About The Author
Jeanette Winterson OBE has written ten novels, as well as children’s books, non-fiction and screenplays and writes regularly for the Guardian. She was adopted by Pentecostal parents and raised in Manchester to be a missionary, which she wrote about in her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and 27 years later in her bestselling memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette attended a girls’ grammar school – Accrington High School For Girls, and later read English at St Catherine’s College Oxford.
After Oxford Jeanette worked in the theatre for a while, at London’s The Roundhouse with the legendary Thelma Holt, writing programme notes, selling ice-cream, collating reviews and trying to sell advertising space to magazines like Time Out. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985 and by 1987, when The Passion was published, she was able to concentrate on writing full-time.
Jeanette has won numerous awards for her work and is published in 18 countries. She is Professor of New Writing at the University of Manchester.
Her latest novel, The Gap of Time, is the first title in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which invites some of today's most celebrated writers to reimagine Shakespeare’s plays. The Gap of Time brings The Winter's Tale into the present day, and vibrates with echoes of the original but tells a contemporary story where Time itself is a player in a game of high stakes that will either end in tragedy or forgiveness. It shows us that however far we have been separated, whatever is lost shall be found.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Jeanette about bringing the story into a contemporary setting, not being afraid of miracles and putting forgiveness at the centre of everything.
Plus, read a blog about the Hogarth Shakespeare series.
Author photo © Sam Churchill
Questions & Answers
What was the greatest challenge in bringing The Winter’s Tale to the present day?
The biggest challenge was finding a way to make the second act pastoral scene work. It is Shakespeare’s longest continual single scene and it is packed with – well shepherds.
When I decided to set my cover version in contemporary Britain, Paris and an invented city in America called New Bohemia, I realised I could invert the structure – put the abandoned child at the beginning, and bring her forward in time to her new life in a piano bar called The Fleece.
In fact, moving the time-frame solved a lot of problems. That allowed me to update the names – Leontes becomes Leo, Polixenes becomes Xeno, Florizel (ridiculous name) becomes Zel, and we get rid of Kings, and have Alpha Males instead. It also allowed me to talk about different kinds of ruin – economic, emotional, literal, and the fantasy that happens in the Game called The Gap of Time, where there’s a ruined world.
Leontes’s insane jealousy and cruelty ruins so many lives. That there is a second chance is the miracle of the play – and I hope the miracle of my version.
You must have had a lot of fun as well, for example, planting clues for those who know the play, such as having a character exiting Bear County in a tribute to Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, ‘Exit pursued by a bear.’
I know the play very well. All the beats and elements are in my version, but you don’t need to know that. You don’t need to know the play at all, but if you do, then you will have fun spotting things.
I loved it that I could re-make Shakespeare’s rogue Autolycus into a guy that runs a dodgy motor business called Autos Like Us.
How important was it to incorporate all the characters and so much of the imagery, from sheet music to fallen angels?
The play is full of music – more songs than in any other – so I had to put them in, though in a different disguise. But Shakespeare wouldn’t mind that – he liked disguises.
Was it liberating or frustrating that the emphasis was always going to be on the detail of how the reunion comes about rather than the fact of it?
When you have a miracle you mustn’t be afraid of it. That is true in life and it is true in art. When religion was the order of the day, painters and musicians and writers, weren’t worried about miracles – they just incorporated them. We get a bit embarrassed and think we might be in a 12 Steps To Happiness and a New Microwave programme.
We all know that Hermione didn’t die – but at the same time we are meant to believe that she is a statue who comes back to life. Children have no problem with these imaginative paradoxes; grown-ups do. So I wanted the return of MiMi to feel like a miracle.
And yes, I had to get everyone in one place by a series of moves like playing 3D chess, but I hope by then the story has such momentum that we just keep turning the pages and find yourself thinking YES!
Do you hope that your retelling might send readers back to the original?
I hope people will go and see the play. You have to see it quite a few times though because there are so many terrible productions. Read it? Maybe. Only if you like reading Shakespeare!
You’ve talked about The Winter’s Tale being a ‘talismanic’ text for you, not least because you are a 'foundling’ yourself; can you say more about your lifelong relationship to the play and also how it might have changed in the course of writing The Gap of Time?
If there’s an abandoned baby around I’ll be right in that text – how could it be otherwise? It’s likely that I read it so closely because of that central story. But I was the kind of kid who liked reading Shakespeare – not difficult – his language is the language of the Bible – The Winter’s Tale is 1611 and so is the King James Bible,
Our reading of texts changes as we do. There is no fixed text in any absolute sense – there is dynamic interaction. I might have done with the play now, having mined it so closely this time – well at least we’re in for a rest from each other.
Shep is quite scathing about Leo’s obsession with money and power: ‘you’re one of the guys who makes the world the way it is. I’m one of the guys who lives in the world the way it is.’ Do you think Leontes’ privileged position was part of what brought about the loss of his wife and children?
Leontes is accused of tyranny by the Oracle at Delphi. He uses and abuses his power and threatens others with economic ruin as well as torture and death.
In Act Two, the good nature of the poor people - the Shepherd and the Clown – is in contrast to Leontes who says he won’t rear another’s bastard. The Shepherd takes the baby out of pity – and then finds she comes with a load of cash in her nappy. That’s handy. But they stick to what they know – farming. These are people who are content in a profound way – they have lessons to teach both Polixenes and Leontes. Let’s not forget that Polixenes has a freak out when he thinks his high born boy is going to marry a farm girl. Shakespeare doesn’t like snobs and he doesn’t like the abuse of power. That’s everywhere in his work.
Leontes is an Alpha Male behaving badly. He has to lose everything to understand what love is worth.
Forgiveness and time are fundamental to the play and your novel, and are inextricably linked. Do you think the passage of time alone can bring about forgiveness or does there always have to be repentance?
Nelson Mandela said, 'You can forgive or you can forget but you can’t do both.' People do forget – or at least they accept voluntary amnesia. But you don’t have to be Freud to know that just shoving something under the carpet changes nothing – and really makes things worse.
Forgiveness can’t happen unless one person knows what they have done and the others are big hearted enough to accept the utter remorse and wretchedness that anyone feels when really confronted with their own actions.
It takes Leontes 16 years to mend what took no time at all to ruin. Destroying is easier than rebuilding.
But forgiveness is our only hope. The only thing that changes us and allows us back into the stream of time. People get so stuck in the past – they live and re-live the place of hurt and horror. Letting it go is easy to say. Forgiveness is the only way – but that isn’t passive. It is the acknowledgement of what happened. And that is very hard to face.
But the late plays of Shakespeare put forgiveness at the centre. And that’s where it needs to be – big or small – in all our lives.