Writer in Residence Jeanette Winterson brings ghost stories to Substack
A special introduction by A. M. Homes
Award-winning novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Jeanette Winterson has made a name of herself with her unique voice and trailblazing storytelling. Now, she’s bringing a series of ghost stories to a new publication as Substack’s latest Writer in Residence: Jeanette Winterson: Mind Over Matter.
Substack writer residencies are designed to give established writers a place to experiment, share knowledge, and inspire other writers and readers in the Substack community. This month, Jeanette will explore humankind’s enduring fascination with supernatural encounters through 13 short stories designed for cold, dark nights. “Set alongside the fictional encounters in these stories, are encounters of my own with the supernatural—things I can’t explain,” she writes. “Things I am not sure I believe could happen but that seem to have happened.”
We invited A. M. Homes, fellow writer and close friend of Jeanette, to introduce her to first-time and longtime readers. Here is what she wrote:
A. M. Homes on Jeanette Winterson
"Artists are here to disturb the peace." - James Baldwin
Jeanette Winterson. JWX is an airline you are booking passage on. She is the overnight train you are riding through the dark, she is the dirigible/drone looking down from on high, she is the red race car pulling you through the city streets, she is the canoe on the lake between countries, the paper kite on a thin line of string, the bicycle with the ace of spades clipped to her wheel purring like a motorcycle.
If you don’t know her, you’ve got some catching up to do—but that’s okay. This is a chance to spend time with JWX; she will pull you in, whisper in your ear, scare you, thrill you and change your way of thinking.
Here in her new Substack, she has found a form that is fast, full-voiced and intimate. She can speak directly to you—be in the moment without the delays of publishing. (Did you know there is a shortage of paper?)
This month JWX is thinking of ghosts—but what is a ghost? A ghost is another way of exploring the unknown, the unconscious, what lies beneath the surface, just out of reach. Here you will find the elusive, the intangible. You will find what is floating before us and yet invisible, the fog, the veil, the membrane that keeps us from each other and ourselves. In JWX you will find an artist who pierces that membrane and delivers to you the ghosts of lovers, of lost siblings, of dead dogs, of history, of what we long to remember (and forget.)
She will have you believe she is a hobbit living under a bridge. She will have you believe she is the lover you’ve been waiting for. She will have you believe she is a knight in shining armor; a scientist, a doctor, a rabbi or priest, a tornado/force of nature and Mother Earth herself. JWX can do this with great authority because she does and does not have an identity. Like a ghost story of its own, she was surrendered as a child and for the majority of her years did not know where she came from, only that she didn’t belong—the alien who walks among us. She is the thing and she is its opposite.
“She will pull you in, whisper in your ear, scare you, thrill you and change your way of thinking.”
And yes, she believes in ghosts. We have witnessed them together. A few years ago, I was staying in the Oxford, U.K. home of a mutual friend. JWX, who has a house about 30 miles away, loaned me an old rickety bike she called “the Bone Rattler.” The next day as I was riding through town, a police officer stopped me and said, “without a doubt you’re going to need a helmet,” and proceeded to tell me how his wife had crashed just the day before. I was in Oxford to finish a book—I spent my days writing and in the afternoons would take off on the Bone Rattler into town to pick up a sandwich or a cake (there is nothing I love more than a cake). Every few days, Jeanette would arrive in her car, like a visiting nurse, bringing a hot roasted chicken, flowers from her garden, bottles of wine and water, things too unwieldy for me to carry on the Bone Rattler.
On one occasion I told her that I had been awakened the night before by the very distinct presence of an ‘other.’ I was startled but not afraid. As Jeanette and I sat at the dining room table late that night—the same presence returned. I felt its curiosity, its desire to be acknowledged, known, but not intruded upon. We talked about it, behind or in front of its back and concluded that it was not a negative force but rather a presence that occupied this space. We all—it included—relaxed, and found comfort that late Oxford night. The sun did not set until ten o’clock. We three stayed up into this night and watched it become morning and there was a sense of being open to the unknown. We were bending time and, of course, were not the first to experience this alternate universe but part of a long line of those who stay up late and get up early and linger in the spaces between minutes and seconds.
So, while you sit back and enjoy this month of ghost stories, please do check out her new book of essays, 12 Bites: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next. The book is divided into four zones (ranging from how we got here to superpowers, sex and the future—with JWX taking us on a personal tour of her relationship to AI and more.
And then step a little further back in time—her novel Frankissstein, a lush love story that toggles back and forth from the original Frankenstein, written 200 plus years ago by an 18-year old girl, towards its contemporary re-animation/TRANS-formation. The tug of war between human and robot has long been a source of fascination for Winterson.
Taking one more step back in Winterson time, you’ll find JWX’s brilliant memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal. This searingly honest exploration of Winterson’s past and her fierce determination to overcome it, to triumph over history, over biology, over the weight of the infant heart, is a stunning tale of what it is to be rejected, abandoned, orphaned, adopted, unwanted, filled with desire, in a rage to be loved—and then some.
It is here that I tell you JWX is my soul sister—we are both ‘adopted’ which really means that we arrived with no identity; that the decoder ring for whoever we were, whatever cultural, social coding was passed down to us by our biological parents was smashed at birth and we were assigned new and ill-fitting identities that we have spent the rest of our lives trying to find the right suiting for. She reminds me ever and always of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, her curly hair, irrepressible and pure and yet fragile, moving between jubilation and grief, waving her sword—in this case a lightsaber—sometimes like a weapon, sometimes like a walking stick, or a glow-in-the-dark highlighter pen. She is the friend who shows up, who doesn’t let go. She is the one who can’t sit still, except for when she is sitting still. She is filled with the fantastic, the fairy tale, the stuff of Shakespeare, high art, physics, philosophy and sex, lots of sex. She is the one who must be set free but longs for home.
JWX grew up in a complex family of highly religious fundamentalists—end time devotees—who prayed hard and often for salvation as apocalypse was always upon them. She struggled with how to be, literally, a bit like an alien might wonder about the habits of earthlings. The average, the normal, were not part of her experience—nor perhaps are they even part of her biology. She is other in the best of ways. She is other as a telescope, which depending on which end we look through, brings us into focus big or small. She is other in that she is freed from expectations, from boundaries, she fought that good fight long ago.
In movies the rebel dies young, but what if they don’t? Jeanette is now 60, exercising regularly, doling out advice to all on supplements and hormones and managing what it means to be a woman of a certain age, embracing the surprise and unfamiliarity of all that and still happy to throw a punch in words or in a pub if need be. There is nothing a lady should not do in the world of Winterson. Whatever she is afraid of, she hurls herself at full throttle.
JWX is fascinated by science, she is worried about climate, she is in love with life, always wondering how to go faster, further. Safety is of no interest—just the word prompts Winterson to create a challenge for herself.
“There is nothing a lady should not do in the world of Winterson.”
The one thing you shouldn’t do when it comes to JWX is say, that’s not for me. Don’t say, I don’t like ghosts, I’m not interested in AI, I don’t like lesbian stories. Whatever you do, don’t push her away. Read her because she will change you. She will poke and prod and, in the end, both you and she will be better off than when you began.
Open your head and your heart and let her in and while you are at it, let yourself out and have a look around. When you ask who Jeanette Winterson is, you will find (the answer is) that she is who we are, she is you and me. I am not sure that would please her, as the I of it, the JWX of it, is undefined—but what I am telling you is that as the bastard child of Alfred Einstein and Gertrude Stein, as the writer of her own Frankissstein, JWX lives within us, she is what the Japanese call an Ikiryo, a living spirit who can escape the body. In this case, I feel her traveling through us as a spirit of honesty, of passion and of light. Now fasten your seatbelts and please keep your hands inside the car while the ride is in motion.
— A. M. Homes
A. M. Homes is the author of the novels This Book Will Save Your Life, Music For Torching, May We Be Forgiven, The End of Alice, In a Country of Mothers, and Jack; as well as the short-story collections Days of Awe, Things You Should Know, and The Safety of Objects. Their novel Phoenix: The Unfolding will be published by Viking in 2022.
Subscribe to Jeanette Winterson’s publication, Jeanette Winterson: Mind Over Matter.