting heavily involved in new digital platforms. Follow me on Twitter@ Wintersonworld and check out my website jeanettewinterson.com’

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