Joanne Harris interview
Interviews: ‘Chocolat’ author Joanne Harris melds real life with the supernatural, though it’s best not to put her writing in a box. We ask her about dream diaries, writing and goats.
Joanne Harris was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at St Catharines College, Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels; The Evil Seed (1989), Sleep, Pale Sister (1993) and Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Since then, she has written seven more novels and her award-winning books are now published in over 40 countries.
Joanne’s hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as: “mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system”, although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits.
A blog on the internet also said Joanne Harris was born in her grandparent’s sweet shop and her life has always been surrounded by food and folklore as her great-grandmother was said to be a witch and healer. But then, you know what an old gossip the internet is. We thought it better to approach Joanne Harris herself…
Joanne Harris interview
MOOKS: Your fiction, particularly your body of short stories, references deliciously otherly topics: The Necromonicon, live action roleplaying, ancient Mayan gods, general magic and witchery… Have you ever had an active interest in such entertainments? Have you shaken the D20? Waved a latex sword? Opened the circle at a pagan ritual or two? Collected your most eerie dreams in a dream diary?
JH: Yes to all of those, and more. I find that I prefer to write about things that are within my areas of interest and experience. The day-to-day is such a fruitful source of stories that I don’t see the point in looking much further…
MOOKS: We love your work and would call it cross-genre, or perhaps magical realism. Bringing magic and possibility to grounded, mundane reality and the shelves of W.H.Smiths! Would you feel cheated if you had to choose between one or the other?
JH: I don’t see why anyone would have to choose between genres, or to try to make the distinction between “magic” and “realism” in literature. There is so much magic going on even in the most apparently mundane situations that I don’t see the two as separable….
MOOKS: It seems that one of the overriding themes of your work is to straddle the glorious baseness of what is there to touch and taste, and the richness of the unknown factor – what could lie just around the corner if you’re willing to perceive it. Is this a fair theory? If that’s how you approach your work, is that how you approach everything?
JH: It’s certainly a fair theory, although I don’t really do much theorizing while I’m writing. I tend to work in the moment, which is often my approach to real-life, too…
MOOKS: We would say that your work often features the outsider. The schoolboy – and indeed the teacher – who doesn’t quite fit in at a boys’ school. The chocolatierre who flits from town to town, revelling in her outsider status, unable to settle down. The squib witch that is so far off the map in terms of belonging that she’s lost her magical abilities and isn’t even any good at being a witch. What does the concept of the outsider mean to you?
JH: A different (and often more interesting) perspective. Outsiders see much more from their (sometimes uncomfortable and isolated) position than insiders do from within their limited circle. And when a catalyst is required (for action, or a story), it’s often the outsider, for good or ill, who ends up being responsible for change.
MOOKS: Would you have the temperament or the desire to write a horror? That seems to be a genre you haven’t crossed yet, and we reckon you could cross just about any bridge going if you felt like it.
JH: The Evil Seed and Sleep, Pale Sister were both marketed as Gothic horror when they first came out; one a vampire novel set in present-day Cambridge; the other a Victorian ghost story more-than-inspired by Wilkie Collins. Check them out, and see for yourself!
As for what I’m writing now, I think Gothic horror is often the training-ground for a young or undeveloped writer, which is why I’ve moved into different waters over the past few years. Still, I may try it again someday. I’m never sure of where I’ll go next…
MOOKS: An Englishman’s home is his castle, and a writer’s home is both her castle and laboratory. What would your ideal home setting be?
JH: Precisely where I am now, in my 4 acres in Yorkshire, although if I could I’d bring the sea a little closer…
MOOKS: You have been told you have to live in a small hut on top of a mountain unreachable by people for three months. It has running water, a working garden, a solar generator to provide power, a bookcase filled with issues of National Geographic and a small and obstinate nanny goat. What three things would you take with you?
JH: It sounds perfect! I’d take my laptop, an endless supply of Digestive biscuits and the latest version of Guitar Hero (which I could play at maximum volume, given that no-one would ever hear me). Oh, and the Illustrated Book of Simple Goat Recipes, to keep that nanny goat under control…
MOOKS: If you had to live in a past age, which would it be?
JH: The 1950s. The emergence of space travel, the birth of rock n’ roll, men in hats, the Beat Generation, and the chance to drive a Thunderbird…
MOOKS: If it’s not too personal a question, what sort of a child were you at school? What sort of things tempered that wonderfully writerly brain of yours as you were growing up?
JH: I was a rather odd child; less socially mature than the rest, although intellectually rather more so. I got on very well with adults, but wasn’t sure what to say to children my own age. A misfit, living in a dream world much of the time, and subject to wild enthusiasms that were often incomprehensible to everyone else…
MOOKS: Now that you’re officially a writer you get paid for writing. Hurrah! How did you get through the difficult “I’ve written some things and would actually quite like to get them published” phase?
JH: I didn’t really think of it that way. Instead I approached the whole publisher/agent thing as a kind of game, just to see if I could. Publication was never the most important objective for me; I think that if you enjoy writing, then that’s often all you need. Not everyone who writes gets published; not everyone who enjoys playing tennis wants to be a pro.
MOOKS: Are you currently cooking up anything special, works-wise? Got something on the back-burner?
MOOKS: Is there something we really should have asked you, but were too selfish to do so?
JH: Not really; although it’s nice to be asked. Perhaps, given that you’re an online group, you could gently point out to internet users in general that yes, we authors do read their online reviews and comments. The internet allows for such rapid response and broad dissemination of personal opinions that sometimes I think people get carried away, and forget that they are writing about real people, with real lives and feelings of their own. It comes with the territory, I know, and I’m all for a bit of fair criticism, but I can sometimes get very tired of reading online rants by ill-informed (or just plain bitchy) folk who think they know what’s in my mind…
Joanne Harris links
Photo copyright Jim Moran
Joanne Harris looks irrepressibly Beat as she time-travels to the Cappuccino Years. Is she about to lay flowers on Serge Gainsbourg’s grave? Is she due for a rendezvous with a boy on a scooter? We simply don’t know.