Joanne Harris Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Joanne Harris
Photo: Paul Barker

Joanne Harris

An interview with Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris discusses Gentlemen & Players and her work in general.

Every time I bring out a new book, I’ve 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 I’m 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 don’t like expectations. You may also be aware of how I feel about being pushed, stamped, marked, labelled, briefed, debriefed and numbered.

That’s 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 I’ve already received, it seems that a surprising number of people are happy to follow me down those little roads.

Here’s another.

The story

The place is St Oswald’s, 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 Oswald’s, 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?

Background

I’ve 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; I’d 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 wasn’t the same. The new rooms were brightly-lit and sensibly-shaped; there wasn’t 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, I’m 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, it’s a perfect environment. It’s 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. I’ve 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 Oswald’s has a number of geographical features in common with the original LGS. The Bell Tower - especially room 59, Straitley’s room, which was also my room; the Middle Corridor; the Quiet Room; the Porter’s 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 Oswald’s is partly LGS, then it is also any - or all - of the following: St Catharine’s 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 it’s never much more than a remembered feature here or a borrowed mannerism there. Creating a character isn’t like painting a portrait. It’s 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? What’s your role in G&P?

Because I write so often in the first person, it’s 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, there’s 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? I’m a writer. I make things up. And yet I defy anyone to make up anything that matches the strangeness and horror of real life. I’ve seen things in my years of teaching that I wouldn’t 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.

I’ve never been in a school that didn’t 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. It’s 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 everyone’s 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 unexpected violence.

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 stay open.

What did you think of the film of Chocolat? Were you upset about the changes to your story?
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 it.

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, occur....

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 goes along?
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 books now!

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 1610?
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 plot?
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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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