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Interview with Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping:

Jeanette Winterson is the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1985. Her second novel, The Passion, won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize in 1987, and was followed by Sexing the Cherry, which won the 1989 E. M. Forster Award. Her other works include The Powerbook, Written on the Body, Art and Lies, Boating for Beginners, The World and Other Places, and a collection of essays, Art Objects. She lives in Oxfordshire, England.

My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal, part pirate.

Orphaned and anchorless, Silver is taken in by blind Mr. Pew, the mysterious and miraculously old keeper of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Pew tells Silver ancient tales of longing and rootlessness, of journeys that move through place and time, of passion and betrayal. His stories center on Babel Dark, a local nineteenth-century clergyman who lived two lives: a public one mired in darkness and a private one bathed in a beacon of light. Pew's stories are, for Silver, a map through her own particular darkness, into her own story and, finally, into love.

With Lighthousekeeping, Jeanette Winterson begins a new cycle and a return to the lyrical intimacy of her earliest work. One of the most original and extraordinary writers of her generation, Winterson has created a modern fable about the transformative power of storytelling.
Q: Lighthousekeeping intertwines the lives of Silver, a ten-year-old orphan; Pew, the blind Cape Wrath lighthouse keeper; and Babel Dark, the lighthouse's founder. What's your technique for developing characters?
A: I don't have a technique—that's what they teach you in creative writing school! A character has a distinctive voice—you should be able to hear them in your head and conduct a conversation with them while you're out walking. If the answers surprise you, you know it's the character speaking and not you.

Everything in writing begins with language. Language begins with listening. When we are little kids we learn by listening. Writers have to have a knack for listening. I need to be able to hear what is being said to me by the voices I create. Just on the other side of creativity is the nuthouse—and I often notice people looking at me strangely when I am talking out loud, but there is no other way.

It is important, too, not to force a character into something. Fiction writers can be too controlling—usually that's a terror of our own unconscious processes. Great control and great discipline are necessary when you reach your own editing stage of the book, but in the early stages you have to be prepared to let anything happen and to get it wrong or go off track. The development of a character is not smooth or simple—it is as tricky as meeting someone new whom you would like to know better.

Q: How did Silver's story begin in your mind?
A: My books always begin with a sentence and an image—not necessarily connected. It is not always the first sentence—though in this case it was. Think about the first sentence: "My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal, part pirate." When I heard that sentence in my head, I asked myself, "Who is this person?" Then I thought about how much was packed in there and decided to start unraveling it. At the same time I had been dreaming about a lighthouse. It is such a potent image; practical, because lives depend on it, and at the same time, utterly romantic, this lonely building on the cusp of land and sea, sending out light into the darkness. It seemed a good image for the meaning of stories in our lives.

Q: Lighthousekeeping was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2004. How has it been received thus far?
A: Incredibly well. Very good reviews I am told, although I don't read them, and strong sales. I don't read reviews because by then it's too late—whatever anyone says, the book won't change. It is written. Good or bad might make a difference to your mood, but it can't make a difference to the book. You have already decided to publish it the way it is and stand by it the way it is.

Q: You've written more than ten books, including seven novels, a short-story collection, a book of essays, and a children's book. Which work says the most about you and why?
A: It doesn't really work like that—writers and their books are a sprawling chaotic attempt at revealing some of life's patterns, and only later does the theory start. Academics love to make theories about a body of work, but at the time it is being made, book by book, each book consumes the writer and is the sum of his or her world. Each book is a different staging post on the writer's journey, and each book stands by itself, regardless of the writer's relationship to it. We shall all die, and our lives will be irrelevant then. If we make anything that lasts, it outlives us, and it outlives its personal moment. All of my work is deep-dug from me, and every book has to stand or fall without me.

Q: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1985, your second novel, The Passion, received the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize in 1987, and Sexing the Cherry won the 1989 E. M. Forster Award. How did this recognition affect you early in your career?
A: It's great to win a few prizes early on. It helps a writer to get noticed and to get some sales. It can also be a pain in the arse because it gets in the way of the quiet, contemplative time every writer needs, but which is particularly important when you are a new writer finding your own voice, and pursuing the things that interest you. Writers have become hype now, like everything else, which is a pity, because this is the most introverted and solitary of callings. The media mix isn't that marvelous for the work itself, even if it is marvelous for sales.

Q: As a novelist, a poet, and a journalist, which genre tests you the most as a writer?
A: I am not interested in genres. I am interested in doing the best work I can in whatever medium. Creative work is incredibly difficult, and that is where the tests lie. Ordinary professionalism and twenty years' experience can accomplish a lot, but it can't access the hidden places. That still needs what it always needs—a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything (to quote T. S. Eliot).

Q: When you sit down to write a book, what are some of your reoccurring rituals?
A: I never ever work in a domestic space. I live alone, but I don't work in my own house. Too much going on there, what with cats, books, pictures, fresh vegetables to cook, the garden to play with, the hens to feed, etc. I go and work in a glamorous shed—glamorous because it is big and beautiful, but also empty of everything except a desk and a lamp, and there's a way of making coffee. Once there, I can quiet my mind. Once there, I read what I wrote in the last session, work on it, walk up and down, make the coffee, and get going again. I look down over the river, which is soothing and energizing at the same time. When I had no money, I used to borrow other people's spaces, or rent cheap rooms, and sometimes now I just disappear to a white room in Spain or Italy or France. I don't need any conveniences or anything fancy, I need quiet and no clutter—in other words, the most difficult things to find in the modern world!

Q: Your Web site, www.jeanettewinterson.com, supplies a wealth of information about you and your writing. There's a message board, Web casts, and even a monthly column—with an archive dating back to 2000. What do you want your readers to gain from your Web site?
A: The site is a resource. I wanted a sexy site, not one of these boring scroll-down things that would turn anyone off a writer for life. I know my books are used in a lot of courses and that people use the site for their essays and projects, etc., but I also want general surfers to be able to enjoy it. My assistant deals with the e-mail that comes in, and we try and answer what we can. There is no advertising on it, and I pay for it all. It's expensive, but I feel that we are in the Information Age, and I want the information to be there. I believe in communication; books communicate ideas and, books make bridges between people. I will do whatever I have to do to reach people with the things I believe are important. Life is too short not to do everything you can.

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Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson