Joanne Harris discusses Gentlemen & Players and her work in general.
Every time I bring out a new book, Ive noticed the same set of conflicting
reactions from some elements of the Press. One faction inevitably complains
about how very different the present book is from the previous one (as if in
resentment at my having escaped the Sisyphean fate of rolling the same book
uphill throughout eternity), while the opposing faction sets out to prove how
all of my books are exactly the same. Some reviewers are so sure of their
ability to predict where Im going next that they barely bother to glance at the
book at all, with embarrassing results (check out the journalist who described
Coastliners as another of Harris sweeping historical epics, or the one who
based her entire review of Jigs & Reels on a single story and wrote how once
more, food and France play a leading role in this feelgood confection.)
You may already know that I dont like expectations. You may also be aware of
how I feel about being pushed, stamped, marked, labelled, briefed, debriefed and
Thats why I published Jigs & Reels; to escape the box; to explore uncharted
space; to prove that all roads do not necessarily lead to France, or food, or
magic, or even the bond between mothers and daughters. From the many letters and
comments Ive already received, it seems that a surprising number of people are
happy to follow me down those little roads.
The place is St Oswalds, an old and long-established boys grammar school in
the north of England. A new year has just begun, and for the staff and boys of
the School, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and
Information Technology rule the world; and Roy Straitley, Latin master,
eccentric, and veteran of St Oswalds, is finally reluctantly - contemplating
retirement. But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises
of the School, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and
carefully nurtured for fifteen years, is about to erupt.
Who is Mole, the mysterious insider, whose cruel practical jokes are
gradually escalating towards violence - perhaps even murder? And how can an old
and half-forgotten scandal become the stone that brings down a giant?
Ive wanted to write a school story ever since I left teaching. In a past
life I was a teacher; I like to think I was good at my job. Certainly I enjoyed
it; the child of a Head of Modern Languages and a Deputy Headmistress, I was
brought up with real-life school stories from an early age, and I entered the
profession with an unusual familiarity with the politics of playground and
staffroom. I began my career at a mixed comprehensive, then I was offered a job
at Leeds Grammar School, where I spent the next twelve years.
I have fond memories of LGS; the eccentric layout; the proliferating vermin
(my room in the Bell Tower was plagued by mice and haunted by pigeons); the
weird traditions; the boys and staff. Women teachers were few; political
correctness was at a minimum; junior staff incurred the wrath of seniors if they
happened to sit in the wrong chair; academic gowns were worn for Assembly and
tours of duty; Latin was compulsory. I loved it; Id gone from Grange Hill to
Gormenghast in a single move, and I was all set to stay there forever.
Then, the year before I left for good, the school buildings were sold to
Leeds University, and the entire school bricks, guns and glory - moved to an
impressive new site on the other side of town. It was a marvellous opportunity
for boys and staff alike. But it wasnt the same. The new rooms were
brightly-lit and sensibly-shaped; there wasnt a mouse or a pigeon in sight; the
central heating worked; the tatty old Honours Boards had been replaced by
nicely-framed pictures. For me, something had gone. In a way, Im grateful.
Without that, I might never have left.
Do you miss it?
Sometimes I do. I miss the adrenaline rush, the Common Room politics and the
knowledge that, for some of the boys at least, my work will make a difference.
Most of all I miss the ongoing soap opera that makes up the day-to-day life of a
large secondary school and the stories I used to bring home (as my parents did
from their schools). For, like all tightly-knit communities, schools are full of
stories. Some are funny, some tragic; but the constant challenge and the flow of
people year after year mean that whatever else happens, the stories never run
out. For a writer, its a perfect environment. Its invigorating; intensely
sociable; riddled with the unexpected. It was inevitable that at some point I
should try to tap into the rich vein of possibility that such an environment
offered. Ive been working up the courage ever since.
So how much of G & P is based on fact?
My loyal readers may already have noticed that I often write about vanished
places. The island of Le Devin in Coastliners bears more than a passing
resemblance to the Noirmoutier of my childhood; in Chocolat, the village of
Lansquenet seems lost in time. Pog Hill in Blackberry Wine; Les Laveuses in Five
Quarters; all have a Brigadoon-like quality about them, places that now exist
only in stories. Inevitably, St Oswalds has a number of geographical features
in common with the original LGS. The Bell Tower - especially room 59,
Straitleys room, which was also my room; the Middle Corridor; the Quiet Room;
the Porters Lodge; the games pavilion; the Chapel. It is by no means an
accurate representation, however, nor is it entirely taken from a single source.
If St Oswalds is partly LGS, then it is also any - or all - of the following:
St Catharines College, Cambridge; Wakefield Girls High School; The High
School, Barnsley (another vanished place, soon to be converted to residential
flats); Holgate Grammar School, also in Barnsley; The Oaks, Worsborough Dale;
the Lycée de Garçons in Vitré - and many more.
What about the characters? Any of them based on real life?
It does sometimes happen that I base my characters on people I have met. As
far as I know all writers do; although its never much more than a remembered
feature here or a borrowed mannerism there. Creating a character isnt like
painting a portrait. Its more like casting for a low-budget film. You look for
a type to fit the role, knowing that the performer to whom you offer the part
may have a very different personality from the character he is playing.
But although my characters may seem to follow recognizable types, anyone who
has been in teaching knows that these types exist in all staff rooms around the
country. I even wrote a list of them once, as a joke a little illustrated
booklet (heavily inspired by Molesworth) entitled Rough Guide to the Common Room
describing the typical fauna of the school staff room; the Jobsworth, the
Suit, the Tweed Jacket, the Eager Beaver, the Dragon and the Low Fat Yoghurt.
Almost every teacher I know has recognized himself somewhere on my list.
So what about the author? Whats your role in G&P?
Because I write so often in the first person, its natural to suppose that I
identify strongly with my lead characters. To a point, this is true (though bear
in mind that I am at least as much Reynaud as Vianne, at least as much LeMerle
as Juliette). I have to identify; for the sake of the story and my own
continuing interest in it. Which is to say that I have more than a little in
common with both the narrators of Gentlemen & Players. I can see myself in Roy
Straitley, the gruff old romantic with his Brodie Boys and his ongoing fight
against the establishment. I can also see more than I like of myself in Mole,
the impostor, taking pleasure in secrets, planning revenge with the meticulous
coldness of the truly obsessed.
However, theres a world of difference between the player and the part. A
decent actor puts some of himself into his role. I like to think a decent author
does the same.
And the plot? Is that based on real events?
What can I say? Im a writer. I make things up. And yet I defy anyone to make
up anything that matches the strangeness and horror of real life. Ive seen
things in my years of teaching that I wouldnt dare put into a book not least,
because no-one would believe me. And so this story is entirely fictional in
the same way that the plot of Five Quarters is completely fictional - although
the darkness that underlies it is only too real.
Ive never been in a school that didnt have at least a couple of skeletons
in the stock-cupboard. They seem to attract them, and each has its own crop of
violence, bullying, allegations against teachers, suicides, eating disorders,
crime both petty and serious, sudden deaths, family crises, drugs and sexual
impropriety. This is partly because of the sheer numbers that pass through a
school every year. Its also because the school years are a time of great
intensity and disquiet; a time of raging hormones, peer pressure, social
insecurity, anxiety about exams, wild enthusiasms, dangerous experimentation,
terrible self-doubt. Who would ever be thirteen again? And who on earth would
want to be around thirteen-year-olds, day in, day out?
Well, no. Not everyones cut out for the teaching profession. But for those
who are, there is a unique satisfaction in being a teacher. For a start,
everything you say or do in front of your pupils may shape the future. Young
minds are malleable, for good or ill; yours is the responsibility to influence
them for the better. Years later, your words may be remembered - with affection
or with hatred. A sarcastic comment or a word of praise may sow unexpected
seeds. All you have to do is to log onto Friends Reunited to know how deeply our
schooldays mark us. Our closest friendships begin at school. Our oldest
resentments hark back to that time. And sometimes, something happens that haunts
us forever, that follows us into adult life and erupts, years later, into
This is not a true story.
But it could have been.
Reproduced from JoanneHarris.co.uk with permission of the author, 2007.
An interview with Joanne Harris
How and when did you start writing?
I've always written. As a child and an adolescent I began by copying the writers
I most admired, then I began slowly to find my own style. It took awhile, but
eventually it began to emerge when I was in my twenties, although it wasn't
until very recently that I felt confident enough to take the plunge and try to
make a living from writing books. Until Chocolat, the thought had never crossed
my mind; I liked my teaching job; I enjoyed writing in my spare time, and until
then the two things had been perfectly compatible. With the success of Chocolat,
I found that the demands being made on me to promote the book in England and
abroad were too much for me to handle whilst teaching full-time, and with some
regret (and a lot of anxiety) I had to make a choice. I'm glad I made it; but it
was a tough decision.
Where do you find your inspiration and your ideas?
Everywhere; from items in the newspapers, from T.V., from watching people on
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
What did you think of the film of Chocolat? Were you upset about the changes to
I liked the film very much. It wasn't exactly the same as my story - it was
simplified and sweetened to make it more acceptable for a cinema audience - and
I didn't always agree with all the changes which were made, but I liked it
anyway. I was delighted with all the cast - I'd always imagined Juliette Binoche
in the lead role - and Lasse Hallström is a terrific director. The look of the
film, too, was just right, with lovely sets and beautiful photography, and the
music was perfect. I still think it was a mistake to change my priest to a
mayor, though; I know the decision came from a concern that Catholics might be
offended, but by the time the film came out the book had already gained so much
popularity that many readers were puzzled and disappointed at such a radical
change. Personally, I was less concerned. My intention was never to highlight
Reynaud's role as a priest, or to denigrate Catholicism, and I think most
readers understood that. Reynaud is basically a man who uses his ideology to
maintain control over other people, who misinterprets Catholicism in order to
enforce an agenda of his own, and that comes over very well in the film. Plus,
the creation of the role of Père Henri, the young priest (played by Hugh
O'Conor) was a very good compromise, and opened up a lot of comic potential. I
enjoyed the comedy in Chocolat - the book was never meant to be a hundred
percent serious in the first place - although I'm aware that many of the
subtleties and the darker moments in my story have been lost. This, I'm afraid,
is the nature of film. I think you have to take films as they are and judge them
accordingly, rather than expect them to present a completely accurate and
in-depth interpretation of the book from which they are taken. As such, I think
Chocolat stands up very well indeed, and I'm delighted to have been a part of
Are there any more films in the offing?
Blackberry Wine and Coastliners have both been optioned by different film
companies, although there are no definite news about either of them yet.
How do you work? Do you have a special routine, or any rituals you need to
complete before you begin?
I travel to promote the books all year round, so I rarely get the chance to
develop a working routine. Instead I write when I can; usually when I am at
home, although I have been known to write in hotel rooms, at airports and on
trains. I use a laptop so that I can use any available time, and I carry
notebooks around with me so that I can jot down thoughts and ideas. I tend to
work better in the morning, and when I am at home I try to write then, although
I can't always be choosy, especially when faced with deadlines (which I hate). I
prefer to be on my own, although when I have to (and when I'm in the Zone) I can
write on a train, in my daughter's playroom or in a classroom full of pupils. My
optimal writing conditions are: an empty house; a tidy desk; an endless supply
of tea and biscuits; fine weather (I don't write as well in winter, when I get
depressed, or at night); and no deadline. Needless to say these rarely, if ever,
How long does it take to write a book? How many drafts do you need to write?
On average it takes me about a year, and between three and five drafts. It
depends; some books take longer and are more difficult to write. I write
irregularly, with quiet intervals in between frantic bursts of activity. I
always get stuck about three-quarters of the way through a book, and panic that
I'm not going to be able to finish, but usually within a week or two the problem
has worked itself out.
Do you plan your books before you begin, or do you let the story evolve as it
I sometimes think I ought to plan more carefully, but most of the time I begin
with a vague idea and work it out as I go. Sometimes I know the ending, but have
no idea how to get there. I have to have the narrator's voice before I start,
otherwise I don't do much advance planning - it's more fun this way!
Do you base any of your characters on real-life people?
Sometimes; 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, but I wouldn't feel comfortable describing
real-life people in detail.
Do you have anything to do with deciding what goes on your book jackets?
Yes; Stuart Haygarth, who designs my U.K. book jackets, consults me and I always
send him a photo of a member of my family to put on the back. This person is
usually the person to whom the book is dedicated; my great-grandmother in
Chocolat, my English grandfather in Blackberry Wine, my French grandfather in
Five Quarters and my mother in Coastliners. My foreign publishers don't always
use the same jacket, however, and sometimes I don't find out what is going to be
on the front of the book until the publication date!
Among the books you have written, which is your favourite?
I think it's Five Quarters of the Orange, mostly because of Framboise, the main
character. She was such fun to write, and I enjoyed her voice so much; that
stroppy we'll-do-it-my-way-or-not-at-all manner of hers. I liked writing as an
old person, too, because there are so few of them in fiction, and because they
so infrequently have interesting roles to play. I wanted to challenge that
general feeling that old people don't feel passions, that old people can't fall
in love, that old people are patient, wise and resigned to their eventual fate.
Framboise is anything but those things: she isn't always easy, but she's very
tough and although she has experienced some terrible things, she has never lost
her sense of herself. I got the chance to write about her as a child, too; but
she is an odd, savage, self-contained child, very different to most depictions
of children in literature. I like drawing imperfect characters because I find
them more interesting; Framboise has many faults, and she is conscious of them,
but I like her anyway, and I'm glad I could think of a happy ending for her that
I could believe in.
Where can I get hold of copies of your first two books?
They are both out of print, so unless you feel like going round a lot of
second-hand bookshops, I suggest you contact your local library. Be warned,
though; they are very different to what I write now (I guess I grew up), so
don't expect more of the same!
Will there be any more books about Vianne Rocher and Anouk?
I don't know, although I doubt it. Perhaps one day I'll write about Anouk as she
grows up, but for now I have no idea what happened to either of them.
How are your books received in France?
Pretty well now, although the French were reluctant to publish at all in the
early days. I think originally there was some mistrust of me because I have an
English name, and I was presuming to write about their country. My first offer,
from a very large French company, was conditional on my writing under a French
nom-de-plume; I refused, and eventually went with a much smaller publisher,
Table Ronde, which deals in mostly academic texts. I'm happy to be in print at
all over there; at least this means my non-English-speaking family can read my
How do you research your books?
I don't do very much research, and if can get away without doing any, I will. I
use reference books and the internet when I need specific details on something,
but most of the time I write about topics where I already have some knowledge,
or where I have access to someone who can give me first-hand information.
What do you do to relax?
I don't sleep well. I suspect I'm not terribly good at relaxing. I like to read;
I watch videos (especially Westerns, low-budget sci-fi and Japanese action
movies); I listen to music; I cook; I do the gardening; I like theatre and
ballet, although I rarely want to go out in the evenings. Instead, I spend my
free time reading stories to my daughter, watching UK Gold and drinking too much
red wine. I buy shoes compulsively and take ridiculously long baths. I enjoy
being alone much of the time. I find noise stressful. I avoid phones. I sit at
the bottom of my garden, listening to the sound of the trees.
Which writers do you admire, and which ones have influenced you?
All kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Among others; Ray Bradbury, Mervyn
Peake, Vladimir Nabokov, Jules Verne, Christopher Fowler, Angela Carter,
Rosemary Sutcliff, Charles de Lint, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Thomas
Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny, Oscar Wilde, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs,
Arthur Rimbaud, Louis Pergaud, Jules Renard, Jacques Prévert, Ogden Nash,
Jerome Bixby, Walter Tevis, H. G. Wells, Guy de Maupassant, Gustave Flaubert, J.
R. R. Tolkien, Wilkie Collins, Cormac McCarthy, William Golding, Anthony
Burgess, Aldous Huxley.
It isn't a very girly list, is it?
I know. Sorry, girls.
First published at www.joanne-harris.co.uk, Joanne Harris' official website, in 2004
and reproduced with permission of the author.
About Holy Fools
Much of your work seems to reflect small aspects of your identity. Coastliners, for example, was inspired by memories of summers with your
relatives in France. Does Holy Fools have any personal significance to you?
Yes, it does on two levels, one of course it is set in a part of France
which I know very well and which has a lot of emotive associations. As a child
I was very interested in the history of the island on which there was a castle
and a monastery with a particularly bloody history and around which there were
a multitude of stories. On another level, Holy Fools gave me the opportunity
to explore and to articulate a number of feelings and ideas that I have had
about the nature of religion and the organizations concerned, as well as to
express what it feels like to perform. I particularly enjoyed the character of
Juliette and the nature of her performances; walking the tightrope in front of
a breathless audience all the members of which secretly want her to fall. I
know exactly how she feels ...
You chose a very specific time frame for this novel, approximately one
hundred years after Martin Luther sparked the Reformation and one year before
the publication of the King James Bible. What led you to opt for the summer of
It was the year of the assassination of the King, Henri IV, which lead to
enormous social and political upheaval in France with repercussions all over
Europe. It was a particularly interesting time for theatre, only a few decades
before the emergence of the French playwrights of the 17th century. Religious
thought was in upheaval and radical thinkers like Rabelais were emerging to
challenge the religious status quo. Interesting times make for dramatic
stories and that year was full of them.
Holy Fools brims with suspense, murder, romance, and mystery. How are you
able to maintain a literary storytelling style in the midst of such an active
I don't tend to think very much about my style. I try to let it evolve
organically as much as possible. Because I have a background in music and
languages I tend to be very sensitive to the sounds of words and so I find it
useful to read the finished book aloud and to eliminate anything that sounds
ugly or which destroys the flow of the narrative. Because this was a
historical novel I was faced with the choice of using original and authentic
language or of deliberately introducing modern dialogue into the narrative. I
chose the second option which, although anachronistic to a certain extent
gives a certain freshness and liveliness to dialogue, without which everything
would have sounded extremely flat and old-fashioned. As for being literary I
don't tend to try for a literary style especially. Perhaps it is because
English is only my second language.
In what ways do you consider Holy Fools to be a prequel to Chocolat?
It isn't really a prequel in that it has none of the same characters and
isn't set in the same place. On the other hand, I wrote the first draft of
Holy Fools just before I wrote Chocolat and some of the same ideas emerge in
both plots. In both situations there is a conflict between a free-spirited
nurturing tolerant woman and an egotistical repressive man, and there is a
conflict between the religious establishment and a human quality of kindness
and tolerance which may seem to be at odds with each other.
Reproduced with the permission of the publisher. 2003.