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Thursday, 7 November 2013
Interview with Joanne Harris
A few years ago, I
had the privilege of meeting bestselling author Joanne Harris when she judged
finalists in the BBC's competition, End of Story. The idea
was that a well-known author would begin a story which entrants would
finish. Joanne's story was called Dryad and it is published with
my ending in my collection Dancing and Other Stories. More details of
that in My Books in the October archive, but most importantly, Joanne has very
kindly accepted my invitation to visit my blog.
welcome: it's a great pleasure to have you with us.
It's lovely to be
HS You grew up in Yorkshire in the 60's and 70's with a French mother and
an English father. I imagine that made you rather unusual for the times. Did
you ever find it difficult? How, if at all, did it shape your life?
JH In those days, Barnsley wasn't an especially cosmopolitan environment.
There weren't very many foreigners, and I felt very different from other
people. Some of our neighbours were very welcoming, but others were downright
hostile - my mother still remembers the other mothers at the primary
school gate moving away from us when they heard us speaking French together. At
school there was both curiosity and some mockery - lots of requests for me to
"talk foreign", as if it were a party trick, plus lots of comments
about French food, garlic, French history, bidets (which at the time were
considered weird and disgusting), frogs' legs, the War, etc. which I didn't
really understand. At secondary school, most of that stopped, but I was still
considered different and a little peculiar. Perhaps I was. In any
case, I think being a foreigner gave me a certain kind of perspective regarding
social groups and their interactions, which later crept into my writing.
HS Have you
written from an early age?
JH I've always
written; first copying the writers I most admired, then slowly finding my own
style. It started to emerge when I was in my twenties, although it wasn't until
several years later that I felt confident enough to take the plunge and try to
make a living from writing books. I liked my job teaching French in a boys'
grammar school and I wrote in my spare time but with the success of Chocolat, the
demands being made on me to promote the book in England and abroad took up more time
than I could spare from full-time teaching. With some regret (and a lot of
anxiety) I chose writing and I'm glad I did; but it was a tough decision.
HS Where does your
inspiration come from?
from items in the newspapers, from T.V., from watching people on the trains,
from talking to people on my travels. I find that I can't generate ideas
if I stay cooped up at home. I need regular changes of scene to maintain
my creative output. I have to read a lot, too, to make sure my windows on the
world stay open. I don't often use people I know although my
daughter Anouchka has made a few appearances in my books, as have some
members of my family - and even a few ex-colleagues! Most of the time, however,
I don't even try to show an accurate portrait. I use little details and
mannerisms I might have noticed. I wouldn't feel comfortable describing
real-life people in detail.
HS Vampire stories
are hugely popular these days. Your first novels - The Evil Seed and Sleep,
Pale Sister, published in the early 90's - were Gothic chillers. Is it a
genre you'd like to revisit?
JH Not right now,
certainly, or at least not in that particular form. There are so many vampire
stories around at the moment, and besides, I think the vampire genre is best
suited to younger writers. Under the Gothic surface, the vampire tale is
basically a story of adolescence, of coming-of-age, alienation, self-discovery
and forbidden sex, which is why the young-adult audience understands it and
relates to it so well - but I've reached the stage where I feel the need to
explore different territories. On the other hand, fear never goes out of style,
and it's never far from my writing. It simply takes different aspects, as do
the elements of folklore, myth and fairytale that tend to inhabit my novels.
HS Your young-adult/crossover
novels, Runemark, Runelight and more recently The Gospel
of Loki, which you publish under the name Joanne M Harris, are set in
the world of Norse mythology. I believe you've even studied Old Icelandic to
understand that world more fully. Many people think they have a clear idea of
what to expect from your novels and these mythological ones seem very different
to that expectation. Did you feel a need to break the mould?
JH Not really. All my novels have
aspects of folklore, fairytale and myth, which appear more or less strongly
depending on the subject matter. In these books, however, the fantasy and
folklore is much more in the forefront of the story, and I’ve enjoyed the
process of constructing and developing this complex fantasy world very much. I
am aware, however, that my readers don’t all feel comfortable reading outright
fantasy, which is why I’ve started to use my middle initial on the books set in
that world. I don’t see it as a departure, merely a marker to indicate that, here
may be serpents…
HS In Who’s Who, you list mooching and lounging among your favourite
pursuits, but with thirteen novels, two cookbooks and numerous short stories to
your name as well as many other projects completed or in hand, it’s hard to
believe you do much mooching or lounging. Isn’t there really a fiercely
disciplined regime behind your success?
JH I don’t see it as discipline.
Discipline implies the setting of rules, and I don’t find rules conducive to
creativity. I don’t work because I have discipline; I work because otherwise, I
would probably stop functioning.
HS I’m sure you’re often asked
about the importance of food and drink in your novels. For example it’s been
used as a theme in Chocolat and Blackberry Wine and you use it elsewhere
to evoke atmosphere and give insights into your characters. Of course good food
is one of the pleasures of life; something that brings people together and
cheers them up on bad days. What would you say is your ultimate comfort food?
JH For me, food has strong
nostalgic and emotional connotations, so probably the food that I associate
with being happiest. Thus: the Mexican food I make when my daughter and I watch
films together; the fish and chips I used to eat out of newspaper on Friday night
with my husband-to-be when I was sixteen; the pancakes my great-grandmother
used to make to celebrate birthdays and family get-togethers.
HS Many aspiring writers begin by
writing short stories, thinking they will be easier than novels. Would you agree?
What do you think makes a good short story?
JH There’s nothing easy about
writing short stories. A good short story demands a more precise structure than
a novel, so that if anything goes wrong, it will be immediately apparent.
Novels are generally much more forgiving than short fiction, and allow for much
greater leeway in terms of experimenting with structure, subplots and
character. In a short story, the reader must be engaged from the start, the
development must be perfectly paced and the payoff satisfactory, otherwise the
story will fail. Trying to start off with short fiction is like a painter
beginning with miniatures rather than life-size portraits – it’s a very
demanding task that requires a great deal of skill and practice.
HS You’re always generous with
your time, travelling all over the world talking about your books and generally
interacting with your fans. Are you happiest in the company of others or, deep
down, do you prefer to be alone (with your characters, of course)?
JH Much as I enjoy being with
others, there are times when I need to be alone. My loved ones understand this…
Joanne's shed where she finds peace to create her novels.
HS Do you find the first or the
last line of your novels hardest to write?
JH Neither. It’s the stuff in
between that can be tricky…
HS The world has become a much
smaller place in our lifetime with advances in travel and communications. From
your own experience, have you noticed the way of life in the French and English
halves of your family becoming more similar, or are there still fundamental
JH No. I still see differences, although ease of
communication has given us a whole new set of ways to misunderstand each other…
HS Briefly, what would be your
advice to aspiring writers?