20 Questions: Jeanette Winterson

For award-winning novelist Jeanette Winterson, the boundaries we place upon ourselves can be traversed, we need only muster the courage. In her new book, The Stone Gods, available in April, misfits of mankind wish to escape the boundaries of their world. So naturally, Winterson expands upon PopMatters 20 Questions, lest we think one can be clearly defined by virtue of their response.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Waterhorse! That’s the story of a boy in Scotland who finds an egg and when it hatches it grows up to be the Loch Ness Monster, goes back into the Loch, but returns to find its boy. The great thing about this film is that it’s not sentimental or silly. It’s about chance and imagination and what happens when the impossible happens. And it has a proper script, thank god, not some pointless banal phone-text dialogue. I took my godchildren who are 11 and 8, and we all cried.

Having endured There Will Be Blood, emptiness masquerading as content, (not the fault of Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s just that Hollywood’s idea of how to be serious is to slow everything down and turn cryptic), it was a relief to find this little movie.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I would not choose a human figure. I might choose Ariel in The Tempest or I might choose the fox in Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I might choose Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He moves outside the strictly human – the green knight is part of him, too.

3. The greatest album, ever?

That question is the kind of thing you play with when you’re sleepless in a strange city and you’ve had too much to drink. There is no answer, there’s a lot of good music out there.

One of the many good things about getting older is that you can have friends across generations. When you are in your ’20s and ’30s, your friends are all part of your own group. Later, as this changes, the mix brings in all kinds of things you wouldn’t find yourself.

I have a friend called Natalie Clein, she records for EMI and she’s one of the finest cellists in the world. She’s 30. Her boyfriend is the pianist for James Blunt. That sort of combination is great. One day I can be listening to her play the Elgar Cello concerto in London’s Royal Albert Hall, and a few weeks later, we’re doing James Blunt in Paris.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I like both. The mythic quality of the Quest in Star Wars is what makes it satisfying – the quest is a personal journey of identity for Luke Skywalker, and it’s also a struggle against the impersonal power of technology gone mad. That’s a lesson we need to learn. Star Trek is just good fun – like Buffy. It’s the kind of TV that saves the medium from brain-curdling mush.

5. Your ideal brain food?

The brain needs to be learning new things all the time. The great thing about art, whether it’s paintings or music or theatre or opera or a book, is that the brain has to engage at a level of challenge and unfamiliarity. When the brain encounters anything really new – and art is new ways, slant ways, of looking at the familiar — then the brain has to re-fire its neurons, make synaptic connections.

Brain death is to reduce everything to the level of the known. You have to keep taking yourself by surprise.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I am a writer. That’s what I do best. I believe in the power of language and literature to make us better than we are. Literature is language working at the highest level – it means the words are doing more than conveying meaning, they are also metaphor and image, symbol, idea, dream.

Books give the reader time to think and something to think about – they also give him or her a language with which to do this thinking. And I’m not just talking abstract thinking. The concrete beauty of good writing allows for an emotional as well as a cerebral connection. The circuit is complete – right and left brain. We can be wholly human through the agency of books.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

I want to be remembered publicly as the writer that I am. I want to be remembered privately as a good friend and someone who was kind.

But memory is selective – who knows how it will all turn out. I have planted a lot of trees, and the earth below and the birds above will remember me for that, and you know, that in itself would be enough. The necessary thing in life is to do something worthwhile, whatever it is, even if you have a dead-end job you can still do something outside of that job, and to be worthwhile. Don’t be a cheat or a bum. Be someone you can respect.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

It would be a long list and a list that will move over time. As we change, so our reading of the past changes, both literally and figuratively.

There were times when I could not have done without Virginia Woolf. Times when the 18th century poet made my life bearable. Times when Ted Hughes, times when William Blake, times when Wagner, times when Picasso.

Inspiration – literally having the spirit in you — is an everyday necessity. I look for it and I find it. For me it’s not in politics or in science – it’s in the strange need to make beauty and sense out of life, even at its worst. That’s what art does.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

I don’t wish for anyone else’s work. I am happy to do my own work in my own way and benefit from the work of others. I wish I could make a cheese soufflé that didn’t collapse though…

10. Your hidden talents…?

I am a natural gardener and I can grow anything.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

In 1989 a good friend said, ‘Never read reviews. Take criticism or encouragement from those you trust and respect.’ So that’s how it is. After all, when you see a quote that says ‘ Brilliant’ — New York Times, it is not the newspaper, but one single person’s opinion. That has to be kept in mind.

When young writers say to me mournfully, ‘all the papers hated my book’, I say, ‘You mean six people you have never met?’

No-one can be writer or an artist if they tear themselves up all the time over other people’s views. This is a very punishing age – we raise people up and we smash people down. In fact artists and writers just need some space and some respect. We don’t need celebrity or notoriety.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

A cat.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?

I wear both. Always Armani to an opening night (I like the theatre and the opera).

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Meryl Streep.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I do that all the time in my head and sometimes in my books so it’s no big deal. Where you can’t take your body you can take your mind.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Never drugs, prescription or otherwise. The US is hooked on anti-depressants. You live in a medication culture, which fortunately isn’t so marked in England, yet.

A good diet, loads of exercise, sex if you can get it, liberal but not embarrassing amounts of champagne, a sense of humour, and a cat or a dog. I admit that’s quite a list but it works for me.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?

See question #16.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on

the map?

I live in the country. It suits me because I think that hooting owls are better than hooting horns.

I am thoroughly European, and love to take the train to Paris, eat lunch, and then travel overnight to Rome or Venice. But these are escapes. It is important to like where you live, and to choose carefully.

People get trapped, we do a lot more self-snaring than we will admit. Even when life looks like it’s giving you no choice, there is usually a choice, perhaps hidden, like those kids pictures where you have to spot the mouse.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Same as I want to say to the leader of your country; stand down.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

A new book for older kids about a lonely child who builds a robot. It’s a modern take on Frankenstein. It will be out next year.