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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Joanne Harris on writing, food and fantasy.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting bestselling author Joanne Harris and I’m delighted to say she accepted my invitation to visit the blog. Joanne, welcome and thank you so much for coming. 

It's lovely to be here.

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?

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 recalls 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.

Have you written from an early age?

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.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Everywhere; 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.

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?

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.

Your young-adult/crossover novels, Runemark, Runelight and 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?

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 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…

In Who’s Who, you list mooching and lounging among your favourite pursuits, but with more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories and cookbooks 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?

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.

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?

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.

Many writers begin with short stories, thinking they will be easier to write than novels. Would you agree? What do you think makes a good short story?

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.

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)?

Much as I enjoy being with others, there are times when I need to be alone. My loved ones understand this…

Do you find the first or the last line of your novels hardest to write?

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 differences?

No, I still see differences, although ease of communication has given us a whole new set of ways to misunderstand each other…

Briefly, what would be your advice to aspiring writers?

Drop the word “aspiring.” Just write.



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