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Author Jeanette Winterson 'The Night Side of the River,' a collection of ghost stories

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A door creak, a chill wind, maybe a thump, thump, thump upstairs - all signs you've been visited by a ghost. But for author Jeanette Winterson, a ghost can send a ping to your phone or visit you in the metaverse. She's written a new collection of ghost stories, one that spans all sorts of genres, "The Night Side Of The River." And the author of "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" and "Frankissstein" joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JEANETTE WINTERSON: Hey. Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

RASCOE: Why do you think we are drawn to ghost stories not only in fiction but, like, in our lives?

WINTERSON: All humans want to do is break down every barrier. That's been our great success story. But death is the hard boundary. It's the barrier that everybody on this planet will meet at some point in their life, no matter how wealthy they are, no matter who they are, no matter what their achievements. You know, that's coming for them. And human beings long to believe that there might be something on the other side of that. And you know what? Even the most skeptical of us - when we lose a loved one, we really want there to be something on the other side.

RASCOE: Yeah. And you deal with that in the book with one partner who just wants some sign of their loved one. And I - at the end of that, I wrote, it's a very sweet love story.

WINTERSON: Oh, I'm glad you like that one. Yeah, a lot of people have - it's a pair of hinged stories. So they both sit side by side. And as you say, the first story is from the point of view of the person who is bereaved. And the second story is from the point of view of the ghost, the dead person who is desperately trying to give that sign that we all want to see. But somehow, it never quite happens. In these stories, maybe it does. I mean, we play with the idea of, is it all in someone's imagination, or is it not?

RASCOE: You write that ghost stories are often set in the past. I mean, obviously, ghosts are from the past.

WINTERSON: Yeah. That's why it's their favorite place.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes, exactly. But many of these stories are kind of set in the present or almost, like, a future world, technology-wise. Why do that?

WINTERSON: One of the interesting things now, at the time that we're living in, is as artificial intelligence, computational power starts to offer us different ways of being alive, it also starts to offer us different ways of thinking about death. And I realized that, you know, just as you can get that crazy app which will scrape your social media, and then you can get texts and messages from your dead loved one, or you can put them into your photo album, even though they've already gone, I was thinking, this is offering all kinds of new possibilities for the ghost story. But if we are going to have apps that allow us to contact our dead loved ones and if we were in the metaverse as our avatars, our digital twins, meeting other folks like us but also with programs who are going to be our hosts and so on, how would we know if there were ghosts who had infiltrated that space? It seems to me like a perfect space for ghosts.

RASCOE: There's a great line in the book. It's on page 54, if you could just read that.

WINTERSON: (Reading) I feel sure that by manufacturing disembodied worlds, worlds of our own - and that's what we mean by a metaverse. It's a location - let's not call it a place - a location where we exist only in avatar form and where our minds enter a reality not dependent on the material world. Then as we do that, we have unexpectedly created an opportunity for the dead.

RASCOE: And that was, like - I had never thought of that (laughter) because it's kind of like being a ghost.

WINTERSON: Yeah, they don't have bodily form, so it's going to be perfect if we create places, spaces where we are all running around not in bodily form. Why wouldn't they come to join us?

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

WINTERSON: (Laughter).

RASCOE: And how would we even know? They could say they're a program or something.

WINTERSON: We wouldn't know. That's the crazy thing about it, you know? And it's also crazy, you know, if you go in there with your friend or your partner or your loved one, your family, whatever and somebody in that group dies, you can keep them going in the metaverse as their avatar. I think that's weird.

RASCOE: Yeah, I think it's weird, too. But I thought you brought up the idea that maybe, sometimes, it's better to leave the dead dead.

WINTERSON: Yes. Yes.

RASCOE: And, you know, I'm doing this transition here, but you talk about your own experiences with ghosts. And so I wondered, why decide to include those anecdotes?

WINTERSON: There's 13 ghost stories. There had to be 13, didn't they? Because it's a spooky number. But I like to play with the form. I thought, well, why not break in as myself and talk about things that have happened to me that I can't explain away? So I was showing that I've got some skin in the game here, that these things have been part of my reality, and I don't understand it. And simply, I have to live with it. And, you know, we're in a world now that's always looking for easy answers, quick-fire solutions. Nobody likes to say, I don't know. And this is a book about saying, I don't know. And when it comes to the supernatural, I think that's the most honest answer.

RASCOE: And so you - in the book, you have this kind of charming way of dealing with ghosts. And I don't know if you still live in this home, but it's in a home that you lived in. And you would just - you'd greet them pleasantly and just ask them that they behave well and don't involve you. Now, I would not react that way to ghosts. Like, I love ghost stories, but if I can - I would not be like, you know, just behave well. I would be, like - you know, I'd be going crazy. I'd be running around.

(LAUGHTER)

WINTERSON: Yeah. Well, when it first started happening - I do still have this house. It's a very old house. It was built in the 1780s, so it's seen a lot of life. And so it's not perhaps surprising that some of that life is still hanging around in a different form. And to start with, I used to get - first, I was frightened. Then I was cross. And then I thought, what can I do about this? Maybe I should start talking to them. And then they won't just sit down on the bed in the middle of the night, you know, or turn the radio on in the kitchen, which is really irritating because I hate being woken up. And since I've started talking to them, it's been really much more civilized.

RASCOE: Have you thought about, what would you do as a ghost?

WINTERSON: Well, you know, I might come back to my own house, and I might kick out those tenants that have been there for so long.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Who've been hanging out for so long.

WINTERSON: Yeah. I think by then, it'll be fair, you know, because I'll be a ghost, as well. And they can just move on because I'll have it back to myself.

RASCOE: Yes. That's Jeanette Winterson. Her new collection of ghostly short stories and other essays is called "The Night Side Of The River." Thank you so much for being here.

WINTERSON: Oh, thank you for having me. In spookiness.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CARPENTER'S "THE FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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