Talking to Jeanette Winterson: 'The World Now Is Full of Old Men'

We spoke to the author about her latest work – a reimagination of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and how it echoes her own life.

by Hope Whitmore
23 December 2015, 12:40pm

Jeanette Winterson (photo Sam Churchill)

In 2016, it will be 400 years since Shakespeare's death. And as you'd expect, there are plenty of things in place to celebrate this landmark moment. After all, four centuries is a pretty long time for a body of work to remain relevant to, well, everybody ever.

So Hogarth Press has commissioned some of the world's most respected and popular writers – from Margaret Atwood to Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn – to 'reimagine Shakespeare's plays for a 21st century audience.'

Jeanette Winterson is the first author in the Hogarth series to have her 'cover version' published. Choosing to eschew the obvious big-hitters, Winterson instead opted to adapt one of Shakespeare's 'problem plays', The Winter's Tale. For those who don't know it, it follows the story of a King Leontes, a jealous husband who believes his wife Hermione is pregnant with his childhood friend, King Polixenes', child. When Leontes refuses to believe the baby, Perdita, is his own, he sends the child away to live with a shepherd. Winterson's novel adaptation, The Gap of Time, moves the story to contemporary, affluent London, Paris and the deep south, changing the royals to bankers and video game designers.

It's not hard to see why Winterson chose this as the play she would rewrite, and it's not simply because, as she told me, "There's always some guy on the news gunning down his wife because he's decided she's sleeping with his mate."

With its themes of jealousy, abandonment and loss – as well as hope – The Winter's Tale has echoes of Winterson's own life. As an adopted child, Winterson has particular kinship with Perdita – the lost child and heroine of The Winter's Tale. Like Perdita, Winterson was brought up by another family, and for years felt lost. In her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, the author wrote about the schism caused by the two possible lives which run parallel for adopted children. Her own adoptive mother was a fundamentalist Christian who kept a revolver in a drawer and told a young Jeanette that the devil had led her to Jeanette's crib.

I spoke to Jeanette about why this story of redemption, forgiveness and hope is more necessary now than ever.

VICE: I loved The Gap of Time. It was really interesting how you brought The Winter's Tale up to date. The abandoned baby, Perdita, seemed very central to your story.
Jeanette Winterson: I decided that it was reasonable to make Perdita the shining centre of the story because what Shakespeare really does is say is, 'look, this child is the capsule of hope and possibility, she's the thing which will let the play go forward.'

It's a very pertinent message now. I mean, look what's happening with Occupy and the 99%: people all around the world, whether it's Syriza, or Podemos or here with Jeremy Corbyn, are saying 'actually we can't accept the world that we're inheriting, we want to do it differently because there's nothing here for us.'

When people say Shakespeare was for all time, or timeless, what they are really saying is he had this capacity to plug into the hotspots of the human situation, like sexual jealousy, betrayal, the way that old men just hold everything up.

You look at the world now and it's just full of old men, whether it's Bashar Al-Assad or President Putin. Shakespeare is so used to old guys getting in the way. So the plays are really saying: look, the world is how it is – but each generation has a chance to change it.

It's a fantastic message. It's very appropriate when we look at our political situation, and when we look at [the play's] history of violence and hatred.

Is that why it's called The Winter's Tale? Because winter is followed by spring, new life, rebirth?
Well, yes. I think it is. And Shakespeare calls it an old tale, a fairytale. There was a sense of the play really having these magical properties, being the kind of thing you might tell around the fire on a winter's night. He's saying 'look, maybe you need a bit of magic in the world.' [The ending] is a sort of Harry Potter moment. Why did all the grownups love Harry Potter? Because all of the magic had gone out of the world.

I'm interested in the relationship between Xeno (Polixenes) and Leo (Leontes) in The Gap of Time, because you make them lovers. In the play, they're depicted as old friends.
I think the subtext in the play is that there is an erotic element. And the strange thing about Polixenes is he doesn't have a wife, he appears never to have had one, and his son Florizel appears not to have a mother. So here are two guys who are very close, one of them got married, the other one didn't. The jealousy here is more triangular than simply a straight line. So I thought, I'm going to make Xeno gay. I'm going to make them have an affair at school as many boys do. Leo goes on to be a rampant heterosexual. Xeno doesn't. And this fits fine with the story – the friendship between Xeno and Mimi [Hermione], because in the play there's obviously enormous tenderness between the two of them.

You've got a bromance in there and at the same time you have this real sexual jealousy, because Hermione is Leontes' prize. She's not the kind of woman you want to give up easily. And he feels he's been cheated on both sides of the bed.

You make references in the story to more up-to-date cultural touchstones. Rebel Without a Cause, Superman – Xeno's job in your novel is to design computer games. And at one point another character Pauline even references A Winter's Tale – but they can't see that they are in it.
Well, they can't, because they're not in it. They're in my story. They're not in The Winter's Tale, they are in their own story, living their own lives.

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You dismantle the text of the play and you remake it – that's the brief. So it's not an adaptation. It's a cover version. It's got different values, as well as being true to the spirit of the play because it's a modern-day story. This one isn't the old story. This one is now.

Even when Shakespeare wrote The Winter's Tale, it was set in some far away time. It's got a Delphic Oracle in it and all. In the late plays he moves into landscapes that don't exist and haven't existed. I chose not to put it in a landscape that couldn't and didn't exist, and to set it in London and Paris.

And of course, the city in America, New Bohemia doesn't exist, but it's quite obvious it's New Orleans. So once you have the shape, you scoop it out so you still have the structure, you know? It's like stuffing a marrow. You take all the inside out and then you put it back in, while adding your own ingredients.

It's interesting how it relates to your own story – the story of the lost child, and the story of your own adoption which you wrote about in Why be Happy When You Could be Normal.
Well it's not that we do choose a text, it's that the text chooses us in some way because it has its resonance. Everybody's got their favourite things, and when you look at it, you'll always find these are things that matter very deeply to them.

So I think when you're choosing something as important as what Shakespeare play you're going to work on, you want something with a very deep resonance. Not just something that you know, or you like, or you've enjoyed because this is actually going to take a year of your life. You're going to spend a lot of time with these characters and this story.

For me, it had to be this text – would I have done this earlier? I don't think I would. Although it's a play about giving a chance to the next generation, it's not like a young person's play. It's not like Romeo & Juliet.

'The Gap of Time' is available from all major booksellers for £12.99.

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