Jeanette Winterson: ‘I did worry about looking at sex bots’

Her new novel reimagines Frankenstein for the AI era. The Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit author talks immortality, anger and why she’s still an evangelist

Researching Frankissstein, her 11th novel, led Jeanette Winterson down some unlikely digital paths. “I did worry about that. Watching guys have sex with bots,” she announces cheerfully, attacking dessert in a smart London restaurant. Female sex dolls start at “around $2,000 for a really crap one”, she says, and it was no surprise to learn that they are “entirely fantasy. They’ve got huge tits and small waists and long legs”. A mother and daughter are celebrating a birthday with afternoon tea at the next table. “But of course what they haven’t got, and never will have, is a clitoris. They don’t have to worry about that!”

The novel looks back 200 years to Mary Shelley and the industrial revolution and takes us into the present day revolution of artificial intelligence, sexbots and cryogenics. Declaring its literary genesis in neon pink on the cover, Frankissstein is subtitled “a love story”, because all Winterson’s novels are love stories. She is a romantic, with capitals and without: “Love comes in and out of fashion and I’m sticking to it,” she says. “Because everything is relational, everything is about our interaction with something else.”

Charlotte Coleman (left) and Geraldine McEwan in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990).
Charlotte Coleman (left) and Geraldine McEwan in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990). Photograph: BBC

Here, that something else is the non-biological lifeforms of the future, coincidentally also the subject of Ian McEwan’s new novel Machines Like Me, published just last month. But while McEwan chose alternative history, launching his prototype robot Adam into the 1980s, Winterson wanted to show “what is going on now and where that might lead”. As she points out, “we are further down the line than a lot of people realise”: success stories of pigs’ brains being “revived” after death were in the news the day we met. (“Is Donald Trump getting his brain frozen?” one of the characters in Frankissstein asks. “The brain has to be fully functioning at clinical death,” is the reply.) This robotic future, “could be lovely”, she says, with characteristic mischievousness. “But it’s not going to be, because we are human so we will fuck it up! A super intelligence – why would something smarter than us keep anything as vain, ugly, reckless, self-destructive and stupid as we are?”

Winterson fizzes with her own Frankensteinian energy, her hair an electric halo from her constantly raking her hands through it. While she no longer rides her own motorbike (on the insistence of her wife, the writer and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach), she still travels across town by limo-bike. Celebrating her 60th birthday this year, the one-time enfant terrible from Accrington has been part of the literary establishment for more than 30 years. “People are still buying my books – that’s a great thing.” Today, she compares herself to a terrier: “I won’t give up, I won’t go away,” but back in 2003 Ruth Rendell, who was “like a mother” to her, fondly dedicated her thriller The Rottweiler to her.

Winterson’s story is well known – she has told it twice herself, after all. If her 1985 debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit fictionalised growing up as the adopted daughter in a fervently Pentecostal household “in a way that got me through”, her 2011 bestselling memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is her painful reckoning with this loveless childhood and subsequent breakdown in middle age. The memoir’s title is taken from her adoptive mother’s response to discovering the teenage Jeanette’s sexuality: “She was a monster, but she was my monster,” the author says of the embittered, evangelical Mrs Winterson, surely one of contemporary literature’s wicked stepmothers. “There was too much from my past that needed dealing with,” Winterson says now. “I don’t know why it hadn’t caught up with me, but it did.”

She is enjoying what she describes as a sort of second life, after her “spectacular failure” to kill herself, the shocking revelation of Why Be Happy?. The end of her relationship with the theatre director Deborah Warner, “precipitated the crash, but it wasn’t her fault. It triggered all those earlier losses. But I lived on to have a relationship with Susie. I emerged into another life. I’m so glad that I did,” she says. “I was just facing this blank wall and I couldn’t get past it. That utter sense of lostness and deep loneliness. I love life and I knew that the way I was was not living.”

Despite its novelty, robotics allowed her to return to the thorny issues that have shaped her fiction since Oranges: religion and gender. “I suddenly thought, hold on, this is all coming together,” she says, alluding to her fundamentalist upbringing. “Didn’t we always say that the bodies will fall away, the spirit continues, there’s an eternity out there? This is now what science is promising, that we will just upload the contents of our brains or extend ourselves by smart implant longevity genes? It’s taken all this time for humankind: slowly progressing to this point, where we could become immortal, as we always wanted to be, and always thought we were.”

Today’s silky-voiced cyber PAs and macho emergency announcements betray our compulsion to gender everything, and Frankissstein is most interested in how our relationships with these human-made creations will affect notions of gender. Winterson’s fiction, full of androgynous, time-travelling characters, has always been gleefully fluid, forever flirting with “boundaries and desire”: The Passion’s web-toed Villanelle (an inspiration for Killing Eve, she muses) in 1987; Written on the Body, “quite a provocative book in 1992”, in which the narrator is known only by the pronoun “they” (the only one of her novels not adapted for audio, because of the challenge of a gender-neutral voice); or The Power Book, in 2000 one of the first novels to explore the protean possibilities of the internet. “Then it was all optimism, that you’d be able to be anything on the internet. But it was too early. There was this sort of bafflement around it.”

Winterson at home in London’s East End in 2008.
Winterson at home in London’s East End in 2008. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

One of the narrators of Frankissstein is trans – Ry, short for Mary. “Transgender is interesting because gender is so annoying and so boring and has caused so much trouble,” Winterson says. “I don’t really think of myself as female or male, I just think of myself as me. I’m not even sure I see myself as human. I don’t feel particularly human. My closest friends will say to you: ‘Yeah, maybe, she’s more like some sort of creature. Not an animal, but a creature thing.’ I don’t always get the human.” But, as she says, she is “aware of the way the world perceives me”; and as an author, she feels “women aren’t given the same leeway and indulgence. If you say I want to be a fantastic writer, I think I’m really good at this, I want to change the novel, and you are a boy, it’s fine.”

Winterson didn’t just want to change the novel – she wanted to change the world: you can take the girl out of Accrington, but you can’t take her out of the gospel tent. “There’s no escape from that. You have to turn it to the good. I’m an evangelist, I’m an enthusiast,” she declares. “I can see why I’ve really annoyed people over the years. But that’s who I am, so I have to use it.”

And she has used it not just to hold her own corner – “There was so much misogyny, homophobia, anti-working-class stuff” – but so that writers such as Ali Smith and Sarah Waters emerging a decade later didn’t face the same hostility. As she says, it’s so different now and she helped make it different. “It’s a privilege. Other women came before me and made things possible for me. Every time a new generation comes along,” she says of young writers like Sally Rooney, “we open the space a bit more.”

In a sign of how far we have come, Oranges has gone on to become an English exam text and looks set to become a musical, with Beeban Kidron, who directed the 1990 TV series. “Lots of young kids have said: ‘You have to do this.’ So that makes me think that the book is still speaking to people,” she says. “The great thing if you are British is that if you just keep on going and you don’t go away, eventually people forget those things and they are just fond of you.”

She is as serious about her writing as ever. “Look, I don’t write for people with short attention spans,” she says with something of her old swagger. “There are tons of books for people who do have short attention spans and who don’t want to read. They are just doing printed television.”

She may have mellowed (her only recent controversy was a 2014 Twitter outrage over a spot of bunny boiling: “The rabbit ate my parsley,” she posted unapologetically), but she’s still always “getting into scraps”. On the way to our meeting she passed two women on a shopping spree on Bond Street “getting into a HUGE blue and white Rolls Royce with loads of bags”. “Leydees!” she reproached them, in her best Lanky accent. “This is not a life!’” (Mrs Winterson would have been proud).

And she’s still angry – “It’s like the Incredible Hulk. You realise you are always angry.” (“There are people who could never commit murder”, she tells us in Why Be Happy? “I am not one of those people.”) But she feels it is “channelled into things that are now worthwhile”. Frankissstein has spawned a collection of essays on AI, titled Jurassic Carpark – “because we are going to be shoved off to some reserve somewhere, some car park where we can drive our crappy polluting automobiles” – out later this year. Her early training preaching on street corners at 12 has paid off: “This is a good moment for me, because rightwing populists take a gospel tent approach and lots of liberals are rubbish at it. I’m happy to go into the tent and put it out the way I see it and not worry about what comes back,” she says, laughing. “I’d go into politics, but I can’t join the Labour party in the state it’s in, can I?”

Coming of age in the Thatcher years – “my generation has been profligate,” she says, “we put the world on steroids” – she feels a responsibility to do everything possible now “to make amends”. She has been teaching creative writing at Manchester University since 2012. “I look at these kids and I feel a lot of compassion, a lot of anxiety, because the world they’ve inherited from my generation is such a mess.” She invites aspiring writers to come and work in a separate apartment in her house in the Cotswolds, just as Rendell gave her the space when she was starting out: “It is really for her, because of what she did for me.”

Winterson was always adamant that she didn’t want children, she was too “driven” as a writer; and because of her own childhood, she “didn’t want to be an adult who neglected her children. And I thought that was a real possibility.” However, there was a period, once she was established, “when if I’d been with somebody at the time who said, ‘Look I’d really like to do this,’ I could have done”, she says now.

Although she and Orbach married in 2015, they don’t live together – “Susie is a New York Jew, she needs to be in the buzz, in London” – whereas Winterson is “happiest and most aware of myself when I am on my own”. She still has the raggedy Georgian apartment above the organic grocers she owns in Spitalfields, but now spends most of her time in a cottage in the countryside, with her two cats and a labrador for company, writing in a wooden studio in the garden, backing on to the woods. And she has no intention of stopping. “Never! I want to die working. It’s not work, is it, when you love what you do?”

But she is still “writing from the wound”, as she describes it. “Wounds don’t heal. They scar over, but they are always the place where you can be hurt. It’s not the same as craziness or madness, it is knowing that you’ve got vulnerabilities,” she explains. “You try and work with them. And I think that makes you more receptive to the world and what’s going on.”

Whenever she feels a little gloomy, which isn’t often these days, she reminds herself: “Well, you’re not dead and you’re not in Accrington”.

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

• This article was amended on 20 May 2019 to correct the spelling of Geraldine McEwan in a picture caption.


Lisa Allardice

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson review – cruelty, comfort and joy
Difficult childhood memories transmute into forgiveness in a mix of seasonal stories, recipes, animal fables and fairytales

Alfred Hickling

25, Nov, 2016 @6:59 AM

Article image
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson review – a dazzling reanimation of Shelley’s novel
Hard science and dreamy Romanticism combine in a meditation on the responsibilities of creation and the possibilities of AI

Sam Byers

24, May, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Jeanette Winterson: ‘I couldn't finish Fifty Shades. Are straight women really having such terrible sex?'
The novelist on Mary Portas’s call to arms, Tove Jansson’s Moomin wisdom, and not reading Thomas Pynchon

Jeanette Winterson

07, Dec, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson – review

A gripping and grisly gothic tale of witchery has Sarah Hall on edge

Sarah Hall

16, Aug, 2012 @7:00 AM

The Battle of the Sun by Jeanette Winterson | Book review

Philip Ardagh on Jeanette Winterson's second novel for children

Philip Ardagh

09, Jan, 2010 @12:05 AM

Article image
Jeanette Winterson on Accrington: 'I love the north; our energy, toughness, humour'
The author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit reveals how the town where she grew up helped to mould her and her writing

Jeanette Winterson

20, Jan, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson review – an elegant retelling of Shakespeare
This Winter’s Tale ‘cover version’, set in wealthy London and the deep south, kicks off a new series of Shakespeare for the 21st century

Sarah Crown

07, Oct, 2015 @6:30 AM

Article image
12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson review – how we got here and where we might go next
Twelve essays drawing on years of research into artificial intelligence ask challenging questions about humanity, art, religion and the way we live and love

Laura Spinney

23, Jul, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Writers pick the best books of 2014: part one
Naomi Klein tackled climate change, Owen Jones got to grips with class politics, and Russell Brand preached revolution. Writers from Hilary Mantel to Lena Dunham recommend the titles that leaped out at them this year

29, Nov, 2014 @8:00 AM

Article image
From Jeanette Winterson to John Irving: John Boyne on the best books about LGBT life
As we mark LGBT history month, the novelist selects some classic, personal novels and true accounts of the battle for civil rights

John Boyne

18, Feb, 2019 @6:30 AM