By way of introduction the Guardian’s chief books writer, Lisa Allardice, summarized Jeanette Winterson’s literary career so far, saying “she has dealt with some of the biggest questions of the age and what it means to be human. Her latest novel, Frankissstein, a gloriously entertaining, erudite and exuberant” retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic, imagines an AI future of human interaction completely separate from the body, in which sex robots are the plastic embodiment of gender, identity and religion, recurring themes in Winterson’s novels.”
Interviewed via Zoom from her Cotswolds garden which Winterson later said gives her “a deep and centred happiness,” she exuded her usual warmth, wit, playfulness and free-ranging intelligence. The following questions were a mixture of Allardice’s own and those sent in by members of the audience.
How are you coping during lockdown?
“It’s not too different from the rest of my life … I love the buzz of cities and people-watching, but my heart is in nature, the solitary place where everything can be done.” Winterson would have shown us the writing shed in her garden, but her “coal-powered internet” was too precarious.
She said that she had been reading the New Scientist for years, wanting to understand what was going on and where AI was leading us. With the new cutting-edge technology it was now possible to conceive of the idea of a “provisional self,” which can be uploaded and downloaded, or a “core self that can be retro-fitted.” Winterson sees in this dialogue echoes from myths and legends in which the self is shifted into another dimension.
Are you scared that AI robots will supercede us humans?
“AI is a tool that we are using. It’s better at data work but not the other stuff such as the multi-sense world around us.” We were at a crucial stage in evolution, confronted with what it means to be human. Further into the future, would we “begin to merge with AI like Steve Austin (the bionic man)”? Would we be cognitively faster and stronger, able to scan and upload the content of our brains? It was an exciting prospect, “but we could all blow ourselves up or die of the plague.”
“People have always wanted to be free of biological constraints, especially as you get older. Previously, only heaven or hell” awaited as a way of getting out of here. “We’d like to change what we don’t like (death) if we can … we’re a smart species, but we’re also so fucking stupid (Trump, Bolsonaro).” It felt like we were in a video game, a battle between light and darkness: “will we get there in time? Will we be able to move forward to another iteration of what it means to be human?”
Why sex robots?
“They made me laugh. As the crisis hit sales of sexbots went through the roof. The bloke ones are awful, though … like wrapping your dick in clingfilm.” Winterson encouraged viewers to take a look at the latest models on the internet. “You can fuck them off the planet … every hole works and they don’t talk back.” It was the combination of their ludicrousness and the seriousness of the issues surrounding them that appealed to her – what does this say about our relationships? Would it be better to not bother with flesh and blood and just have silicon instead?
What will our gender be when we can choose?
This was the exciting bit, said Winterson – the end of the binary. A lot of robot helpers are really cute and you will probably become attached to them; this will upset our ideas of what the binary is, throwing up interesting philosophical and personal questions.
Allardice talked about gendered voices, how the Guardian building’s fire alarm started out with a reassuring Alexa-type woman’s voice, changing to a male voice when an emergency situation occurred.
“There are lots of behavioural nudges,” said Winterson, “Google, Facebook, Amazon … are part of a more sinister dystopia. We are easily manipulated by interested parties.”
Ry is a trans character in Frankissstein. Do you see yourself as double?
“Yes, a lot of people feel it. We are brought up to repress it, suppress multiple-choice possibilities and trying out new things.” As we get older we run away or have an affair because “we can’t fit into the small space we were forced to be in. I want more, not less, imaginary chances.”
Did you do much research for your trans character, Ry?
Winterson said that the response from the trans community had been good. She wanted to portray someone who was authentic and complex, who really existed but was also a bit tricky: “I’ve never been interested in heroes and villains.” She took the characters from Frankenstein and “moved them through a mirror into the present. Mary Shelley became the young trans doctor, Ry.” The 200 year-old book was “like a message in a bottle” and “we were the first generation to read it in a completely different way. It was as if Shelley had foreseen a new species.”
Winterson went on to praise another Nineteenth-century pioneer, Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace, who also foresaw the future in her work on computing. She cited the film Hidden Figures which showcased the unsung work of women working at NASA, whose mathematical calculations were labelled ‘clerical work’ only because they were women. Today, only 20% of tech workers were women, an indictment of a systemic road block, the “stupid idea” that girls can’t go into maths or computing. More gender confidence was needed.
Do you see a future utopia where class, origin and gender become insignificant?
“We need to find ways to be optimistic but also realistic. There are huge problems at the moment. But all of us Guardian readers need to say ‘these things matter’. We’ve been walking towards it [progress] since 1945. We can’t let it go now.”
Frankissstein has a subtitle: a love story. All of your novels are flirting with boundaries and desire …
Love is the highest value – it allows us to be heroic … it is the best of us.
You’ve written your memoir (Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?) Are you onto your second life now?
“Second chances are possible. You get another chance. No one is so terrible … there’s always hope and redemption. Having escaped my crazy upbringing and survived battles in the 1980s I came to a full stop – I’d always run so fast from the fire … [Now] I’m very healthy and busy. I get a sense of how time is short in this crummy world that I love and despair of in equal measure … the bigger battles – there’s no quiet life for us now. The golden days are gone. These are the battle days. We have to be ready for them.”
What are the best ways to comfort a bruised soul?
“Get out in the garden because nature is good for us. Read poetry – the best words in the best order; they speak to us quickly and are a reminder that everybody somewhere is struggling with something – this is part of the connection.”
Do you still ‘write from the wound’?
“Yes, we all have one wound or several. This is an idea that runs through the western canon, from Christ to Harry Potter. Use it as a source of creativity and self-awareness …offer yourself to others. We are often a jigsaw with pieces missing, but we offer ourselves anyway.”
Do you still want to change the world?
“Of course. But not by marketing or algorithms … you shouldn’t manipulate people like Dominic Cummings, who wants to win by any means necessary. It shouldn’t be about winning by creating factions … power by lies and manipulation. I’m pleased we have a very switched-on young generation – they will be questioning all of this.”
Allardice: It makes me feel old that it’s 35 years since 1985, when a slightly gobby girl from Accrington burst onto the scene. You’re now part of the literary establishment and have played a significant part in changing the culture. What has been your greatest achievement?
“It was a strange first 10 years. I didn’t know enough about feminism, politics, patriarchy – it was a rude and brutal awakening … It’s fabulous that you can help people who are younger than you.” Winterson was excited that so many women are now writing and getting published, but was keen that they kept challenging themselves to write beyond their own lives, to push the boundaries of language, form and imagination.
Diversity discussions …
“We’re on it! It’s wonderful to have been part of this. You can change everything about yourselves these days, but you can’t change the time you’re born into. You just have to work with what we’ve got … try to change it for others. The Renaissance builders never expected to finish everything they worked on … we should be patient.”
Will there be a pandemic-centered novel?
“No. As my friend Val McDermid said the other day, ‘it’s bloody changing too fast.’ I’ve got no formula. Never know what’s going to happen next. I’ve got essays on AI and something for TV – that will take me to the end of the year. I’ll do my best to make it interesting.”
How’s the musical of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit going?
[In an amusing Freudian slip, Allardice first called it ‘Annie’, then apologized – “I got my red-headed orphans mixed up there.”]
“The delay is my fault – I’m building up to the point when Mrs. Winterson is a presence again in my life. I have to be ready for it.”
Favourite lockdown read?
“I have a giant shelf of poetry and just pick out a book and read from it … Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about King Kong [‘Queen Kong’] will make you cry.”
Wrapping things up, Alladice said “it’s Thursday, the 8 o’clock clap, so I’ll clap for you.”