Winterson was born in Manchester and adopted on 21 January 1960. She was raised in Accrington, Lancashire, by Constance and John William Winterson. She was raised in the Elim Pentecostal Church and, intending to become a Pentecostal Christian missionary, she began evangelising and writing sermons at age six. By age 16 Winterson identified as a lesbian and left home. She soon after attended Accrington and Rossendale College and supported herself at a variety of odd jobs while reading for a degree in English at St Catherine's College, Oxford.