The View From Here Interview: Joanne Harrisby Jen
Joanne Harris (MBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father.
She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Since then, she has written 14 more novels, two collections of short stories and three cookbooks.
Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of Sheffield and Huddersfield, and has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science.
Her 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. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel or pink champagne. She works from a shed in her garden, plays bass in the band she first joined when she was 16.
She lives with her husband and daughter in a little wood in Yorkshire
Her most recent published work is a novella for Dr Who.
Your work is so diverse. How did you find yourself writing something for the third Doctor?
The BBC approached me to write a piece in their TIME TRIPS series, to celebrate 50 years of DR WHO. They asked me to choose my own incarnation of the Doctor, so I took a time trip of my own back to the early 70s, when “my” Doctor, Jon Pertwee, was at the helm of the Tardis. I wanted to write a piece about the Doctor and mortality – his own; that of his companions and that of human beings in general – and so I set my story right the end of PLANET OF THE SPIDERS, when the Doctor is already dying, poisoned by radiation on Metebelis 3, and hurtling back towards Earth to be re-united with Sarah Jane. The result is a funny little tale; a mystery; a nostalgia trip and a meditation on what we live to regret and what we take with us when we go. I enjoyed it very much – although it’s always a challenge to write for characters you didn’t create, and for such a passionate fan-base. From what I’ve heard, the fans liked it. Some hard-bitten critics even cried...
Dr. Who isn't your first brush with time travel. In Peaches for Monsieur le Curé you ask the question, “But if you could travel back through Time, and find yourself as you used to be, wouldn't you try, just once at least, to give her some kind of warning? Wouldn't you want to make things right?” If you could time travel, what would you tell your younger self, when and why?
Well, pedantically speaking, if I were able to travel in time, I wouldn’t meet my younger self. That would be a temporal paradox, which would probably result in the Universe imploding... However, I sense that my younger self would never have listened to me anyway, but would have wanted to find her own path. I think she did okay.
As a child, you wrote fan letters to David Carradine, Lee Majors and Marine Boy but say none of them ever wrote back. Why were they your inspirations? What did you ask and hope they would tell you in reply? Who would have been your ideal mentor?
I’ve never had a mentor. I think I tend to thrive best when I’m doing the opposite of what I’m told. But I did have heroes – rather disparate ones at first glance, but who do have this in common: they were all outsiders, set apart from the rest of society.
My heroes always celebrated their differences, and were not afraid of standing out, or running risks, or not fitting in. That was important to me, as the child of two different cultures, neither of which had completely accepted me as one of their own. It taught me that there are always ways of using what you have, rather than longing for what you don’t have.
You have said that you spoke French all the time at home, because your 'mother has always had a problem with her accent. It doesn't take much, actually, to make people think you're rather odd.' Did you begin writing as another way of expressing yourself, fitting in, or standing out?
I don’t know why I wrote; just that I always wanted to write. I think that (especially for a child) story is a means of articulating those things that are impossible to express in any other way; fear; loneliness; desire; dream. I didn’t show my stories to anyone, or expect them to take an interest. It was my private world, inaccessible to anyone else.
I find it fascinating, that your earliest memories are of scent. What are your favourite or least favourite smells and how do you translate them into words?
It’s very hard to describe scents, except in terms of their components. For me, scent is the language of emotion and memory, and I tend to think of them in terms of how they make me feel.
Thus, lilac is the scent of my great-grandmother’s garden in spring; the sunlight on the wet ground; the heavy, deep-purple flowers that grew under the bedroom window; the slightly dank scent of the stairwell that ran alongside the house.
Petrol is the dominant scent of my grandfather’s garage, where he was always tinkering with something, or making something, or on the verge of blowing something up.
Cabbage and cigarette-smoke is the scent of the hospice where he died – neither of them appealing scents in the first instance, but now burdened with a sense of quiet desperation (and coloured like the walls; a pale, would-be optimistic green, that to me, smelt like dead fish).
How was it determined that you suffer from dyscalculia? Do you think you have an in-built imbalance perhaps in your brilliance with words, which means your 'numbers side' is not as strong?
I don’t know if there’s an imbalance, but I have all the classic signs of dyscalculia; the inability to remember numbers; the tendency to invert the meanings of words in speech; the lack of spatial awareness and the inability to tell left from right. For a long time I had no idea that I wasn’t neurotypical. Now that I know, it’s obvious.
Parents today may be guided by advisory 'age labels' on children's book covers. They weren't around when you read Edgar Allan Poe as a child, "with the result that I had nightmares for weeks and my mother thereafter banned all books of horror and fantasy from the house."
I don’t think age labels are remotely useful; nor is the idea of banning writers or topics that may be upsetting to children. As a rule, children are more resilient than adults know; and they are far better at selecting what they want to read. I’ve never regretted reading anything, at any age – besides which, nightmares, like stories, are means of articulating unspoken feelings, and as such, are more valuable than not.
Some people have been troubled for years by the way in which Poe depicts womankind. Women play quite a different role in your own writing. Is it deliberate and conscious, or do you simply write stories with characters who play certain kinds of role?
I agree that there’s something troubling about Poe’s women. Then again, I find the same problems with many of his generation, including Dickens, whose women are all stereotypes and caricatures. Writers often tend to reflect the attitudes of their upbringing and generation.
For myself, I don’t specifically think about gender roles when I’m creating characters. I simply write what interests me. That’s why I’ve written from the perspective of both men and women, although I find stereotypes dull, which is why I tend to avoid them.
I don’t think my writing style changes much. What changes continually is the subject matter. I would argue that even my fantasy and horror books contain many of the same themes and ideas as my non-genre books, but I also like to think that readers are free to find whatever they need to find in my books.
I certainly don’t write with any kind of bookselling or marketing agenda in mind, and besides, my readers are so diverse that to try and please them all at once (however much I may love them) is impossible.
All I can do is please myself as best I can, and try to be honest. After that, it’s the reader’s choice whether or not to join me.
Magic, folklore and alternative beliefs feature in CHOCOLAT and BLACKBERRY WINE. What role did/ do they play in your own life, or is it something you only reach into for your writing?
There’s such a strong tradition of magic and folklore in European literature that I think almost all modern fiction owes it a considerable debt. As for what role they play in my life, I’ve grown up surrounded by folk-tales, fairy-stories, legends, sayings and nursery rhymes. Those things shaped the vocabulary of my childhood. It seems inevitable that they should have also entered my writing....
There must have been a touch of something magical when you were working with Juliette Binoche preparing the script for CHOCOLAT. You said in The Daily Telegraph in January 2001 that she came to stay with you. Tell us your favourite memories of that time?
Much as I enjoyed the process of following my book onto screen, magic doesn’t describe it. I mostly remember a great deal of very uncomfortable and intrusive scrutiny from the Press, and a feeling of being out of control and on the verge of hysteria. That said, my fondest memories are of the people who worked on the film, who were all very warm and welcoming; and of Juliette, who slept in my daughter’s bed; who cooked with me; read through the script with me and gave a voice to my heroine.
You've said financially of CHOCOLAT, you've done pretty well out of it, but certainly not enough to say, "Right, that's me set up for life." Do you dream of one day buying something in particular with your earnings?
Not really; my greatest expense is probably the house in which I live. For the rest, my tastes are quite simple. I like the fact that I can buy a bottle of perfume, or a pair of shoes, or some books, or some DVDs, without having to worry too much, but I don’t hanker after sports cars or mink coats. I don’t think I’m really comfortable with the outer trappings of wealth.
Now, the other kind of dream. Do you dream and if you wake up in the middle of a dream, can you go back into it, if you go back to sleep?
Sometimes, yes: and I also dream in colour, sound and scent...
Dadd's Fairy Feller's Master Stroke. It is rather dark and unusual. What draws you to it?
It’s a fascinating piece, as much for the history of the painter as for the subject matter. One of the strangest things about it is, that in spite of the hallucinating wealth of intricate detail, it’s still unfinished. Another is that it’s impossible to photograph accurately; I’ve seen it in the Tate gallery, and many times in reproduction, and no photographer has managed to convey on film what it’s really like; the startling three-dimensional quality; the buttery quality of the light; the detail that seems to draw you into another world – and yet it’s tiny, barely the size of an A4 piece of paper...
Your writing is very visual, and invokes all the senses. In FIVE QUARTERS OF THE ORANGE (set in the Loire Valley under German occupation) you write:
"It's a feeling which tells me that any woman can be beautiful in the eyes of a man who loves her." Five Quarters of the Orange
Do you feel beauty is something as perceived by others or do certain things, people, writing have an intrinsic quality of something beautiful?
To me, beauty is an emotional construct that has little to do with aesthetics. That’s why someone can see beauty in something that someone else finds ugly, or which leaves them indifferent.
"All those moments, those memories. Everything that we are, compressed in just two or three kilos of paper — the weight of a human heart." Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé
PEACHES FOR MONSIEUR LE CURÉ is the fourth story, like Chocolat, in your French setting. Where and doing what is your heart most at home, and why? How do you find that place and know it when you do?
Yes, BLACKBERRY WINE is set in the same village, and THE LOLLIPOP SHOES features the same characters living in Paris. My heart, like Vianne’s, is a traveller, more at home with people than with places. I’m happiest when I’m with my family, wherever they happen to be.
"The process of writing is a little like madness, a kind of possession not altogether benign." Blackberry Wine
Does it possess you when writing? Are you disciplined and work to a routine, or do you write when the Muse and 'The Shed' allows?
I don’t believe in the Muse. I don’t think I was issued with one. Sometimes writing is like possession; sometimes like mental illness; sometimes like bleeding out; sometimes like being high. Mostly, though, it’s about hard work, experimentation, analysis and self-criticism. Oh, and tea. Lots of tea.
Tea sounds great. But you mention hard work too. Your head of department (you were once a teacher) once wrote a report describing you as 'a brilliant anarchist'?
I think it was probably something about my not liking being told what to do. In those days, individual, even eccentric style was allowed, as long as the end-of-year results were good. Mine were. That meant that my methods, though unconventional, were usually tolerated...
And now your work is your writing. What role do you see writing and access to writing, playing in the world?
For me, it has always been a means of communication; of contributing to the shared human experience and cultivating a greater understanding of other people and other cultures.
Writers today find themselves inevitably online to some greater or lesser extent. Tell me about your experiences.
I don’t think it’s about what “works” or not. I’ve never used social media as a means of self-promotion, or felt obliged to use it in my capacity as an author. I do what I enjoy online, that’s all: sometimes interesting things have come of it, but these have all been something to do with human interactions and mutual interests, rather than corporate networking. My advice? Enjoy it; have fun. Anything else is a waste of time.
I made the line up, because I felt that “once upon a time” had been over-used. My Twitter stories started as a means of exploring the difference between the written word, the spoken word and performance art (they contain elements of all three), and became something much more important to me. I’ve discovered that there is a kind of narrative that I can only create on Twitter; that’s why I have to write my stories live, in front of an audience. I think it’s something to do with the word count and the self-imposed pressure of creating a story online, but I find it interesting, and different – and above all, fun.
When not telling stories and in conversation, I read recently on twitter, that you were at a local library supporting the save-the-libraries campaign. What role does the library play for you in society and what do you think we can do to preserve them, in a time when it appears Local Authorities may soon need to choose between providing mental health services or having frequent rubbish collections. Where do libraries fit in?
Local authorities have had this choice imposed upon them. It isn’t a fair choice, and I think that the only way to deal with it is to refuse to play by the Government’s rules. Libraries are perceived by some politicians as an unnecessary expense; they’re not. They are, in fact, a very small expense, compared to the invaluable role they play in the community; as civic spaces; free resources; links with the world for the elderly, the handicapped and the underprivileged. Unlike money spent on the roads, the benefits of libraries are unquantifiable – but one thing is certain; society would be very much the poorer for their loss.
Looking to the future, Richard Branson has said he will launch space travel for tourists. Is that something you'd be interested in and will you be signing up? Do you have a bucket list and anything on it you wish to share?
I don’t have a bucket list, but I’d love to travel into space; I’ve dreamed of it since I was a child, reading Ray Bradbury’s S IS FOR SPACE and watching THE SKY AT NIGHT in secret, when my parents had gone to bed...
“After all, words are what remain when all the deeds have been done. Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains - hey, a story can even raise the dead. And that's why the King of Stories ended up being the King of the gods; because writing history and making history are only the breadth of a page apart.” The Gospel of Loki
And finally, what if anything do you hope readers take away from your writing and would you hope remains in them. Do you want to make history or change the world?
Neither. I want to write stories. What they do, is up to them.
A very warm thank you to Joanne.
Her story, THE GOSPEL OF LOKI is out in large format paperback soon. All her books can be found here.
Joanne will be at the Gibunco Gibraltar festival mid November 2014.
To end my seven years of involvement with the View From Here Magazine, with an interview with Joanne Harris, one of my own favourite storytellers, is an honour. With more time I would like to have asked what happened to Pantoufle, and about her shoe collection. I hope very much we will be able to have that chat another time. Over tea.
Thank you to all the readers, contributors, supporters and collective team. Thanks to Mike, who's been a leader and mentor, and taking me on as a newbie. Good night and good luck.