Jeanette Winterson is the award-winning author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Marlon James won the 2015 Booker prize with his third novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings.
by Jeanette Winterson and Marlon James
When Marlon James appears at the designated Miami hotel bar, Jeanette Winterson leaps up and runs to him. “I’m going to hug you,” she says. It’s the first time they’ve met, but the conversation flows at a steady speed for an hour and a half.Winterson has long been in the public eye: her 1985 autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was an early sensation. She grew up in Lancashire in a religious household, the adopted daughter of Pentecostal evangelists. James, meanwhile, is the recent winner of the Booker prize for his third novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings. Though he now lives in Minnesota, where he teaches creative writing, James grew up in Jamaica. In a recent essay, he traced his own gradual detachment from his place of birth and the church he was raised in, alongside the process of coming out.The two writers are mutual admirers, and both have brought the proof: Winterson carries a copy of James’s A Brief History; James wants Winterson to sign three of her books, and they are not the obvious choices (Written On The Body, The Passion). He has read everything she’s written, including her latest, The Gap Of Time, her “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale.
When the conversation comes to a reluctant end – both writers are in the midst of tours, and James has to leave to give a speech at the Miami Book Fair – Winterson sighs contentedly: “It’s so nice to meet someone you know you can talk to.”
Marlon James I have a class I teach on evil.
Jeanette Winterson Is that the name of it, “Evil”?
MJ Just “On Evil.” I have them read Eudora Welty’s Where Is The Voice Coming From? I have them read A Good Man Is Hard To Find.
JW Do you give them a book to read every week?
MJ It depends on the class. It’s undergrad, so sometimes they don’t have time to get through a whole book.
JW And they’re not sure that they should be doing that.
[They both laugh.]
MJ What I find, particularly with young writers and readers, is that they don’t want complicated feelings.
JW But they’re young. And I feel sympathy with that. I’m happy to not know what I think about stuff; I’m happy to change my mind. But it’s relatively recently that I’ve been able to apply that to feelings. I used to like to know what I felt. I didn’t want those feelings to be complicated or muddled or clashing.
MJ I was reading your memoir…
MJ You’re interested in debunking this idea that literature from women must be experiential.
JW Yes, this sort of confessional – one notch up from reality TV.
MJ I was on a panel – me, [novelist and critic] Roxane Gay and Viet Thanh Nguyen, who wrote The Sympathizer. Roxane’s writing about kidnapping in Haiti, I’m writing about gangs and violence, and the audience expects that you came out of it – that you were kidnapped. La Repubblica once interviewed me, and the first thing they asked was: “As someone who escaped the ghetto through the power of the pen, how do you feel about what’s going on in Jamaica?”
MJ No. And when we, a lot of writers of colour, tell them, no, that’s not our background, then it’s, “By what authority are you writing?”
JW So you think it’s a black thing like it’s a woman thing?
MJ Yeah. As a writer of colour, you have to be victim or perpetrator. Or, maybe you were a journalist. And when someone asked me that [authority question], I said, “You mean… talent and imagination?”
JW It’s really peculiar. It’s just such a failure of imagination on the part of the people reading the book: “Oh, this must have been you, you must have slit pigs’ throats for a living”, or whatever. That somehow this explains everything; I don’t get that.
MJ I don’t, either.
JW I was thinking about something you said, I can’t remember where, that we create characters because we need them. I wanted you to explain: I thought, maybe I don’t understand that.
MJ On a very technical level, I was talking about supporting characters. Especially with Seven Killings, a lot of these characters arose out of viewpoints I needed to have. Some of them contradictory, some of them kind of me.
JW They’re real, the women that you write. They’re not constructs, they’re not pretend. It’s a big surprise.
MJ I had to learn that. [The novelist] Elizabeth Nunez and I did a workshop and she said, “You’re a pretty good writer, but you don’t have a clue about women.” I said, “What do you mean? My mother is a cop, I live with lots of women.” She said, “How many women have you read? You know nothing of female literary space.” She got me to read Toni Morrison, which changed my life. Morrison, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark…
JW She made a really good point there. It’s a hard point to make. It’s not said, and very often it’s not heard. I mean, let’s not get into VS Naipaul… [They both laugh.] Perhaps now, finally, we can bundle VS Naipaul with some duct tape and throw him off the cliff, which is what I would like to do.
MJ Jonathan Franzen, somebody asked him, how do you write women? Because he actually does write really complicated women. And he said, “I don’t try to understand any character. I just observe.” I’ve done that with a few people. Some characters I do want to understand. But a lot of them, I just want to sit back and take notes.
JW I don’t think that’s enough said. There’s all the creative writing class cliches, about going round with your notebooks – but people are writing in their notebooks and not actually seeing anything. Sometimes I tease my students at Manchester [University], I say, can you just tell me what you noticed on the way here? This corridor you walk down every day: what happens, 10 paces down on the left? What’s the door like, at the end? Do you have any idea how many stairs there are, to the bottom? They’re always so busy. But they’re not seeing.
MJ There are times when I think there [has been] this shift in reading, where people no longer want to confront an experience with books. They want to escape.
JW It’s a way out of an experience.
MJ I’m not sure when that happened. People say, your book is so violent. It’s actually not that violent.
JW If something is violent, we have to feel it is violent. It’s much worse to dissolve around these things, rather than confront them.
MJ I also think you have to risk pornography, sometimes. In this book, there’s a gay sex scene. And I thought the scene was important, because experiencing sex from a character was the only way he could accept any level of his queerness, which is why it is a blow-by-blow sex scene. The Jamaicans weren’t happy.
JW What is the problem? Is it really that homophobic in Jamaica? Why?
MJ I mean, it’s not Uganda. Because homophobia is still largely driven by the church, it’s legitimised. It’s also tied to sexism, because those two are never far apart. It’s interesting for me watching how religiosity is gripping Nigeria right now. Because I remember when it was gripping Jamaica, especially in the 80s.
JW It’s getting worse. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a version of Christianity or a version of Islam. This has completely taken me by surprise, that we’d be back in faith wars.
MJ I didn’t think so, either.
JW I’m just worried that we’re going to see a world where nobody’s talking to each other any more.
MJ I’ve thought about that, and about how in a very weird way technology is making it worse.
JW You’re not afraid to talk about this…
MJ Oh, I rant on Facebook all the time. I just gave a big Isis rant: stop attacking the faith and start following the money.
But about Facebook. My students grew up in an era where they take partisanship for granted. They have never had to deal with an opposing view, or respecting it, because they grew up believing that, whether it’s liberal or conservative, an opposing view is something you make fun of. Whether it’s really, really brilliant, like Jon Stewart, or whether your aunt said something bad about Bill Clinton. They also grew up with 5,000 Facebook friends who all think exactly like them. They really think the universe is millions of people all on the same page. So when you inject conflict, even in a classroom, they have no idea what to do with it.
JW Oh, they’re not that bad in Manchester.
MJ You guys don’t have helicopter parents yet?
JW No, that’s frightening. I mean, can you read books you don’t like? Because, otherwise, how are you going to know that there is a different world out there? Maybe it’s not for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good, it’s not interesting. [People] don’t like living with a level of discomfort. And I think if you’re a writer, you have to.
Maybe our western culture just doesn’t help people deal with their feelings. It’s complicated, loving someone is hard. Staying the course with someone is hard. You can’t just keep upgrading people like you do with your phone.
MJ “I’m not having this argument. I’ve come here for an upgrade.”
JW Yes! There’ll be a better model coming along soon, so you just wait until it does. Whatever we were, we weren’t the upgrade generation. There was a sense that you had to stick with something. You have this trendy kind of Malcolm Gladwell [idea that] 10,000 hours is the holy grail of being able to achieve something. And then you think, how are you ever going to put 10,000 hours in? Writing is just really hard work; you sit there, producing shit, and then putting it in a drawer. And then when it comes out of the drawer, it will still be shit. So just sit there, and deal with the blank space.
MJ Just sit there and do the work! I think about writers who didn’t write enough: “Everything I write is the Sistine Chapel.” It’s like, no, if it’s written, it’s written. On to the next page.
JW If you’re prepared to be tough with yourself. That’s hard to instil in people – that you can have a lot of confidence and still be really tough. And also know it’s not factory work, it’s not office work, it’s not going to come out the same every day. And because this is the only place we write from, this self that we are, some days it’s a bit fucked up.
MJ Yeah. I still do it when I’m fucked up. Which is not to say you can’t be somebody who can shit them out, and they’re great – like Elmore Leonard. And they were always brilliant.
JW My friend Ruth Rendell, she died this year, but she was doing two a year, and she was 85! She just came up with the ideas, the writing kept on developing. I love it that writers all do things differently, and live in this broad church where you have to tolerate everybody. Except maybe VS Naipaul. But masculinity is in crisis, women are in crisis – this is the crisis generation. It worries me. It’s one thing you’re not allowed to talk about, but I talk about it with Susie, my partner. The rush to surgery to fix things.
MJ It’s not just a rush to surgery, it’s a rush to medicate.
JW It’s this thing about, if you’re feeling confused, if you’re feeling upset, go and do something about it.
MJ I remember one of my students came to me: “I just have to tell somebody.” I said, “What?” “I haven’t taken my meds in four years and my parents don’t know.” I was like, “How warped is this discussion?” Whatever problems they thought he had, they just found a medication to deal with it and sent him off to school. He’s afraid to tell them he hasn’t taken a drug in four years, because they would panic. “You haven’t been taking your Adderall? Who have you been disturbing?”
The helicopter parents won’t allow that. Wait until they realise what’s in[Hermann Hesse’s] Steppenwolf.
JW I like that idea in Hesse, that lots of people have already committed suicide, they ended their life long ago – they’re just nominally here.
MJ People ask me about this article I wrote, saying either I’m gonna leave Jamaica in a plane or a coffin. They think I mean I’m going to get killed by some anti-gay Gestapo. It’s like, no, it’s a kind of living death.
JW It is vacating life. Nothing is worth that. I always tell my students, “You are going to suffer, so make sure you suffer legitimately, for something you believe in. Don’t suffer illegitimately by trying to pretend [to be] something you’re not.” But nobody really tells them that they’re going to be unhappy.
MJ Yeah, ’cause that person is usually fired.
JW When they come and tell me they’re unhappy, I say, that’s good, because maybe you’ll write something better than last week.
MJ On Facebook someone had this really stupid T-shirt, saying something like: “Writing is like riding backwards in a fire covered in gasoline.” And people were like, “Yes, I feel this way.” And I just wrote: “Then quit.” Writing is the greatest fun I’ve ever had. And I know this with painters, I know this with dancers: if it’s the hardest friggin’ work you’ve ever done, and the most fun you’ve ever had, and you can never resolve that, that’s it. That’s where you should be.
• Introduction by Michelle Dean. This conversation has been edited for length. Marlon James will be speaking at the Being A Man festival, Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 28 November.