Jeanette Winterson had an unusual childhood. She was born in 1959 in Manchester, England and was adopted by Pentecostal parents, who brought her up in the nearby mill-town of Accrington. From an early age, her parents groomed her to become a missionary and by the time she was eight, Winterson was writing and delivering sermons at local church “tent meetings.” Reading was not encouraged in the Winterson home unless it was the Bible, which was one of six books in the family library. However, Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur was also in the collection, and it was reading this classic that spurred Winterson’s life-long fascination with reading and writing.
At 15, Winterson’s love affair with another girl was discovered and condemned by her church and community. She left home at 16 and supported herself for the next few years through various odd jobs, including working as an ice-cream van driver, a funeral parlor make-up artist, and a domestic worker in a mental institution. While working, she continued her education and eventually earned her B.A. in English from Oxford University in 1981.
After college, Winterson worked for the next six years in London for a theatre and then for a publishing company. During that time she wrote her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), which won the prestigious Whitbred Award for a first novel. With the release of her next two award-winning novels, The Passion (1987) and Sexing the Cherry (1989), Winterson established herself as a highly original new voice in contemporary literature. These novels, as well as her later works, explore the topics and themes of feminism, fantasy, sexuality, history, and myth, with lyrical and imaginative prose. The New York Times remarked that Winterson “possesses the ability to combine the biting satire of Swift with the ethereal magic of Garcia Marquez, the ability to reinvent old myths even as she creates new ones of her own.” Winterson is also the author of the experimental novels Written on the Body (1992), Art and Lies (1994) and Gut Symmetries (1997), as well as a collection of essays, Art Objects (1995).
Winterson is the recipient of numerous awards, including the BAFTA Best Drama and the Prix Italia awards for her television adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize for The Passion; and the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Sexing the Cherry. Her work has been translated into more than 16 languages. She resides in England in the Gloucestershire countryside and in London.
Excerpt from The Passion (1998)
There is a city surrounded by water with watery alleys that do for streets and roads and silted up back ways that only the rats can cross. Miss your way, which is easy to do, and you may find yourself staring at a hundred eyes guarding a filthy palace of sacks and bones. Find your way, which is easy to do, and you may meet an old woman in a doorway. She will tell your fortune, depending on your face.
This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you. Your confident instructions to passers-by will send them to squares they have never heard of, over canals not listed in the notes.
Although wherever you are going is always in front of you, there is no such thing as straight ahead. No as the crow flies short cut will help you to reach the café just over the water. The short cuts are where the cats go, through the impossible gaps, round corners that seem to take you the opposite way. But here, in this mercurial city, it is required you do awake your faith.
With faith, all things are possible.
Rumour has it that the inhabitants of this city walk on water. That, more bizarre still, their feet are webbed. Not all feet, but the feet of the boatmen whose trade is hereditary.
This is the legend.
When a boatman’s wife finds herself pregnant she waits until the moon is full and the night empty of idlers. Then she takes her husband’s boat and rows to a terrible island where the dead are buried. She leaves her boat with rosemary in the bows so that the limbless ones cannot return with her and hurries to the grave of the most recently dead in her family. She has brought her offerings: a flask of wine, a lock of hair from her husband and a silver coin. She must leave the offerings on the grave and beg for a clean heart if her child be a girl and boatman’s feet if her child be a boy. There is no time to lose. She must be home before dawn and the boat must be left for a day and a night covered in salt. In this way, the boatmen keep their secrets and their trade. No newcomer can compete. And no boatman will take off his boots, no matter how you bribe him. I have seen tourists throw diamonds to the fish, but I have never seen a boatman take off his boots.
Selected WorkThe Powerbook (2000)Gut Symmetries (1997)Written on the Body (1992)Sexing the Cherry (1989)The Passion (1987)Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
LinksJeanette Winterson’s own siteThe Modern Word’s biography on WintersonSalon.com interview with WintersonThe Jeanette Winterson Reader’s Site