Notes from Jeanette Winterson’s Reading at McNally Jackson


Jeanette Winterson has the best-named memoir: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She spoke about the story behind the title during her reading at McNally Jackson bookstore in NYC:

When Jeanette W. was fifteen, she fell in love with another girl and couldn’t hide it. Her mother, referred to as “Mrs. Winterson,” staged an exorcism (no joke). Of exorcisms, Jeanette W. says, “You go in feeling strong, and you leave feeling the devil is inside you.”

Mrs. Winterson issued an ultimatum: “Give up the girl or leave home.” As Jeanette W. packed her bags, Mrs. Winterson asked, “Why are you doing this?” Jeanette W. said, “To be happy.” Mrs. Winterson then asked, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”

Jeanette W. wondered if this was a false question. Now she believes when you do the right thing, you are not happy. You often feel worse than you did in the comfortable wrong place. But that’s life.

Other things Jeanette W. said (some are quotations from her book):

– The opening line of her novel Written on the Body is: “Why is the measure of love loss?” She wrote that twenty years ago, and she no longer believes it. She calls it a “young” thought. She now believes in the daily rising of love, reliable as the sun.

– “The Kindle is like phone sex–it’ll do but you have to go home to have the real thing.”

– “Life has an inside as well as an outside.”

– “Our interest in art is our interest in ourselves.”

– Trust yourself as a writer. Let your creativity tell you what to do. Allow it to be chaotic. Be absorbed and delighted by your obsessions.

– When she read the line “I pondered the horrors of heterosexuality…” out of her book, the room could not stop laughing. Then she added, “Think of me as Mitt Romney.” [Maybe “you had to be there.”]

– Going bonkers takes time. Respect your own craziness.

– She doesn’t write in sequence. She doesn’t number her pages until the end.

– On revisiting the past: you understand memoirs in a new way. Open locked places to redeem them. The psyche tends towards healing. Creativity drives to keep you sane, whole.

– This is a book about hope. It is experiments in experience. She believes there are three endings in all of history: 1) revenge, 2) tragedy, 3) forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only thing that can move something along. Invest in forgiveness.

– “Make sure Obama is reelected,” she said.

Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. She teaches humor writing at The New School and Catapult. Follow her on Twitter, and visit for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →