It’s a freezing morning in the Cotswolds, and Jeanette Winterson has the fire lit, while a peacock prances outside in the frost. The writer is tired after a late night at the BBC and a recent teaching trip to Singapore, but she is smiling and bubbly, eager to talk about her travels, during which she has been heartened to find a readership in what is regarded as a culturally conservative, conformist society.
There are a lot of “young people there who want to hear new ideas”, she says. They are “seeking out cultural exchange, searching for a voice for expressing their own identity. And of course literature is so important for that.” Many of her Asian readers are “tech enthusiasts, but they still see that the human project is at the heart of things”, and they are looking to marry the two. “The technological future,” she says, laughing puckishly, “it’s not all death and dystopia.”
In the first five minutes of a fascinating hour-long chat, Winterson has already revealed the heart of the history of her own writing life and her contemporary, futuristic interests.
Winterson was adopted as a baby into a working-class Manchester family who were committed to the austere values of the Pentecostal church. Her debut novel, the autobiographical fantasy Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which also became a BBC drama, documented an abusive upbringing that culminated in her exile from the family home at 16. Winterson’s spiritual and personal salvation was to come from literature rather than religion.
It was a chance encounter with TS Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral that sparked an epiphany for Winterson when she was in her mid-teens. “I was sent to collect the book by my mother, who thought it was a murder mystery,” she says. On the way home it struck her that this was a bit of a slim volume to be one, “so I opened it, and the first thing I read was this line: ‘This is one moment/ but know that another/ shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.’ I burst into tears. With my parents’ evangelicalism, their homophobia, the idea that there would be joy coming literally saved me.
“We often forget,” Winterson says, with a touch of the impassioned preacher in her voice, “poetry, the arts: they are not luxury items. They can give people who need it a language to explain a situation, to imagine a different world. For me, coming from a poor background,” discovering Eliot “was like rocket fuel. It allowed me to go forward, offered protection against the brutality and banality of the life I was from.
“So I get very angry when people talk about [the arts] as a luxury, as something like a Louis Vuitton handbag. The arts offers into our lives the agenda of the human heart, and if we don’t protect them we might as well be machines.”
The importance of Eliot’s influence on literature and, in particular, her work is the subject of Winterson’s forthcoming talk at the Abbey Theatre, as part of the annual TS Eliot lecture series.
With a combination of hard work, desperation and chutzpah, Winterson made her way from Manchester to Oxford, where she studied English. After graduation she moved to London. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985, and in the books that followed – The Passion, in 1987, and Sexing the Cherry, in 1989 – Winterson established herself as part of a women’s writing movement, exploring ideas of social and gender nonconformity, exploding inherited mythological archetypes through fabular magic realism: the heiress of Angela Carter.
Winterson’s books have betrayed an interest in science as well as in story, a preoccupation with the future as well as the past. She was investigating the relationship between psychology and physics as early as 1997, in her novel Gut Symmetries, while The Stone Gods, from 2007, saw her explore for the first time the potential influence of artificial intelligence on human life. As technological advances have accelerated, Winterson’s interest in the ramifications for art, literature and the future of the human race has intensified.
Frankisstein: A Love Story, her 2019 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, suggested that literature had been foreshadowing some of these issues for centuries. Shelley’s novel, Winterson says, “was a message in a bottle”, exploring “what happens when a life form is created by humans using electricity. When Shelley was writing, electricity had only just been discovered. But leap forward over 200 years and we are creating, or about to create, not just a useful tool but a nonbiological life form which will work alongside us.”
Writing Frankisstein, which is set both in Shelley’s past and in our present, brought Winterson into contact with a variety of scientific ideas, which she further explored in 12 Bytes: How We Got Here, her 2021 nonfiction title. In Where We Might Go Next and her just-published collection of ghost stories, Night Side of the River, Winterson comes at the contemporary technological debate from an angle of curiosity, playfulness and hopefulness rather than fear.
“Humans are tool-using animals,” she says, insisting upon the wonderful potential that technological advances hold. “That has been our success story since the beginning of time. AI is a tool – a highly sophisticated one – and it offers huge possibilities.” There is a tendency to think of computers and technology “as part of a binary system: it is us versus them. But that is a useless way of looking at it as we go forward as a species. We will need co-operation between us and AI systems. We should be using it while it is in our control, because we don’t know how long it will be.” What Winterson finds more troubling than AI is “who controls it. It is being controlled by such a small, secretive group of people, who only release the information that they want to, so we only get the headlines and backstories that they want us to have.”
She is keen to explode the binary that often exists in the context of technology and art – ChatGPT versus the creative mind. This is at the heart of several of the stories in Night Side of the River, which plumbs the uncanny through futuristic technological hauntings, as well as more classic spiritual spookings. “Death is the hard boundary that we haven’t been able to solve except through religion or storytelling,” Winterson says. Science has always said that the afterlife is magical thinking, “and we have had to live with that contradiction, but now something has happened”.
“[With AI] we are asking the same questions that religion does: Is conscience obliged to materiality? Do you need a body to exist? With what is happening in technology now, in the not-so-far future we may be living alongside nonbiological life forms which will not die, and that poses a lot of questions for us here made of meat.”
It doesn’t matter what sky god you worship. It is only through collaboration and co-operation that we will survive
There is more than a touch of evangelism in Winterson’s insistence on the importance of artists engaging with technological advancement through their work. “I am a writer,” she says, “but I also subscribe to New Scientist. Just because I am an analogue human doesn’t mean I can have my head in the sand. We all need to be interested and to get involved in the conversation. The two things facing us as a human species – man-made climate breakdown and artificial intelligence which is likely to become sentient in some way – are entirely new.” No existing shape or form can give us answers, she says. “We need to wake up and get the conversation away from the tech bros and into the mainstream. Because I am not afraid of technology: I am afraid of humans.” Frankenstein’s monster was not the problem, after all; it was society’s response to it.
“We are one species on one planet,” Winterson says. “But neither of those is a future certainty any more. It doesn’t matter what sky god you worship. It is only through collaboration and co-operation” – with other people, with technological tools – “that we will survive.”
Jeanette Winterson gives the TS Eliot lecture at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on Sunday, December 17th. Night Side of the River: Ghost Stories is published by Jonathan Cape