I CAUGHT UP with Jeanette Winterson by e-mail as she was touring the United Kingdom for The PowerBook. The medium seemed fitting, since the novel's presumed setting is a laptop computer. I was first curious why Winterson, a writer who uses historical characters in her works, chose to frame this fiction in such an emblem of the present.
Virtual reality bites author Jeanette Winterson.
"I let my books shape themselves for a long time," Winterson responded. "I just write what presses on my throat to be written, and spread it out in kit form on the floor. A structure begins to suggest itself. I follow it, and many dead ends and false beginnings, then when I feel I have the organic sense of what it is, I farm it. I plant the hedges, build the fences, turn it from potential into actual, but you can't do that with any purpose until you have understood the true nature of the territory."
Speaking of territory, to which ones does she escape through reading?
"Poetry is what I like to read," Winterson responded. "All of it. Lots of it, as widely as possible. Let's never forget William Carlos Williams—'It is hard to get the news from poems/but men die miserably every day/for lack of what is found there.'"
Since Winterson's prose is sheer poetry wrapped in narrative, it is no surprise that she likes to read poetry. However, there's a hint on her Web page (www.jeanettewinterson.com) that she dabbles in poetry herself and doesn't much like the result. The page, while in progress currently, will feature poetry; she noted "not mine—don't worry."
HER FANS, THOUGH, would like to read whatever she writes. Winterson's writing attracts admirers with a force usually reserved for rock stars. If literature didn't have such an ivory-tower image, there would probably be glossy mags featuring interior shots of her houses and recipes of her favorite foods. As it is, readers at all levels of devotion get clues to the writer in her writing, like the narrator of The PowerBook: "The more I write, the more I discover that the partition between real and invented is as thin as a [wall in a] cheap hotel room."
I asked the author if she found herself living in the rooms she wrote, if she left the real. "What's real? Reality is multiple," Winterson responded. "It's certainly not just the table and chairs and automobile world of the everyday, it's just as much our imaginative life and our emotional life. When people talk about realism, they're usually leaving out at least half the story."
As for online reading versus standard books, she is open to both experiences.
"There will always be a place for the book as we know it now," Winterson wrote, "but the book is changing, both as an artifact and as an idea. A lot of printed matter will be better online—travel, reference, airport books. Why stagger about with a bag of Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwell when you can shrink 'em up into a PalmPilot? That said, carrying around a book you love is like a letter from a friend or a pebble from the beach. We'll always want to do it."
Jeanette Winterson appears November 9 at Benaroya Hall as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures.