The title of Jeanette Winterson’s searing memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, seems rhetorical or plain cheeky until one learns the question was posed literally by her mother just after demanding her lesbian daughter disavow her sexuality or permanently leave their home. Then-16-year-old Winterson left, and the rest, as they say, is literary history.
Read more new and notable nonfiction this March.
Winterson, who in her early 20s began telling the story of a girl adopted by Pentecostal parents in her Whitbread Prize-winning novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), here lowers fiction’s veil to reveal the depths of her anguish being raised as the adopted only child of a working-class milquetoast father and an abusive, rabidly evangelical mother. Additionally, Winterson’s exploration of her rocky childhood is the poignant chronicle of her recent search for and finding of her birth mother Ann.
Amid preparations for the U.S. launch of this memoir that took the UK by storm last year, the bestselling author found time to talk to us about the genesis of this unflinching personal examination of identity, what constitutes home and the vagaries of happiness.
When, in relation to finding Ann, did you start writing this? How did you know when it was finished?
I started writing Why Be Happy for myself to record what was happening during the search for Ann. I kept blanking out and forgetting things, which is not my way, so I wanted to write what was happening in real time.
The book was written simultaneously not sequentially. The past and the present as separate documents. At some stage, I showed some of it to my agent, thinking of an article about adoption. She thought it was much bigger than that, so I settled down to write in a more determined way, and in two weeks I had 15,000 words. That told me the book wanted to be written.
I always know when it is finished! It is like cooking. When it’s done, it’s done.
Did you ever think of ending this with the reunion with Ann and omitting the gripping Coda?
I put in the Coda at Proof stage. It was the right thing to do. Life is not neat. And I was not working for the movies!
How did you know this account of your story had to be nonfiction?
I don’t separate fiction and nonfiction in such a rigid way. I don’t call Why Be Happy a memoir, certainly not an autobiography. It is an experiment with experience. Like I say in the book, life is always a cover version.
Yes, I found my mother. Yes, the facts are the facts, but the interpretation is everything. I am a writer, therefore I can write. The medium, like the method, is a choice. I wanted to be direct but I did not have anything to confess, only a way of saying. We write as we must, according to the material and the moment.
Growing up, did you think of your mother as “Mrs. Winterson,” or as your mother? What did you call her to her face?
I called her Mum of course! But she is also Mrs. W. She was a monster, but she was my monster.
Was there ever a time you didn’t think of yourself as an adopted child?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as adopted. I knew I had no parents. Winterson World was not a family as such. It was three people in a tiny house wondering what on earth the other two were doing there.
How old were you when your mother burned your books? Was that the initial breach in your relationship with her? You say that eruption inspired you to write—a rather literal epiphany.
The book burning was around 14. No, it wasn’t the first betrayal. I wouldn’t have been hiding the books if I had trusted her. If she had trusted me. We were each other’s betrayal. Not a case of how or what but who. We betrayed each other by the fact of who we were.
Do you know what eventually compelled you to search for your birth mother?
Finding the paperwork. Losing my relationship. But who knows why then? The heart has reasons that reason doesn’t know. I must have been ready. I didn’t know that though. We plan all we can, and the important things happen as they will and catch us out every time.
Which was more rewarding for you—finding that your birth mother was alive or writing this memoir?
The one could not have happened without the other. I can’t separate those things.
You so brilliantly observe that “unhappy families are conspiracies of silence.” Was writing this memoir your way of finding happiness?
There is no way to be happy. I discuss happiness at length in the book. To face your own life is important. To suffer for the right reasons. To take what gifts are given. To find work you can do. To get to some accommodation with yourself. That to me is what matters.
Erika Rohrbach spends her days helping international students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and her nights and weekends in northern New Jersey.