Acclaimed author Jeanette Winterson on Susie Orbach, sex bots and going into politics
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
Jeanette Winterson’s 1985 debut, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, was famously inspired by her experience growing up gay in a strict Pentecostal community. Since then she has continued to boldly explore themes of sexuality and gender in her writing. Her latest offering, Frankissstein: A Love Story, takes on these topics with a compelling combination of humour and hard science. It is a novel for right now, a timely reanimation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, leaping expertly between early 19th century Romanticism and our modern age of artificial intelligence and gender fluidity. When I meet the renowned writer at a book signing in Bloomsbury, I find her funny, formidable and utterly riveting.
DIVA: Frankissstein is a remarkable novel. Where did the idea come from?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It seemed to me that I could go back 200 years to Mary Shelley’s extraordinary observation that we could create life, and bring that forward to now where we are creating life, consciousness anyway, with the zeros and ones of code. It seemed like an obvious connection and it’s the right book for the moment.
I thought all the stuff about sex bots was hilarious.
Oh my god. Have you looked at them on YouTube?
I’ve seen! They’re real things, aren’t they?
They sure are. There’s a lot of them about and there’s going to be more. On the one hand, it’s a joke. You just think, “Oh, men will stick it into anything”. And on the other hand, it’s deadly serious. It’s uncomfortable for us in terms of what a certain kind of man wants from a female, even an invented one, that it’s about sex and compliance. Men only want women to agree with them anyway, so it’ll be perfect!
Do you reckon there’s any market among lesbians and bi women for female sex bots?
No. For a start, they don’t have a clitoris [laughs]. With women, it’s more nurture than nature, but we are relationship based. The lack of any genuine connection would be problematic.
The book talks about the future as a more fluid, non-binary place where gender and sexuality will cease to be so labelled. Do you think that’s where we’re headed?
It could be. It won’t be, but it could be. A lot of people are hung up on gender. When we are much more regularly sharing our space with bots, we can gender them but we will know we are doing that. And actually, it’s weird. Why would we? It shows how deep our need is to have binaries and labels. I’m hoping this will be a wake-up moment. If you don’t gender your bot, or you let the gender be a little bit more fluid, then it will fuck the binary. You’ll have to accept that you’re having a meaningful relationship, whatever that is, with something you can’t treat as male or female.
How do you feel about your own gender and sexuality?
I’ve always been really quite comfortable with it all. I don’t think of myself in any single terms. It is about living with doubleness. I like that. And I like the shape-shifting. Maybe its because I’m a writer and I need to imagine myself as different people in different times with different selves. I would hate to be locked in. Sexually, I just made a decision. It was never about sleeping with men, because I’ve always had good sex with men. It was a choice. I wanted to be selfish. I need to be on my own, do my own thing. I didn’t want to be the helper and the mopper-upper. I don’t want to have kids, so that was easier. And I like women. I like who they are, how they are. So it was a decision and I think it was a good one. Of course, things have changed now. I love that things can be more fluid and the wrapper is less important.
Why did you decide to make Ry, the modern incarnation of Mary Shelley, a trans guy?
We need some trans people in fiction and we need positive models, just as we did when I was writing Oranges. Back then I thought, “It’s time we got some lesbians in fiction”. I did it 35 years ago. I want to do it again now. I wanted it to be positive, but also thoughtful. You have to have the complexity.
There’s a lot in the novel about artificial intelligence and immortality. If you had the opportunity to upload your consciousness, would you do it?
[Pauses] …Um … yeah, I’d do it.
Even if it meant certain death now, you’d go for it for the possibility of immortality in the longer run?
[With more conviction] Yes. Yes, I would.
Because I think it would be fascinating and terrifying. You would have the vampire experience, which we know is very lonely, and you would suffer. But at the same time, it would be too good a chance to miss, wouldn’t it? So I would risk it and at the same time, I’m sure I would regret it.
You’re such a prolific writer. Do you feel like when you’re creating these great works of literature, you’re in some way striving for immortality?
No, because you never know what’s going to happen to your work later. I think about myself as trying to contribute now, to be part of the conversation, to try and expand the way people think about the world, and above all to engage people’s minds. To me, the marker of a powerful mind is a mind that can manage contradictions. Reading, it’s a blood supply. Otherwise we’re just atrophy. Most people are dead long before they physically die in that they’re not growing, they’re not changing, they can’t manage contradiction. They can’t evolve, so they might as well be dead [laughs].
Would you consider going into politics?
Yes, I would now. The collapse of the left is really bothering me and I don’t know yet what to do. I’d like to go round the northern towns. I’d like to go where Farage is going with his hateful little rallies. I’m from the north. I’m a working class woman. I think I could stand up and speak and I think I should.
How did you meet your wife, Susie Orbach?
I interviewed her 10 years ago. We just really got keen on each other, which was a surprise because she was heterosexual.
How would she describe you?
She describes me in various ways. A thug is one of them!
Why do you think you work so well as a couple?
Because we don’t see much of each other! We didn’t want to live together. Neither of us was interested in that. She’d had a huge, long marriage and kids. I like to live by myself and do my own thing. It’s important not to try and force a relationship into a shape. It need not work that way.
How romantic are you?
I think I am. I believe in love as the highest value and the most important motive force. But I also believe in love’s opposite – which is fear, not hatred – as an equally powerful motive force in the world. When people are afraid, they start to hate, and a lot of people are afraid. I hate the way neo-capitalism has savaged and sacrificed family life. People can’t manage three jobs in a gig economy and look after their kids or have time for their partner. Yet within all that, people are still finding ways of loving one another and providing acts of kindness. For me, romance is part of that, because if I love you and you love me, it doesn’t stop there. It moves out into the wider world.
This interview first appeared in the July 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!