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Making It

For Author, Necessity Is Mother of Reinvention

November 26, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For controversial British author Jeanette Winterson, writing well is the best revenge. She's transformed memories of a rotten childhood into literary gold, and braved personal media attacks to become one of Britain's top postmodern writers.

"For me, it's constantly about reinventing yourself," she said. "I'm a restless person, a quest person."

The first lines of her latest work, "The.PowerBook" (Knopf, 2000) reinforce this: "To avoid discovery I stay on the run. To discover things for myself I stay on the run."

Winterson was reared to be a missionary by her adoptive parents, working-class evangelical Pentecostals who believed every word of the Bible to be literally true. By age 8, at her parents' urging, she was spreading the word of God, drawing believers from miles around her North England mill town.

But the precocious child was denied the thing she craved most: books. Her parents permitted only six books in the house: two were Bibles, a third was a concordance to the Old and New Testaments. The other three were classics.

Winterson hid paperbacks under her mattress and, at night, sneaked into an outhouse to read them by flashlight (the family home lacked indoor bathrooms). She continued until her mother found her cache and burned it.

When Winterson was 16, her parents discovered that she was having a lesbian affair. Both her parents and her church publicly denounced her. She left home, moved from place to place, and worked nights and weekends, so she could continue her education.

Winterson's jobs included ice-cream van driver, domestic at a mental hospital and undertaker's assistant.

But her dedication to her studies paid off handsomely. She was admitted to St. Catherine's College at Oxford University, where she majored in English. She graduated in 1981, then tried unsuccessfully to land employment at advertising and publishing firms.

When she applied for an editorial job at Pandora Press, the publisher turned her down, saying that she was "too wild." But the publisher, bemused by Winterson's colorful autobiographical tales, dared her to set them on paper.

The result was "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit," a fictionalized account of her early years, broken into eight chapters titled after the first eight books of the Old Testament. It was released in 1985. Winterson's mother, who had told her that "the trouble with books is that you don't know what's in them until it is too late," was reportedly mortified by her daughter's revelations. The two never reconciled; Winterson's mother died in 1991.

"Oranges" was a huge hit in Europe and America, and Winterson was hailed as "one of the most unusual and promising young talents in English fiction."

Critics praised the then-26-year-old for her lyrical phrasings, clever wit, and richly layered allegories. Her career seemed to be soaring and she was lavished with awards. She won the Whitbread Prize for a First Novel. Her television script for "Oranges" won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award. A second screenplay, "Great Moments in Aviation," won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the FIPA d'Argent Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

There was more. After quickly penning "Boating for Beginners"--a satirical retelling of the Biblical great flood--to generate some cash, she wrote "The Passion" (set in Napoleonic times about a web-footed adventuress and a chef), which garnered her the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Then she completed "Sexing the Cherry" (a 17th century fable about Dog Woman, a pock-marked giantess) which won the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Winterson was over the moon. In 1992, she raked in more than $210,000, according to Vanity Fair. And Gore Vidal was calling her "the most interesting young writer I have read in 20 years."

But unaccustomed to all the attention and acclaim, Winterson, at 33, behaved against the expectations of British literary society, which preferred its elite authors to be humble and reserved. She nominated her own book as Book of the Year and named herself as her favorite living author. On late-night TV, she claimd to be the natural heir to Virginia Woolf. She also carried on an affair with her agent, Pat Kavanagh, the wife of author Julian Barnes, then acknowledged it to a reporter.

Fame, British reporters said, had gone to her head. There were tales that she was demanding chauffeur-driven transport to book signings, asking men not to wear shorts to her readings, and hosting a coven of sycophantic "yes-women" at her North London home.

Some of the gossipy media tales at the time were over-the-top, including one that Winterson allegedly prostituted herself at Sloane Square hotels in exchange for Le Creuset cookware. Then there were the litany of tabloid reports about Winterson's alleged wild dalliances with married women--though Winterson was in a long-term, committed relationship.

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